Monday, September 05, 2011

Anthropological Ethics

I can't even remember where I happened upon The Unlikely Disciple; I heard of it, and the library had it, and suddenly, magically, I'm reading it.  There are a lot of layers to this book--even more than the author, Kevin Roose, intended, I think--and even more complexity to my reactions to the book.

The Unlikely Disciple: A Sinner's Semester at America's Holiest University
Let's start with the very top level of my reaction; am I the only one who's kind of put off by all these "I did this kooky thing for a year so I could write a book about it" books?  Even when the actual thing they're doing is very interesting to me, even when it's lighthearted, even when it's straightforward, it's kind of--opportunistic?  Mercenary?  And the fact that this guy is barely 20--there's something presumptuous about it.  That's the word--presumptuous.

The author is a sophomore at Brown University who decides that he needs to de-other-ize Christian fundamentalists by spending a semester at Jerry Falwell's Liberty University, an evangelical Christian college.  He does this on his own, not through academia--he gets a semester off from Brown, applies to Liberty University, and heads off.

Okay, another level of my reaction--this is amateur anthropology.  This is a college kid doing something that an entire academic discipline has perfected over the course of generations.  They have a very strict set of ethics and standards of behavior that have been developed.  An anthropologist going "under cover" to do fieldwork has to plan out ahead of time what they're going to tell people, how much they're going to lie, etc.  Then they have to run this plan by a board of their peers for feedback, to evaluate how the subjects/natives/etc. will be affected emotionally and psychologically by finding out the truth. 

Kevin makes a lot of decisions based on what kinds of conversations would be awkward.  He describes the process of making these decisions as though the thought this 20-year-old kid put in is the equivalent of a peer review board.  He lied on his application, lies regularly about his testimony--all definitely necessary to fit in, and mentioned, but not really dealt with on the higher level I'd like to see.

At first I thought it was an inconsistency that he seemed to conceive the project based in large part around the political views of the conservatives he expected to meet, but his experience at the school is based a lot more around the social experience he's having.  I think the social story is more compelling, in large part because the author is a college student.  He's clearly very smart and thoughtful, but there's a lot more depth to his social perception than there is to his political discussion.  He's a thoughtful liberal whose opinions are well-considered, but ten years in the world will give him more exposure to people along the political spectrum than half a Brown education could, and his perceptions would be different in that case.

But Liberty is a different enough social experience--gender relations, the omnipresence of God, the purposeful life these kids are working so hard on--is enough to make a very interesting book.  Roose writes well, does plenty of research, and presents what he has to say really well.  There's an element of watching him coming of age amid the broader cultural observations, which can be a little distracting, but it doesn't detract much from the book. 

For me, the most interesting part is just seeing how these kids live.  However I feel about evangelical Christianity, the fact is that these students are driven, focused, and part of what looks like (and tries to be) a monoculture.  Meeting them individually, seeing how they process it and what questions they ask of their world, is definitely worth the read.

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