Wednesday, January 27, 2010

Whither Wheaton?

I don't think there's any real debate about the long term answer to that question. When I attended Wheaton in the 90s, author Robert Coleman, an old time evangelical saint if there ever was one, once looked out at a small group of students and said, with no bitterness but only deep concern, "Make no mistake. Wheaton will go the way of Harvard." Books like The Soul of the American University and The Dying of the Light confirm such a prophecy, illustrating - almost beyond dispute - the eventuality of American Christian schools going secular. Yes, there are exceptions, but a better word might be "delays." To point this out is not, of course, to condone heavy-handed administrative tactics. Nor is it to despair, for as the "Whither Wheaton" article accurately points out, a college is not the church.

The debate surrounding the article, following the author's lead, has been generally civil. Chignell, a philosopher, wrote the piece in hopes that "perhaps a philosopher can rush in where historians fear to tread." Some historians have differed with him on this. But whether or not we admit it, everyone knows the heavy academic lifting is always done by art historians. Problem is, their in-demand skills make them hard to find. But, I'm here. Using the searing powers of visual analysis that I have developed over the last many years studying art history in academe, I will now take things to a whole new level.

The art historical analysis of this dispute zeroes in on the most prominent image connected to the matter, pictured above. It is profoundly revealing (nearly as revealing as the fact that the article, after C.T. pulled the plug, ended up running at SoMA.) "The Flagship Charts a New Course" is optimistically inscribed above the beloved Blanchard Tower with - wait for it - a flag upon it. Glorious autumn flanks one side of the ship, photoshopped darkness enshrouds the other. The observer is faced with a visual dilemma similar to the founding fathers' wondering whether or not the revolutionary sun on George Washington's chair was rising or setting. The immediate interpretation of the image is that Wheaton could go right, into that darkness where magisterial authority clamps down on evangelical diversity, or Wheaton could go left into the shimmering fall of academic freedom. The tree seems to almost beckon Blanchard to its autonomous destiny. But one might also view the image another way. The golden legacy of Wheaton's evangelical heritage is inevitably fading. As the flagship moves "forward", Wheaton looks ahead to the featureless, homogenous darkness of academia as usual, with its own unwritten statements of faith, enforced with heavy hand indeed.