Review– Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South

My review of Jeff Wilson’s wonderful recent book Dixie Dharma: Inside a Buddhist Temple in the American South is now online at the journal Sociology of Religion. Here’s a taste:

Deciding where to look is often the most important decision a researcher makes. Jeff Wilson’s choice to look for Buddhism in Richmond, Virginia, instead of Los Angeles or San Francisco or Boston, is the jumping off point for a series of important discoveries about pluralism, hybridity, and region in American religious communities. In Dixie Dharma, Wilson draws on nearly a decade of ethnographic research at the Ekoji Buddhist Sangha of Richmond to challenge our current scholarly assumptions about Buddhism in America and religion in the South. Through nuanced description and precise theoretical tools, Wilson examines a community of Buddhists working to form a community in the middle of an evangelically Protestant red state.

Read the full-text at Sociology of Religion

Tomorrow: Get Free Lunch and Hear Me Talk About Teaching With Twitter

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I should have posted this earlier, but I’ll be speaking as part of the great Eat Talk Teach Run series at Emory. ETTR combines four short (4 minute limit) talks on teaching with free lunch and frozen yogurt. It’s awesome. Come check it out. Details:

Eat. Talk. Teach. Run!
An event to energize grad student teaching at Emory.
Wednesday, October 31. 12 PM – 1 PM.

Eat. Yogurt Tap frozen yogurt and bánh mì sandwiches from Buford Highway!
Talk. Meet grad students from across campus.
Teach. Hear short 4-minute flashtalks from other grad students.
Run. Get back to the lab or library on time!

Location:
Few Hall G27, convenient for scientists, humanities, and everything in between!
Find Few Hall G27 here:
http://g.co/maps/f22gr

Grad Student Speakers:
Michael Altman (Religion)
Kate Doubler (English)
Laura Mariani (Neuroscience)
Cassy Quave (Ethnobotany, Post-doc)

RSVPs Appreciated at:
http://goo.gl/jJu1s

“Like” Us at:
http://facebook.com/EatTalkTeachRun

The Education Investment, Citizenship, and the Perfection of Society and Government; Or, What Noah Webster Would Say to Romney and Obama

Lately I’ve been working a side project, a lengthy encyclopedia article on religion and education in America. I’m taking a historical approach in the article and laying out a basic narrative: building a Protestant educational establishment, challenges to that establishment, and, finally, Protestant educational disestablishment. With that article in the back of my head, it has been interesting to listen to the ways Barack Obama and Mitt Romney have approached questions of education during this election. For the most part the candidates and political reporters have focused on the differences between the two. For example, this comes from the Washington Post:

President Obama and Mitt Romney agree that improving schools and providing more training is one of the keys to restoring America’s economic prowess. But their views diverge over what’s holding the country back. Obama says it’s inadequate investment. Romney says it’s the teachers unions and cumbersome bureaucracy.

In their basic stump speeches, both Romney and Obama include education among their five-point plans to turn around the economy. Obama spends more time talking about Pell grants and student assistance because he’s eager to fire up enthusiasm among young voters, who were a key to his victory four years ago. Romney emphasizes conservative themes of school choice to fire up his base.

You can check out the Obama and Romney campaign pages on education for more details on the differences between the candidates. But what is striking to me, as someone who has been thinking about the history of education in America lately, is what both men share in common. They both put education in economic terms. The goal is to make good on an investment. Obama’s site explains how the president wants to invest in community colleges to ensure folks can find good jobs. Romney wants to ensure students find jobs when they graduate so they can get a return on their investment.

Compare this with Noah Webster’s view of the purpose of education (1790):

Every small district should be furnished with a school, at least four months in a year; when boys are not otherwise employed. This school should be kept by the most reputable and well informed man in the district. Here children should be taught the usual branches of learning; submission to superiors and to laws; the moral or social duties; the history and transactions of their own country; the principles of liberty and government. Here the rough manners of the wilderness should be softened, and the principles of virtue and good behaviour inculcated. The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities; and for this reason, the heart should be cultivated with more assiduity than the head.

Such a general system of education is neither impracticable nor difficult; and excepting the formation of a federal government that shall be efficient and permanent, it demands the first attention of American patriots. Until such a system shall be adopted and pursued; until the Statesman and Divine shall unite their efforts in forming the human mind, rather than in loping its excressences, after it has been neglected; until Legislators discover that the only way to make good citizens and subjects, is to nourish them from infancy; and until parents shall be convinced that the worst of men are not the proper teachers to make the best; mankind cannot know to what a degree of perfection society and government may be carried. America affords the fairest opportunities for making the experiment, and opens the most encouraging prospect of success.

What a difference. “The virtues of men are of more consequence to society than their abilities”–so much for those community colleges and returns on investment. It’s all about your virtue and how your virtue shapes society, not the market. As Webster saw it, the goal of education was to produce fully-fledged citizens. In his time that meant Protestant citizens, hence the need for the Statesman and Divine to work together. But what about for our time? What would “good citizens” nourished form infancy look like now? This is the important educational question of our time, as I see it. Because, as Webster says, a system of schools can produce an unknown “degree of perfection” in society and government.

For a long period in American history the goal of education was the production of proper citizens. What made a citizen proper varied over time and was a source of dispute. Protestant educational reformers sought to inculcate a non-specific Protestantism, to borrow a phrase from Tracy Fessenden, in students. Catholics pushed back. Many non-whites found the Protestant educational establishment thrust upon them. But even with the insidious and systematic power of cultural assimilation and Protestantization, American education aimed at social, civic, and cultural goals.

This election is about the economy, stupid, and so I understand why education has become a line in our national investment portfolio. But that portfolio is worthless in the hands of an atrophied civil society.

Swing State: Mormonism in Athens, Ohio

A friend of mine, photojournalist, and fellow product of the College of Charleston religious studies department, Priscilla Thomas, has produced a really interesting multimedia look at one Mormon family, the Crawfords, in the town of Athens, Ohio. “Raising Faith” is one story in the larger Swing State project produced by the Soul of Athens at Ohio University. Swing State attempts to give Ohio voters a voice on four major sets of issues: land, liberties, health, and the economy.

“Raising Faith” falls under the liberties category of the project and consists of an article about the Crawfords and the larger place of Mormonism in American culture and two brief videos that try to take an intimate look at the small community of Mormons in Athens. For those looking for a quick way to address the “Mormon Moment” and/or the election, this story and the site as whole can be a great resource. Below is a taste of the article and the accompanying video.

I encourage you to check out the entire project. It’s a fascinating look at the diversity of a swing state and a model for creative multimedia journalism. Ohio is more than a blank outline on electoral college maps.

Recent transplants to Athens, Ohio, Cory and Rebecca Crawford previously
lived in larger urban communities in Massachusetts and Utah. Their
transition to small town life has come with some surprises. After moving
into their home, the Crawfords began extensive renovations to the
property. Understanding of their situation, church members offered to
open their homes to the family until major repairs were completed.

“We would come home covered in dust and dirt from working and this neat,
wonderful lady would say ‘Eat dinner with my family,’” Rebecca recalls.
“She’d treat us like we were one of the family. And feed us dinner. And
they loved our kids and they spoiled them like they were grandparents.”

Lydia Maria Child Is Oddly Prescient in an Election Year: Red and Blue Spectacles

Reading the last chapter of Lydia Maria Child’s The Progress of Religious Ideas I came across this passage that seemed timely during our election season:

Little or no progress toward truth is usually made, because passages of ancient books are taken up hundreds of years after they were written, and are used in a sense altogether foreign from the original intention, in order to sustain some opinion, or tradition of the then present time. And the human mind is not free to pursue even this distorting process; but colleges of supervisors are appointed to instruct the young in what light everything ought to be viewed. One college covers the eyes of all its students with red spectacles, so that every object seems on fire. Another insists that blue spectacles are the only proper medium; consequently its pupils maintain that all creation is ghastly pale. Whereupon red spectacles rush to battle with blue spectacles, to prove that the whole landscape is flame-coloured. If one who uses his natural eyesight comes between them, and says, ever so gently: “Nay, my friends, you are both mistaken. The meadows are of an emerald green, and the sunshine is golden,” he is rudely shoved aside, as an heretic, or an infidel. One party calls out to him: “Did you ever look at the landscape through red spectacles?” Another shouts: “Did you ever examine it by the only right method, which is through blue spectacles?” And if he cannot answer in the affirmative, they both vociferate: “Then you had better keep silence; for you are altogether incapable of forming a correct opinion on the subject.”

Child is describing religious controversy during her lifetime. But it seems to me red and blue spectacles are easy to find in the fall of an election year.

The Metaphysics of the Internet; or Can Lydia Maria Child’s Ghost Read My Comment?

I’m in the midst of the metaphysical chunk of my dissertation. In these two chapters I examine how American writers in the middle of the nineteenth century looked to India for sources to build religious alternatives to orthodox Protestantism. Thoreau, Emerson, Blavatzky, all the usual suspects are there.

Today I’m working on the writings of Lydia Maria Child. I was trying to track down a copy of her essay from The Atlantic “Resemblances Between the Buddhist and Roman Catholic Religions” and I found it here. It was odd to read an article from 1870 as a 21st century webpage complete with sidebar ads. Scrolling down the page, I was surprised to find a comment on the article from 8 months ago. User hans_hassler decided he must correct Child’s argument that there is a resemblance between Buddhism and Catholicism. It is the only comment hans_hassler has made on The Atlantic website.

This is a fascinating situation. I’m not sure what to make of it.

I like what Per D. Smith tweeted about it:

https://twitter.com/PerDSmith/statuses/253509629303201793

Maybe we all need mediums on retainer. There is an odd spiritualist feel to all of this. When 19th century spiritualists channeled the dead there was a moment of chronological discord. The past and present overlapped at the table. As I sit at my desk and stare at hans_hassler reprimanding Lydia Maria Child I get a small inkling of that desire for spirits, for knowledge, and for the bridge between past and present.

And I can’t help but wonder if she can read it.

UPDATE- Yoni Appelbaum makes a great point: