Last week, in a heroic money-saving venture, a University of Wisconsin campus proposed the sacrifice of 13 college majors, mostly in the humanities. The Washington Post heard echoes of Governor Scott Walker’s ill-conceived and ill-fated 2015 plan to shift the mission statements of the university system from the “search for truth” to meeting “the state’s workforce needs.”
Marxist? Maybe. But it’s also a rallying ground; the plan to retool America’s public education system places renowned novelist and liberal-leaning essayist Marilynne Robinson’s vision of the great Midwestern institution of liberal learning more in line with a certain private Michiganian one than with her cohorts in Stevens Point, Wisconsin, or with her opponents in Walker’s penny-pinching Republican party.
According to the Washington Post article this shift in mission statement was supported by some Wisconsin conservatives who think state university degrees leave students empty of marketable job skills and stuffed with liberal ideology. And in her new essay collection, released last month, Robinson asks a question that American educators should, regardless of political leaning, consider seriously: “What Are We Doing Here?”
For Robinson, the answer to a supposedly unhealthy American educational system is not in beefing up the STEM departments of great Midwestern universities, but in broadening our intellectual and historical palate to understand the American spirit that concocted them in the first place. The missing flavor, though, is one that may cause some lip-smacking: Puritan theology and progressive political philosophy.
“This country grossly impoverishes itself with this condescending or contemptuous dismissal of vast reaches of its terrain and the multitudes who live and die there,” Robinson contends about her growing concern that America’s distaste for its own heritage stems from a steady diet of junk history.
The taste many readers acquire first, though, is for Robinson’s literature, and it’s a good place to start in understanding why Robinson wants to augment our appetites with her particular menu of American thinkers.
Robinson found her way to Hillsdale’s core through her storytelling; her name graces the syllabi of English courses such as Great Books II (where I met her first novel, “Housekeeping”) and upper-level seminars, including Theological Aesthetics and American Fiction since 1980. In a course on journalism of the 20th century, my instructor placed her with George Orwell and Wendell Berry in the list of “liberals conservatives like — or listen to.”
So why do Americans on each side of the table listen?
I would like to believe it is, first, for her voice. Fittingly for a renowned professor at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop program, Robinson’s fiction is widely acclaimed for the way it opens literature to a specific culture and place; for her, the wide spaces (of the field and of the mind) of the Great Plains. After a thirty-year break from her first novel (“Housekeeping,” 1980) to the Pulitzer-prize-winning “Gilead” (2004), Robinson has in her recent novels played a Faulknerian game; a trilogy completed by “Home” (2008) and “Lila” (2014) traces two Iowa families through marriage, birth, death, betrayal, heartbreak, and homecoming.
Raised as a pastor’s daughter not too far West from Robinson’s Iowa, I treasure her fiction for all the God in it — or the people who see him, and show me him, or him within themselves.
All this to tenderfoot the path toward the jarring crossover into my Marilynne’s politics.
I am not naive enough to think that a shared artistic vision leads to a common approach to politics of the people who are its subjects and beneficiaries. But I do find Robinson’s tracing of Iowan individualism to the grand vision of Puritan progressivism…puzzling.
In “What Are We Doing Here?” Marilynne returns to her home territory of her familiar liberal mainline Protestantism, a politics that resonates with well-intended and articulate humanism as much as it mystifies me with the paths it takes to get there.
An illustration: As heralded by the New York Review of Books, Robinson met with Obama to express her admiration — and admonition — multiple times throughout his presidency. The closing paragraph in her essay on Obama’s legacy (“the president is a philosopher, perhaps a theologian”), is worth quoting in its entirety for certain Robinsonian themes that connect her fiction to her politics to her theology:
“There is a beauty at the center of American culture which, when it is understood, is expressed in a characteristic eloquence. Every new articulation renews the present life of the country and enriches historic memory to the benefit of future generations. Barack Obama speaks this language, a rare gift. He is ours, in the deep sense that Lincoln is ours, a proof, a test, and an instruction. We see ourselves in him, and in him we embrace or reject what we are.”
I feel a vague American thrill as I read this; a vertigo of high aspirations in statesmanship and patriotism. For Robinson, political leadership is fundamentally moral, perhaps even a work of the moral imagination that shapes how we live as Americans.
But it all feels shakily grounded in reality. Reading Robinson is like the first time I drove in the left lane on a one-way street; everything familiar, but the buildings too close in my right-conditioned periphery, the turns too sudden, tight and alarmingly close to danger when I reenter the cautionary yellow of America’s bidirectional politics.
Like her Lincolnizing, the rest of the collection provides new angles on venerable “conservative” themes: the limits of scientism and materialism, the undeniable indwelling of the immaterial in the material, the search for a new way to speak of God in light of developments in science, the pressing need of a more robust humanism and of preserving the disciplines (history, literature, theology, philosophy — Stevens Point, Marilynne’s watching you) that remain relevant as long as men live their small epics in history.
Robinson believes that American ignorance of history is to blame for many of its identity crises, swallowing up a tradition of freedom and democracy begun in England, but never so robustly at work in the world: “The void Puritanism has merged with the void Calvinism, swallowing Edwards along the way, to constitute a vast ignorance of early American history.”
The void in Americans’ understanding of colonial Puritanism, particularly, gapes: “[The Puritans] were the most radical social reformers this country has ever seen … they had an extraordinary opportunity to put the impress of their values on a civilization very much in a normative stage. … The whole movement had a kind of heroic generosity into its design and intention that is rare in history.”
And this is the thread that connects her fiction with her politics: The need for charity, humanism, the support and protection of the kind of men and women who actually live and dream here, and to open the horizons of freedom as wide as the progressive minds and the faiths of the people who settled the plains.
But here, the turn: this means, for Robinson, funding for state universities. An appreciation for the progressiveness of the Puritan spirit, and the “great institutions,” federal and not, that they established: Welfare. Obamacare. A reading of American political philosophy and theology that follows a line from Calvin to Cromwell to Edwards to… Where next, exactly?
Science. Taking her cues from Edwards, Robinson is at her best in discussing the ways the natural world collides with the theological one: “Microorganisms live in clouds, air moves in rivers, butterflies navigate the earth’s magnetic field. The matter cosmologists call ‘dark,’ which makes up most of the mass of the universe, seems to be nonatomic. Wonders never cease,” but we have given up finding new vocabulary for the divine in light of dark matter and other recent developments in science.
Returning to Robinson’s nonfiction is like getting turned around in the old part of downtown; suddenly I’m going in circles, and every corner in Marilynneville is First and Edwards Street: his theology, Robinson believes, is essential in understanding how human experience of the transcendent in nature can bridge the perceived gap between science and the humanities, the material and the immaterial. I know it’s her wheelhouse, but the essays seldom leave this cul-de-sac.
Why does it seem as if the West has been curated according to Robinson’s Protestant pioneer vision? Regardless of how interesting Robinson’s store of knowledge is, does it aim to fill in gaps in my conception of America or paper them over with a giant Edwards advertisement?
If I were so audacious as to submit a bid for improvements to Marilynneville, I would include the following: Broaden the road from the Reformation from its one-lane Calvinism. Expand the playing field of religious denominations’ contributions to American institutions and culture (Catholic missions and Lutheran hospitals). Perhaps a nod to founding political theorists’ real reservations with Puritan tendencies toward utopianism.
There is a tendency in Marilynne toward a sort of tribalism as she trumpets the ideas of “her people” without attempting harmony with the whole. When she writes novels about Iowa preachers and lionizes Puritan philosophers, I don’t see Robinson speaking through them simply because they’re voiceless; she speaks not objectively, but from the heart, with a voice that is also hers.
This partiality, though it narrows her scope, also channels her strength. After Marilynne resurrected Edwards, I want him to join the American forum. I want to hear his conception of the “heavens declaring the glory of God” in conversation with the founders’ “self-evident truths,” with Luther on the First Article of the Apostles’ Creed, with Catholic social teaching, with Gerard Manley Hopkins on the “dappled things” of America’s medley of culture and political self-conceptions.
As I consider our nation’s image of itself, I am revisited by a metaphor from “Gilead,” of the world as a smoldering coal, one that flares out when stoked. That is Robinson’s Iowa, and the individual lives, humbly grand, lived within it, and it is also the fire that fuels her politics in her nonfiction, Puritans and the legacies of past presidents who may, depending on our faiths and sensibilities, look opaque.
But at Stevens Point, what we’re doing here in America’s liberal institutions is snuffing out the coals of the intellectual fires that forged us. And for Robinson, we’re increasingly blind to that danger.
What will burn out — the sciences or the humanities that fuel them — when the coals of history are shaken?
I imagine my Marilynne would say, “Neither.”