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Mission Matters #56 – “A Sociologist Reflects: Intellectual Traditions at ICU”

the university clipping

During the 2019-2020 academic year, I have invited faculty and staff from across the university to share their reflections about the intellectual traditions that have shaped their understandings of the university’s mission and purpose. Each month, we will look at a different strand of our intellectual tradition(s).  One of our colleagues will contribute an essay that represents one of the strands of tradition associated with one of the units/schools/colleges of the university. In a sense, you could say that we are revisiting the wisdom-seeking question that Marvin Henricks posed 40 years ago:  “The University: What’s It All About?”

by Michael G. Cartwright, Vice President for University Mission and Associate Professor of Philosophy & Religion, based on published essays by Prof. Marvin Henricks ’39

Forty years ago this fall, the leadership of Indiana Central University were busy planning the 75th anniversary of “doors open to students” of Indiana Central University in the Fall of 1905. One of the centerpieces of that celebration was the publication of a 15-page collection of reflections about the university’s past and present. This commemorative publication was written by students, faculty, staff, as well as Gene Sease, who was finishing his first decade as President, and his two predecessors, I. Lynd Esch (1945-1970) and Irby J. Good (1915-1944).

The first item in this “Diamond Jubilee” magazine was a one-page essay about “The University” by Marvin Henricks, ICC Class of 1939. No photograph of the author accompanied this piece, but he would have been well-known by most ICU faculty and staff.

Indeed, during his 30-year tenure on the faculty, Prof. Henricks had acquired a reputation for being an independent voice about institutional change as well as a thoughtful interpreter of the university’s history. Later that same year, Marvin wrote a separate essay about ICC Prof. John A. Cummins, one of his own teachers [see p. 18-19].

Two years later, shortly after Marvin retired as Professor of Sociology, he wrote a third piece – a “valedictory” reflection – about his experience of teaching at ICU. [See 1982, Issue No. 9, p. 10-11].

Together, these three pieces comprise a fascinating set of reflections about intellectual traditions that in my judgment remain instructive for UIndy faculty and staff in the 21st century. I will discuss each in turn as I invite readers to join me in learning from one of our university’s most perceptive interpreters.

I:  The University: What’s it All About, Marvin?

The subtitle of Professor Henricks’ contribution to the 75th-anniversary celebration – “What’s It All About?” – was an allusion to the 1966 film Alfie, in which Michael Caine starred as the title character.  The title song by Burt Bacharach (recorded by Dionne Warwick), poses a question for the film’s charming rogue Alfie Elkins:

“What’s it all about, Alfie?
Is it just for the moment we live?
What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie?
Are we meant to take more than we give? . . . ”

Alfie’s capacity for learning what love means is cast in doubt throughout the movie, but even so the lyrics of the song eloquently avow that there is something more than what this commitment-phobic “ladies-man” has yet experienced. Of course, one does not have to have seen the movie in order to grasp the meaning of the title of the article. At the same time, just as the song adds to the viewer’s understanding of the character, if you know something about Marvin Henricks, I think you are likely to appreciate his article even more. (For biographical information, see Mission Matters #55).

Readers who are familiar with the Christian origins of this University might expect that to be Henricks’ starting point. And he certainly alludes to that religious heritage, but he does so in a way that is strikingly ironic rather than doctrinal. In the first paragraph, Marvin refers to his pietistic upbringing,” that inculcated in him the sense that he “must someday stand accountable” [an allusion to “the Last Judgment”]. Not all citizens of the University – nor all Christians – might feel that kind of responsibility.

Professor Henricks identifies his own religious heritage and at the same time registers that there are other ways to register this kind of concern. In this manner, Marvin invokes the shadow of parochialism – without suggesting that all religious traditions are traditionalist.  And he invites the wider company of university citizen to join the quest for community – without promising that anyone gets a free pass as long as he or she is a member of the university.  Marvin disarmingly invites colleagues to respond with candor and a self-critical spirit.

Henricks registers the changing nature of the university’s student experience. He is “haunted” by the thought that “there must be a core of identity that makes the degree earned fifty years ago mean what a degree means now.” What makes it possible to negotiate the tension between the “evolving concept” of the university and the demand for a “meaningful continuity” is the recognition that universities are composed of persons who are stewards of intellectual tradition.

Henricks is by no means cowed by the critics of higher education who questioned whether universities play a meaningful role. Their preoccupation with calculating the return on investment, Marvin shrewdly observes, reveals that those who are hostile to higher education “suffer a moneyed myopia.” Such obsession with the value proposition fails to see that human beings are creatures who thrive when given the opportunity to use their freedom for the greater good. Henricks recognizes that utilitarian thinking is a semi-permanent feature of American society just as existentialism was one of the legacies of the 1960s for higher education. He registers the impact of both; he is beholden to neither.

As my summary thus far indicates, Marvin Henricks offers more questions than answers. Even so, there is much in this article that is worth discussing. Indeed, in the University Seminar for Faculty and Staff that I lead, we usually spend an entire session discussing the intertwined threads of this well-crafted essay. What I find to be most remarkable about “The University, What’s It All About?” is the way Henricks registers the impact of several strands of intellectual tradition within the simple image of two “processions.” In the first half of the article, he unfolds meanings associated with the traditional academic procession, which moves from past to present to the presumed future. The second processional is inclusive – highly participatory – as the transformational effects of education create prospects for social betterment.

He uses the figure of a procession to describe the social dynamics by which the heritage is conveyed from one generation to another, a custom that higher education borrowed from monasticism, where monks pass into the church in order of their seniority (determined by when they made their final profession) regardless of rank. “We are keepers of a great treasure in a very fragile vessel, just as our predecessors a thousand years ago and twenty-five years ago were proper vergers of this trust.”

(If you are not familiar with the word “verger,” it is a term that is still used in Episcopal Churches in the USA and the congregations of the Anglican Communion. The verger is the person who leads the processional into a church. Originally, vergers cleared the way for the processional with a broom. Later, these figures became ceremonial leaders of the processional, guiding the company of scholars in its movements from one location to another, within the precincts of a cathedral or chapel as well as in the quadrangle of a college lawn or across the campus.)

Marvin Henricks invites his faculty and staff colleagues to think of themselves as exercising responsibilities that range from leading the academic processional to mopping the floor. Granted, not all of us will carry the University mace in the processional – an honor reserved for those persons who are chosen as “Teachers of the Year” (Levi Mielke in 2018; Emily Slaven in 2019) — any more than all of us take a turn cleaning the laboratories of Lilly Science Hall. But we all have the capacity to be “vergers” (stewards) of the trust – the university’s mission.

If the first processional Henricks presents is one that marches from past to present to future, the second processional is framed by a shared passion for education.  Readers of his essay find it difficult to miss that the author of this essay is a “little d” democrat. An education is not simply freedom from ignorance, as if the chains of ignorance have been released. Rather, Henricks has a stake in defining humanity in the context of exercising “the freedom of participating fully in the modern world.” This is a privilege not for the few, but in some measure to be available to as many people as possible.

Having already named one pattern of tradition that is important to the university in his time and place, Marvin Henricks names a second “interpretation of life” that is pertinent to the mission of Indiana Central University as this institution was known in 1979-80. He says we are “perpetuators of the Judeo-Christian interpretation of life,” a heritage that is closely associated with institutions of higher education on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean “and a host of other men [and women] and institutions.”  Although he gestures at historical examples, his focus of concern is sociological.

Henricks understands that he and his colleagues have “greatly different” approaches to the tasks of stewardship, which is entailed by offering ongoing interpretation of this aspect of the university’s purpose. And yet — he also affirms — they share in a common mission.  For at the end of the day, the question “What’s it all about?” is about meaning and purpose. At this point in his essay, he sets aside his earlier embarrassment about his “pietistic” * sense of accountability to simply assert the obligations inherent to the project of higher education. On the occasion of the 75th anniversary of the opening of the doors of the university to students seeking the opportunity for a college education, Henricks directs his colleagues’ attention to “the continuing heart” of our work – and therefore of the institution of the university – which is “to pass on, and in some small measure, to contribute to the intellectual heritage.”

II. Seeing Intellectual Tradition Through the Prism of a Professor’s Lifework

I would love to know more about how Marvin Henricks’ colleagues responded to his reflections about the University.  My guess is that such responses were delivered in more informal conversations than in writing.  What we know is that Henricks continued to wrestle with these questions for the next year or so. In an essay that he wrote later that year, Henricks addresses some of these questions that he asked his colleagues, albeit indirectly through a memorial reflection about one of his teachers.

“John Cummins was what Indiana Central hoped to be.” Marvin Henricks concludes “Pursuing the Pleasant Quest” with that nine-word statement. When excerpted from the article, it appears understated, but Henricks clearly had very high regard for this man who he regarded with great respect as both a mentor and an intellectual forebear at ICU.  “At the beginning of the college’s life, he was the institution’s intellectual lodestar; in turbulent years, he was a constant presence; and in the later years of his life, he was the sage of the college.”  As Marvin explains, he wrote the piece with affectionate regard knowing that as his own career was drawing to a conclusion, Cummins “is all but forgotten” at ICU. Even so, writing in 1980 Marvin still had vivid recollections of his encounters during his student years with Prof. Cummins, an elderly man who walked to campus from his home on Bowman Street in University Heights in the late 1930s.

Because Marvin Henricks was a student during an era when neither the role of the faculty nor the student was compartmentalized, he may have had a greater sensitivity to the sacrifices that the older man had made for the college to succeed. In addition to his faculty role, Prof. Cummins shouldered additional burdens of leadership during the difficult season between President Roberts and President Bonebrake. Cummins was civic-minded in the best sense, having written the standards for the first “General High School Curriculum for the State of Indiana” and served as a member of the town board of University Heights at a time when sidewalks were being installed on Bowman and Otterbein streets.  These time-consuming tasks made it impossible for him to complete his graduate studies at the University of Chicago.

Those of us who take pride in the education offered at UIndy often tout the kind of personal attention that students receive during the four years of baccalaureate education. Henricks was not content with such generalization. He located Prof. Cummins’ positive engagement with students as an expression of “Spencerian optimism,” and not merely an academic piety.  “At least, as a student, I felt his attitude toward me was always generous, expectant, and hopeful, and yet I probably added little to his reason to be confident about human nature.”

Marvin recalls having experienced the hospitality of the Cummins’ home. “Mrs. Cummins made a traditional persimmon pudding and to have eaten of the pudding was to have taken part in a celebration of a college ritual.” Later generations of students would remember the hospitality offered by Louella McBride to the Philosophy Club and other occasions in faculty homes. Alumni Gene and Carolyn Lausch recall with fond gratitude the hospitality offered to them by Sylvia Henricks, who along with her husband, carried on this tradition in the 1950s by serving “her wonderful blueberry cobblers, among other things.”

Henricks puzzles over the uneven quality of Prof. Cummins’s pedagogy given that he learned so much from the old philosopher. Marvin knew that Cummins wasn’t regarded as a great lecturer but at the same time there were some students who were “devoted to him.” Henricks recalls: “I am aware, also, that he may have made me discontent with the structure of existing thought patterns. He was not a rebel with a maladjusted ego, but he was an intellectual wanderer.”

Here, we may not have enough context to fully appreciate the range of Prof. Cummins’ intellect. Marvin uses a three-word phrase –“Renaissance man reborn” – to gesture at this unusual aspect of the well-furnished mind of John A. Cummins.  In the context of Indiana Central College in the 1930s, Cummins stood within the framework of the liberal arts tradition as an example of a philosopher who had extensive interests in science ranging from psychology to physiology, and who was concerned about emerging ideologies (e.g. Social Darwinism) in the still-developing fields of social sciences.

The perspective in this second article is that of a student — who has become a teacher — of a citizen of the university, who has taken on the burdens of leadership. Henricks’ perspective is chastened. Here, the aforementioned “processionals” are populated by real people, fallible pedagogues like Prof. Cummins and uneven students like Marvin Henricks, persons who have limitations and imperfections and yet who (at times) still manage to bring the best out of one another in the “intellectual pursuit” of learning.  The quest for truth did not have to be solitary; after all, college was a conversation, and Marvin recalled his conversations with Prof. Cummins as both pleasant and challenging.

In retrospect, “Pursuing the Pleasant Quest” (1980) might best be described as a companion piece to “The University: What’s It All About?” Although a colleague from a different era, Prof. Cummins stood alongside his former student in the academic processions of ICU.

III. The Sociologist Looks Back at His Career Teaching at His Alma Mater

Marvin Henricks, Professor of Behavioral Science” – Photograph by Lou Gerig

The custom of inviting retiring faculty members to offer their “last lectures,” which has been reborn in the past two decades, had its origins in the wider practice of public intellectuals who gave a “valedictory address” at the end of their career.  It had not yet been re-invented when Marvin Henricks retired in 1982.  However, if someone had invited him to give a final lecture, “Sociology – in Sickness and in Health – A Valedictory” (1982) would have fit the bill.

Marvin begins by recalling what it was like to teach during the years of “The Great Society,” when sociology was a popular major and students and professors alike shared the optimism of the culture around them.  He quips: “Then we believed that the welfare of the whole meant the welfare of the parts instead of the other way around.”

He describes his career as a teacher at Indiana Central where he served as a “humanist who pursues knowledge” while espousing a discipline in which “scientific” objectivity requires “dispassionate” engagement with students. He lived with the uneasy awareness that at the end of the day the “presumption of the behavioral sciences that humans can be understood” often is dubious.

In retrospect, Henricks realizes, this kind of optimistic thinking was a repetition of sorts, recalling the theory of society that Herbert Spencer had taught in the 1880s and 1890s. “Science itself enjoying unquestioned confidence seemed to confirm our hopes and made us comfortable in the expectation that progress was a part of nature.” Both cycles of optimism turned out to be short-lived. By the end of his career, Prof. Henricks saw that students had become more interested in the psychology of the self than in social paradigms in a world in which “deviant behavior had become commonplace.”

But at the end of the day, Henricks did not think that the problems of his discipline – its mild “sickness” at the end of his career – could be attributed to popular culture trends. “The real difficulty with the fortunes of sociology might be traced to the rise of utilitarianism in America. Science has been accorded its high place . . . because its understanding can be used to manipulate the subject matter and employ it for human use. We venerate science because it makes life easier, sometimes even possible. It is technology, not science that holds a high prestige.”

Henricks is keenly aware of the perceived advantages of physics and chemistry in addressing such instrumental expectations. Thus far, though, “sociology has not demonstrated to everyone’s satisfaction, that it can produce tangible results.” And yet, Henricks stubbornly avows that the study of sociology provides “the most fascinating material in the curriculum” – the behavior of human beings.  At least part of what the university is about is having a discipline of study that one finds always to be fascinating. That is what kept Marvin Henricks “faithful” to the discipline of sociology for the three decades that he taught at ICU.

IV. Forty Years On: What’s It All About, for the Rest of Us?

By bringing the substance of these three essays together, I may have done something Prof. Henricks hoped no one would ever do. Even so, I am impressed by the cogent nature of these reflections about what a university is about, what an education means to students, and how such an education shapes the lives of its faculty. His essays reflect a coherent set of convictions, a clear understanding of challenges, and an uncommon capacity for institutional thinking.

Prof. Henricks was fully aware of the effects of utilitarian thinking on higher education. He understood that it was not possible to ignore instrumental thinking. He was also aware of the ways that liberal learning at Indiana Central was pragmatic.  To invoke the oft-used phrase of President Irby J. Good, at Indiana Central students like Marvin Henricks learned “how to make a living as well as how to make a life.” The fact that Henricks regarded Prof. Cummins’ Socratic approach to be highly valuable is one indication of his affinity for the liberal arts, but he also admired Cummins’ scientific interests. Indeed, Henricks and Cummins shared a disposition to find the intersection of science and the arts, always prepared for dialogue with partners in other disciplines.

I am not sure how self-conscious Prof. Henricks was about the coherent vision of higher education represented in these three essays. I suspect that if confronted with the triune effect of this small body of intellectual history, he would have tried to evade detection as if there was no deliberate intent on his part. However, I can also imagine that as he turned his head away, there would be a gleam in his eye and a wry grin on his face just visible beneath his mustache. I suppose that is one of those things we will never know about Prof. Henricks!

What I think we can say with assurance is that Henricks’ references to intellectual tradition were not defined in a restrictive fashion. To the extent that we can draw reasonable inferences, his canon of authoritative texts was somewhat loose. Indeed, I suspect he would have been suspicious of any listing that was narrowly delimited. (He probably had in mind the influential texts of scientific, literary, artistic, political, religious and philosophical thought and practice like those discussed in the two-volume anthology of The American Intellectual Tradition edited by David A. Hollinger and Charles Capper or a comparable collation of texts.) At the same time, he describes aspects of intellectual heritage that had been central to the community of learning of which he had been a part at Indiana Central — for five decades – beginning in 1935.

I would love to know what kind of things Henricks may have been reading at that point in his life that may have influenced his thinking – other than perusing the papers of his one-time teacher, John A. Cummins. Here and there, I recognize threads of reflection that remind me of Eva T. H Brann’s book Paradoxes of Education in a Republic (1979). But Marvin Henricks did not quote texts much – not in this essay anyway. What we see is not so much what he was reading as the bodies of thought with which he was wrestling – notions of utility, existential quandaries – in the context of preaching his own version of Thomas Jefferson’s “crusade against ignorance.” All of which is to say that Henricks’s perspective is very much a product of American intellectual traditions.

But if you ask which strands of American intellectual tradition are most evident in this essay I think you would have to say that they are as literary as they are sociological. Indeed, for all of the sociological expertise that he shows in his descriptions of group dynamics and social engagement, it is not his graduate education that dominates as much as the literary craft of writing, which was a life-long practice that he embraced during his undergraduate studies at Indiana Central College in the late 1930s. As a participant in Zetagathea literary society, Marvin Henricks learned to present essays and texts to various audiences in civil society. Although the three essays discussed above display an erudition that he had developed over the course of forty years, the origins of that practice of writing can be found in the older literary paradigm of higher education.

Make no mistake about it, Marvin Henricks was a fierce advocate for “liberal learning.”  He did not advocate the liberal arts as the ideological antidote to the invasion of utilitarian influences in American higher education so much as the practical equipment for solving “personal, social, and physical problems” that threaten to thwart human freedom.

This social scientist and proud alumnus of Indiana Central stood up for liberal education — not because of what John Henry Newman wrote in The Idea of the University (1851) or, on the other hand, because of what John Dewey said in his classic Democracy and Education (1916).  Rather, Henricks believed in making it viable for the broadest possible participation of those human beings “whose brains [otherwise] would remain silent because they were not taught to speak.”

This spirited affirmation reflects a modest yet strong intellectual inheritance that Henricks recognized was very strong at the beginning of the 20th century. When Indiana Central University opened its doors, the intellectual world that was fascinated by the advances in science (especially biology), comprised “not an elite group, but all persons, rich and poor, educated and uneducated. . .” Marvin Henricks was both heir to that egalitarian tradition and a determined steward who made sure that the generations that followed enjoyed that precious privilege.

No doubt he would have been proud that three of his grandchildren (Kathryn, Samantha, and Molly Hansen) have graduated from UIndy in the past decade.

Marvin and his wife Sylvia welcomed the students of ICC/ICU into their home where they had the opportunity to share conversation about matters of importance. Sylvia, who was one of the University’s librarians and one of the best local historians in Marion County, was also one of Marvin’s conversation partners. She was independent-minded, and by all accounts, their life together was filled with lively exchanges and mutual enjoyment of the arts and music. I can imagine the two of them working through the threads of thought that ultimately were incorporated in the three essays described above.

But it would be misleading to leave the impression that the Henricks were high-brow. Their daughter, Ann Hansen, recalls how Marvin made Sylvia laugh during a frantic Christmas cookie making session.  “Mom looked up from her work, and Dad was sitting quietly at the kitchen table with a maraschino cherry in each eye.  That’s the Dad I knew!!!” In that orange frame house – that you couldn’t miss – where the Henrick family lived, visitors encountered a pair who shared the life of the mind without pretension and were hospitable to students who were struggling to come to grips with the challenges of the 1960s.

When Prof. Henricks wrote his three essays 40 years ago, the world was a very different place. The university was growing very rapidly. The role of the professor was evolving in disconcerting ways. Indeed the same year that Henricks wrote this piece, the composition of the faculty reached an important threshold of professionalization. Now for the first time there were more faculty who had earned their terminal degrees than those faculty who had not done so. Henricks stood among those who represented the past in a processional within which more than half of the members of the ICU faculty were now fully credentialed. I suspect Henricks found that to be a bit uncomfortable, but not so much that he could not muster pride in the fact that his alma mater had become a university is some of the best senses of the word.

Forty years later, the echo of the question posed to Alfie rings in our ears not so much as an existentialist anthem as a collective lament:  “What’s it all about when you sort it out, Alfie? Are we meant to take more than we give? . . . ”

Although he never uses the phrase in any of the three articles, I think Marvin Henricks probably was haunted by the gnawing question about “what is the common good?”  Individuals — like Alfie or Marvin, or you and me – must determine their response to the needs around them. Henricks reminds his colleagues at ICU that they stand within more than one intellectual “procession” — strands of tradition in thought and practice, which should inform their engagement with students as well as their response to the needs of the world around them.

In his own time, Marvin Henricks helped the faculty, staff, and students of his alma mater identify and/or articulate strands of intellectual tradition that have shaped the way they have participated in that long academic procession that stretches back to President John T. Roberts, Prof. John A. Cummins, Dr. Irby J. Good ‘08, Ms. Sybil Weaver ‘16, et al. We look to him as one of those forebears with whom we share the responsibilities of stewardship.  And the three essays he wrote remind us that part of our own challenge is to identify and articulate those strands of an intellectual tradition that are shaping the work we do from day to day.


This reflection about Marvin Henricks’s essays about the mission of the university is intended to introduce the next series of Mission Matters reflections. Each month, a different member of the university community will discuss one or more strands of an intellectual tradition that inform his or her understanding of the university, from the vantage point of one of the schools.  For example, Samantha Gray has agreed to write an essay about intellectual traditions associated with psychology, one of the fields of study and practice that comprise the College of Applied Behavioral Sciences. Finally, I have invited Prof. Mary Moore and Dr. Amanda Miller, both faculty members in the Sociology Department, to write a concluding reflection at the end of the 2019-2020 academic year in which they reflect on “what’s it about” forty years after Marvin Henricks’ original essay was published. I am eager to read these pieces, and I encourage you to engage one another in conversations about these matters.

As always, I invite your feedback at In the meantime, thanks for taking the time to reflect with me.

Remember:  UIndy’s mission matters!

*Please Note:  Henricks may or may not have understood himself as operating within the intellectual traditions of Protestant Pietism associated with the United Brethren, Moravian and Wesleyan movements. Charles Wesley’s oft-quoted hymn – “Unite the pair so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety” – images the union of “heart” and “mind.” Some readers may wonder whether Pietism really should be regarded as an intellectual tradition. This is a matter of some dispute, due in part to the fact that generation after generation of Pietists aspire to the integration of heart and mind, but often fall back into forms of anti-intellectual spirituality that reveal deficiencies in intellectual tradition. Robert Benne, a Lutheran theologian and the author of Quality with Soul (2001) argues that Pietism lacks the necessary coherence as an intellectual framework for higher education.  Christopher Gehrz and other contributors to The Pietist Vision of Christian Higher Education: Forming Whole and Holy Persons (2015) offer a very positive assessment. In the editors’ introduction to Called to Unite Knowledge & Vital Piety: Indiana’s Wesleyan-Related Universities (2012), Merle Strege and Michael G. Cartwright offer a third perspective, which explores the “unstable synthesis” of the Wesleyan theological tradition, particularly with respect to seven institutions of higher education found in the state of Indiana. See MyUIndy under Church-Related information.