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‘Laurus’ Ruins An Academic Career

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This came in last night from a PhD candidate in English at a prestigious American university. I have changed identifying details at his/her request [UPDATE 12/20: I have further redacted it at the author’s request, to obscure identifying details. — RD]:

Dear Mr. Dreher,
You should know that finishing Laurusis what finally put the nail in the coffin of my academic career. I realized, quite simply, that this is a novel that deserves to be read, re-read, and contemplated in its richness and spiritual depth but that, outside of a handful of institutions, it will never be taught at all. Or if it is, it will only be taught in a way that would instrumentalize and destroy its fundamental beauty and integrity. I thought at first that I could choose to persevere in this environment (in some sense even, appropriately, to mortify myself through this frustration!) in the hopes that I might be able to serve as a witness, to smuggle works of beauty, samizdat-like, into the hands of students who could appreciate them. However, even to cultivate such an “underground” movement within academia would require the Christian academic to give tacit consent to a set of ideologies that are fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel.

Dangerous book!

My story: I did my undergraduate work at [a well-regarded liberal arts college]. I did very well [there] and I graduated [with tip-top honors]. So, naturally, continuing on in the study of English lit seemed like the inevitable course to follow. I duly prepared my applications to five of the best schools. However, when I asked for a recommendation from one of my favorite [conservative, Christian] professors, he told me, “Look, I’ll do this for you, but you really should find something else to do. Go to law school. Get an MBA. Just don’t go to graduate school. It will be bad for your soul.” Bull-headed undergraduate that I was, I thought he was overplaying his hand a bit. Bad for my soul? Really? Worse than business school?!

So, somehow I was admitted to [his/her current university]. Looking back at the utterly naïve application I submitted (I dared submit a writing sample that actually analyzed literature!), I’m surprised I was admitted anywhere. Off I went to [city], full of hopes that, even if things were not great, at least I’d be able to cobble together an education. I’m not going to pretend that [this school] is the worst place ever; in many respects, it’s maintained an institutional identity and sense of tradition that has protected it from succumbing wholly to the nonsense.

But I’ve also encountered lots of utter stupidity and outright evil. The worst incident I’ve encountered was related to me by a close friend whose judgment and accuracy I fully trust. The story merits recounting in its entirety because it shows what we are up against.

[Note from Rod: I’m not going to publish the detailed story here, out of an abundance of caution in protecting this grad student’s identity. It is enough, I think, to say that the class in this anecdote was a large literature survey course. The lecture for this class was on the work of a particular Christian poet. The professor allegedly spent nearly the entire class giving a one-sided, overly-sexualized account of a key Gospel narrative.]

So a few of the TAs are trying to figure out what exactly to do with a lecture on [the Christian poet] that had very little to do with [the poet] and a great deal to do with the prof’s misbegotten hang-ups over Christian theology. They decide that they will present greater documentary context for the incident, and let the students determine for themselves what they think (a novel idea, admittedly). Word gets back to the prof, and he’s dismayed that some of his TAs chose to undermine his lecture. This ends up in an exchange with a female TA, and he expresses his displeasure at her choosing to go off script in her teaching. After some back-and-forth between the two, this ends up with the prof telling his TA that she would be better off just to do what he says.

After word gets around to the other TAs, this all ends up with the teaching staff for the survey section meeting with the prof and the department chair for an airing of grievances. The exchange is recounted, which one would expect to close the matter. Instead, as it turns out, a majority of the TAs in the room supported the professor’s actions. The essential sense of these TAs was that they should just trust the prof. No public action was taken against the professor.

Here you have a group of people, most of whom would identify themselves as ardent feminists (including the prof), most of whom have no trouble prating on for hours about the unjust dynamics of power structures, the reification of the patriarchy, the hegemonic leveraging of social forces against the marginalized. Yet a majority of them have no problem with a male professor in a position of real power telling his female TA that she just needs to shut up and sit down. Now, was this silence partly because she was a Christian student? No doubt. But it’s even more a function of the essential cowardice of most academics. Most academics long to be academics so much that they are willing to go along with basically whatever they need to in order to ensure that they get to remain within those ivy-covered precincts. Sure, talk all you want about structures of power outside those walls, but keep your damn mouth shut about what happens inside.

I don’t blame those TAs entirely: for many of them, that very professor may prove to be the difference between their getting a job, a fellowship, or even completing their PhDs and their being out several years’ worth of work. Better just to keep your head down, nod along, and do what you need to do. So, again, this story is hearsay, but I trust the source, and I know enough about academia to believe every single word of it. This is where we are. It should scare all of us because even if this is something of an outlier example, there are more insidious and less dramatic versions of this that happen every single day. And this animus isn’t directed solely against conservative Christian scholars; it’s directed at anyone who doesn’t adequately demonstrate his loyalty to the regnant ideology. (There’s a reason why Camille Paglia teaches at an art college, not an R1 university!)

Look, even if you have the most traditional, solid little liberal arts college in the world, your instructors still have to receive their PhDs from somewhere. And the problem is that every reputable PhD program is so infected with this sort of rot that the people who get hired to teach undergraduates are people who have mostly learned that they’re better off just keeping their heads down and regurgitating the garbage that their grad school program is feeding them. They won the crap shoot of academic hiring because they were very successful at the academic game. There’s no incentive to disagree; in fact, there’s a very real disincentive to thinking in a way contrary to prevailing norms. If this mentality can afflict my [relatively traditional PhD program at a major university more conservative than many others] it can happen (and has happened) literally anywhere else. And these people are the ones who are reshaping those bastions of sound thinking into outposts of trendy academic folderol. You either get a good education and are unemployable, or you get a good job but are incapable of thinking straight. I’ve yet to see evidence that there is a third option.

I don’t honestly know what this means for Christian academics or for Christian parents who are looking to send their kids to college. The situation instills a certain despondency. I admire those academics who are looking to stick things out, but I worry about the cognitive dissonance that this choice will necessarily engender. Something will have to give. I would love to work in classical Christian education, even to start a school, but I’m far too young and impecunious to do the latter and live in an area where the former is not an option. After this semester concluded, I’ve decided to give up on being an adjunct, and I’m interviewing for employment elsewhere.

But I think this is the key: we have to form kids to think as Christians who love the true, the good, and the beautiful well before they ever get to college. We have to model for them Christian lives of heroic sacrifice, radical prayer, and firm commitment to fostering and handing on what is good. Kids see that, and they pick up quickly on what is good and what is worthwhile. We can inoculate them against the nonsense; we just have to start early and make it a source of joy and even fun for them. Eventually perhaps there will be the resources to create a Christian counter-academic culture outside of a handful of places; however, this will require some tectonic shifts in the landscape of American Christianity.
[Emphasis mine — RD]

There are ways out of and beyond academia; we just need more Christian academics who are willing to take them. Because the sad truth is, I think, that we either leave now of our own volition or we’re slowly squeezed out later on. We can take some comfort in the fact that we’ll be able to return to the ashes and rebuild a real system of education on the rubble. After all, Truth wins. And so does Love (real love, not sloganeering “love”).

Anyway, my apologies for the length of this. I really needed to clear my mind, and I value immeasurably the work that you do. I just wanted to give you some confirmation that things out there truly are as bad as you think. If you for some reason choose to excerpt any part of this for your blog, I’d appreciate your omitting my institutional affiliations and using a pseudonym for me. I’m still writing my dissertation, so I’d at least like to get that done without any fear of retribution (although I’m not going to pretend that the motivation to finish is really there anymore).



How often do you hear about a work of literary art whose truth and beauty convince people to abandon the teaching of literature?

To be fair, a conservative Christian friend who is an academic in this letter-writer’s field (though not at his/her university) has told me good things about the environment at that school’s English department. I have no way of knowing independently. I did check out verifiable details of the correspondent’s e-mail, and they were accurate. This person really was a student publicly celebrated for his/her academic performance as an undergraduate, and is currently a grad student at the university about which he/she tells the story.

UPDATE: A reader e-mails:

First off, thank you for chronicling higher ed’s cultural crisis in the way that you have. The first-hand accounts you publish are harrowing and have confirmed me in my choice to not pursue graduate work in the humanities. As an educator in a classical Christian school, I tell anyone who will listen (especially parents in the congregation where I worship) that they must find alternatives to the mainstream schools if they are at all serious about discipling their children in Christ. We’re discovering more and more that we must also find alternatives for ourselves for the same reasons that we must find them for our children, which, if I understand it right, is basically the point of the BenOp.

Obviously, part of the reason that we discipline ourselves is so that we can better disciple our children. I’m glad that the person who wrote you about leaving academic work has committed to volunteering with the Scouts and otherwise being active with our children. One thing caught my attention, though, that occasioned my email to you: “I would love to work in classical Christian education, even to start a school, but I’m far too young and impecunious to do the latter and live in an area where the former is not an option.” I don’t know this person or his situation, so I don’t want to judge him or to call what he wrote a “cop-out,” but it at least strikes me as a little too dismissive of his options and his potential for working in classical Christian education. The movement started ex nihilo with just a handful of people who, like the writer, had come to realize that our mainstream institutions are no longer an option for us. I would recommend he read about Doug Wilson’s experiences in starting Logos School (whatever else we want to say about Wilson). I would also advise him to start asking around in local churches. He would probably find that he’s not the only one in his area thinking to himself, “Gee, I wish we had a classical Christian school around here.” He will likely find parents who want their children to receive a distinctly Christian education and who are willing to sacrifice time and money to see it happen. He might also find Christians who are able and willing to fund it. It’s at least worth his time to inquire, and even if the initial inquiry goes nowhere, it might plant a seed that sprouts later on in his city.

I wish I could say this to him personally: I started teaching at a classical Christian school when I was 23, and I had no idea what I was doing. Neither did Doug and Nancy Wilson or anyone else who got into this movement. We’ve all had to educate ourselves over the years. The movement is starting to bear fruit, and we have several alumni who have come back as teachers, but most of the work is still being done by us neophytes. I’m almost 29 now, and my wife and I have two children under five. If we had to move to an area that didn’t have a school, we would be doing exactly what I’ve recommended he do: asking around and trying to get something started. I still don’t know as much as I’d like to know, and I’m not nearly as good a teacher as I’d like to be, but I’ve definitely made progress over the past six years. If a lug like me can do it, I suspect the man who wrote you can do it as well.

Keep doing what you’re doing, Rod. The things you write and the things that you publish from other Christians around the country are all a solace. Thank God for his Church. It’s good to know one’s not alone.

UPDATE.2: A young Christian academic working in the literature field writes:

The story recounted by this grad student is horrifying, and I have no doubt of its veracity.  That the system spectacularly failed in this incident, privileging a professor’s blatant verbal abuse in the name of ideological correctness (or, more pragmatically but perhaps even more tragically, in the name of simply not wanting to ruffle feathers) is indisputable.  If I were the TA on the receiving end of this kind of injustice, or even in the position of the letter writer, I’d be turning my papers in too (no academic pun intended).

The letter writer is correct, too, insofar as the groupthink inside today’s crop of academes is saddening and soul-crushing.  I just read the Lisa Ruddick piece you posted last week, and she absolutely nails it.  I don’t necessarily think there’s anyone at the top with a nefarious conspiracy to brainwash grad students into evacuating their selves and becoming compliant, theory-spouting drones.  (I’d love to see a sequel to Office Space set in a graduate English department, btw.)  But I’m sure that the vogue for intellectual sadism, for punishing the rubes who still believe in all the fairy tales that we enlightened moderns have moved beyond, is only a step away from the very real sadism of punishing a TA for refusing a prof’s anti-Christian bias.

That being said, I want to make a last ditch plea to this person not to give up the fight, not to simply accept that Christians in secular academia must “give tacit consent to a set of ideologies that are fundamentally antithetical to the Gospel” – not, in short, to flee Babylon.

I invoke Babylon deliberately because the prophet Daniel has been my model since the beginning of my academic career.  Daniel was selected, along with a few other exiles, to “learn the literature of the Chaldeans,” which was pretty much the equivalent of high culture paganism.  The king wanted him in his court Daniel had to soak in reams of myths that most of his fellow Israelites would have found blasphemous, and not without cause.  He was in a messy situation, but God appointed him to work with Nebuchadnezzar himself avatar of the spiritual forces arrayed against the nation of Israel.

Did Daniel have to make hard choices?  Absolutely, including, eventually, risking his life for the sake of his own version of the Benedict Option.  Did he decide that the answer was to make his escape from the king’s palace and flee for the theological purity of the wilderness?  Absolutely not.  Would a lot of Christians accuse Daniel of complicity with the godless pagans if he were alive today?  Probably.  Did Daniel learn a lot from his pagan overlords, such that the king found him superior in learning and wisdom to “all the enchanters” in the kingdom?  Absolutely.

We who persist in the academic underground live in Babylon, no doubt about it.  Through my time in academia I’ve encountered people who instinctively cast the persecution of Christians as a non-category, a phenomenon best described in strictly economic or cultural terms.  I’ve had to deal with assumptions that I am anti-Muslim, and I’ve had to sit in meetings where professors (whom I like) talk about The Lord’s Prayer like it’s an antiquated relic that “no one sitting in this room ACTUALLY takes seriously.”  But I’ve also had advisors to whom I am profoundly grateful, from whom I have learned a ton about the intersection of literary texts and political oppression, which has renewed my understanding of Christianity’s genesis as a faith against the Imperium.  I’ve had to wrestle with what I really think about things in a way I wouldn’t have been forced to otherwise. And I’ve met atheist and agnostic friends who are genuinely searching for truth, and pursue their studies because, against all odds, they want to find it.  Am I to believe that the risks of ideological pollution are not worth the reward of forging these friendships, and being perhaps the only person of faith (imperfect and messy and constantly failing though it may be) in their lives?

If I believe that, then perhaps I have to believe that Daniel made a mistake in not making a suicide run when the Chaldeans came for him.

Regarding cowardice – Jesus Himself said that spreading the evangelion required the innocence of doves AND the shrewdness of serpents.  In this context, one has to make a distinction between shrewdness and cowardice.  The TA’s in this situation should have said something (though I will add that this is a selective account that does not include the “back and forth” culminating in the STFU comment).  But am I obligated to state my theological understanding of marriage, which wouldn’t fit well on a bumper sticker, anytime someone mentions their live-in partner?  It seems like a lot of Christians would say “yes, you coward.”  I have to disagree.

Finally, I will say that, after spending seven years in [first-rank universities], I am teaching at a radically different (secular) institution.  My students literally cannot afford to worry about micro agressions.  I don’t know if I will stay a professor in the long haul, but if I leave, it will be for reasons that I share with my non-believing colleagues – the economic burdens that higher learning faces today, and the increasing reluctance of many universities to hire long-term faculty.

This might end up being longer than my initial email but I had to respond to this letter writer.  Teaching in Christian colleges and teaching in Babylon don’t have to be mutually exclusive.

about the author

Rod Dreher is a senior editor at The American Conservative. He has written and edited for the New York Post, The Dallas Morning News, National Review, the South Florida Sun-Sentinel, the Washington Times, and the Baton Rouge Advocate. Rod’s commentary has been published in The Wall Street Journal, Commentary, the Weekly Standard, Beliefnet, and Real Simple, among other publications, and he has appeared on NPR, ABC News, CNN, Fox News, MSNBC, and the BBC. He lives in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, with his wife Julie and their three children. He has also written four books, The Little Way of Ruthie Leming, Crunchy Cons, How Dante Can Save Your Life, and The Benedict Option.

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