The Glittering World of Mennonite Higher Education

Showalter coverThis post was first published on my old site in September 2015. Which feels like a long time ago. In reposting this, I have added a couple of passing references to Bethel College which readers felt was slighted in the first account. It’s still slighted. Maybe some day I’ll write about my childhood memories of an exciting family trip to North Newton, Kansas and the campus there. Yup. We had the best family vacations.

When I graduated from my Mennonite high school, about 96% of my graduating class went on to a Mennonite college. Many headed to Winnipeg to the college formerly known as Canadian Mennonite Bible College, some just hiked it across town to Conrad Grebel College in the University of Waterloo, while the most adventurous and flush with cash headed south of the border to Goshen College. For some reason, none of my classmates had both the cash and the chutzpah to head to Bethel College in Kansas, my father’s family’s college of choice.

Goshen was, by many accounts, the glitteriest of all glittering higher education institutions. By reputation, it was more liberal than the other US-based Mennonite colleges (except for Bethel) — there were even jokes at its expense, though none I’ll repeat here.* It was the place to go if you wanted to get radicalized, if you weren’t opposed to drinking, dancing, and talking politics. It was good enough for your parents, and bad enough for you. Well, not me, but it was bad enough for a lot of people.

You could, of course, drink and dance and talk politics at a secular public university or liberal arts college but if you did that, you’d never experience that special frisson of being part of an earnest Mennonite rebellion against the hegemonic patriarchal capitalistic system. Nor would you have the wide ranging opportunities to study Anabaptist theology, history and/or Mennonite literature. I was among the 4% who left the fold and went on to higher education in a secular university. So I missed out on all that.

Most of my adult Mennonite friends, however, went through the system and they emerged with a clutch of friends for life, a grounding in obscure theological disputes, and a peculiar adoration of the small group of Mennonite scholar-teachers who led them  through the hallowed (and glittering) halls of Mennonite higher ed.

Having attended a large public university where we tended to view our professors more as odd curiosities than mini-deities, I have always found disconcerting the Mennonite collegians’ tendency to venerate their instructors. It’s a kinda weird status structure. I know 40-something adults who still get stars in their eyes when they see or hear talk of one of their Mennonite College professors. These were not world famous scholars conducting pioneering research that would change the world or broaden their academic discipline. Just a handful of working profs teaching four courses a term and writing an article or two in their spare time.

Maybe this shouldn’t be disconcerting; there are worse people to idolize. If idolizing is just something that has to happen. But if it isn’t something inevitable, then here’s my question: Do all those profs long for the recognition and actively court the adoration of the young, or do they struggle with it?

In the memoir of her childhood, Shirley Hershey Showalter, recently the president of Goshen College, discusses the tension between  her longing as a child to be ‘big” and the Mennonite values of humility.  Because by “big,” she didn’t mean a desire to grow to be 6 feet tall or expand her girth through an overindulgence of seven sweets and fewer sours.

By “big,” she meant some combination of fame, fortune and the power to influence if not the world then at least one little glittering corner of it. She herself described big “as in important, successful, influential. I wanted to be seen and listened to. I wanted to make a splash in the world.” But she knew she wasn’t supposed to want this, and so she would blush at her own presumption.

By all Mennonite standards and a number of other ones, Shirley Hershey Showalter succeeded in becoming “big” when she became a professor and later president of Goshen College. In the Mennonite status structure, there aren’t a lot of positions higher than the Mennonite college president.  And so she probably has a few hundred former students who think the world of her. This is just me guessing — I don’t know her personally and don’t think I know any of her former students.  Still, I’m betting she has seen some of those starry eyed youths.  That’s a consequence — or maybe a defining element — of being big. Maybe it even makes her blush.

So, I don’t know. It could be that all that youthful adoration is the flip side of the ambition to be big, a drive secretly harboured by Menno profs everywhere. It’s not really a deep dark underbelly of Mennodom, just a little bit disconcerting. It’s a pretty common human experience — to want to be significant (in the world, not just in the eyes of God and our parents). But Mennonites are supposed to be better than that. This is why Showalter felt she was writing something risky when she admitted to wanting to be “big.”

It doesn’t seem like a big sin, does it? It’s pretty run-of-the-mill actually. Me, I’d be as happy shaking up the students with their eyes full of glitter, as the profs who become the objects of adoration.  Sure, they should respect their instructors, maybe even admire them from time to time if they deserve it. Really, they should always strive to learn from them. But none of us need to see them venerated. Because, honestly, glitter’s so last year.


The Blushing Elder

This drink is a tribute of sorts to the Mennonite college professors who have to a certain degree become the de facto elders of the Mennonite world. You can make this with a sparkling rosé or a still one, depending upon how glittery you’re feeling. Choose one with notes of strawberry.

1 oz St. Germain elderflower liqueurBlushing elder
5 oz sparkling or still rosé wine
ice
strawberry for garnish.

  1. Add elderflower to glass of rosé.
  2. Stir gently.
  3. Add ice and garnish with a single ripe strawberry

A number of people responded to this post in the Comments. I’ve repasted them in case anyone’s interested. Interesting how I politely replied to everyone back in those days.


From Sam Steiner:

I hate to say it, but Goshen College was never the most liberal Mennonite College. That would have gone to the formerly General Conference colleges–Bluffton and Bethel (Kansas). Both theologically and in social perspectives. Of course, they also their “guru” profs. I can still list mine, both from Goshen and Conrad Grebel.

My response:

Hi, Sam. Reputation is such a subjective matter, and fluid. I have no doubt you are objectively correct. I was only talking of the reputation at that particular moment when I was graduating from high school and seeing peers go off to various colleges. And Goshen was the one that was the butt of any jokes I heard. But that’s just me. You heard Bethel and Bluffton mocked?


from Shirley Hershey Showalter

Aha. Now I know why you sent me that cocktail on Twitter. It belongs to a blog post!

I think I know some of the jokes of which you speak above.
I expect a different perspective from Drunken Menno, and you never fail to deliver. Your take on the glittering world is different from any other reader’s.

You are right about professor veneration at Goshen. I can speak from my experience of attending many homecoming reunions and hearing about the favorite professors. When I taught the first women’s studies class at Goshen, I asked students to write down the names of the women they most admired. Mary K. Oyer, professor of music, and Mary Eleanor Bender, professor of French, topped the list.

And here’s the little secret. The professors who are venerated most are the ones who did exactly what you hope for: shook up the students with eyes full of glitter. They challenged their assumptions and transformed them, which is why they are remembered. They didn’t create cult followings. They created critical thinkers and passionate learners.

Perhaps this veneration phenom is not Mennonite at all. Perhaps it comes from being part of a small liberal arts community which attracts first-rate professors and curious students and then gets out of the way as they test the limits of their minds and conventional wisdom.

I remember reading an essay by someone who took tea with the dean of her (secular) college and decided, sitting right there in the library of the dean’s home, that she too wanted to become a professor and to teach in this kind of college.

The intimacy of smallness makes a BIG impression on young minds. That’s why small colleges produce more PhDs per graduate than large universities.

I doubt that there are hundreds of former students who venerate me through glittery eyes, and I’m sure there are a few with just the opposite reaction. But I’ll never forget one student who stood in the doorway of my office as a senior and declared his intent: “I’m going to grad school so that I can come back here and take your job.” Yes, he is teaching at a Mennonite institution of higher ed right now. And yes, his students venerate him.

That drink looks great, but where on earth does one find Elderflower Liqueur? In the old days, you would have to sneak away to the little store on the corner. As you can tell, my education still has some big gaps in it. 🙂

My response:

Hi Shirley,
Thanks for the thoughtful response. Elderflower liqueur is actually very trendy right now so you can find it at any of the larger liquor stores. It also comes in a beautiful bottle that can be repurposed afterwards, satisfying all Menno frugality demands.

I did wonder, as I wrote this, whether the hero-worship phenomenon was big vs little school. Could be, though my limited sample of acquaintances who went to secular liberal arts colleges vs Mennonite ones suggests otherwise. But that is the freedom I allow myself on the blog — to make very subjective generalizations based on almost nothing!

So no one else thought you meant Goshen when you talked of the “glittering world”? How odd.


From Shirley Hershey Showalter (again)

If we keep meeting like this, we’ll have to stop claiming we don’t know each other.

I thought perhaps, at first, Elderflower was just a reference to aging baby boomers. Glad to know it’s possible to drink it. Haven’t repurposed any bottles since my roommate’s Mateus bottle on our bookshelf. We loved the rainbow cascade of colors from candle wax. Glittering!

I’m guessing you are twenty years or more young than I am. I don’t know how strictly sectarian your Mennonite past was, whether urban/rural, first generation educated or third or fourth.

The glitter idea was literal at the beginning. At first it was jewelry and nail polish and my teacher’s knock-em-dead red lipstick. I didn’t know that I lived in a different world until I went to school.

I didn’t know there was a Goshen College at age six. I could not have told you what a college was.

Twelve years later, when the tires carrying me to that glittering college in VA (EMU!) crunched the gravel of our driveway for the last time, I was leaving behind ten generations of people who had lived in the same place, worshipped the same way, married each others third or fourth cousins, tried valiantly with only moderate success to live in peace “with God and man,” and a PLACE that had sheltered all of them. From that perspective, the glittering world is any world with more danger, different social expectations, and unfamiliar markings of good and evil. If I drank more cocktails, I’d try to make a New Yorker-type analogy here.

Now, Goshen. I am grateful to you for an angle on that place I could not have seen. I know it pretty well after 32 years there, but even as president, I could not know it completely. Next year it will be twenty years since I was called by the search committee. And soon it will be eleven years since I left Goshen to take a job with a foundation.

The job with the foundation brought me into contact with scientists, spiritual leaders of many faith traditions, and people working in Hollywood, Silicon Valley, and New York. Having spent time with the Dalai Lama, Archbishop Tutu, and many lesser-known leaders in many fields, I can look at the question you raise above about Goshen within the lens of that experience also. Talk about veneration, I’ve seen it!

You asked a wonderful question: “Do all those profs long for the recognition and actively court the adoration of the young, or do they struggle with it?”

My answer. We all want to be loved. Some professors prostrate themselves before their students in this effort. Those are not the venerated ones. The venerated ones seem almost oblivious. They are living for something BIGer than admiration.

I remember screwing up my courage to talk with President Lawrence Burkholder (who left Harvard Divinity School to come to Goshen) in the stairwell of the Ad Building when I was still wet behind the ears as a new professor. I told him I had enjoyed his convocation address. He looked up briefly, seemed, if not embarrassed, at least unconcerned, and smiled a little.

When I look back, prompted by your description of your friends and their professor love, those giants at Goshen were in fact different from the majority of professors in the handful of other campuses I know well.

They were shaped themselves at very glittery institutions. They could have had glittering careers. They chose something else. They chose us. We feel an obligation to them. One of our obligations is to learn the difference between glitter and gold. To remember what they taught us about the BIG questions and to become as kind, questing, and, ultimately, humble, as they were.

BTW, your question is one of the big questions in my opinion. Thanks for asking it.

My next response:

I loved the “elder” pun on making the cocktail, though I meant it in the respectful way of a Church Elder.

Admittedly, I knew all along that I was playing with the term “glittering.” Despite having a very different Mennonite upbringing — both a half generation later, semi-urban and ethnically Russian Mennonite — despite all that, I also knew the “world” as different from “us.” But I certainly mingled in it more as a child than you and so probably rubbed some of its sheen off a little earlier. Your meaning of “glittering” was pretty clear in the memoir — I was just having fun by applying it to Goshen 🙂

Thanks for your reflections on the Goshen professoriate. I don’t know it well enough to dispute or confirm them.


From “Alias Grace”

I stumbled on this blog while watching a Jays game and had a few chuckles while imbibing a couple of imaginary cocktails. I’m intrigued by the veneration theme of this particular blog entry and given the lengthy responses from the venerable but blushing former Goshen College president, I think you might be on to something. On the other hand Goshen College is hardly unique in developing a culture of veneration. Having recently toured CMU while visiting Winnipeg this summer, every nook and cranny is named after a Russian Mennonite family. And, not to be outdone Conrad Grebel has also slapped brass name plates on everything but the toilets. Maybe these colleges don’t venerate their profs to the same degree but it is very clear that another form of worship is going on.

It all makes me very thankful that I received my education outside the hallowed halls of mennonite institutions. The kind of education that one receives at a mennonite college is by definition truncated. There are limits to what can be examined. One of those limits is the ad nauseum conversation around mennonite identity. It’s a given in menno institutions that mennonite or anabaptist mennonite is something to be preserved when really, the question in a post modern world should be why mennonite at all. The brand is well past its best before date.

My response:

Dear Alias,
Thanks for the comments. First, I think it only fair to tell you I am currently seeking the naming rights to the Conrad Grebel College toilets.

Second, I am conflicted about ditching the whole Mennonite identity because, well, if that were to happen this blog would become even more meaningless than it is already. I like to think we are moving into a post-post-modern era and am hopeful that in this brave new world, we can just play with identity politics, Mennonite and otherwise.


From Alias Grace (again):

Good idea to get a brass plate on those Grebel toilets. A Drunken Menno should never be too far from the great white telephone.

Yeah, I don’t have a problem with playful identity politics just as long as it doesn’t suck up money that is better spent on social housing, fixing crumbling infrastructure, building public transit etc. Too many politicians have spent way too much money buying the ethnic vote in this country. We have the very generous multicultural Liberal policies of the eighties and nineties to thank for some very bad social policy. Think of it, Toronto would not have a housing and transit crisis if mennos had not received all that identity politics money. Or now that we are in the twenty-first century, if Conrad Grebel did not receive any provincial or federal money, Toronto would be building subways, subways, subways…. Yup, every time I drive to Toronto I curse those mennos…..

Do keep writing, Humour is always the best medicine and we will need more of it when we can no longer afford our national health care system.


From Leonard K. Mast

I can not speak for other Goshen graduates it would violate my sense of humility, but the reason I am still clearing the glitter from my eyes 20 years later is bicycles.
John Yordy was a pretty good bike rider, but I still never understood chemistry.
Carl Helrich could ride his bike from his house across campus in pouring rain and arrive to teach class perfectly dry. Somehow thermodynamics, classical field theory, and quantum mechanics just fell into place.
I have no idea how many times John Fisher crossed Ireland, but when I went with him he had retired at least once and had experienced at least one heart attack, but still crossed from Sligo to Dublin in record time. My understanding of the Irish Literature has had a profound impact on my personal relationships and approach to conflict resolution.
Shirley Showalter could ride a bike in heals. It was astounding. It gives me chills today. I bet she could do it with a glass in her hand and not spill a drop. My love of literature blossomed everytime she rode by. My life has never been the same.

I know there are talented professors at institutions secular and private. I challenge every one of them to compete against my 20 year-old memory of my professors riding bicycles.

Advertisements

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s