For longer than I want to admit, Mark Norris, my colleague in the History Department at Grace College, and I have been working to pull together an edited volume on the history of our institution. We know that institutional histories don’t often represent the best in critical scholarship and are often assumed to be merely marketing opportunities for the Office of Advancement. (This topic, as a matter of fact, has come up here at this blog before.) We are doing our best, however, not to produce a conventional institutional history. Rather, we hope to offer something of critical value. For starters, it’s a collection of essays that never claims to be comprehensive. Additionally, each essay focuses on a specific tension, in hopes of avoiding neat and tidy conclusions. So rather than crafting a story that weaves a narrative only about progress and success, our book tells the story of Grace College and Seminary, “warts and all” – to borrow a phrase from one of my old professors. (One thinks of George Marsden’s history of Fuller Theological Seminary as a great example of institutional history at its best)
Our latest efforts have been directed toward shaping up one of the earlier chapters that Mark has completed. The essay deals with the founding of the seminary, which was the fruit of a schism at Ashland College and Seminary (now university) in Ohio – the flagship institution of the Brethren Church. One of Mark’s goals in writing the chapter is to re-examine the traditional way this schism has been remembered and what role this institutional memory has had in shaping a collective identity at Grace. Moving forward, after a split, with the sense of having truth and righteousness on one’s side provides a strong sense of empowerment and legitimacy. Yet we know that history rarely parses out into easy categories. Personality, politics, and human nature are ever-present. So the tension that Mark is probing in this chapter has little to do with which faction of the schism was more right or more wrong, but rather, he wrestles with how our desire to spiritualize the past inhibits us from seeing some of the most crucial factors at play in our institution’s history.
Here’s hoping the book will be out by the end of the year!
Chris adds… Mark Norris will be one of panelists this September at our Conference on Faith and History session on “The Role of Historians in Managing Institutional Change.”