Book review: ‘EMU: A Century of Countercultural Education’

Apr 23, 2018 by

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Like all religious groups, Mennonites have always wrestled with how to maintain basic group beliefs and practices while still inhabiting a particular cultural context. In Christian parlance, they’ve struggled with how to “be in the world but not of the world.” For Anabaptist-related groups, the problem has been exacerbated historically by a theological framework that branded outside cultural intrusions as “worldly” and sinful.

"EMU: A Century of Countercultural Education"

“EMU: A Century of Countercultural Education”

The answer Mennonites have found to this dilemma is a carefully negotiated process of creative borrowing from the outside. While this dynamic unfolded in a variety of settings, from marketplaces to church conventions, historians have shown how one of the most dramatic cockpits for creative borrowing has been at Mennonite colleges.

This is the larger interpretive framework in which Donald B. Kraybill has set his richly detailed and insightful centennial history of Eastern Mennonite University. Indeed, he argues, while every religious school has had to contend with modernity, EMU — established by separatist Mennonite founders most determined to keep the world at bay — offers a unique laboratory in which to trace this process.

Kraybill sets out to answer two questions. First, “How did EMU mediate the forces of modernity that contested traditional Mennonites values and identity”? And second, “How did those negotiations transform a separatist ethos into a worldly-engaged people by the early 21st century?”

His questions, and the answers that emerge, underscore the fascinating ironies inherent in EMU’s transformation.

After several abortive starts, in 1917 conservative minsters, primarily from Lancaster and Virginia Mennonite conferences, started a Bible and high school on the northern outskirts of Harrisonburg, Va. Their purpose was clear: to create a fortress that would safeguard Mennonite youth from the wicked world and serve as an unabashed vehicle for grounding them in church precepts. “Indoctrinate” was a word they used openly.

To this end they turned to censorship, plain dress codes and other restrictions on student thought and expression. Irony permeated the process. Much of this indoctrination, Kraybill shows, was into a Mennonite adaptation of an outside current: that of Protestant fundamentalism.

EMU’s founders were discerning “hybrid fundamentalists,” Kraybill insists, and the school they founded was “not a fundamentalist institution.” Instead, they seized on fundamentalism as a tool to fight the liberalism they perceived as running amok in the Mennonite world, especially at Goshen College in Indiana. They regarded their western rival with words like a “cancer” and a “curse” and expended enormous resources to fight it.

So wide was the gulf in the Mennonite world that the General Conference Mennonite Church colleges, Bethel and Bluffton, and Tabor College of the Mennonite Brethren, did not appear as threats at all. The institutions of such worldly Mennonites were hardly within the range of awareness of these conservative easterners.

As long as students confined their rebellion to periodic pranks, they seemed to accept these rules without much complaint. Perhaps this was because, despite the fortress mentality, these traditional, plain-dressing Mennonite young people still found the life of academia — with its literary societies, debates, musical and oratorical expressions — an intoxicating brew.

While it is hard to find fault with Kraybill’s richly nuanced and layered text, one small critique is that one wishes he had paid a bit more attention to student life, especially in these early years. His section on EMU’s experience during World War II, for example, takes up all of three pages.

Even so, the war years, and a generational transition from the school’s embattled found­ers, set the stage for the institution’s wholesale transformation.

In 1947 the Virginia Board of Education authorized Eastern Mennonite School to begin granting three bachelor’s degrees, thus transforming it into Eastern Mennonite College.

Virginia Conference soon roused itself to try to slow the pace of change, launching an investigation on the basis of 32 formal complaints against faculty and administrators. Most of the accused were soon exonerated and, as the college began establishing associations with likeminded schools, “the walls of the old fortress were crumbling,” Kraybill observes.

The church, ironically, abetted the process. In 1947, Virginia Conference eliminated its prohibition of musical instruments, leaving the issue to one’s “moral conscience.” This “transferred moral authority from the church to the individual and paved the way for the rise of individualism and the decline of communalism at EMC.”

Sociocultural change in the 1960s supercharged the college’s transformation. Students arrived with new commitments to personal freedom, materialism and self-discovery. African-American students began to be admitted and demand equal treatment.

Students from a variety of Christian traditions arrived. From 1965 to 1980, the percentage of non-Mennonites went from 7 percent to 37 percent of the student body. By 1965, relentless student pressure finally resulted in officially sanctioned intercollegiate sports.

Dress codes declined as well. This was pushed in part by an increasingly assertive and professional faculty who demanded academic freedom and the right to self-expression in the dramatic and visual arts. Creative leaders navigated these changes, particularly during the bold and dynamic presidency of Myron Augsburger from 1965 to 1980.

In the past quarter century, as EMC gave way to EMU in 1994, the college continued to borrow creatively as a way of strengthening its emerging identity as an Anabaptist-Mennonite institution devoted to peacemaking and justice. This was symbolized in 2006 with the creation of the Center for Justice and Peacebuilding and with new mission statements that crystallized these new commitments.

As one administrator proclaimed in 2016, “We proudly and unapologetically own a progressive agenda. This is who we are: a gift to the church.”

Moments of self-exultation aside, fascinating ironies abound in Kraybill’s account. By EMU’s centennial year, with its sociocultural distance from society long gone, the institution was expressing its separatism from other aspects of U.S. society: materialism, racism and militarism. As Kraybill put it in the last line of his preface, “Welcome to the history of a countercultural university.”

Perry Bush is professor of history at Bluffton (Ohio) University and the author of Bluffton’s centennial history, Dancing with the Kobzar.

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