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.

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.

Transcendentalists and the Smoke Monster of Religion

I’ve made it to the Transcendentalists! The chapter on Unitarian and evangelical ideas about Hinduism is done and passed along to The Adviser. Now, I’m changing gears. The chapters I’ve written so far were exercises in uncovering. Only a couple previous studies had looked at the materials and so my basic work was to dig up representations and descriptions of Hinduism in sources and relate them to the larger context of American culture during the period. For example, only a couple of people have written about Rammohun Roy’s impact in the West and only Carl T. Jackson has really considered how he impacted America. So I had a lot of space to dive deep into the sources and make my arguments about the significance of Rammohun Roy for the history Hinduism in America and the history of American religious cultures.

But now I’m writing about Transcendentalists. There are a lot of books about Transcendentalists. I’ve also caught up with the narrative. Most histories of religion in America argue that the Transcendentalists were the first Americans to show interest in Asian religions–Arthur Christy’s The Orient in American Transcendentalism (1932) did the most to cement that claim. So, there’s a lot of secondary literature on Asian religions, and especially Hinduism, in Transcendentalist thought. That’s the list of call numbers I took with me to the library this week on the left. Now my challenge shifts. It’s not about digging up stuff no one’s found, it’s about finding a new angle on the stuff we already know about. I find this much harder and  much less exciting.

The question of how American’s construct the category “religion” has emerged as a consistent theme in the early chapters of this project and I think it might be my way to cut a path through the underbrush of the Transcendentalist rainforest. Most of the research on Asian religions and Transcendentalism take “religion” for granted. (BTW, there’s a whole discussion of when we should or should not take this term for granted in our writing. But that’s a whole different post.)  There are these religions in Asia and these folks in America “discover” these religions and somehow these religions influences their thinking and writing. But why did Thoreau or Emerson or Alcott recognize the Bhagavad Gita or the Laws of Menu as religious? I think John Modern’s Secularism in Antebellum America, which I’ve started but not yet finished, will be helpful on this point. Secularism makes “religion” as a category possible. It sets the horizons for a “religion” that is a chosen, believed, and, most importantly, can be categorized, be borrowed from, and influence people. All talk of Asian religions “influencing” the Transcendentalists gives agency to religion. Religion does stuff. It’s a virus. Or maybe a smoke monster. The clearest expression of this is Lydia Maria Child’s Progress of Religious Ideas, Through Successive AgesCompare Child’s title with Hannah Adams’ A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. Religion progresses for Child. It has movement. Adams’ certainly has a progressive view of religion in her dictionary, as I argue in my chapter about it. But that movement, that agency, is more pronounced by 1855 when Child writes. This thing, religion, that was invented in the 18th century has gotten more power, more agency–maybe?

So the challenge for me–my way toward a fresh take on Transcendentalism and Hinduism–is to trace the invention of religion as this viral, smoke monstery, agent through Transcendentalist encounters with Hindu religious culture. Now, let’s just hope no one in the stack of books beside me has done that already.

The Invention of American Evangelicalism; or, Why Ed Blum is Mad

The following is a cross-post from Religion in American History. Check out the great comments on the original post.

(If you’re unsure what made Ed mad read this post.)
[Update: Ed says he's not mad anymore, just passionate. Also, read this post from Ed where he expands his thoughts on race and evangelicalism. His thoughts echo much of what's in this post.]

Evangelical history is a lot like this plaque from the Pioneer 10 and 11 spacecrafts. The plaque was affixed to the spacecrafts in order to communicate some basic information to any extraterrestrial life they might encounter as they zoomed toward Jupiter and beyond. The plaque is rife with information but the most obvious elements are the map of the solar system and the drawing of a man and woman. The plaque was meant to represent us (humans) to them (aliens). But more than that, the plaque also represents us to us. It shows what we thought was really important (hydrogen) and who we thought we were (that shapely white heterosexual couple with the man standing tall and waving while the woman extends her leg Angelina Jolie Oscars style). It represented us to ourselves.

This is the same dual work that much “evangelical history” does. On the one hand, the history of evangelicalism represents what evangelicalism is or has been to those not within the fold. It’s a project that says, “See, we have been at the heart of democracy and republicanism in America. Ours is the religion of freedom, liberty, choice, and reason.”  It’s also a project that represents itself to itself–that is, to evangelicals. Often these representations are meant to call today’s evangelical Christians to be a better sort of Christians by reminding them of what they once were. “Once we had the social passion of the great abolitionists and the depth of thought of Edwards. We can have that again.” I think it is this dual work of representation that creates the blindspots around race and gender that engendered Ed’s battle cry and Kelly Baker’s questions.

That said, I don’t think the problem is really about representation. It’s not that there aren’t enough African American, Latino/a American, or Asian American evangelicals in our indexes and lists. The problem is not representation but construction. Or, to put it as a question, why do we think there even is such a thing as evangelicalism? Or evangelicals? To be blunt, why do we care who is or isn’t an evangelical?

The term “evangelical” has a long history that I won’t get into and that I’m sure many readers of this blog know more about than I do. However, it seems that the term has been self-applied or imposed upon a variety of Protestants since the Reformation. It is a “native term” batted about by Protestants throughout their various squabbles with themselves and others. For some American Protestants at certain places and times “evangelical” signified “true.” Evangelical Christianity stood in contrast to infidel Christianity (be it liberal or deistic or what have you). Or conversely, to put myself in the shoes of the Unitarians I’ve been reading all week, “evangelical” Christianity is stiff mindless orthodoxy that lacks the refined reason and liberty of liberal Christianity. The question of who is or isn’t “evangelical” or what is or isn’t “evangelicalism” is a Protestant debate between Protestants and has become a historiographical question within American religious history insofar as American religious history is still under-girded by Protestant sensibilities and categories.

The real question for historians of American religion and especially historians of American evangelicalism is “what are the politics of the category evangelical?” Why do we want more African Americans in a list of evangelicals? Why do we want more women? Because it is a privileged category. It is also a constructed category. It is, to use my favorite Jon Butler phrase, an interpretive fiction. It is an invention, first within the minds of Protestants since the Reformation and then within the minds of historians from Robert Baird to the guys at Patheos. Rather than worry about who is or isn’t an evangelical or adding more diversity to the list, historians should be investigating the process of this invention. We should be tracing the politics of the term and what is at stake in various places and times when people take, leave, fight for, argue about, or compromise over what it means to be “evangelical.” We don’t need more or different histories of evangelicalism or evangelicals, we need a genealogy of the term. We need to trace the invention of American evangelicalism. We need to stop assuming that evangelicalism is something out there for us to track down in the archive or research field and label correctly. Instead, let’s pay attention to how various subjects imagine evangelicalism and the political, cultural, and social forces at work in those imaginings. Let’s find out what’s at stake when people get included or excluded from “evangelicalism.” I’d do it but I have this other thing I’m working on.

Let me be clear, I don’t think evangelical historians should stop doing what they are doing. The work of representing evangelical history to outsiders and other evangelicals is important and I’m glad there are wise and talented folks doing it. However, the ways these historian construct “evangelicals” is ripe for analysis by those investigating how “evangelicals” are invented. In this way “evangelical history” can be the source material for a genealogy of evangelicalism. For folks like Ed who are unsatisfied with our current constructions of “evangelical,” adding a bunch of new names to the list or changing the category will not solve the problem. For a while “Puritan” stood as the privileged category of religious history. Perhaps we’re now realizing that it’s been replaced by “evangelical.” (A process that itself is worth investigation). We have to deconstruct these categories and dig up the processes that have bestowed their privilege upon them, whether by historical subjects or historians. We can’t just change the plaque on the spacecraft. 

Asian Religions in America as an Ngram: Hinduism, Buddhism, and the Rammohun Spike

I decided to play around with Google’s Ngram viewer and see what it might tell me about how Americans wrote about Asian religions. Click here for a bigger version of the graph. Here’s what I noticed:

1. The most popular moment for Asian religions in America was in the 1820s and it most likely revolved around the figure of Rammohun Roy the “Hindoo reformer” highly covered in Unitarian and evangelical missionary journals. His debates with the English Baptist missionaries at Serampore, just outside Calcutta, and his publication of the Precepts of Jesus attracted a lot of attention in America. He wanted to eventually come to the United States but died in Bristol, England while touring Britain before he could make it. There’s a lot more to be said about Rammohun but I’ll let the spike speak to his importance and refer you to my dissertation that should be done early next year for more details.

2. The spike in “Hindoo” before Rammohun matches up with the beginnings of the American missionary movement. The first missionaries were ordained by the American Board of Commissioners for Foreign Missions in 1812 and went to India and Ceylon. What I can’t explain is the dip between the missionaries and Rammohun.

3. Looking further down the timeline, it is interesting to note the way “Hinduism” never gets close to the same frequency as “Buddhism” while “Hindu” keeps pace with “Buddhism” and “Buddhist.” This proves an important point made by writers, most notably Tomoko Masuzawa in her book The Invention of World Religions, that Buddhism was accorded more authority as a “world religion” than Hinduism during the nineteenth century. This graph shows that Americans took interest “Hindus” and “Hindoos” but that they didn’t give”Hinduism” the status of full fledged religion. “Hinduism” was not discussed as frequently as “Buddhism” because it was seen as less important and less legitimate religion. “Hinduism” does get a bump after 1893, most likely from the arrival of Vivekananda. Nonetheless, there is a lot of writing about Hindus but not much about Hinduism. It seems Americans wrote more frequently about the figure of the Hindu than the overall religious system. Meanwhile, Buddhists and Buddhism got equal treatment.

There are certainly caveats to the accuracy of this method and the use of Ngrams in general for historical work. That said, I do think that there are places where graphs like this can corroborate other more traditional forms of historical evidence. The “Rammohun spike” seems fairly plausible to me. For those of us interested in the history of religious concepts and categories in American culture, the Ngram can be a great jumping off point for theorizing the relationship between culture and discourse. It’s one more tool for whacking away at the stubborn rock of history in hopes of chiseling out something meaningful.

Also, this is post number 100 for this blog. Hooray! Thanks to everyone who has read and supported my blogging here and elsewhere. It’s been fun for me and I hope you’ve gotten something out of it too.

Thinking About Ralph Waldo Emerson on His Birthday

Caricature of Ralph Waldo Emerson's Famous "transparent Eyeball" Christopher Pearse Cranch (1813-1892)

Today is Ralph Waldo Emerson’s 208th birthday. The Concord sage is one of the great figures of American history and one of my favorite New England religious thinkers. I always think of Emerson as the man who was willing to push that little bit further. Where Arminians and Unitarians stopped, Emerson jumped off the cliff into a sea of human potential. Where Channing had argued for human virture, Emerson posited the Oversoul–the divine within and without. Up to his day American religion had been a religion of dissent and in many ways, Emerson doubled down leaving the Unitarian clergy behind and pushing the 1838 graduating class of Harvard Divinity School toward a “being without bound.”

I’ve yet to start writing  my dissertation chapter that deals with Emerson and his contact with Hindu religious sources but as of now I’m convinced that the relationship between Emerson and Hinduism was one of convenience. That is, Emerson was a collector of religious ideas and for various reasons Hindu ideas happened to be at hand. Because he was in Boston, because New England merchants had been trading with India since the 1790s, because Rammohun Roy’s work had reached Unitarians in the 1820s, and because the British empire made knowledge about India readily available in English, India was an obvious place to look for spiritual sources. For example, Emerson famously described the Bhagavad Gita as the great text of Buddhism. To him it didn’t matter which Eastern tradition the book belonged too so long as it fit with his overall spiritual vision.

Emerson is often given credit for first popularizing Asian religious ideas in America. That’s not completely true. At least in eastern New England, Hindu ideas found their way through the periodical press into the homes and libraries of many Americans. The aforementioned Rammohun Roy’s Precepts of Jesus, his Vedantan Hindu reading of Jesus’s moral message,  and his various defenses of it were widely available in the late 1820s and 1830s.  What Emerson did do was Americanize Hindu ideas. He paired a Vedic formulation of Hinduism with a liberal post-Unitarian spirituality that became the seed bed for liberal spirituality we still have with us today. He brought together Krishna. Mesmer, and Swedenborg and now we have Deepak Chopra.

To help you celebrate Emerson’s birthday today you might swing by Amazon and pick up a free Kindle version of a new edition of Self-Reliance complete with self-reflections on the book from historical and contemporary thinkers.  Or if you’d rather watch then read, there’s the 2007 documentary Emerson: The Ideal in America, also available for free viewing online. Or you can just go for a walk in the woods.

HT: Maria Popova

How to write a book about “X in American Religious History”

It’s not as hard to write a book in American religious history as you might think. Feel free to use this handy template.

Introduction- X has been important throughout American religious history.

Chapter 1. What the Puritans said about X

Chapter 2. What Jonathan Edwards (and maybe George Whitefield) said about X

Chapter 3. How X was shaped by the early Republic and the Second Great Awakening

Chapter 4. The Victorian X

Chapter 5. X in the Civil War

Chapter 6. Reforming X in the Progressive Era

Chapter 7. How X took on shifting meanings in pre-WWII America

Chapter 8. How the 1960s radically changed X, but not for everyone

Chapter 9. A new multifaceted X in the 21st century

Conclusion- See, I told you X was important.