Between Commemoration and Criticism: The Challenge of Institutional History

At the end of June, Jared Burkholder had an interesting post over at The Hermeneutic Circle, in which he reflected on the challenge of doing institutional histories. Specifically, the challenge of editing a new history of Grace College and Seminary with fellow Grace history professor Mark Norris.

Especially as they reached the chapter dealing with that seminary’s “neo-fundamentalist turn” in the 1960s and 1970s, Jared found that

The challenge, since many of these of individuals are still around, is to nuance the narrative in a way that is charitable, balanced, and gracious, while not shying away from the unflattering attitudes of separatism. To complicate matters further, this book is meant in part to commemorate the institution’s 75th anniversary. I have found Grace College to be a great place to work and I cannot say enough positive things about it. Fortunately, we have moved beyond the fundamentalist excesses of the past. So I am excited about celebrating the institution’s history. But I do feel compelled, as a critical historian, to help provide a sense of historical consciousness that acknowledges and probes the uncomfortable tensions and controversies of the past. Not surprisingly, it is proving to be a challenging balancing act!

It’s a problem I’ve started to think about more and more, as I’ve got a couple of projects in mind that will center on the history of Bethel University, my employer since 2003. One is an edited volume coming out of a faculty workshop I’m proposing for next summer; the second is some kind of institutional history (or, maybe better, “institutional memoir,” since I’ve no desire to write a true chronicle) of Bethel as it reaches its 150th anniversary in 2021.

I’ve actually written a work of institutional history before (my dissertation was on the education branches of the American, British, and French military governments that ran occupied western Germany after World War II), but it’s one thing to study and analyze the work of people you’ve never met working for institutions that don’t even exist anymore. It’s another to do that kind of scholarship as a Bethel professor looking at the history of Bethel. There’s nothing in its past quite like the fundamentalist turn Jared is describing, but Bethel has its fair share of controversy and failure to account for.

Persevere, Läsare, and Clarion
A commemorative pamphlet on Bethel’s history produced by two of my colleagues for the school’s 125th anniversary in 1996 (the image is a reproduction of a painting by Bethel art professor Dale Johnson) – Bethel University Digital Library

And earlier histories of Bethel have been strongly on the “commemorative” side. While my inclination is to lean more heavily towards “critical” history (trusting that the institution’s distinctive identity and contributions will withstand an honest reckoning of its shortcomings), I also hope to “nuance the narrative in a way that is charitable, balanced, and gracious” towards both institutional leaders and previous historians — many of whom I know well and work with regularly.

But this is not the only challenge…

When colleges and universities commission anniversary commemorations or other institutional histories, they naturally tend to turn to their own History departments. After all, who else is better suited to go through dusty archives and assemble a reasonably coherent narrative than historians? (“Who else would take the job”?, we might mutter…) The problem, of course, is that many of these historians do not specialize in the history of education itself, nor do they have the time and inclination to develop such expertise on top of conducting a research project that is likely, to some degree, a distraction from pressing concerns in their actual fields.

Having read a fair number of commemorative college histories, I’m generally struck that their authors manage (against all odds, really) to tell enlightening, modestly compelling stories of complex institutions — but also, that they tend to do so in relative isolation from similar works done about similar institutions and from the larger body of research on higher education in America.

At least in the Christian college world, that produces an odd disconnect between two groups of historians. On the one hand, you have history professors like Jared and Mark toiling in virtual obscurity (not a reflection on the quality of their work! — the lovely 125th anniversary pamphlet for Bethel shown above is held by only three libraries in the world outside of Bethel) to commemorate and celebrate (critically) the histories of their small colleges. On the other hand, it is historians like Mark Noll, George Marsden, Mark Schwehn, and Richard Hughes, as much as any other disciplinary group, who have produced the most significant recent work on Christian higher education and scholarship. (Click to the bottom for a very brief bibliographic essay.)

I wonder how much either set of historians is aware of the work of the other. If true, it’s a pity, since the work of the latter could enrich the work of the former, and vice-versa. It’s one reason that Jared and I (along with Covenant historian Kurt Peterson) are presenting a panel on Pietism in the history of Grace, Bethel, and North Park University at the 2012 meeting of the Conference on Faith and History. As one goal of the session, we’re hoping to draw on our attempts to better understand the identities of our own institutions in order to help fill a Pietism-shaped hole in the scholarship on Christian higher education.

Postscript: A Very Brief Bibliographic Essay on Historians Writing about Christian Higher Education and Scholarship

Noll, Jesus Christ and the Life of the MindMark Noll wrote The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind and its recent semi-sequel, Jesus Christ and the Life of the Mind. His conversation with James Turner, a soon-to-be colleague in Notre Dame’s History department, yielded The Future of Christian Learning. The historian he succeeded at Notre Dame, George Marsden, not only gave us The Outrageous Idea of Christian Scholarship, but one of the defining works on the secularization of American higher education, The Soul of the American University. (And historian C. John Sommerville diagnosed The Decline of the Secular University.) Before becoming an administrator and writing Exiles from Eden, Mark Schwehn trained as an intellectual historian. Plus historians Richard Hughes, Andrea Sterk, and Ron Wells have all edited or co-edited collections of essays on Christian scholarship and/or higher education, and Hughes contributed his own extended reflection, The Vocation of the Christian Scholar.


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