Sunday, January 30

The Gospel of Born-Again Bodies

By R. MARIE GRIFFITH associate professor of religion at Princeton University. Her latest book is Born Again Bodies: Flesh and Spirit in American Christianity (University of California Press, 2004).

One of the most durable themes in modern American political culture, crassly visible in the latest presidential race, is virility. In this brutish and partisan arena, candidates vie for masculine supremacy before audiences they hope will admire their strapping vigor -- indeed, not simply admire but lust after it (if they are women) or identify with it (as manly men or wannabes). Long before Arnold Schwarzenegger's famous slur on liberal "girlie men," pundits like Bill O'Reilly and Ann Coulter repeatedly sneered that a Democratic mollycoddle like John Kerry could not begin to match the mettle of his swaggering Republican counterpart, notwithstanding their respective sports and military records. Although Kerry fought back vigorously, the public image was set, and Mr. Bush won the battle for brawn.

Liberals can be he-men too, of course. Bill Clinton's electric charisma and seductive exploits saved him from charges of effeminacy -- and judging by the hosts of beaming women who still wildly cheer him, he's only grown sexier in the post-Monica, South Beach Diet years. But the steady climate of panic in post-September 11 America has expunged the "kinder, gentler" language of yore and demanded imagery of a leaner, meaner sort, to which it is hinted only the stodgiest of feminists or the girliest of men could object. Masculinity exhibits itself variously in our culture, talking tough being one important mode and toting instruments of animal slaughter another. But that masculine ideal manifests itself above all through a body defined, in ever narrowing terms, as "fit."

Not surprisingly, the new macho fitness has materialized in nearly every cranny of our culture. Its ascendancy is, interestingly enough, most peculiarly visible in that other mounting obsession of the culture, religion. Perhaps, since the U.S. population, with its acute and intensifying religious sensibilities, is the most body-obsessed society in the world, it makes sense that these fixations would be intertwined; yet studies of religion have rarely overlapped with studies of body obsession.

A few years ago, I set out to investigate the intersections of religion and fitness in American culture and studied firsthand the varied ways in which Christianity has powerfully shaped American bodily ideals. Witness, for instance, contemporary images of Christian heroes, such as those featured in the massively successful Left Behind series co-written by Tim LaHaye and Jerry B. Jenkins. Such images invariably depict brute strength and courage, displaying both the will and the capacity to slay the vile enemies of God.

At the same time, as scholars such as Stephen Prothero and Richard Wightman Fox have noted, popular representations of Jesus have fluctuated over time, recently shifting once again away from the gentle, feminized Jesus of Warner Sallman's iconic portrayals toward a more muscular ideal. Think, for instance, of Mel Gibson's film The Passion of the Christ, in which the figure of Jesus looked brawny even (perhaps especially) while he was being crucified, his brutalization serving as a call to arms for audiences meant to depart theaters deeply affected by the continuing war between good and evil. Or witness the artist Stephen Sawyer's well-known depictions of a burly, steely-eyed Jesus decked out in prizefighter gloves and shorts and appearing victorious as the "Warrior King," ready for combat in a boxing ring. Evangelicals, counted among the most reliable sectors of the Republican Party's base, have embraced this shift: As Ted Haggard, president of the National Association of Evangelicals, told one reporter in April, the "effeminate Jesus" long prevalent in the culture is "a kind of marshmallowy, Santa Claus Jesus, which is not at all in keeping with the Gospels."

"Marshmallowy": soft, gooey, squishy, chubby, flaccid, fat -- now marked as the very antithesis not merely of the American presidential ideal but of Christ himself, the model Christians are to follow. That is a highly influential theme in contemporary evangelical circles, crudely but brilliantly summarized in a tabloid headline a couple of years ago, "Fat People Don't Go to Heaven!" The story beneath that lurid caption in the Globe, a national weekly tabloid circulated to millions of American readers, recounts the rise of Gwen Shamblin, founder and CEO of the nation's largest Christian diet company and recent subject of extensive news-media coverage from Larry King Live and 20/20 to The Wall Street Journal and The New Yorker. Shamblin markets her concept of a spiritual route to guaranteed weight loss and her stringent guidelines for proper Christian body size (she is on record as being a size 4 or 6) in the Weigh Down Workshop, whose copious videos, audiotapes, books, conferences, and 12-week seminars teach restrained food eating as a divine command. The eternal costs of overeating are markedly severe: "Grace," in Shamblin's words to the Journal, "does not go down into the pigpen."

The meanings here are plain, harking back to the muscular Christianity of earlier eras while replaying its themes in a newly severe key: Christianity is a strenuous religion, suitable for enduring hard times and fighting enemies. It is a religion best represented by robust men as well as disciplined women, who must also live up to a version (though smiling and slenderized, hence carefully feminized) of the perfect hard-body ideal. Flab is absolutely out, for both men and women, for it suggests weakness, indulgence, lack of discipline, inertia, and sheer laziness, egregious sins in a high-strung world devoted to efficiency and achievement. It turns out, in fact, that America's own purportedly secular doctrine of the perfectible body is deeply indebted to Protestant currents that have increasingly perceived the body as essential for pushing the soul along the path to redemption.

Christian authorities, we well know, have long been deeply concerned about the role of the body in religious devotion and have sought to discipline it in a wide range of ways. Historians of late antiquity and medieval Europe, among many others, have traced out the effects of religious discipline on individual bodies, drawing our attention to the striking corporality of Christian piety in various epochs and its heavily gendered manifestations. Though most studies have focused on premodern asceticism and Catholic mysticism, we are also beginning to uncover the history of Protestant bodies. Aided in part by emergent paradigms in ritual theory and material-culture studies, Protestantism is increasingly appearing less a project of disembodiment (as at least its WASP varieties have frequently been imagined) than as a syncretic mix of practices and rituals deeply rooted in fixations about bodily purity and pleasure, a mix that has shaped and continuously reshaped absorption with the body in clearly discernible ways.

For American Protestant people, for whom sex, alcohol, smoking, dancing, leisure activities, and other bodily pleasures have historically been restricted or even eschewed altogether, eating has long carried dense and contradictory meanings. Like many Christian ascetics and mystics of earlier periods, early modern Protestants made extensive use of fasting as a religious observance. The physical effects of food abstinence being what they are, varied groups commended slenderness as they dissected somatic indicators of true faith, affirming that the signs of authentic spiritual renewal were grounded in the body. This project of "making visible the soul" was sustained vigorously in the 19th century, for example by Protestant health reformers such as William Alcott and Sylvester Graham who advocated a purifying diet, and no less by the physiognomists and phrenologists who discerned evidence of the inner self in the face and skull.

Protestants have long wrestled with the dilemmas provoked by human embodiment, albeit in ways that would, to all appearances, feel increasingly unfamiliar to their patristic and medieval forebears. While both Protestant and Catholic critiques of abundance, from Cotton Mather and Jonathan Edwards to Sylvester Graham and John Harvey Kellogg to Simone Weil and Dorothy Day, recall themes expressed by early and medieval Christian ascetics, the evolving fixation on bodily health and perfection represents a stark departure from older emphases on corporeal acts of penitence aimed at subjugating the flesh or achieving identification with the suffering, crucified Christ. Over the course of the 20th century, the gospel of slimness that came to permeate broad sectors of American religion and culture, obsessed with lean, tight bodies, would bear only a faint resemblance to the intense rituals of purification and self-denial that occupied Christians in earlier periods.

A dynamic and extremely profitable Christian fitness culture thrives today. Hundreds of thousands of Americans are following Christian diet regimens like Shamblin's Weigh Down diet, the Hallelujah diet, the Creationist diet, Thin Within, First Place, and the Light Weigh (a Catholic program). Countless others have purchased books from this flourishing industry: Typical titles from the past year include Ben Lerner's Body by God: The Owner's Manual for Maximized Living, Jordan S. Rubin's The Maker's Diet: The 40-Day Health Experience That Will Change Your Life Forever, La Vita M. Weaver's Fit for God: The 8-Week Plan That Kicks the Devil OUT and Invites Health and Healing IN, and Danna Demetre's Scale Down: A Realistic Guide to Balancing Body, Soul, and Spirit. During the past few decades of this industry's explosion, millions of American Christians have made a religious duty out of diet, theologizing about food and fat as never before. Disregard what goes into your body, they say, and you will not only gain weight, look ugly, and feel awful, but you will also doom yourself to a lifetime and likely an eternity of divine disfavor. The body is a hazard to the soul, able to demolish the hardest-won spiritual gains merely through ingesting the wrong material. Christian diet vendors have plainly hit upon a painful but highly lucrative theme. According to the sociologist Kenneth Ferraro, religious practice in the United States is positively correlated with obesity, with Christians generally (and Southern Baptists in particular) the heaviest of all.

In the course of researching the Christian fitness culture, I interviewed many women and men who have participated in Christian diet groups, paying the fees to join one such group myself as a researcher. I interviewed many authors of Christian fitness literature, along with less well-known writers of denominationally focused diet workshops and local group coordinators. I attended a variety of small- and medium-size conference meetings devoted to Christian dieting and chatted with many other participants in those settings. I joined online Christian chat groups devoted to weight loss and engaged in thoughtful discussions with people leading quite desperate lives, because (as they see it) of their weight. Before e-mail addresses became restricted, I corresponded with numerous reviewers of Christian diet books, asking them to tell me more about the impact of this reading upon their lives. It is clear that readers and participants in this Christian fitness culture hold a wide range of views as to the proper Christian way to think about slimness and the body in today's world. They read selectively and think for themselves, in other words, and it would be a mistake not to highlight the multiplicity of perspectives that find sustenance in this culture.

But the culture of Christian food restraint has implications and consequences not always clearly perceived even by its more careful supporters. Christian literature about fitness, weight loss, and beauty has consistently instructed its readers how to uphold a pleasing image in the world, as standard-bearers of Jesus' love and prototypes of the redeemed life to which non-Christians would hopefully aspire. Yet American ideals of slender beauty stand in glaring contrast to attitudes throughout much of the developing world that have long associated fat with beauty, wealth, and merit or divine blessing, and more than a few commentators have denounced global patterns of food scarcity that emaciate impoverished populations in parts of Africa and Asia at the same time that privileged Americans struggle to stay fashionably slim. U.S. officials may lament the appalling realities of world hunger, yet few actively seek to promote physical health or longevity for those people considered national enemies (even potential ones), excepting types of humanitarian aid that unfortunately foster dependence and servility. It is well known that many citizens of other countries believe Americans to be deeply indifferent, if not contemptuous, toward foreign bodies. The ill health, life-shrinking poverty, and high death rates of such bodies, a cynic might say, bolster U.S. supremacy in both material and mythic ways.

World hunger seems a discordant context for situating Protestant American body fixations, and it would be as absurd to link them cursorily as to deny the countless initiatives aimed at helping the poor and hungry across the globe. Nor is it fitting purely to scorn modern-day pursuits as merely the solipsistic hobby of affluent, self-absorbed women and men. Observers may justly wonder, nonetheless, at the paradoxes evident here. American corporations have abetted the global proliferation of fast-food chains and the promotion of heavily sugared drinks and processed snack foods in developing world markets, transforming local eating patterns and increasing obesity rates overseas. As nutritionists and investigative journalists have corroborated, those types of products contribute in highly visible ways to the illness and poverty of expanding consumer populations. It is ironic, to say the least, that at a time when the most educated, affluent Americans increasingly shun junk food in favor of presumably healthier choices ("organic," "natural"), the fast-food and soft-drink (not to mention tobacco) industries have achieved unprecedented levels of success among the poor, both in the United States and abroad.

Mounting attention to the close correlations between ill health and indigence does not generally include religion as a key factor, nor are observers, aiming for pragmatic solutions more than scholarly analysis, particularly attentive to the nuances of history. But in fact religion -- as a strategic network of emotions, practices, and social alliances -- has held a vital historical role in what may aptly be termed American body politics: a system ensuring that some bodies are healthier, more beautiful, more powerful, and longer lived than others. While Christianity is by no means the only religious tradition able to contribute to such measures across space and time, Protestantism -- as the tradition that has most comprehensively influenced the course of American history -- takes a decisive center stage in this story. Like participants in assorted other religions, Christians carefully distinguish insiders from outsiders -- the saved from the damned -- and that concern with salvation plays itself out in numerous mundane ways. Intense concentration upon particular kinds of body work on the part of many American Christians provides a new way to read the politics of our cultural history and the crucial role of gender as well as more tacit, ambiguous, and intricate taxonomies of race and social class. Christian body practices offer, in short, a model for tracking the ways that ordinary middle-class white bodies have been tutored in the obligatory hungers and subtle yet stringent regulations of consumer capitalism. Lest we forget, the body -- whatever else it is -- is the material upon which diverse politics of exclusion are practiced, a point that the consumer culture of American fitness makes abundantly clear.

There are no easy remedies -- perhaps no remedies at all -- to the conditions promoting modern body devotion. Outside the explicitly religious diet and exercise groups, there remains very little that is demonstrably Christian about contemporary fitness culture, but that lack hardly renders it "secular" in any clear sense. However little they may realize their participation in a time-honored tradition of religious observance, more people than ever today are avidly pursuing a born-again body.

Sunday, January 23

The Speech Misheard Round the World

(Professor of Sociology at Harvard University)

Since 9/11, President Bush and his advisers have engaged in a series of arguments concerning the relation between freedom, tyranny and terrorism. The president's inaugural paean to freedom was the culmination of these arguments.

The stratagem began immediately after 9/11 with the president's claims that the terrorist attacks were a deliberate assault on America's freedom. The next stage of the argument came after no weapons of mass destruction were found in Iraq, thus eliminating the reason for the war, and it took the form of a bogus syllogism: all terrorists are tyrants who hate freedom. Saddam Hussein is a tyrant who hates freedom. Therefore Saddam Hussein is a terrorist whose downfall was a victory in the war against terrorism.

When this bogus syllogism began to lose public appeal, it was shored up with another flawed argument that was repeated during the campaign: tyranny breeds terrorism. Freedom is opposed to tyranny. Therefore the promotion of freedom is the best means of fighting terrorism.

Promoting freedom, of course, is a noble and highly desirable pursuit. If America were to make the global diffusion of freedom a central pillar of its foreign policy, it would be cause for joy. The way the present administration has gone about this task, however, is likely to have the opposite effect. Moreover, what the president means by freedom may get lost in translation to the rest of the world.

The administration's notion of freedom has been especially convenient, and its promotion of it especially cynical. In the first place, there is no evidence to support, and no good reason to believe, that Al Qaeda's attack on America was primarily motivated by a hatred of freedom. Osama bin Laden is clearly no lover of freedom, but this is an irrelevance. The attack on America was motivated by religious and cultural fanaticism.

Second, while it may be implicitly true that all terrorists are tyrants, it does not follow that all tyrants are terrorists. The United States, of all nations, should know this. Over the past century it has supported a succession of tyrannical states with murderous records of oppression against their own people, none of which were terrorist states - Argentina and Brazil under military rule, Augusto Pinochet's Chile, South Africa under apartheid, to list but a few. Today, one of America's closest allies in the fight against tyranny is tyrannical Pakistan, and one of its biggest trading partners is the authoritarian Communist regime of China.

Third, while the goal of promoting democracy is laudable, there is no evidence that free states are less likely to breed terrorists. Sadly, the very freedoms guaranteed under the rule of law are likely to shelter terrorists, especially within states making the transition from authoritarian to democratic rule. Transitional democratic states, like Russia today, are more violent than the authoritarian ones they replaced.

And even advanced democratic regimes have been known to breed terrorists, the best example being the United States itself. For more than half a century a terrorist organization, the Ku Klux Klan, flourished in this country. According to the F.B.I., three of every four terrorist acts in the United States from 1980 to 2000 were committed by Americans.

The president speaks eloquently and no doubt sincerely of freedom both abroad and at home. But it is plain for the world to see that there is a discrepancy between his words and his actions.

He claims that freedom must be chosen and defended by citizens, yet his administration is in the process of imposing democracy at the point of a gun in Iraq. At home, he seeks to "make our society more prosperous and just and equal," yet during his first term there has been a great redistribution of income from working people to the wealthy as well as declining real income and job security for many Americans. Furthermore, he has presided over the erosion of civil liberties stemming from the Patriot Act.

Is this pure hypocrisy - or is there another explanation for the discrepancy, and for Mr. Bush's perplexing sincerity? There is no gainsaying an element of hypocrisy here. But it is perhaps no greater than usual in speeches of this nature. The problem is that what the president means by freedom, and what the world hears when he says it, are not the same.

In the 20th century two versions of freedom emerged in America. The modern liberal version emphasizes civil liberties, political participation and social justice. It is the version formally extolled by the federal government, debated by philosophers and taught in schools; it still informs the American judicial system. And it is the version most treasured by foreigners who struggle for freedom in their own countries.

But most ordinary Americans view freedom in quite different terms. In their minds, freedom has been radically privatized. Its most striking feature is what is left out: politics, civic participation and the celebration of traditional rights, for instance. Freedom is largely a personal matter having to do with relations with others and success in the world.

Freedom, in this conception, means doing what one wants and getting one's way. It is measured in terms of one's independence and autonomy, on the one hand, and one's influence and power, on the other. It is experienced most powerfully in mobility - both socioeconomic and geographic.

In many ways this is the triumph of the classic 19th-century version of freedom, the version that philosophers and historians preached but society never quite achieved. This 19th-century freedom must now coexist with the more modern version of freedom. It does so by acknowledging the latter but not necessarily including it.

It is not that Americans have rejected the formal model of freedom - ask any American if he believes in democracy and a free press and he will genuinely endorse both. Rather it is that such abstract notions of freedom are far removed from their notion of what freedom means and how it is experienced.

The genius of President Bush is that he has acquired an exquisite grasp of this development in American political culture, and he can play both versions of freedom to his advantage. Because he so easily empathizes with the ordinary American's privatized view of freedom, the president was relatively immune from criticism that he disregarded more traditional measures of freedom like civil liberties. In the privatized conception of freedom that he and his followers share, the abuses of the Patriot Act play little or no part. (There are times, of course, when the president must voice support for the modern liberal version of freedom. The inaugural is such a day, "prescribed by law and marked by ceremony," as he ruefully noted.)

Yet while these inconsistencies may not bother the president's followers or harm his standing in America, they matter to the rest of the world. Few foreigners are even aware of America's hybrid conception of freedom, much less accepting of it. In most of the rest of the world, the president's inaugural address was heard merely as hypocrisy.

Orlando Patterson, a professor of sociology at Harvard, is the author of "Freedom in the Making of Western Culture" and a forthcoming book on the meaning of freedom in the United States.

Friday, January 21

Top Foe of Affirmative Action Leaves California Regents


SAN FRANCISCO, Jan. 20 - Ward Connerly, a black Sacramento millionaire who for a decade has led a turbulent crusade against race preferences, is leaving his bully pulpit at the University of California.

Mr. Connerly attended his last meeting here on Thursday as a member of the university's Board of Regents, and was given a resolution of appreciation and a standing ovation from his colleagues. The resolution described him as a "catalyst for change," a reference to a 12-year term that deeply divided the university and the state and thrust the board into the center of a rancorous national debate about affirmative action.

"I am relieved that it has come to an end," the 65-year-old Mr. Connerly said in an interview. "Twelve years is a long time. I've tried to use those years wisely and to pursue the things that I believe in, not to shrink from anything. And as a result of that, it has placed a little bit of added stress on me."

In comments to the Regents, he warned that there would be "great temptation" to revert to previous policies on race.

"For God's sake," he said, "don't do it."

It was Mr. Connerly, a Republican, who led an effort by the Regents in 1995 that banned affirmative action in admissions policies throughout the University of California system. The following year, he championed a successful statewide ballot measure that prohibits state and local governments from using racial and sexual preferences in hiring, contracting and college admissions.

A similar measure later passed in Washington State, and Mr. Connerly is trying to get one on the ballot next year in Michigan. He said he was also considering ballot measures in several other states.

"If you gain some degree of public visibility," he said, "you don't lose that just because you no longer have a title."

His critics agreed.

"It is good news because he'll no longer be able to lower the number of minorities at California's flagship universities," Julian Bond, chairman of the N.A.A.C.P., said of Mr. Connerly's departure. "It is bad news because he'll now have more free time to take his devilry around the country."

Christopher Edley Jr., dean of the Boalt Hall School of Law at the University of California, Berkeley, who was a founder of the Civil Rights Project at Harvard, said in an e-mail interview that Mr. Connerly's "name recognition rivals that of the past decade's highest state officials" as both "villain and hero."

"He's been both profoundly wrong and phenomenally effective," Professor Edley added, "touching millions of lives not just in California but nationwide."

Former Gov. Pete Wilson, a Republican who named Mr. Connerly to the 26-member Board of Regents in 1993, described him as a "rare human being" who was driven to do the right thing but whose legacy with the board "depends entirely upon the ideological holding of the person that you are asking."

"Ward is tough-minded and strong-willed, and what he was doing was a matter of intense conviction," Mr. Wilson said. "He reminds me of the phrase 'One man with courage makes a majority.' "

Mr. Connerly's single 12-year term officially ends on March 1, but the Regents do not meet again before then. He said in the interview that he had not sought reappointment and had not been approached by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger about staying on.

A spokeswoman for the governor would not comment, citing confidentiality of personnel matters. Mr. Wilson, who is closely aligned with Mr. Schwarzenegger, said it was not uncommon for a new governor to seek his own appointments to state boards.

It is also possible that Mr. Schwarzenegger, a Republican, did not relish a confirmation fight in the Democratic-controlled Legislature at a time when he is involved in intense negotiations over his proposed state budget. Mr. Connerly's appointment to a second term would most certainly have raised the ire of his critics, many of whom blame him for the sharp drop in the number of black and Latino students at some University of California campuses, most notably at Berkeley and Los Angeles.

"I think he did a grave disservice to the university," said one frequent foe of Mr. Connerly, Eva Paterson, president of the Equal Justice Society, which favors affirmative action. "I think history will not look kindly on what he did."

Mr. Connerly said that the drop in black and Latino enrollment bothered him but that the responsibility fell on the students, not him.

"I would like to see more of them there," he said, "but that is something for them to achieve, not for the government by fiat to say we are going to move people around."

He said his biggest disappointment was his failing to persuade university officials, and later the state's voters, to stop thepractice of collecting data based on race, ethnicity or national origin. A ballot measure that would have ended that practice was defeated in 2003. Mr. Connerly said that his own ancestry is black, Irish, French and Choctaw but that the "one-drop rule" boils his identity down to black.

"I think with the fullness of time, that too will move forward," he said, "with or without me."

The Assault on Liberal Education

The Contradictions of Cultural Conservatism in the Assault on American Colleges


In March the Georgia Senate adopted the Academic Bill of Rights Resolution, modeled on David Horowitz's campaign calling for colleges to promote intellectual diversity and academic freedom on their campuses. In May the American Legislative Exchange Council -- which describes itself as "a clearinghouse of information for 2,400 conservative officeholders in 50 states, almost one-third of the 7,500 state legislators in the country" -- adopted a sample resolution and model statutory language based on Horowitz's bill, and pledged to work toward the statute's passage in the legislature of every state. Meanwhile, according to the Horowitz-affiliated Students for Academic Freedom, Sen. Jeff Sessions, an Alabama Republican, plans to sponsor a resolution in the Senate in September echoing the language in the "academic bill of rights." Sessions's bill would accompany a similar House resolution introduced last fall by Rep. Jack Kingston, a Georgia Republican.

"It's been an incredibly successful week for Students for Academic Freedom," boasts the May 14 announcement by the group's national campus director, Sara Dogan -- and a thoroughly depressing period for the humanities, as this latest conservative assault once again sabotages the very academic values that conservatives claim to champion.

Charges by crusaders like Horowitz that "the universities are totally dominated by the left" tend to focus on elite liberal-arts colleges and some urban public universities, where liberal influences are strongest. But these charges are bizarrely disconnected from the experience of those of us who teach at the vast majority of campuses, such as the half-dozen provincial schools where for some 35 years I have taught introductory English courses, general-education requirements for students in majors mostly outside the humanities.

To begin with, most students at such colleges have, as early as high school, come to regard the only purpose of schooling as vocational or pre professional training. Many consider general-education requirements a tiresome nuisance. Horowitz and earlier culture warriors like William J. Bennett, Lynne Cheney, and the National Association of Scholars huff and puff about upholding humanistic standards, but they do not dare admit that the greatest detriment to humanistic education is the commercial pressure imposed by corporations like those whose foundations pay for their own publicity offensives.

To distract attention from those pressures, conservatives seek scapegoats for the decline of the humanities, like multiculturalism, poststructuralist theory, and the fostering of student self-esteem -- all of which might deserve a share of blame, but a small one compared to commercialism. As Thoreau said in "Life Without Principle," "There is nothing, not even crime, more opposed to poetry, to philosophy, ay, to life itself, than this incessant business."

The primacy of vocational education is hardly a recent phenomenon. In the middle-class public high school I went to in Des Moines in the 1950s, the important courses were driver training, typing, mechanical drawing, and shop for the boys, home economics (i.e., domestic consumerism) for the girls. Academic requirements were skimpy, especially in history and "social studies," where courses were taught, somnabulantly, as a sideline by sports coaches -- a widespread phenomenon now as then and perhaps the most damning symbol of American cultural priorities. Students invariably refer to these courses as "a joke," and American students traveling abroad are embarrassed to find that their peers in other countries know far more than they do about American politics, history, and geography.

The main difference today from when I was in school is the worsening job and pay prospects for young Americans, compounded by skyrocketing college-tuition costs and cuts in government money for colleges and for student aid. Students work virtually full time at jobs while taking an overload of courses to avoid expensive prolongation of college, which further saps their time and energy for either political involvement or courses that will not directly help them get a job.

Conservative culture warriors would have us regard both vocational/preprofessional education and its prime mover, corporate employers, as politically neutral. The obvious facts, however, are that large corporations and their wealthy CEO's and stockholders are predominantly conservative (notwithstanding the occasional exception like George Soros and Ted Turner); that they are the most powerful political players in America, through lobbying and PR, campaign contributions, foundations, think tanks, ownership of media, and influence on them by advertising; and that in all these realms, they strongly favor the conservative wings of both the Republican and Democratic parties.

Champions of the new affirmative action for conservatives coyly evade admitting that all of the branches of universities devoted to serving corporations, the lucrative professions, and the military through job training and research -- which vastly outweigh the humanities -- also indoctrinate students in pro-management, anti-labor, anti-government (but pro-military) ideology. Students' desperation to get and keep jobs in corporations and professions pressures them into compliance with corporate ideology, so that they tend to be impervious to any liberal deviations that they get in humanities courses. As Dostoyevsky's Grand Inquisitor noted, whoever feeds people commands their obedience.

Conservative surveys purporting to show that most faculty members describe themselves as Democrats (which is not necessarily equated with liberals, and certainly not leftists) are skewed by excluding faculties other than those in liberal education. Moreover, the high salaries -- and obedience -- of administrators and trustees, whatever their party affiliation might be, are also fed by the corporate-friendly branches of the university. Universities themselves are major corporate entities, as investors of endowments; owners of real estate; purchasers of private-sector equipment, construction, and services; and as employers of regular and contingent faculty as well as nonacademic workers often paid below a living wage. Their behavior in all these realms is often as conservative as any private business's.

Horowitz points to university labor institutes, but how do the handful of those, and their financial backing by unions drastically weakened by globalization, compare with the ubiquitous schools and departments of business and the equally business-friendly studies in engineering, computer science, agriculture, industrial technology, medicine, advertising, public relations, and so on? Shouldn't evenhanded conservatives come to the aid of liberal students and demand an equal voice in those fields for labor, consumer, and environmentalist advocates, or indeed socialists and Marxists? Conservatives reply that students choose to take vocational courses but are captive audiences in required general-education courses. I submit that the very justification for the latter's being required is to provide liberal viewpoints that students are unlikely to get in courses for their majors -- although these viewpoints ought not to be presented in a doctrinaire, one-sided manner, as they sometimes lamentably are.

Vocational pressures toward conservatism are compounded by the myriad ways in which most students have been saturated in corporate ideology and conformity in the wider culturethrough junk food, spectator sports, pop music, movies, TV, talk radio, and fashion. Some pop songs, TV shows, and movies may have ostensibly liberal messages, but their overriding theme is still, "Buy this product of corporations," and their effect is to produce passive, compliant consumers of both commodities and politics, rather than active, critical citizens. Intercollegiate sports and fraternity-sorority life, which serve as training grounds for chamber-of-commerce boosterism, are more central to college life for many students than courses in the humanities, whatever their professors' politics might be.

Moreover, in every class I have ever taught, when anonymously polled, the majority of students have said their family and community backgrounds were conservative. An increasingly large number come from fundamentalist Christian upbringings. In courses they cite the Bible as authority for arguments such as that President Bush's policies on Iraq should be followed unquestioningly because rulers -- Republicans, anyway -- are ordained by God (II Peter 2:13-14). I have rarely had more than one or two black students in a class; nevertheless, conservative white students firmly believe that affirmative action has allowed blacks to get all the breaks.

I am delighted on the rare occasions when students who have some knowledge of intellectual conservative ideas take my courses. I bend over backward to encourage their views and to be more than fair in grading, as course evaluations and many personal testimonies affirm. But for most students, sad to say, their conservatism is in direct proportion to their self-admitted, near-total ignorance of politics, history, geography, economics, and academic modes of reasoning. Few have ever seen The New York Times, let alone The Nation, or read any newspaper or journal of opinion regularly. Many have simply been indoctrinated to parrot the beliefs that America is the freest and most prosperous country in the world (or the only free and prosperous one -- comparisons are invariably with the poorest countries or communist dictatorships, rarely with Western Europe, Canada, or Japan); that everyone in this country is born with equal opportunity to get ahead; that rich people and corporations are virtuous public benefactors; and that our country's elected officials can be trusted to tell the truth in leading us to war (although on other occasions these same students deride, with no sense of Orwellian doublethink, "politicians" and "big government"). When asked what evidence or experience those tenets are based on, or whether the students have ever studied any contrary evidence, they just stare in bewilderment.

They, and more often their parents, expect that higher education should simply reinforce conservative dogmas, which they regard as self-evident truths, not as biases. The notions of skeptical questioning of authority and received opinion, which are the humanistic heritage of the Renaissance and the Enlightenment, are utterly alien to such students, as is the whole intellectual liberal tradition of cosmopolitanism and heterodoxy, which is bound to clash with the oversimplified appeals to nationalism, religion, family values, and "free enterprise" that are the stock in trade of conservative propagandists.

Professors justifiably continue this humanistic tradition when they introduce those notions through readings of, say, Plato's "Apology" or Thoreau's "Civil Disobedience"; or when they point out instances throughout history and literature of leaders demagogically manipulating the ethnocentric prejudices of the masses; or (most outrageously of all) when they suggest the legitimacy of applying a similar dose of skeptical scrutiny to President Bush's justifications for war in Iraq.

Many students understandably get upset over the cognitive dissonance between this skeptical questioning of authority and the childishly simplistic platitudes they have been conditioned by and that the Bush administration, like most throughout history, propagates to gain mass compliance -- for example, enemy "evil ones" versus an edenically virtuous United States.

Conservative intellectuals, of course, insist that they are the true defenders of liberal humanism against its abuses by tenured radical and Democratic Party demagogues; Horowitz publishes a magazine titled Heterodoxy. But they are caught in a contradiction between this claim and their complicity with both corporate philistinism, which dumbs down culture to maximize profits, and the Republican Party's time-tested policy of reducing political rhetoric to Manichean sound bites, epitomized by Richard Nixon's advice to his speechwriter William Safire, "We sophisticates can listen to a speech for a half hour, but after 10 minutes, the average guy wants a beer."

Horowitz himself, in The Art of Political War (2000), offers advice to conservative politicians that could have come out of Mein Kampf: "When you speak, do not forget that a sound bite is all you have. Whatever you have to say, make sure to say it loud and clear. Keep it simple and keep it short -- a slogan is always better. ... With these audiences, you will never have time for real arguments or proper analyses. Images -- symbols and sound bites -- will always prevail. Therefore, it is absolutely essential to focus your message and repeat it over and over again."

To be sure, there is a more literate level of conservative rhetoric, on the Iraq war and in general, found in reputable scholarly and journalistic sources, such as The Weekly Standard, and I always provide my students with readings and a list of publications at that level to weigh against comparable liberal ones. But many of my students are as baffled by those sources as by The Nation because they have not developed the reading and critical-thinking skills to cope with complex ideas of any ideological variety. So perhaps the major source of cognitive dissonance is not liberal ideas versus conservative ones but complex ideas versus simplistic ones. Students' resulting anxiety can easily translate into their complaining to conservative watchdog organizations about unpatriotic or coercive professors.

Richard, a student from a rural, Republican family in my American-literature sophomore survey course, comes steeped in history according to Rush Limbaugh. (For the past decade I have been amazed to see students, many of whom otherwise admit to never having read a political book -- or any nonfiction book -- carrying well-worn copies of The Way Things Ought to Be and See, I Told You So.) Richard cites a passage from See arguing that the 17th-century American Puritans "studied the Bible and found it prescribes limited, representative government and free enterprise as the best political and economic systems," and that they "established just and equal laws for all members of their community, irrespective of their religious beliefs."

Another passage, about the 18th-century "founding fathers," warns, "Don't believe the conventional wisdom of our day that claims these men were anything but orthodox, Bible-believing Christians." These passages, like a wealth of pronouncements by this model of Christian virtue, have little documentation and the most selective or erroneous evidence, such as a selection early in William Bradford's 17th-century History of Plymouth Plantation that does praise a Puritan experiment in free enterprise but is contradicted by later passages like this about the growth of prosperous farms: "And this I fear will be the ruin of New England, at least of the churches of God there, and will provoke the Lord's displeasure against them."

I praise Richard's initiative in doing outside reading, then cordially ask him and other class members to do some research on these issues. Where, for example, does the Bible prescribe free enterprise or limited, representative government, and where, especially in the New Testament, does it contradict thesefor example, in the above-mentioned II Peter 2? We read John Winthrop's "A Model of Christian Charity," whose vision of the Puritan community is totally socialistic, and Anne Bradstreet's poems renouncing worldly riches as leading to damnation. I refer them to Perry Miller's The New England Mind: The Seventeenth Century, which presents ample evidence that the Massachusetts Bay Colony was at the opposite pole from Jeffersonian democracy, with an unlimitedly theocratic government and economy and zero tolerance for dissent from the established denomination.

About the 18th-century founders, I assign encyclopedia definitions of deism, a concept virtually none of the students have heard of, along with anthology readings suggesting that it was more influential among the founders (and in the Declaration of Independence and the Constitution) than Christianity -- indeed that Jefferson and Paine rigorously questioned the Bible and Christian doctrine, while Franklin was benignly skeptical toward them.

Richard's response is shocked disbelief, followed by a newfound spirit of skepticism. Who is this Perry Miller, and why is he any more credible than Rush? Mightn't he and the editors of The Norton Anthology just be "bias" (the "-ed" has disappeared from participles in studentspeak), falsifying historical evidence and quotations as Limbaugh's critics claim he does?

Indeed they might, I agree, and the only way for you to find out who is telling the truth is to become a scholar, tracing the authenticity of these claims back to primary sources. "But I don't have time to do that -- I'm an agriculture major," he quite justifiably groans. Besides, he says, his last English professor taught that there is no objective truth and that texts have whatever meaning readers want to find in them. So he's entitled to believe Rush and his parents if he wants, and I'm not entitled to force any contrary evidence on him.

Thus have the chickens of deconstruction and diversity come home to roost!

It hasn't happened yet, but it is probably only a matter of time before a Richard reports me to Students for Academic Freedom or his parents report me to the American Council of Trustees and Alumni for imposing a hostile learning environment and stifling diversity of views.

I have little doubt that, beneath the pious avowals by conservatives of Horowitz's ilk that they are concerned to preserve academic freedom for liberals and conservatives alike, lies the cynical intent to unleash the most ignorant forces of the right in hounding liberal academics to death. I could, of course, be persuaded otherwise by some solid evidence that they are evenhandedly committed to counterbalancing all the massive forces of conservative bias that I have enumerated.

Saturday, January 1

The Creative Campus: Who's No. 1?

I have not, nor has anyone as far as I know, ever tried to measure the creative environment of American colleges. At least in terms of direct measures, I remain agnostic on the question of how creative we are within the walls of academe. But I do believe that we need some way to compare where creativity is flourishing and where it is languishing.

Call it a campus "creativity index."

For better or for worse, we live in a scorecard society. We measure the aptitude, intelligence, creativity, and personality of children, students, and workers. Increasingly, we also give out institutional grades to track the performance of public schools, government services, and corporations (for example, ranking businesses by their record on attracting a diverse work force, protecting the environment, or creating family-friendly work spaces). We rank cities, communities, and, yes, colleges. What is the average class size? How prepared are professors in the classroom? How much does the institution promote tolerance? And on and on. However flawed the rankings may be, they are taken seriously by our constituents.

But I can find not a single index that ranks colleges by the extent to which they foster creativity. Is this less important than endowment levels, extracurricular sports, social life, public service, activism, political climate, food, technology, services for disabled students, or any of the other criteria that are used to compare institutions?

It is surprising that creativity has been ignored in college rankings and assessments. The number of books, articles, and case studies that have been produced by business publishers on the topic of creativity is astonishing. Last year, searching the catalog of the Harvard Business School Press since 1990, I found more than 1,365 articles and books written about creativity and innovation (compare that with more-traditional business concerns -- 86 publications on efficiency; 210 on productivity; 386 on quality).

Moreover, many public-school educators and advocates see fostering creativity as a key component in school reform -- look, for instance, at Howard Gardner's Art Education and Human Development (Getty Center for Education in the Arts, 1990) or Ken Robinson's Out of Our Minds: Learning to Be Creative (Capstone, 2001). Scientists like David Bohm and F. David Peat, in their Science, Order, and Creativity (Routledge, second edition, 2000), have discussed the role of creativity in advances in their fields. At Harvard University, several engineering and science faculty members have recently created a center to help engineers and scientists become more creative and entrepreneurial. And, of course, thanks in part to the recent work by Richard L. Florida, an expert on economic development and author of The Rise of the Creative Class (Basic Books, 2002), dozens of cities across the United States (and the globe) are trying to become more creative in order to attract future knowledge workers.

In short, creativity has become the sine qua non of a successful America. Nurturing it is seen as an important public good, not only benefiting individuals, but contributing to the economic health and well-being of the country at large. In spite of that, creativity remains an undervalued policy goal for colleges and universities. If anything, we take it for granted that higher education fosters creativity, without evaluating whether, in fact, our campuses are truly promoting and encouraging creative work (with the exception that universities are increasingly obsessed with protecting their intellectual property and counting the number of patents, copyrights, and trademarks they have secured).

Clearly creativity abounds on campuses. My point is not that universities are no longer great seedbeds of creativity and innovation; rather that, in many cases, creativity flourishes in spite of our policies. Measurement and assessment could be first steps in making the creative campus a priority.

It is worth pausing here to define what I mean by creativity. My broad definition is that creativity reflects those activities that involve the application of intellectual energies to the production of new ways of solving problems (as in science and mathematics) or of expressing ideas (as in art). Creativity is not simply about self-expression. It is about producing something new (or combining old elements in new ways) to advance a particular field or add to the storehouse of knowledge.

The easiest way to measure the creative output of a campus would simply be to count the number of books and articles published by its faculty members, the number of patents and copyrights owned, the number of Nobel prizes or MacArthur fellowships won, the number of major discoveries attributed to its faculty members. However, measuring such products tells us little about the value added by an institution. Those places that produce the most new scholarship and the greatest number of inventions are not necessarily the most creative environments within which to work and study.

Instead of focusing on output measures, it might be more fruitful to examine the context or climate for creativity. Over the past two years, in preparation for a course on the social conditions that foster creativity in science, art, and business, I have trolled the vast literature on creativity. It turns out that sociologists, psychologists, economists, and historians know quite a bit about the conditions that encourage creativity across the disciplines.

Focusing on the structural conditions for creativity, rather than particular teaching and learning styles, we can highlight several features that scholars agree are important. First, many researchers stress the importance of collaboration, demonstrating that creativity thrives within teams and collaborative circles. Creative people feed off the energy of others; they excel when challenged and forced to confront and incorporate other perspectives and approaches; and they depend on the support and encouragement of allies and colleagues when trying out new and often risky ideas.

Second, creativity flourishes in diverse environments where there are adequate opportunities for cross-cultural exchange. That seems to hold as true for modern businesses as for nations and civilizations. In The Lever of Riches: Technological Creativity and Economic Progress (Oxford University Press, 1990), for example, the historian Joel Mokyr contends that European advances outstripped those of China after 1400 primarily because China's emperors closed its border to foreign trade and immigration while European nations and cultures thrived on the cross-cultural commerce in customs and goods. When representatives of the University of Michigan argued in favor of affirmative action in front of the U.S. Supreme Court, they drew on the same fundamental premise -- diversity fosters learning, creativity, and discovery.

Third, creativity is stimulated by interdisciplinary exchange. Many of the most important scientific discoveries in the modern era happened at the borders between disciplines: Chaos theory has been advanced by meteorologists, mathematicians, and physicists; a report published by the National Academies Press in 2000, Bridging Disciplines in the Brain, Behavioral, and Clinical Sciences, argued that interdisciplinary research will be required to solve many of our emerging health problems -- AIDS, Alzheimer's disease, chronic pain, schizophrenia, and more.

Fourth, creative work takes time and resources. Most so-called epiphanies do not happen as the result of divine inspiration or luck. Creative people need time to develop their ideas, test their hypotheses, and prepare themselves to recognize the big idea when it comes.

Fifth, creativity requires an environment that tolerates and even encourages failure.

Those are just a few of the well-known conditions for creative work. How would we know whether universities and colleges were successful at creating those conditions? Let's examine the above in order:

Collaboration. Why not ask the extent to which undergraduates collaborate with faculty members on original research and publications? What fraction of students are co-authors on an article before they graduate? Co-producers of a play? How often do students complete assignments in groups? How often are final course papers the result of collaborative work?

Cross-cultural exchange. Could we examine the diversity of the student body? The percentage of foreign students? The proportion of students who study abroad? The diversity of the faculty?

Interdisciplinary exchange. How many courses are listed across multiple departments? How many research projects involve faculty members and students from different disciplines? What is the average number of courses taken by students outside their major? How many students are double majors? What is the distribution of students across majors? (A university where 50 percent of the students are majors in a single discipline is much less intellectually diverse than one where majors are more evenly spread among all the disciplines.)

Time and resources. How frequently are faculty members awarded leave to work on new research? How many students participate in independent study? Is there an opportunity fund for new research? Are funds available for student performances or student experiments? How many undergraduates receive research assistantships to work with faculty members over the summer? Are resources available for new course development? How many new courses are introduced each semester?

Tolerating failure. This is a more difficult criterion to quantify. Nonetheless, perhaps student surveys could reveal the extent to which professors encourage risk taking. How often do professors review first, second, or third drafts of papers? How often do students have the opportunity to repeat exams or course work without penalty? Do faculty members feel supported in their own departments when they take unconventional approaches in their research and teaching?

Such criteria broadly encompass the conditions for creativity across all fields. Of course, they do not offer a one-size-fits-all assessment. Some might be good for certain types of creativity and not others (collaboration might be more important in the sciences than in the humanities). Some measures are aimed at faculty members, others at students. And it is not clear which conditions (and measures) support which mission of the university (teaching, research, service).

But wouldn't it be exciting to bring together experts in the field of creativity research to debate these issues and to work together to develop a set of reasonable indicators for assessing different aspects of the creative campus? Individual colleges could then apply those metrics, or others, as appropriate, to assess the conditions for creativity and innovation on their own campuses.

In addition to structural conditions that foster creativity, the arts have long been recognized as important catalysts for creative work across domains. In his book, Florida argues that today's knowledge workers share a creative ethos. Whether designing multimedia projects, inventing new data-storage systems, discovering new drugs, or building new businesses, the most talented workers want to live in places that have an abundance of cultural capital -- artists, museums, theaters, and music venues. Such creative places, Florida contends, not only attract the most desirable workers, but they also create a milieu that is generative and inspiring.

Others scholars, like Dean Keith Simonton, a psychologist, in Genius, Creativity, and Leadership: Historiometric Inquiries (Harvard University Press, 1984), have taken a more historical view but arrived at similar conclusions: Creative outbursts throughout history, like the Renaissance in Florence, have clustered in those places where artistic, scientific, and technological advancements thrive side by side, Simonton says. For decades, countless books and articles -- consider the renowned metallurgist Cyril Stanley Smith's 1981 A Search for Structure: Selected Essays on Science, Art, and History (MIT Press) and the 2001 Einstein, Picasso: Space, Time, and Beauty That Causes Havoc (Basic Books), by Arthur I. Miller -- have demonstrated the interplay between science and art.

Brooke Hindle, a historian, in Emulation and Invention (NYU Press, 1981) showed that some of America's most important inventors succeeded, in large measure, because of their artistic sensibility. John Seely Brown, formerly chief scientist of the Xerox Corporation, believed so strongly in the catalytic effect of the arts that he launched the well- known Xerox-PARC experiment. By creating an artist-in-residency program within the research and development laboratories at Xerox, Brown helped to seed dozens of new innovations. England's National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts, financed by lottery money, is organized around the belief that creative synergy results when artists, inventors, and scientists work together.

That may be why, in part, faculty members and administrators at a number of universities are beginning to realize that the arts attract talented students in every discipline and create a more stimulating place to work and study. "We see the arts, both on campus and in the Nashville community, as key components in making Vanderbilt University one of the most creative and robust intellectual centers in America," E. Gordon Gee, the university's chancellor, has told faculty members. That belief, in part, led Gee to recruit Bill Ivey, former chairman of the National Endowment for the Arts, to Vanderbilt to start the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy.

Recently Columbia University and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill created new high-level administrative positions -- something like arts czars -- to ensure that the arts are coordinated across the campus and integrated into the fabric of student and faculty life. In fact, at a recent American Assembly meeting, "The Creative Campus: The Training, Sustaining, and Presenting of the Performing Arts in American Higher Education," several participants -- including leaders from Columbia, Princeton, and Syracuse Universities -- articulated their own visions for how the arts can stimulate creativity in higher education.

There is other evidence that the arts have become a priority for our students, faculty members, and administrators. First, nearly 20 percent of organizations that present the performing arts in the United States are connected to American college campuses. While many of those organizations were founded in the 1960s and 1970s, an estimated 250 new campus-based organizations have formed in the last decade (according to data collected by Mark A. Hager and Thomas H. Pollak at the Urban Institute). Moreover, according to an annual survey of incoming freshmen conducted by scholars at the University of California at Los Angeles, creating and performing art and literature has become increasingly important to students.

If we are to assess the creative campus, therefore, a reasonable place to begin might be to collect information about the level of arts activities taking place on those campuses. How many artistic works have been commissioned by the university? How many performance spaces are there? How many exhibition halls and galleries? How many resident artists? How many members of the faculty are part-time or full-time artists? How many students enroll in art classes? How many declare majors in the arts? How many student performing groups exist? How many world premieres are presented by campus-based arts organizations? How well are the arts integrated into the academic curriculum? What percentage of the students report that creating an original piece of art (music, literature, theater, visual arts) is very important to them in their lives?

To be sure, there are many other ways to evaluate the vitality of the arts on campus or the conditions for creativity more broadly. But until we begin to measure the creative campus, it will be difficult to advocate for and design policies that promote and support creativity to its fullest extent. The measures will be controversial. Rankingsat best imperfect, at worst invidiousare still important tools for advocacy and policy. Institutions pay attention to them and often change their behavior to improve their standing. No business, after all, wants to rank at the bottom of the list of those judged on their environmental record. No mayor wants to score low on the creative-cities index. And, I contend, most colleges would strive to improve their position on an index of campus creativity if such a measure existed.

Why should students have less information available to them about creativity and the arts than they do about beer drinking and sports? Perhaps the time has come to see how we measure up.

Steven J. Tepper is associate director of the Curb Center for Art, Enterprise, and Public Policy and an assistant professor of sociology at Vanderbilt University.