Monday, November 30, 2015

The university as a revival meeting

I spoke too soon, since if Helen Andrews is right, maybe American universities are ready to become - or take the place of - churches. This is an interesting parallel to the Great Awakenings, especially this:
One new development is how easily administrators are caving. Why did the Yale girl’s expletive-filled tirade result in an apology...and not her immediate rustication?...The activists have also benefited from the same loophole that has protected every revival in American history: They can’t condemn you for getting serious about beliefs that everyone else is supposed to share.
Being denounced as "unconverted," in the parlance of the First Great Awakening, can only hurt if you claim or desire to be converted in the first place. But that makes the present situation essentially a fight over authenticity within the Left, and conservative critics into the unchurched outsiders.

And if we follow Helen's narrative of (unconscious? subconscious?) secular absorption of older Christian modes of thought and behavior, then what is the functional equivalent of "conversion" or salvation in this situation? The revivalists, being mainly subscribers to Reformed theologies, at least thought there was a possibility of knowing that you were saved, in this life. But in a progressive political framework, the repentance of sinners doesn't seem to have an end. So what similarly satisfying marks of success do the campus protesters offer in place of Reformed certainty?

And while we're at this functionalist parallelism, what's the equivalent of James Davenport's public de-pantsing that brings the affair to an end?


Withywindle said...

Sayeth Auchinchloss, the knowledge of salvation eternally oscillates with anxious examination of your soul. (This comports with my ever-hazier memories of the secondary scholarship on Puritanism.) You only know you're saved because you are eternally repenting. Which fits the current scene tolerably well, yes?

Miss Self-Important said...

As far as I know, the problem of assurance was solved somewhat differently by different sects. Calvin himself believed something like 'when you know, you know', but this has antinomian implications since once you 'know,' you can do ANYTHING in this word w/o endangering your spot in the next, your external conduct is no indication of the fate of your soul. Slightly later iterations of Calvinism like Presbyterianism tried to avert this by claiming that the elect behave accordingly. The Baptists and the Methodists and other winners of the First Great Awakening complicated things further in an effort to humanize them, and the result was something like a two-step process of assurance and then salvation and also the possibility of gaining and then losing assurance, which I don't think is possible on Calvin's view. But anyway, to get back to the point, all these theologies had an end in view - salvation. But if "the Left" or this particular campus protesting incarnation of it is to be a religion, what's its equivalent to grace and salvation?

Withywindle said...

To do a Dolezal?

Miss Self-Important said...

Heh. Didn't work for Dolezal.

Helen Andrews said...

This is very much an intra-Left fight. On campus, how could it not be? You can't fight conservatives if you can't find any.

Their real enemy is the well-intentioned sort of middle-aged liberal who believes in dialogue, fairness, and recycling, and who is shocked to find his anti-racist cred questioned after having spent a career defending affirmative action, fewer dead white men on the syllabus, etc. Erika Christakis seems to be exactly this sort of liberal.

Today's campus radicals talk about these liberals in exactly the way New England Puritans talked about the baptized but not yet converted: You might keep God's commandments, but really you are no better than the vilest sinner; you might even be worse since you seem to think your good intentions and good behavior will save you, when really all the time you are implicated in the structural brokenness of the universe, which far outweighs your puny individual efforts.

They can no more pinpoint what makes Dean Spellman a racist than the Puritans could pinpoint what made an upright, commandment-keeping New Englander wretched in the eyes of God. Salvation lies in being willing to engage in the requisite self-abasement despite the vagueness of the charge sheet.

Now that he's mentioned Auchincloss, I am suddenly curious what Withy would make of your argument that American fiction's long line of lovingly drawn WASP paragons found a late but glorious terminus in Emily Gilmore. As someone who has done her share of Gilmore Girls binge-watching, I found it persuasive.

Miss Self-Important said...

But then why should the protests become the issue du jour for conservative pundits? Between NR and the Weekly Standard alone, there have been approximately 400 articles and blog posts written about them in the past month. Weird for a group that has no place or stake in the dispute. I think you're right that this is an intra-left fight and I'd even go further and say that Puritanism simply is anti-traditionalist and so nothing descended from it is ever really conservative, at least not in the European sense of the idea (once I blogged about this). So where does this put American conservatives who do, after all, seem to care rather a lot about the state of the universities, despite having zero status or power in them? Do they fit into the Puritan paradigm somehow, or are they simply outside the story?

About Gilmore Girls, see also JV Last's theory of the true heroes and villains of the show. This will perhaps merit a longer response here in the near-future.

Helen Andrews said...

Conservatives? They're the Indians.

Miss Self-Important said...

Ha! Perhaps that is a good argument for devoting resources to the study of indigenous peoples - they were the sharpest observers and most trenchant critics of the majority society, and no one ever noticed.

Also, an academic question - why do you say in your article that the First Great Awakening knit the country together or prepared it for the Revolution? I've admittedly only read about it from the narrower perspective of New England theology, and from that angle, all it caused was schism and the further dilution of orthodoxy.

Withywindle said...

The trouble is, I never watched Gilmore Girls. If you are tempted to comment on something you never saw, is that WASP, Jewish, or both in happy combination? Or is it just me? Anyway, I'm perfectly willing to endorse the show as echt-WASP, sight unseen, but that and a five-spot gets you a grande mocha.

As for why conservatives care about the colleges, even when they don't have a dog in the fight anymore … I suppose the practical argument is, "we won't even have a chance of getting back in to the academy if the horribles win out; at least with the half-horribles it's barely possible." But that's thinking "as a conservative". I want to cry with every report that's coming out of the campus--it's one slap in the face after another, what they're doing to the colleges, to the life of the mind. I love the American academy, its spirit, and I just want to scream when I see what's left of it being murdered. (The same way I feel about America in general.) I think the other conservatives who care about the academy are like me--they care because they love the academy, not because they're conservatives jockeying for power.

I've read articles on how intense religiosity underpinned some of the Revolutionary fervor in New England. If that's generalizable across the colonies, I could see a more general argument that the Great Awakening provided religious support for the Revolutionary spirit. Posit that it's a non-trivial contributory factor, and then you can get into interesting subtleties such as How Important? Where? To Whom? How Precisely? Were Tories more or less Awakened than Patriots? Did Awakening also give arguments to Tories? -- oh, the articles that are possible!

educatedwhinge said...

I think a lot of the conservative coverage comes from the writers' keeping up with their alma maters (or the schools where they're sending their kids). My alma mater was home to the dumbest protest of all, but it didn't get any coverage (because the only journalists that Penn produces are liberal plagiarists, the lady who wrote the UVA rape story, and shopping addicts):

Congratulations on the baby, by the way.

Miss Self-Important said...

Withywindle: But if the horribles eat each other, maybe you'll be the only one left standing? More seriously, while I think some conservatives lamenting these events are lovers of the academy (usually they're the ones still in it in one way or another), is that really the case with every writer for the Daily Caller or NRO who denounces student protesters? I suspect a number of them are really sympathizers of the workforce-training model of the university.

About the national unification question, I wasn't trying to split straws. I was just curious about how an event that in the moment resulted in often bitter sectarianism is understood to have contributed to national unity a couple decades later. No doubt some people saw God's hand and a religious cause in the Revolution, but were these the products of the Great Awakening, and how is individual-level fervor or even regional religiosity the same as national unity?

EW: Not true, one of my colleagues at the NYT was a Penn alumna. Now she is one of their front-page political reporters, a richly-deserved post given her many years of dues-paying as a slave to one of the more demanding columnists. I don't think she's ever plagiarized her stuff.

About the original question though, why aren't these people keeping up as energetically with their home towns, or previous employers, or any similar nostalgic attachments? What I'm getting at is that college plays an outsize role in American culture right now, and while Helen's comparison is quite insightful about elements of the left, it doesn't really explain why the right should be so concerned about undergrad culture when it's had so little influence over it for so long. It's just a general inquiry about which I have no theory of my own. I don't think though that it's just love and personal commitment to higher or purer academic values than those currently being emphasized, as Withywindle suggests.

Withywindle said...

What if all the horrible people do each other in and leave the good people to inherit the earth?

That would be nice; but I ain't laying bets.

What if the conservatives who lament the academy are not like me?

In that case, I have no idea what makes them tick. Other people are just so strange, don't you think?

How does the Great Awakening get you to the American Revolution without the intervention of Evangelical Underpants Gnomes?

I told you go to history grad school. If you had, you'd know by now.

Why do people care excessively about their colleges?

This is just the nerds, remember. Don't normal people care more about their football teams?