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When History is Us

April 25, 2018

Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education

Book by Donald B. Kraybill

Review by Melodie M. Davis, class of 1975.

A countercultural history – Part 1

I have discovered in recent years an amazing affinity for historical books that touch on my own history–and none as revealing as Donald B. Kraybill’s newest tome, Eastern Mennonite University: A Century of Countercultural Education. History matters because we can all learn from the rich legacy left by those who came before us.

But a history book about one’s alma mater? Dry as dust, my mother might say, except for the subversive word in the title, “countercultural.” What does that mean? That we were learning to be hippies, revolutionaries?

No and no, but Kraybill, a sociologist by training and an expert on the Amish that even the Washington Post and TV networks call upon when they want someone knowledgeable and quotable, puts his own particular stamp on this history. Not in a personal sense, but in the context of Christian social history from a Mennonite values perspective. Kraybill says in his preface “Institutional histories … are social constructions—stories crafted by the researchers who write them … [and] this is not a conventional one.”

As an author, Kraybill has made Christian social history in his own right, with at least two bestselling books which shed marvelous light on both Jesus and the Amish—not in the same book. I also have had the privilege of working with Kraybill in my role as an editor at Herald Press—where we’ve just released the 40th anniversary edition of his Upside Down Kingdom, and he’ll soon come out with another revised bestseller with a new title, Simply Amish, (updates the perennially popular The Amish: Why The Enchant Us).

But this book, the EMU history, was not published by our publishing company (I would not be reviewing it if we had). EMU contracted with Pennsylvania State University Press to publish the very readable volume.

Okay, why I loved it: On so many pages I stepped into my own history, not just on campus, but my growing up days near Goshen, Indiana, and my now decades-long sojourn here in the Shenandoah Valley where EMU makes its home. The first half of the book especially mirrored so much of my own life which is always a fun thing in a book. It touches on thousands of people I have been fortunate to either know personally, or I know as the son or granddaughter of teachers, administrators, and various presidents. It offers a rich understanding of the conflict we touched on as kids approaching our college choices–where my two older sisters chose the backyard Mennonite college–Goshen College which, according to the founders of EMU, needed to be fought for its liberalism and not just on whether or not to wear covering strings and capes.

And let’s be honest: another reason I enjoyed the book is Kraybill quotes some of my writing, from the college newspaper. Everyone wants to be remembered, and while I’ve written a few books myself, being mentioned in the 100-year history of my college feels a little more enduring. Like you know that puppy will be around in another 100 years—I’m not sure my forgettable books will have any longevity.

Ok, my name is only mentioned in Kraybill’s footnotes, and the spelling of my first name is wrong, (I’ve never been a stickler about that), and its history! The footnotes reflect his copious and painstaking research; if you check out the book, my footnote in history comes in the footnote section, chapter 8, footnote #126, regarding a piece I wrote parodying the rhetoric of our great orator of a college president, Myron Augsburger, in regard to a campus debate over whether or not to insist the grads wear graduation robes. Ironically, to robe or not robe was a dearly won right by students not too many years earlier, after decades of robes being considered too worldly and pompous, especially those worn by profs.

The really strange thing was when Kraybill emailed me about the quote, I couldn’t even remember what he was referencing; turns out though, my packrat tendencies (on some things) meant I found an actual copy of the article and refreshed my memory. The paragraph Kraybill quotes gives you the flavor of the parody:

Next spake the wise orator Myronstotle in a great flow of words: “We need to be aggressively and frontally committed to significant involvement in contributing to a positive emphasis in the graduation exercises by maintaining mature dress in the context of brotherhood.”

I was not too surprised to find another piece I had written for the EMU Bulletin was mentioned in the history book, because it was about a very sad and difficult time on campus after some unusual deaths which greatly affected morale and atmosphere on campus.

Those are some very personal reasons I found myself eager to pick up the 400-page book even though it was physically hard to manage for my bedtime reading.

Next week: some surprises and first-hand acquaintances mentioned in the book.


Blog posts about other history/biography books I’ve enjoyed: Call Me a Menno-nerd; 

My Connections to the Orie O. Miller Story; and A Woman I’ve Admired: Katharine Graham.


Do you like to read history books? Why or why not?

If you went to EMC/EMU let me hear from you! Why did you go and what did you find at EMU?



From → Faith, Writing Life

  1. Nancy Schaffer permalink

    This is intriguing and I may have to search out this book. I love history and history abd did I tell you I love history! An currently trudging through a 923 page book about president Truman by name David McCullough, although it’s been daunting.
    Congrats on having that part in the book- you may think it small but was surely noteworthy enough for Kraybill to include it. I’ve never met him, but went to one of the 3 day conferences at Elizabeth town college on the Amish a number of years ago, abc he was the leader of the conference.
    I would love to catch up with you sometime – now that I’m retired maybe I can come down for a few days sometime. 😗

    • Nancy, yes! Come on down–we have a guest room and guest bathroom. Maybe this fall? You are as sweet as ever to say my little joy at having a small part in that book is “noteworthy.” Don is very humble but knowledgeable although I’ve never heard him speak, other than on some radio interviews–and on the phone a couple times because of our work. 🙂 Thanks for commenting!

  2. Dr. Donald Kraybill was professor and director of the Young Center for Pietist Studies at Elizabethtown College in my former hometown. (Our family has donated an illuminated family Bible and other Longenecker memorabilia to the Center.) I admire his scholarship. He (or his copy editor) can be forgiven for misspelling your name. As you know, it often happens to me.

    Incidentally, I was on the cusp of change regarding graduation regalia. The women more prayer coverings and no robes at my EMC graduation. Thanks to Augsburger, that all changed a few years later.

    I can’t manage books over 250 pages for bedtime reading. Yet I might make an exception for this one.

    • A fellow Pa. resident (Nancy current, you former) beat you to the comment box this morning, Marian. Nancy was a dear friend of mine in high school in Indiana. Thanks for your further comments on Dr. Donald. I know you are a lover of history as well.

      I’m not surprised you were in that era of prayer coverings and no robes. I know you will enjoy much about the book, when you get a chance. Do you do ebooks? I noticed even the ebook has a hefty price but it might make bedtime reading easier. I now have a laptop (finally) but no ebook reader. 🙂

  3. Athanasia permalink

    Well, if it’s a race to leave a comment, I guess I am always in the last lap.

    I like books of historical events and time periods, if that is what you mean. It is not my favorite type of book/writing, however. I prefer Fiction. I probably read 10-12 Fiction to every Non-Fiction.

    I am currently reading THE PRESIDENT’S HOUSE: 1800 TO THE PRESET–THE SECRETS AND HISTORY OF THE WORLD’S MOST FAMOUS HOME by Margaret Truman. This was recommended to me by a woman in my Homemaker’s club. I am enjoying it though I have a tendency to simultaneously read other/multiple books while I am reading a Non-Fiction book. About 4 months ago I read BIG CHICKEN: THE INCREDIBLE STORY OF HOW ANTIBIOTICS CREATED MODERN AGRICULTURE AND CHANGED THE WAY THE WORLD EATS by Maryn McKenna . I head this one recommended on public radio. That book covers mid-20th Century to the present and is very interesting. Even with all the science in it it was a very readable book. A few months before that I read KILLERS OF THE FLOWER MOON: THE OSAGE MURDERS AND THE BIRTH OF THE FBI by David Grann. The story of a very sad, horrible chain of events. This one I found on the Librarian Recommends shelf at the public library. Before that I read 100 VEGETABLES AND WHERE THEY CAME FROM by William Woys Weaver. My oldest daughter had it out of the library and I borrowed it from her. Interesting, though not a useful book as relates to my geographic area, but I guess it counts as the history of vegetables.

    So, like your column here and the one on Katherine Graham’s autobiography it is important to not just read but recommend what you read to others.

    • I admire your fiction reading. I’m wondering do you keep a list of what you’ve read? I keep thinking I should start one. I do not review all books I read. If I have a major criticism for a book I don’t usually review it. Glad you enjoyed the piece on EMU history (and I’ll post the 2nd part soon) and very much appreciate all your comments, whether they come in last or first. I should read that one on Big Chicken & antibiotics. I’ll have to see if our library has it. I’m lucky to be able to walk past the downtown library if I choose (from parking lot to my newish office). 🙂 Hope you’re getting some spring up yonder.

      • Athanasia permalink

        I keep track of books on my phone.

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