Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Culture and Conflict for Service: Exploring the Necessary Tensions of Goshen College's History

Academic journal article Mennonite Quarterly Review

Culture and Conflict for Service: Exploring the Necessary Tensions of Goshen College's History

Article excerpt

Abstract: The year-long closing of Goshen College in 1923 supplies a well-known instance of conflict between academic and ecclesiastical interests in the early history of American Mennonite higher education. The 1923 closing illustrates tensions which, rather than aberrant, appear to be germane to the earliest visions of Mennonite higher education. The Ainlay/Kniss sociological model of conflict can account for some of the patterns of disagreement found throughout Goshen College's history. Drawing on a narrative of events which culminated in the 1923 closing, this paper identifies three categories in the model which are particularly relevant to the partnership between Mennonite faith and liberal arts education: competition among cultural elites, tension between moral authority and moral project, and dual commitments to traditionalism and modernism. The paper concludes by suggesting that conflict in the realm of Mennonite higher education, though often painful, resides in the very notion of the Christian liberal arts. In the case of Goshen College, culture and conflict have beneficially shaped the service of the institution.


The most notorious year in the history of Goshen College likely remains 1923-1924--a year, ironically, in which the school did not operate. In the spring of 1923, following years of tension between Goshen College and its sponsoring Mennonite Church, the Mennonite Board of Education closed the college for a year of reorganization. (1)

While the very public Goshen College conflict of 1923-1924 has been impossible for chroniclers to ignore, its dynamics have not been given the systematic social analysis such as that proposed by Ainlay and Kniss. Few scholars have pursued questions of how the conflict, as conflict, played out, and how the mechanism of this particular struggle might fit a larger pattern.

What tensions led Mennonites associated with Goshen College to the ruptures that occurred there in 1923? How might understanding those tensions as repeated patterns of behavior enlarge our view of Mennonite higher education, and of conflict's role in it?

A succinct clue may be found in a letter penned in the fall of 1924. As the college's year-long hiatus gave way to its reopening, the Board of Education presented a new administration, a virtually new faculty and a notably dwindled enrollment. Partisan observers were quick to identify two distinct eras: Old and New Goshen College. Arizona economics professor Frederick A. Conrad, a successful alumnus of the shuttered Old Goshen, laid out for new president Sanford C. Yoder his view of the college's alternatives. If, Conrad wrote, the reopened Goshen College:

   ... aims to provide the young people of the church an opportunity
   to seek the truth in an open-minded Christian spirit you can count
   upon my continued support. If, however, Goshen College is to be
   primarily a dogma-inculcating machine set up by the Church to turn
   out more dogmatists to uphold its traditions and dogmas regardless
   of their truth or value, then I have no further interest in the
   success of the school. (2)

Though Conrad intended to force a stark choice between academic freedom and orthodox doctrine, his letter to President Yoder actually identified the two missions that have been yoked dynamically together since the inception of the first (Old) Mennonite liberal arts college. Conrad's heated letter has as its immediate context the squabbles between Old and New Goshen constituencies, but it points to tensions cycling through all of the college's experience. In electing to sponsor higher education for its young people in the years following 1894 and the creation of Elkhart Institute, the Mennonite Church pledged itself both to create "opportunities to seek the truth" and to provide a Mennonite "dogma-inculcating machine," to use Conrad's extreme terms.

The alternatives laid out in Conrad's letter posed a dilemma generic to the college's beginning, middle and end-of-century existence. …

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