Review of Donald B. Kraybill, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education (University Park, Pa.: The Pennsylvania State University Press, 2017).

Keith Sprunger
Issue 2019, vol. 73

Eastern Mennonite University (EMU) in 2017 joined the American colleges that have reached the century mark – always a time for remembrance and celebration. Donald B. Kraybill has provided an excellent centennial history to cap that event.

The centennial history surveys EMU through five phases since its beginning in 1917: Bible school, high school, junior college, liberal arts college (with associated seminary) and finally, in 1994, Eastern Mennonite University. At each stage, the author highlights the school’s leadership, activities and, especially, its Mennonite identity and relationships.

Eastern Mennonite College (EMC) was founded under the sponsorship of the Virginia Mennonite Conference (a branch of the larger denomination later known as the Mennonite Church, also sometimes called the “old Mennonites”). These “eastern” Mennonites were rather suspicious of higher education and especially wary of the liberalism of the older Mennonite colleges (Goshen, Hesston, Bluffton, Bethel and Tabor Colleges). In founding their own school at Harrisonburg, the Virginia Mennonites based education upon church ideals; it was a place for training young Mennonites in a safe religious environment. This goal was not unusual at the time – in fact, it was pretty much the founding ideal of all the Mennonite colleges. With the church in charge, the youth were safeguarded not only from the “wiles of the world” in general but also the temptations of other, more “worldly” Mennonites, especially of Goshen (Ind.) College. Among many eastern Mennonites, “Goshen” was a bad word, having gained a reputation of liberalism. Beware “the corrupting influences of Goshen College,” warned George Brunk, one of the EMC founders, “and counteract the rising tide of Goshenism” (34).

The early curriculum of this sturdy educational fortress was not a shining model of higher education – indeed, hardly “education” at all, according to Kraybill, but more like “indoctrination” (74-75). Chester K. Lehman, academic dean, declared in the 1920s that the “first aim” of an EMC education was “the personal salvation of each student” and only secondarily to give students a broad and comprehensive view of the world (65). All the founding fathers of the school – the “ideological architects”– were ordained Mennonite leaders. They chose like-minded educators to run the new school, such as J.B. Smith (the first president), Lehman and J.L. Stauffer. This eastern school took a stand against Goshen, Hesston, and other Mennonite schools, being resolutely “non-resistant” and “non-conformist” and thus, according to Kraybill, standing out as the Mennonite countercultural college.

The opening chapters of the book give great attention to the plans and policies that carried forward this original vision. The college seal, adopted in 1928, had the motto “Thy Word is Truth,” referring, of course, to the infallible truth of the Bible (contrasting EMC’s biblicism with the Goshen motto “Culture for Service”). EMC authorities expected that faculty and students would form a community of obedient and self-denying Mennonite spirits. As an expression
of Mennonite loyalty, men mostly dressed in plain attire without a necktie, and women in prayer (head) coverings and cape dresses that concealed the bodily form. Such matters were carefully monitored. Curriculum, classroom teaching, and library holdings were severely controlled. Up into the 1940s, all textbooks had to be approved by an administration committee to prevent erroneous teachings. In the library, similar censorship took place – in one example, librarians withheld The Mennonite, the periodical of the General Conference Mennonite Church, from the open shelves. (It was available only in the president’s office.)

The later portions of Kraybill’s book report on the breakdown of this educational rigidity. By the 1950s, with the administration of President J.R. Mumaw (1948-65), EMC began taking on a more outward, professional stance. This was in line with the mainstream of American higher education, illustrated by loosening church control; relaxing the dress code; allowing musical instruments, intercollegiate sports, faculty sabbaticals and tenure; and using academic regalia. In 1959, EMC achieved the great reward, accreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges – “Professionalizing everything and everyone,” Kraybill writes (155). Social change was also in the air. President Myron Augsburger, in 1978, appeared in chapel wearing a lapel coat and tie. In the 1990s, the prohibition of social dancing disappeared. In 2001, the school hired the first full-time non-Mennonite teacher.

Alumni will find here the big, memorable EMU events: the new library of 1970, highlighted by a student led “miracle” fundraising blitz; the fire that destroyed the historic Ad Building in 1984, to be replaced by an up-to-date Campus Center (1986); new curriculum initiatives; the development and growth of Eastern Mennonite Seminary (EMS). Less celebrative are the many difficulties that confronted the college: issues of race; student activism against campus rules; draft resistance; anti-Vietnam War protests; debates about required attendance in chapel; abolishing faculty tenure (later reestablished); bringing women into leadership positions; and LGBTQ issues.

For a college of the American South, located in a segregated town, race was a particularly troubling issue. After some waffling, EMC began admitting some African-American students in 1948, becoming the first undergraduate private school to integrate in the state of Virginia (176-77). Achieving university status as Eastern Mennonite University in 1994 is a high point, with the consequent growth of the various graduate divisions, including EMS, the Conflict Transformation Program, and other master’s degree and area concentration programs.

Many college histories tend to be “inside” institutional studies, detailing the inner workings of the school, with highlights on departments, long-term faculty, sports, pranks and the like. Kraybill’s book gives a much broader picture, producing an inside-outside study with great attention to how the college related to the larger Mennonite context in matters of dress, the value of education, theology, modernity and engagement with the world – issues of Mennonite identity. In the opening pages, Kraybill announces that he was seeing history through “conceptional lenses.” As a cultural anthropologist, he would explore EMU as a social construction, looking at how it had changed over the century. Change is a constant theme but what kinds of change? “I pursue two kinds of questions. First, how did EMU mediate the forces of modernity that contested Mennonite values and identity?” And second, “What is Mennonite about Eastern Mennonite?” Readers will receive a lot more than narrow institutional history in this book.

The book makes an interesting contribution to the history of American Mennonite higher education. The subtitle is “A Century of Countercultural Education.” Kraybill states that EMU is distinctive among American colleges by having “Mennonite” in its name and suggests the distinctiveness of being a counterculture college (among 4,700 degree-granting postsecondary institutions).

The counterculture idea works quite well for certain parts of EMU history, less well for others. In the early years, EMU’s countercultural stance was evident in dress and religious nonconformity, and more recently by “selective participation in popular culture and a critical attitude toward mass consumption, leisure, materialism, and affluence” (xiii-xiv, 325-26). But at mid-20th century, in contrast, an EMC education emphasized lessons in refinement of manners and giving students “the social graces required for upward social mobility.” This is not the rhetoric of a fierce counterculture (132-33).

During the 1960s, the high point of college protest and countercultural agitation across the nation, EMU was relatively quiet. Counterculture is a very flexible term, and all higher education, by its very purpose, might be defined as countercultural – as illustrated by the “town and gown” concept. EMU’s counterculture might well serve as a chapter of a larger Mennonite counterculturalism, for at certain times and places, all Mennonite colleges were out of step with surrounding culture and ideas.

In the conclusion, Kraybill notes that EMU has experienced many changes over the century in regard to issues around, for example, race, gender, sexual orientation, and proportion of Mennonite students (today Mennonite enrollment stands much lower than in 1917). In this changed situation, he raises three identity-related questions: Is “Thy Word (Still) Truth”? Is EMU still Christian? Is EMU still Mennonite? Kraybill’s book looks not just to the past of Mennonite education but invites us to also look to the road ahead.