Can New Symbols Change Academic Culture?

John Sommerville at the Midwest Faculty Conference

John Sommerville at the Midwest Faculty Conference

Two weeks ago, I was at InterVarsity’s Cedar Campus for our 2009 Midwest Faculty Conference. John Sommerville, professor emeritus of history at U. Florida and author of The Decline of the Secular University, was the featured speaker. He spoke about the influence of secularism on the ideas and structures of the university (as he has previously written in the Chronicle), but also discussed new opportunities for Christian scholars in a “postsecular” university.

The third of his four talks addressed a key question: How can Christians change our universities? I want to highlight one suggestion that Sommerville made, explicitly borrowing an idea from Andy Crouch’s Culture MakingThe only way to change culture is to create more of it.

Specifically, Sommerville thinks that Christian academics ought to be creating new symbols within their discipline and for the university as a whole. While he thinks that new concepts and new ideas are important and necessary, these are far more rare and, really, outside the realm of possibility for most of us. Symbols, however, are powerful conveyors of ideas that frame the thinking of both academics and the general public.

Indeed, he noted that the public often picks up symbols from the academy, even if they didn’t understand the ideas themselves. Think about how “relativity,” “deconstruction,” or “the uncertainty principle” have become common tropes in our culture and have influenced the way people speak, think, and create.  How many people actually understand the concepts behind these terms? Or consider how different words for the world around us – creation, nature, the environment, Gaia, Spaceship Earth – lead us to think of the world around us in different ways.

Sommerville’s own “symbolic” contribution to the academy is “the human”, proposing that the symbol of “the human” can generate many worthy questions within academia, while at the same time making room for religious voices:

  • What does it mean to be human?
  • What do human beings need to know?
  • How can the professions serve human needs?
  • How can universities value the humanity of students and faculty?

Notice that Sommerville is not proposing a new definition for humanity, coming up with new concepts about humanity, or attempting to “prove” Christian doctrines about human nature. Instead, he is trying to use the symbol of “the human” to raise questions and encourage discussions which can, in Sommerville’s phrase, “argue to religion” rather than arguing from religion.

So, in keeping with Sommerville’s suggestions about symbols and culture making:

What are the “culture making” symbols in your academic discipline?

Do you think that Sommerville’s symbol of “the human” has promise to change university culture?

What other symbols – created by Christians or nonChristians, by academics or non-academics, or even by yourself – could shape university culture in the future?

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Micheal Hickerson

The former Associate Director for the Emerging Scholars Network, Micheal lives in Cincinnati with his wife and three children and works as a web manager for a national storage and organization company. He writes about work, vocation, and finding meaning in what you do at No Small Actors.

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