Nature and Revelation by Jeanne Halgren Kilde: a review

Nature and Revelation is a delightful book. Jeanne Halgren Kilde wrote the book for two perhaps-incompatible audiences: Folks with Macalester College connections, and readers interested in the development of private college/liberal arts education in North America. For the Macalester audience she addresses nearly all of the expected issues a member of the Mac community would expect (I list most of those here) and adds many things we members may or may not have asked. For the academic audience she offers a case study, with enough context and enough detail to make the case useful for further examination and discussion. For both audiences she’s produced an excellent work.

The book concentrates on collegiate governance, with occasional looks at the school’s often-troubled relationship with the Presbyterian church. The result is that the author provides fairly detailed accounts of the views and activities of most of the college’s presidents and a handful of other officers, with similar portraits of some key trustees. There’s considerable discussion of Macalester’s relationship with the church (and the local churches), which is often presented in terms of the school’s changing interpretation of the word nonsectarian. Naturally the school’s relationship with Dewitt Wallace is explored at some length, as that also changed over time. All of this is presented well, and is surprisingly interesting. There’s more here than I perhaps expected about what college fundraising entails, and on the impact those efforts have on the shape of the college as an institution. All in all, I found these discussions enlightening and worthwhile.

The author’s treatment of Macalester’s 1970 budget crisis is revealing. She attributes many of the difficulties to inadequate accounting, to structural issues resulting from restricted funds (ie, donations to support buildings and programs), and to the administration’s inability to raise funding to support daily operations. The clearly-important role of college trustee and Wallace advisor Paul Davis is both confusing and frustrating; that Kilde is unable to fully explain the apparent contradictions in his behavior is likely due to her inability to gain access to key Wallace family documentation. That Davis’ analysis of the school’s financial situation is similar to Kilde’s is clear. Why he lost faith in the school’s ability to find solutions is unclear, as is his motivation for his subsequent undermining those efforts.

The author’s emphasis on the school’s presidents and fundraising has an opportunity cost. This book pays little attention to campus life. Few professors are mentioned, and those mentions are usually more about their impact on the school’s mission than on their classroom demeanor. Curriculum issues are mentioned mostly in terms of their relationship to giving–it’s easier, as the book shows, to raise money for programs than for everyday funding, and that fundraising emphasis impacts the curriculum. There’s little in this text about residential life, about arts and sports, or about the daily grind faced by students. Indeed, very few students are mentioned, either by name or by implication. An exception is a fairly superficial recognition of the impact of the ’60s counterculture, and a discussion of the somewhat-related Mac Free College experiment. An interesting omission, considering the author’s established reputation as a student of church architecture, is the total lack of analysis–and nearly complete lack of mention–of the college buildings. I’d really like to see what she could do with that topic.

All that to say that there’s room for another book about Macalester, with perhaps more emphasis on the changing structure of the curriculum, the faculty’s ever-evolving membership, and changes to student life (and the student body’s makeup) which occurred over time. Nonetheless, Kilde’s book is valuable as written, and quite a gratifying read.

This review was originally published on LibraryThing.