No. 10: Renewing Minds
This book, a required text for one of my classes, did not impress. Despite the glowing remarks on the cover, I didn’t find it particularly inspiring, enlightening, or forward thinking. There is definitely some valuable content, but most of it is simply a cobbling together of things said better by others. It is otherwise unnecessarily verbose and repetitive. For example, rather than discussing “racism” or “prejudice” or even “long-standing racial animosity,” the author refers to “the racial divide that has affected this nation since its inception.” He repeats long phrases, word for word, in multiple places, seemingly unaware that he’s already used them only 10 or 15 pages prior.
All-in-all I found the reading experience thoroughly unenjoyable.
As I said, there were some valuable things in the book. Unfortunately, in each of the cases below Dockery only approached these deep issues before darting off in some other direction. He missed what could have been some very fruitful lines of inquiry.
Cross-disciplinary work. At one time it may have seemed that the division of labour would only extend as far as pin factories, but as the population has grown, particularly in developed countries, the division has climbed farther up the ladder. It has become much more difficult to find a manager that understands the work of his subordinates, and it is a rare and wonderful occasion to come across thinkers so prolific and varied as John Dewey or Neil Postman, let alone Clement. In order to justify their study and continued employment, it’s natural for students and faculty to pursue more knowledge of less – intense specialization. This is, of course, a natural occurrence in a market with such a large and well-educated workforce.
But there is great value in working across disciplines. A recent article published by Wired magazine investigated the most efficient methods for solving difficult problems, and found that a key step was involving people outside of the field. Stepping out of our fields also allows us to see situations from a different perspective and have empathy for those around us, which will in turn increase our ability to honor and respect one another as we build a strong Christian academic community.
History and the Intellectual Tradition (Among Other Things). The discovered errors of the past can be our guides as we try to advance the cause of the Gospel in the academy. Understanding them will help us avoid similar situations, and help our students avoid them as well. Understanding history also keeps us focused on “the main thing”, as Dockery writes, “Knowledge of the past keeps us from confusing what is merely a contemporary expression from that which is enduringly relevant.(179)” His focus in this passage is on the study and practice of theology, but is a proper warning in all areas of study and practice. It seems all good study “will always have one eye on the historical past.(179)” And in a world where it is statistically verifiable that technology is changing life faster than at any other time, those long-standing ideas that have been refined by the heat of history are all we have to carry us over the next set of changes.
Migrating Concerns. As the population center of Christendom moves south into Africa, Asia, and South America, the intellectual center will begin to follow. The academy may not physically locate to those parts of the world, but it must certainly adjust its focus to step off of the Western cultural foundation and on to one that will enable researchers and educators to understand the issues affecting the Global South and address them as brothers, rather than as benefactors.
The Importance of Focus at the Top. Dockery’s emphasis on having trustees that are committed to a thoroughly Christian educational model is something that is needed in a culture that is, in many ways, philosophically inclined toward decentralization. Our natural inclination is to focus on dissipating power centers, rather than strengthening them with faithful believers who have the best interest of the “governed” in mind, and will work as servants rather than managers. Strong, focused leadership at the top will keep the rest of the organization within the scope of its mission and purpose.
In a book I’ll be reviewing soon, Save the World on Your Own Time, Fish says that it doesn’t matter what structure your organization has, as long as there is one in place and the the parties believe in it. I think having a firm structure with strong central leadership is best in a Christian environment, but his point is made from a position of high authority.
The Liberal Arts Foundation. Dockery describes the liberal arts as “foundational to true learning and quality living.(103)” I agree, and believe it prepares students for much more than the professions, further education, and service to the community. It also helps students view our situation – both human and cultural – from something close to the outside, so that they can begin to understand the merits and demerits of the contexts in which we and they live. Many students graduate college unable to articulate the problems facing their culture or even their own worldview. The liberal arts help to provide the necessary vocabulary and understanding to do so.
Understanding Culture. I don’t usually agree with monikers such as “post-Christian”, a phrase Dockery employs to describe the current state of Western culture, but the point of understanding our culture as it is today is quite important. We often fight the ghosts of issues long-settled or ignored by the rest of society, and confirm the notion that we are behind the times. For example, within the last six months many corners of the emergent church have declared the death of their own movement, yet evangelical leaders are still speaking out against it. Part of that is caused by the delay between events and their realization by the general public, but the Christian academy should be out at the forefront.
Dockery himself spends quite a bit of time fighting these ghosts. He talks about the loss of religious foundations in the Ivy League and at other prestigious universities as though it is just now happening and we all need to be alerted. His warnings are woefully behind the times.
My final impression of Renewing Minds is that it said a great many things that, as C.S. Lewis writes in the introduction to Athanasius’ On the Incarnation, I “half knew already.(5)” Integration—the assumption of a Christian worldview as the basis for all subjects—is of great value, but his description of it did not seem to include any novel insight. Neither did his excursus on schools with Christian roots but a currently secular worldview. For example, I wouldn’t have expected to find integrated models of education at universities like Princeton, Yale, or Harvard. Knowing the denominations they are associated with, one could hardly be surprised that the are basically secular. My surprise is meeting evangelical or orthodox mainline believers from schools like SMU.
I was also troubled by the author’s tendency to simplify complex issues into a dichotomy that relieves the reader of some of the difficult choices involved in coming to a position. For example, is it true that orthodoxy and inquiry must exist “in tension? (99)” Can inquiry not serve orthodoxy? It seems that the inquiry that led to the Trinitarian Controversy served orthodoxy in a magnificent way by forcing a explanation of the Godhead to emerge. Certainly orthodoxy places limits on the conclusions which can be reached or accepted, but what question cannot be pursued?
This book was well received, and garnered some significant praise from the right people. The content is good, though it could be significantly deeper, but the writing style made it an unpleasurable read.