Success, Failure and the Protestant Work Ethic

Reflecting upon one's call.

Reflecting upon On The Tenure Track

Not long ago I wrote an Emerging Scholars Network (ESN) blog post about my experiences on the tenure track, sharing my concerns about whether I would get tenure and contemplating my priorities. I wanted to think through whether tenure even should be my primary goal, and what I would give up to achieve it. It was encouraging to me to see that I’m not alone, and that others feel some of the same pressures I do. Thank you to those who commented.

Looking back, though, I realized that I made some generalizations that I probably should have qualified, and that my tone at times came across as both arrogant and whiny. In my essay, I suggested that as a Christian, it’s hard to meet the university’s standards, since my values don’t always correspond to the expectations of my institution. I also expressed my frustration with the pressure I have felt in Christian circles that view excellent work as part of my Christian duty. But this isn’t the whole story. In many ways—dare I say most?—my faith has helped me to do better work than I may have done otherwise.

In my previous essay, I responded to what I glibly called the “oft-repeated adage in Christian academic circles that our work should be equal to and even better than our secular colleagues.” This is how I was raised, and it is not specific to academics. I’ve been taught since childhood that because I am a Christian, my work should be excellent, because it brings glory to God, and this was applied to everything: school, babysitting, piano lessons, chores. . . .

In college and grad school, student ministries reinforced it as well. The best way to be a “light” to my professors, I was told, was to do excellent work. (See, for example, the comments on a different recent ESN blog post.) I assumed this was a pressure that all Christians felt. But I realized a few days ago, after a conversation with some Catholic colleagues, that this assumption isn’t universal. I’m embarrassed that I didn’t see that earlier. My students all know about the Protestant Ethic—a phrase coined by sociologist Max Weber in 1904 to refer to the Protestant (especially Calvinist) emphasis on hard work, frugality, and worldly success as an expression of an individual’s salvation. Scholars have used it to explain everything from the political climate of the United States to the economic recovery of post-Communist Eastern Europe. I’ve generally been a bit skeptical. Only now did it occur to me that I’ve felt it myself in Calvinist circles. But it’s ironic how I didn’t recognize the pressure I felt to work hard and succeed as the same work ethic scholars describe as fueling the rise of capitalism more than two centuries ago. I guess I owe an apology to my Catholic and Orthodox Christian colleagues for describing as universal what is in fact part of my own Christian subculture.

Library conversation

I have hope that goes beyond the pressures of career advancement or even societal brokenness.

My faith in fact seldom hinders my academic performance, and in many ways, my work has been better because of it. Not because I have a stronger work ethic than non-Protestants or non-Christians (although sometimes I feel guilty that I don’t). But for a number of other reasons.

For one, I have something to live for that is bigger than my career, bigger even than the societal problems that I have devoted my career to studying. I’ve had friends whose self-worth is tied to their work, and when it doesn’t go well, they’ve fallen into a spiral of competition and depression that ultimately hinders their results. I have seen grad students so concerned about their image that they refused to ask questions in seminar or seek advice on applications or proposals. I’ve seen colleagues turn to any number of harmful behaviors to dull the pain. While my faith does not provide immunity to these pressures—yes, even Christians fall into patterns of self-harm—I have hope that goes beyond the pressures of career advancement or even societal brokenness. My reality is bigger than fallen world I read and teach about. As Jesus told His disciples, “In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.” (John 16:33) That promise has provided reassurance through more than once instance of ugly campus politics.

More particular to my field, my faith helps me to understand my research subjects in ways that others may not. A lot of the writings I study are by people of faith, whose ideas emerged in environments in which Christian beliefs were the norm. I “get them” in ways the non-religious may not. I do not mean to imply that secular scholars cannot understand Christian ideas or to project my own experiences onto my historical and literary subjects. But the perspective I have because of the faith I share with my research subjects provides insights that others may miss. Even my recent insights about the Protestant Work Ethic demonstrate that. The attribution of religious motivations to economic decisions makes so much more sense to me now that I realize they are talking about cultures in which the pressure I feel as a Christian to succeed is the norm! I get it now in a completely new way.

And simply on a practical level, there are benefits to being part of a church. For me, this has been evident when I’ve worked in foreign countries, where I found believers who welcomed me and helped me to navigate the pressures of a new language and culture. My research has been that much more productive because of them (and they were thanked in my dissertation). At home as well, support from the Christian community has made my academic journey that much smoother. Above and beyond the emotional support I received, Christian friends have let me borrow their car, sleep on their couch, and share holidays with their families. In an ideal world, everyone would have friends and family providing that support. This isn’t specific to Christians alone. Yet not everyone does, as a simple search on the Chronicle of Higher Education website makes clear. (Look up “isolation,” “alienation,” “loneliness” . . .) The community of faith has been there for me as I’ve followed a calling and career path that has placed me in six different cities over the past decade.

While I devote time and energy to faith-related pursuits that I could be investing in academics, I’m certainly not the only scholar to do so. Many scholars—although not all—devote themselves to a variety of worthwhile causes. While I question the Protestant assumption that my work should be better because of my Christian faith, I do not expect it to be worse. It may be on occasion, but most of the time it will not. The difference is that for me, this isn’t the most important thing, as what matters in the end is to “set my mind on things above,” and not on earthly concerns at all.  (Col. 3:2).

Reminder of God's presence and leading throughout our time together . . . to where we are sent to serve the Kingdom of God.

Set my mind on things above . . .

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Kate Peterson

(pseudonym), an assistant professor in the humanities at a Christian institution of higher education.

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