May 30 2024

You Can’t Just Teach Your Way Out of Trumpism: A Systemic Analysis

by Susan Brooks Thistlethwaite, Chicago Theological Seminary

an image of an American flag sumperimposed on top of crecked, dried bed of clay

Structural injustice in our time can be called “Trumpism,” but it is a system that has been decades in the making. I do not believe you can confine your opposition to this system to the classroom. The very structure of our institutions and the broader social, political, and economic context all need to be actively addressed. If we limit our engagement of this system to the classroom, we end up teaching hypocrisy.

The current occupant of the White House is a symptom, not the cause. This system is multinational and rooted in economic and political trajectories that deprive human beings of a living wage and basic human rights in order to enrich a staggeringly few people. This system is growing. The world’s wealthiest people became one trillion dollars richer in 2017. In fact, right now, the three richest Americans own more wealth than the bottom 50% of the United States combined.

This larger system is a powerful teacher; it is often called the “informal” curriculum, and the way power is distributed in our institutions as well as in our society is often a far more potent educator than our “formal curriculum” of lectures, readings, and discussions. You know this in theory, but these are the days when moving from theory to practice is indispensable. Taking a hard look at the informal curriculum, from our institutions to the situation of our society, is key to understanding what theological education needs to be and do today. If, for example, the informal curriculum of our institutions replicates the structural injustice that is gaining momentum not only in the United States, but also around the world, then whatever we say in the classroom that seems to contradict that might as well be called “alternative facts.” Or, more accurately, lies.

In our own academic venues, this trajectory of the rich-get-richer and the poor-get-poorer is represented in many types of changes. The “for-profit” schools (Trump University!) are the worst offenders as they systematically exploit more vulnerable student populations, get them to take out loans, overpromise post-graduation employment, and drive these students into debt. The whole structure of student debt has taken a turn for the worse as the current Secretary of Education, Betsy DeVos, has rolled back protections for students who have gone in to debt due to for-profit education. She has been sued by eighteen states. “Since day one, Secretary DeVos has sided with for-profit school executives against students and families drowning in unaffordable student loans,” said Maura Healey, the Massachusetts attorney general, who led the multistate coalition in the lawsuit. “Her decision to cancel vital protections for students and taxpayers is a betrayal of her office’s responsibility and a violation of federal law.” DeVos is a prime example of Trumpism.

While it is the case that the vast majority of theological education is not a private, for-profit, enterprise, our seminaries and graduate schools of religion get students who have been victimized by this system. It is, therefore, crucial that our schools do debt counseling and in turn provide as much scholarship money as we can. Another crucial area for activism is in stemming the trend toward part-time and contingent faculty. The American Academy of Religion Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group (see Facebook page) highlights the precipitous decline in tenure-track positions (45% in 1975 to 30% in 2015) and the staggering increase in part-time and contingent faculty (55% in 1975 to 70% in 2015).

I went by the booth run by the Academic Labor and Contingent Faculty Working Group at the 2017 Annual Meeting to compliment them on the excellent poster campaign they were doing during the Annual Meeting. I wanted to ask them about its reception. They, in turn, asked me to wear the #AARSolidarity ribbon for the campaign and the person in the booth indicated that they were asking tenured faculty to wear them as contingent and part-time faculty often “felt vulnerable” if they wore the badge. “Felt vulnerable” is a revealing insight into how this unjust structure replicates the same kind of economic and social pressures perpetrated by Trumpism. School administrators will tell you that they “have to” turn to part-time and contingent faculty because of “economic pressures” and there is some truth to this, as higher education itself is under attack by Trumpism, but it is not the whole truth. Here is a more complete picture from the American Association of University Professors:

The turn towards cheaper contingent labor is largely a matter of priorities rather than economic necessity.

  • While many institutions are currently suffering budget cuts, the greatest growth in contingent appointments occurred during times of economic prosperity.
  • Many institutions have invested heavily in facilities and technology while cutting instructional spending.
  • Though incoming students may find finer facilities, they are also likely to find fewer full-time faculty with adequate time, professional support, and resources available for their instruction.

We do have choices and we privilege some over others. I was the president of Chicago Theological Seminary (CTS) for ten years, from 1998 until 2008, and I know that at smaller schools like my own—and progressive theological seminaries in particular—the economic pressures are real. But it is also a matter of institutional priorities. Progressive seminaries have lofty mission statements, but these are hollow if the structure of the school itself replicates Trumpism. CTS has struggled with this issue for years, and while we cannot claim to be the Kingdom of God’s justice on earth, I believe we have made just and equitable decisions. We do have a robust, full-time, tenured and tenure-track faculty. We hire in tenure track positions. We do not have a huge number of adjuncts. Yet, it is the case that we can always do better.

But there are many, many wealthy schools that are doing far worse. The Yales and Harvards in this country have high numbers of part-time and contingent faculty, and efforts at unionization have been met with institutional resistance. This is “Trumpism” in higher education and it is appalling. At the American Academy of Religion and Society of Biblical Literature meeting in Boston in November of 2017, many of us attending left the conference venue and held a press conference at the landmark New England Congregational Church, Old South. We wore sackcloth over our heads and put ashes on our faces to mourn the corruption of US Christianity and how it has sold itself to the basest kind of political maneuvering. Later, at our AAR panel on our volume Faith and Resistance in the Age of Trump, I was still wearing my ashes, but the sackcloth fell off when I stood up to speak at the podium! I connected what we had done in mourning to the depths to which many in conservative white Christian evangelicalism were willing to stoop to gain political power with the degrading employment situation of many who teach in higher education. I referenced the campaign by the Academic Labor Working Group and held up my badge. I charged the audience to show solidarity with the “serfs” of academia. I said, “If you want to change theological education, it’s not what you as teachers say, it’s what you do. Don’t tell me you are going to resist Trump and not resist this system in your own institutions.”

This informal curriculum of the exploitation of students through debt and exploitation of faculty through adjunct and contingent “serfdom” is teaching our students far more than anything I may assign on “liberation theology” in the classroom. The larger context in which we do our work, including activism to resist its most pernicious trends, has to be part of the whole of theological education. Let me be specific about what I mean when I say activism. I mean that as a faculty member (or as an administrator) I need to call my institution to account for how it handles student debt and the hiring, promotion, benefits, and tenure structure. Adjunct and contingent faculty are particularly vulnerable in this process, and I believe it is up to those with tenure and senior administrators to step forward in this process. Our students, many of whom are at the graduate level, are often being ground down as adjuncts at other institutions, or even at our own, and we should be frank about this structural inequality and supportive of their efforts to get better wages, to get proportional benefits, and to advocate for paths from part-time and contingent to full-time and tenure-track.

In regard to the larger social and political spheres, I often have students design activist projects that they plan to carry out to engage the many social and economic injustices we face. I share my own engagements and commitments, though dictating to students about what they should do is, in my view, totally inappropriate. We cannot defend freedom by suppressing freedom. But I believe if we do not connect teaching and activism, then we make a mockery not only of the word “resistance” as in the title of our recent book, but also the term “faith.” And God will not be mocked.

Susan ThistlethwaiteSusan Brooks Thistlethwaite is professor of theology and president emerita (1998–2008) of Chicago Theological Seminary, where she has taught for over thirty years. She is the author and/or editor of thirteen academic books, and she worked on two translations of the Bible. She has also recently published two works of fiction. In addition to service on many not-for-profit boards including Interfaith Youth Core, and Faith in Public Life, which she helped found, she has also served the American Academy of Religion as the editor of the Academy Series for Scholars Press, the first chairperson of the Committee on the Status of Women in the Profession, cochair of Women and Religion Unit, and more recently cochair of the Religion and Politics Unit. 


Image: Lev Dolgachov / Alamy Stock Photo