Free Think Ing

It is not exactly pride that I feel when I see my undergraduate college featured in a Chronicle article entitled “Group Aims to Help Conservative Parents Counter ‘PC Indoctrination’ at Colleges.” I almost feared to scroll down the page. Yes, good old Grove City College has to thrust its manly credentials into the face of reason once again. The problem is that what such conservative groups decry as “indoctrination” is, in reality, critical thinking. It took me a long time to learn this distinction. I grew up in a conservative family, but I didn’t choose Grove City because of its flaming commitment to sixteenth-century values. I chose Grove City because it was a selective, intellectually honest school close to home. Being a first generation college student, I had no family tradition on which to draw. Guidance counselors didn’t know what to do with a religious kid who seemed to have some smarts. Other colleges seemed so far away. I didn’t even know what I wanted to study. You see, being raised in humble circumstances you learn to react to the many unpleasantries that life throws at you and there really isn’t time to plan out a future. It never works out that way in any case. I felt driven, but I didn’t know where I was going. Some day I hope to find out.

In the meanwhile, Grove City College has grown even more reactionary than when I was there in the 1980s. The Chronicle article states that “Conservatives have long complained about a perceived liberal bias in higher education,” and that Jim Van Eerden, an “entrepreneur in residence,” (shudder!) at Grove City has started the ironically named “FreeThinkU” to counter the liberalities students receive in school. Talk about your mixed messages! I wonder if Van Eerden has ever considered that Free Thinking has a long association with the very progress he abhors. Free thinkers gave us the gifts of evolution, rational thought, and for a while anyway, free love. Free thought gave us Kate Chopin, J. D. Salinger, and Margaret Atwood. They literally gave us the moon and have landed our probes on Mars. Somewhere lost in space a metal plaque is spinning in infinity with a naked couple and directions to planet Earth. I think the mis-named FreeThinkU might be better rechristened as Don’tUThink.

Higher education has a long, long history with religious thinking. Early universities were often outgrowths of theological colleges. Over the centuries, as our thinking matured, the ways of the past were recognized for what they were—outdated, short-sighted, unchanging for the sake of being unchanging. The reality that meets our eyes through the lenses of logic sometimes claims beehive hairdos and horn-rimmed glasses and greased back business haircuts as its victims. The earth is warming up. We did share a common ancestor with the apes. Our universe is even larger than we ever thought. And yet “FreeThinkU” suggests that we need to set the clock back a little. Maybe just a couple of centuries, but enough to hold our kids in the twilight of misperception. Progress has to be more than raping the earth and getting rich. Free thinking has to be a willingness to use the minds we have. I wonder what the aliens will say when they land here, our Pioneer 10 plaque in hand. If they land in Grove City, I suspect, they might feel they were sold a false bill of goods.

From the alumni mag; think about it...

From the alumni mag; think about it…

The Gospel According to Caulfield

When one is asked to cite her or his favorite theologian, J. D. Salinger isn’t likely to be in the running. He might not even make the top ten. My personal introduction to Salinger, however, took place in a theological context. While in a Cambridge (Massachusetts) bookshop with a grad school buddy, I pointed out Mircea Eliade’s classic The Sacred and the Profane, insisting that my friend read it. Never to be outdone, Dave pointed at Salinger’s Franny and Zooey and said if I bought and read it he would do the same with Eliade. The Catcher in the Rye had not been part of my high school curriculum, so I was curious what all the fuss was about. I took him up on his dare. I’m not sure Dave ever read Eliade, but I read Salinger. My first impression was, “I don’t get it.”

Now my daughter’s school does require The Catcher in the Rye, and I’ve always tried (not always successfully) to keep up with her required reading. It gives us something to talk about – I’ve read several great books I’d otherwise have missed by this exercise. So I picked up the Catcher and plowed through. Salinger, I’m sure, requires no introduction. What is noteworthy, however, is that Holden Caulfield, while avowing himself an atheist, does make subtle but pointed comments about religion. (One of the occupational hazards of being a religionist is a constantly humming radar looking for any god-talk that might otherwise blend into the haze.) Holden, in chapter 14, points out the idiotic behavior of the disciples while Jesus was alive. He admits to thinking Jesus is okay, but his favorite character is the demon-possessed man who lives among the tombs. “I like him ten times as much as the Disciples, that poor bastard,” he says.

Who is as honest as Holden?

There is true religion in this statement. The “lunatic” running about in the tombs, rejected by society and even as far from God as you can get (demon possessed), is an image of humanity. Living a life of desperate alienation, the man in the tombs appeals to angst-ridden teenagers and displaced adults alike. He is likeable because he is like us. Holden scores bonus points on that observation!

With Salinger’s recent death, a renewed interest has sprung up about his novels – books that have changed the literary landscape. I read Catcher with more inherent appreciation than I did Franny and Zooey, but I’ve grown up a little since then. As an adult I can better appreciate the honest appraisals of Holden Caulfield.