Book Review: Inspired Pragmatism: An Illustrated History of Linfield College

Inspired Pragmatism: An Illustrated History of Linfield College, by Marvin Henberg, edited by Barbara Kitt Seidman

[Note: This book was provided free of charge by Carpe Diem Press in exchange for an honest review.]

Reading this book, a sesquicentennial history of Linfield College, in many ways is a trip through memory lane, in an odd and skewed sort of way. While I am but a recent transplant to Oregon and my personal experience with Linfield College is rather slight [1], having driven through the campus a few times during trips to McMinnville and enjoying the beauty of its campus, beauty which is conveyed well in this book’s copious photography, there is a way in which the book’s subject matter and the course of the history of the ruthlessly pragmatic leaders of Linfield College reminds me of my own life. Specifically, a great deal about this book reminds me of the melancholy history of my denominational college, which founded on the rocks of denominational division and a liberalizing culture and the failure to bridge the gap between religious tradition and a desire to appeal to liberal cultural elites. Linfield College, although faced at numerous times in its history with the threat of financial collapse or internal disarray because of ferocious conflict, has so far been successful at promoting free inquiry, even if at times that has been confused with merely controversial political posturing for the sake of being controversial, whether by students or faculty members. For a university that took decades to graduate its first B.A., that record of survival and endurance is particularly impressive. The memorial occasion of the school’s ambiguous 150th anniversary, depending on how one counts the beginning of the college, along with the dedicated work of the retired dean of faculty for the college, creates the opportunity for a candid and detailed work of institutional history [2] that is full of wit and irony and genuine appreciation of the history and traditions of the institution the author records, allowing this book to be a worthy successor of Bricks Without Straw, the previous work on Linfield College’s history written by its then-president in the 1930’s.

In terms of its structure and contents, this book has an intriguing structure. After a preface that praises the large amount of historical photographs that were not possible to include in this modestly sized book of 140 large pages, many of them decorated with notable photographs of the college’s history and landscape and the students, faculty, and administrators of the college, and which begs for a website to include digital versions of many photographs that could not be included here for lack of space, the book tells four partly overlapping stories. The first story is called “the story retold,” and that part of the story offers a concise retelling of the origin story of Linfield College previously given in Bricks Without Straw, examining the hardscrabble origins of Linfield and its brutal competition for students and funding among a small Baptist community in the Pacific Northwest, where its aims at presenting a liberal arts education often created tension with the leadership of the Baptist community from which it sprang. After this the author switches to “the untold story,” a rich and complex tale of indebtedness and frequent internal tension between the 1930’s and the 1970’s, of corporate divorce with the Linfield Research Institute, and of the rising tide of cultural change in the postwar period as well as in the turbulent 1960’s. After this, the author goes back in time to the 1850’s to discuss “the parallel story” of the Good Samaritan Hospital whose defunct but historically significant nursing college became the Portland Campus of Linfield College and an accredited BSN program that continues teaching qualified nurses to this day. The author then returns to Linfield College to discuss “the unfolding story” discussing new construction, the omnipresent quest for greater endowments, the praise of cultural change, the trumpeting of success in sports, and the promise that the future will be even greater than the past, summarized succinctly in the Afterword.

It is altogether fitting that this book is titled Inspired Pragmatism, given that the unusual and distinctive phrase suits Linfield in many ways. For one, Linfield’s inventive use of student labor and its close tie with its town are inspired both by a pioneering spirit, and originally by the desire to educate godly students in Christus et veritas, Christ and truth, was both pragmatic based on its limited resources and inspired by a love of community. For another, the often delicate logistical realities of the college, with limited resources, a small-town location, intensity of internal and external political drama, and great ambitions have tended to foster an attitude of ruthless pragmatism that has thus far allowed Linfield to survive, even thrive. Without pretending to predict the future, it is easy to read a book like this and have a sense of admiration for the adroit way that the college has been able to recruit able faculty and administrators and find a way to keep growing throughout the changes of the last 150 years of history in Oregon. It is likely that in a time of rising student costs and concerns over the crippling burdens of student debt that Linfield’s history of austerity and bootstrap efforts in association with its larger community will be necessary again. Although the book is anything but austere with its detailed text and ample photographs, the author’s candor about his college’s history makes this a book that offers a great deal of food for thought for those who share the author’s concerns about the state of contemporary higher education [3] and the pervasive insecurity for small institutions like Linfield College in light of these challenges. Linfield College is small and fierce, and takes a certain pride in rooting for those it perceives as underdogs, which is to be expected given its history and situation, and is not likely to change in the future, either.

[1] See, for example:

[2] See, for example:

[3] See, for example:

About nathanalbright

I'm a person with diverse interests who loves to read. If you want to know something about me, just ask.
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