A Case for Trusting Human Nature

Jonathan Marks’s new little book Let’s Be Reasonable: A Conservative Case for Liberal Education (Princeton University Press, 2021) is flawed but important.

It is flawed partly because its conception of liberal-humanistic education seems to be almost exclusively a Great Books model, which offers a limited view of what higher education should encompass. The book is important, on the other hand, because it’s written primarily, though not exclusively, to Americans who think of themselves as political conservatives, and it asks them to defy their own movement’s leaders by supporting, and generally having faith in, American colleges and universities.

I say Marks addresses readers who “think of themselves” as conservative because it’s not always clear how much practical common ground he has with the Trump-era conservative political movement, despite repeatedly declaring himself to be a conservative in this book and despite writing for well-known conservative publications including Commentary and the Weekly Standard over the years. A lot of self-declared conservative academics have that problem in 2021.

But nevermind: I know with some certainty that an audience exists for this book on today’s American right, however small a part of the conservative political coalition these readers may be. Likely readers include conservative high schoolers and new undergraduates—and their parents—who should definitely read this book as a counterweight to the massive stacks of books and articles that explicitly aim to terrify them.

Speaking to conservatives’ anxieties, Marks argues—correctly—that recent commentators have largely misrepresented what U.S. college campuses are like. College campuses, he writes, can be overwhelmingly left-leaning without being a stifling atmosphere for conservatives like him. (A full professor, he chairs the department of politics and international relations at Ursinus College.) Colleges are committed to rational discussion, and this means they have great potential for liberating minds. And pundits’ claims that millennials and Gen-Z undergraduates are intolerant little wilting orchids? They sound, to Marks, almost exactly the slurs older people cast upon the youth of his generation.

Let’s Be Reasonable asks readers to have faith in human nature: in the willingness of students and professors alike to answer the call to engage in rational discourse for the sake of rational discourse, trusting that it will have a freeing effect on the conversation’s participants.

How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 6 (The Scientific Age)

This is the sixth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? If you’re reading this series for the first time, it’s best to start with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Scientific Age.”


In the later parts of this week’s episode of How Should We Then Live, things start to get a little weird.

Francis Schaeffer’s main tasks in “The Scientific Age” seem straightforward if you’re familiar with the work of other evangelical intellectuals. First, Schaeffer seeks to show that Christianity is fully compatible with modern science. (Indeed, he wants to show that Christianity contributed to it.) But he also wants to show that the uncritical embrace of science and technology can erode fundamental human values.

This is not an unusual pair of claims. Philosophers and historians have advanced these claims, or something close to them, for generations. They’re countering a 19th-century notion, the “Conflict Thesis,” which says there is a fundamental opposition between religious and scientific thinking.

The Conflict Thesis is still widely believed in America today, and it has high-profile proponents among science communicators. But most contemporary historians have little patience for it. The Conflict Thesis requires an ahistorical view of both science and religion. To a historian’s eyes, science and religion are complex human activities unfolding in time like everything else humans do.

So this episode presents a great opportunity for Francis Schaeffer to be basically on the same side as historians in a contentious public debate.

But Schaeffer doesn’t stop there. After addressing Christianity’s role in the Scientific Revolution of the early modern age, he moves ahead to the 1970s and beyond, speculating about the future of human reproduction and other questions of bioethics. That’s where things get weird.

In that later part of this episode, I think, we get another strong taste of the cultural anxieties that brought Francis Schaeffer, our rehabilitated 1950s fundamentalist living in Switzerland, back into American political conservative activism. So later in this post, I’m going to dive back into the political context of Schaeffer’s work on this film in the 1970s.

Specifically, I’m going to talk about the time Francis Schaeffer got a late-night White House tour from Gerald Ford—after which he ended up sitting in the Lincoln Bedroom, telling the president’s son and daughter-in-law his plans for filming How Should We Then Live.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 6 (The Scientific Age)”

Colleges Are Mostly Supportive Toward Evangelicals, Say InterVarsity Members (UPDATED)

If you’ve followed this site long, you know I have a particular interest in addressing the popular notion that U.S. higher education is a hostile environment for conservative students—including students with conservative religious commitments.

Last week, a major evangelical Christian campus ministry, InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, released the results of a member survey conducted online for its PR firm, Pinkston, between May 3 and June 3. All eleven questions in the survey (PDF) may be interesting to college educators.

For my purposes here, the most interesting is Question 8: “How would you describe your college campus’s attitude toward Evangelical Christians?” Among the 316 students (from 127 campuses) who responded, the consensus was that college is a good environment for evangelicals.

More than a third said their college is either “extremely” or “very welcoming and supportive”; and an equal number said their college is “moderately welcoming and supportive.” Fewer than five percent said their college is “not at all welcoming and supportive”:


Now, it’s probably important not to overinterpret these results. The sample size was small, representing a tiny fraction of InterVarsity’s membership and just 17% of the college campuses where InterVarsity has chapters.

More importantly, it isn’t clear what kinds of colleges appeared in the sample. This ministry has representatives at religious institutions as well as secular colleges and universities. That could obviously affect whether students felt they were in a welcoming environment. It’s also possible that different students have completely different kinds of criteria in mind for feeling supported on campus. (I would especially like to know more about the 20% who say they feel “slightly” welcome.) And there’s always the question whether respondents’ campus experiences, positive or negative, have been defined primarily by administrators, by faculty members, or by other students.

Christian Universities6
Secular Universities116
Private Universities40
Public Universities85
Community/Junior Colleges10

(UPDATE: Elizabeth Chung, an account coordinator at Pinkston, has very kindly supplied me with a basic breakdown of the types of colleges represented in the survey responses. I’m not sure exactly how these categories overlap; for the purposes of this post, the crucial facts are that only a handful [6] of the campuses were Christian universities, and most [85] were public universities.)

It’s also very likely that the respondents—for whatever reason—are less politically conservative, on average, than white* American evangelicals generally are. This could play a role in their sense of comfort on campus. When asked what social issues are most important to them (Question 11), the greatest number of respondents (39%) named racial justice as one of their top three issues; the next highest number named climate change. Reducing abortion was fourth on the list of responses, named by just over one quarter of students as one of their top three interests.

(* Most respondents were white [62%] or Asian American [18%]. Almost two thirds [65%] were women.)

Nevertheless, the data we have are the data we have. However far they go, we can tally this survey as the latest of many pieces of evidence that American higher education is generally not the hostile environment many conservative religious students are told to expect.

How Should We Then and Now: Introduction

This is the beginning of a series of weekly posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film series called How Should We Then Live? The first regular installment was posted the following Thursday.


In the years after Time Magazine profiled him as a missionary to the “painters, writers, actors, singers, dancers and beatniks” of Europe in the 1960s, Francis A. Schaeffer IV cut a striking figure.

Francis Schaeffer as he appears in a composite image on a recent cover for the film series

By the late 1970s, wearing knickerbockers and turtlenecks, with collar-length hair and a bushy goatee, Francis Schaeffer looked a bit like a shepherd who had come inside for a poetry reading—which I suppose is, metaphorically speaking, precisely what he was. He spoke in a soft, hoarse tenor. His accent had become unplaceably transatlantic without quite losing the sound of working-class Germantown, Philadelphia. In photographs and films, he always looked a bit sad.

And, of course, Francis Schaeffer had made a new life in French-speaking Switzerland. That was a very long way, in more than one sense, from the fundamentalist Presbyterian churches that had provided his early intellectual formation in America’s future rust belt.

Though he struggled with incapacitating depression and an explosive temper, Francis Schaeffer, together with his wife Edith and their children, had opened their home to a little international community, aiming to share the life of the mind. Established in 1955, L’Abri, meaning “The Shelter,” had become a kind of Protestant ashram, combining aspects of a youth hostel, a utopian community, and a religious study group.

There, in chalets in the foothills of the Swiss Alps, the Schaeffers offered hospitality—but also, as they saw it, uncompromising lessons in the truth—to intellectual wanderers. They promised “honest answers to honest questions,” which became a catchphrase. For if “Christianity is truth,” Francis reasoned in 1974, it must have answers about “every aspect of life”—but this required “that we have enough compassion to learn the questions of our generation” in the first place.

By the 1980s, this paradoxical Pennsylvanian in Switzerland—whom his own daughter would jokingly call “a very odd man”—had become one of the most important writers and speakers in America’s evangelical movement. By extension, he exercises a crucial influence on U.S. politics to this day. (L’Abri still exists, too, with satellite study centers as far away as Brazil, South Africa, and South Korea. The name, by the way, is pronouced “lah-BREE.”)

Here’s what interests me for the purposes of this blog: Between 1974 and 1977, Francis Schaeffer, a preacher with no relevant academic training, attempted an ambitious interpretation of European cultural history in the form of a documentary film series and a companion book.

Continue reading “How Should We Then and Now: Introduction”

The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements

There’s something I want to get off my chest. It’s about whether Blue Book Diaries is a left-wing blog, and about whether my teaching is left-wing instruction.

I have been ruminating on this since I discovered recently that a stranger on Facebook has repeatedly called me a “commie”—ironically, because I said the Trump era is a good time to teach history.

Similarly, my most popular post here, which has drawn more than 10,000 hits, has been denounced as leftist propaganda. After I posted it in June, during the protests after George Floyd’s death, it elicited a stream of angry messages. An email I received from Greg, who was using an IP address in West Texas, will give you a pretty good idea of the general mood. Here is the full text:

Message: Your article on how to teach the civil war is as far left as any I have ever seen. I to have grown up in Texas and calling us insurgents is offering to me. My son went to Iraq to defend us against them we are not those kind of people. The wanted to live it's on way weather you think it was right or not and the the north or union would not let them. I my self do not think it was about slavery but about not letting the government tell them how to live. You want insurgents and rebellious people you should have watched the looters on tv.

I’m not sure how extensive someone’s intellectual exploration can be if something I wrote is the leftmost thing they’ve encountered. Nevertheless, that seemed to be a common impression among those who were displeased—even though the blogpost in question is overtly patriotic and even pro-military.

To be thus politically pigeonholed, in such disregard for the actual content of work I spend a lot of time crafting? It rankles. I have been successfully rankled. And I think it’s time for me to address this problem.

What I write today is unlikely to have much positive effect on Greg—or on anybody else who believes insurgent is an ethnonym. But it might be soothing to other history teachers who are feeling a bit out of joint.

You see, I suspect that many of us working in U.S. educational institutions see our own work as deeply conservative, at the same time that today’s organized political right is attacking us for supposedly “hating our country” and “breeding contempt for America’s heritage.”

Such attacks notwithstanding, many of us are proudly doing exactly what our predecessors have done for generations. We are teaching history in a politically conscious but nonpartisan way, out of a sense of respect for the past and concern for our communities in the present, and we are using methods pragmatically adapted to the needs of our students and the results of historical scholarship.

With that in mind, let me identify some of the aspects of my own history teaching that I think are fundamentally conservative.

But first, I should explain what that term means.

Continue reading “The Conservatism of My Teaching: Seven Elements”