Category Archives: Higher Education

Posts concerned with the sad state of higher education

Becoming

It’s pretty difficult to summarize the feelings when watching your own child graduate from college. Of course, she’s not a child any more, but that’s always the way you’ll think of her. Binghamton University, a “public ivy,” is a competitive school to attend. Hard to get in, and hard to get out. And you know that there were serious struggles to get to this point. Courses conceptually impossible for a humanities ex-professor to understand marked the trail to this point. The academic robes, the positive energy, and the overall sense of accomplishment make this one of those joyous occasions that mark the transition from being the instructed to becoming the instructors. It’s a time unlike any other.

Most of my collegiate thoughts, despite my three degrees in religious studies, have focused on science and engineering. It’s not that the basis of truth has shifted, but the practicalities of “finding a job” have to take precedence these days. The STEM universe may be the only real one, according to those smart enough to know such things. It’s difficult not to feel that studying religion was chasing a chimera, if not a little deluded. Tomorrow, though, the college of arts and sciences will send forth even more graduates into a world where employment itself may be a reverie. Still, I can’t help but think these engineers from the Watson School are just a little brighter than their more humanities-inclined classmates. Parenting is its own kind of bias.

Commencement is a singular moment. Parents sitting in the crowd want to attract their child’s attention for just a moment. Each one down there is a star. You want to be seen by them, recognized if only for a fleeting smile or subtle wave. They’ve accomplished something and everyone is here to cheer them on. Your meaning is tied up in being associated with that person that you’ve coached through so many aspects of life, and you hope you’ve done it well. They’re ready to leave academia behind and experience a bit of the wider world. It’s a cycle as old as this planet’s first molten rotations as it revolved around a distant star. And as those walking across the stage are growing in magnitude, those of us cheering them on try to recollect what it was like to have so much loving goodwill focused on us. It’s difficult to summarize these feelings, but I’m pretty sure I’d call them religious.

Sideliners

Sidelines can be interesting places to sit. You’re close to the action, and you’re privileged with a close view that few others have. You can’t, however, play the game. Sidelines are familiar to biblical scholars. I can’t count the number of times and/or ways the input of those who spend their lives trying to comprehend the Good Book are, well, sidelined. In the publishing world those who work with Bibles are simply ignored by most others, despite the enormous revenue Bible sales generate. In the academy religion departments overall are fair game for any potential budget cuts. And since what religion study survives tends to be intercultural, the Bible faculty are deemed somewhat less necessary than other sub-disciplines. It’s easy to forget that Christianity is the largest organized religion in the world and that some 2.2 billion persons claim that name. The Bible’s their foundational book. It tells us what motivates them. And yet, it’s easier simply to ignore the whole thing. Then something insane like an Evangelical-fueled Trump election, and everyone continues to say, “we can safely ignore this.”

I recently saw an article by scientists which explored why people engage in dangerous behaviors. The main idea was that although we know certain things are bad for us individually or as a planet, we still do them. We do them with the full knowledge that they’re deadly and will likely hasten our demise. Ignoring religion (and in the case at hand, the Bible) is very much like that. A well-armed true believer can ruin your day pretty quickly. Religion, in recent years, has generated over $82 billion in revenue per year. At least those in the dismal science ought to sit up and take notice of that! Hey, for once, the numbers are with us! Statistically, religion is very important. Sounds like a good thing to pretend doesn’t exist.

Having grown up a Fundamentalist, I often ponder this state of affairs. The Bible, we all knew, was the most important thing. Studying it formally does tend to force new ways of considering it, but few Bible scholars would want to dismiss the Good Book out of hand. It still means too much to too many people simply to ignore. Far safer is the proper handling of Holy Writ. This is much easier to instill when institutions support it. It really is a necessary kind of education. Still, it gets sidelined for industries with lesser profits and lesser baggage. I grew into a career defined by the Bible, but even if I hadn’t I’d hope that I’d be able to recognize that some things just shouldn’t be ignored. Yet I’m on the sidelines cheering on those who consider such a career a tragic mistake.

Weather Vain

The other day I was awakened by a severe thunderstorm. It’s been quite a while since that’s happened. Unlike when we lived in the Midwest, thunderstorms in New Jersey tend to be widely scattered and somewhat uncommon. (It’s all a matter of perspective, I know.) My basis of comparison is how often I notice such storms. I’ve never been able to sleep through one. Thankfully this one came at around 4:30 a.m., past when I’m usually awake on a weekend. I’d forgotten the raw power of just how loud and bright such a storm can be. Danger seems all around. The feeling is primal and urgent. As I got out of bed and walked into the dark kitchen, windows filled with electric blue followed by and tremendous blast, I thought once again of Weathering the Psalms and the story behind it.

By the way, when I speak to young scholars about publishing I tell them this isn’t the way to go about finding a topic. That having been said, my book was born in the Midwest. Life at Nashotah House revolves around required chapel twice daily. Weather does not stop it. In fact, holding the daily office by candlelight because a storm had knocked out the power was not uncommon. Morning and evening prayer—indeed, all of the canonical offices—are built around the recitation of the Psalms. Reading the Psalter in slow, stately tones while thunder raged outside, rattling the ill-fitting stained-glass windows, left an indelible impression. It was only natural in such circumstances to notice how often the Psalms mention the weather. Thus a book was born.

I’m currently at work on a new book. I can’t say the topic just yet because someone might be able to beat me to it. (Knowing the way I come up with book ideas, however, I doubt it.) Sitting in my darkened living room, in my writing chair with the fury just outside, I was strangely inspired by the storm. Then it was over. Silence followed by birds singing, just like in Beethoven’s sixth symphony. The thunderstorm is one of nature’s psalms. As at Nashotah House, in the Midwest we had perhaps too many of that particular kind of psalm. Nevertheless, in the silence that followed I was left strongly in touch with my muse. These are the states that lead to poetry and song. Every great once in a while they might even lead to a book idea. As I tell students, just don’t expect that anyone else will get it.

Trusting Truth

How do we know what’s true? For many the answer is what your experience reveals. If that experience involves being raised as a Bible-believer, that complicates things. A friend recently sent me a New York Times piece entitled “The Evangelical Roots of Our Post-Truth Society,” by Molly Worthen. For those of us raised in Fundamentalist conditions, this isn’t news. Then again, those raised Fundamentalist assume that everyone knows the truth but others have blatantly decided to reject it. It’s a strange idea, inerrancy. It’s clearly a form of idolatry and its roots can be traced if anyone wishes to take the time to do it. Inerrancy is the belief that the Bible is correct, tout court. It’s right about everything. If it contains one error, so the thinking goes, it topples like a house of cards. (Cards are sinful by the way, so get your hands off that deck!) If that’s your starting point, then the rest of the facts have to fall into place.

As much as I wish I could say that this simplistic outlook may be corrected by education, that’s not always the case. Many children of inerrantists are raised to question what they learn in school. Worse, many are home schooled so that they never have to be exposed to the sinful machinations of others until they try to enter the job market and are utterly perplexed by the fact that they don’t even speak a common language with the rest of society. Key code words don’t mean the same things outside that safe, withdrawn community where everyone knows the Bible and understands that to know it is to love it. Science doesn’t love the Bible, they’re taught. So science is wrong. It’s quite simple really. You already have all the information you need in one book. If science disagrees, then, well, you already have all the information you need.

There’s an internal logic to all of this, and dismissing the heartfelt beliefs of Fundamentalists only gets their backs up. It’s not about logic, but the emotion of belief. Some neuroscientists have been suggesting that we reason not only by logic but also with emotion. That complicates things, for sure, but it also explains a lot. For example, in a world where religion drives nearly all the major issues facing society, logic would dictate that universities would build up religion departments to try to understand this very real danger. Instead we find the exact opposite. Withdrawing into your own little world occurs on both ends of the spectrum. Dr. Worthen is to be applauded for bringing this out into the light. If society wants to benefit from this knowledge, it will need to stop and think about what it really means to be human. Fundamentalists, for all their foibles, illustrate that nicely.

Publisher’s Breakfast

I recently had the opportunity to discuss publishing to a room full of academics. (Ooo, I can feel the envy rising already!) Although I discuss books quite frequently on this blog, I generally don’t discuss publishing much. One of the reasons is that publishing isn’t easy to tie into religion sometimes. Another—and this may be the bigger factor—is that publishing is work. This blog, which is technically a form of publishing, is more for letting my mind wander outside the paddock after being penned in at work for too much of my adult life. Still, I’m glad to give publishing advice for those who want it.

The focus of these talks (of which I’ve given precisely two) is how to get published. My main approach to this question is to point out that higher education and publishing are diverging rapidly. The reasons for this are complex, but simply put, publishers need to make money. Having been on the receiving end of tuition statements for a good deal of my life, I have no doubt that institutions make ready money. They may have trouble meeting the costs of all those administrators for whom they keep creating positions, like any good business, so each semester the bill creeps up a bit until suddenly you realize your bank account’s empty and you’d better get to commissioning some more academic books. After all, this is all about money, is it not?

Like many in higher education, I courted academia as a hopeless romantic. I believed that love of subject and ardent devotion with ample proofs of said love would woo the academy into a permanent relationship. I’ve always been an idealist. Now I’m on the side of the desk where colleagues approach me to ask favors. It’s kind of like The Godfather, really. Only those who kiss Don Corleone’s ring tend to do so knowing that favors require some kind of reciprocity. The academy may not welcome you but would you mind helping us out now that you’re in a position to do so? No fear of horse heads here. Perhaps by now you understand why I don’t write much about publishing on this humble little blog. The focus of The Godfather, after all, is really young Michael Corleone and his devolution from an upstanding citizen (shall we say “academic”?) to a mafia crime boss. I’ll leave the other side of the equation blank. Trade secrets, after all, are worth money.

Thick Skin

Religion and folklore encapsulate what folk believe. Human beings, despite rationality, are ritualistic creatures. Psychologists have their work cut out trying to explain why we do this or that odd thing, and historians sometimes dig deep into the backstory to find some hint of a tradition’s origins. Although I lived in Edinburgh for over three years, and drove through South Queensferry in the shadow of the great Forth Bridge a number of times, I never heard of the Burryman. In case you haven’t either, here’s a link a friend sent to a brief video about him. In it Andrew Taylor explains the tradition. Each year, going back to South Queensferry’s pagan past, a citizen dresses in a suit of burrs to ensure a good harvest and bring good luck. What’s fascinating here is that burrs are something people generally avoid, although they are an ingenious method of seed dispersal. They stick to clothes, and even skin and can be annoying even singly. Why anyone would submit to an entire outfit of burrs is something only folklore can answer.

Anthropologists are in short supply. Universities don’t like to fund the study of folklore since it doesn’t lead to jobs. The end result is that what we know of many strange traditions is anecdotal. A few years back I got soundly dressed down in an academic setting for referring to a popular publication of Scottish ghost stories. You see, I was writing an article for publication in an academic journal. I wanted to document a story I’d memorized by dint of the fact that a ghost tour guide would stand beneath our window every night in Mylne’s Court and recite his tale. (I traced it back to a potential Ancient Near Eastern origin.) The problem was, no academic would deign to write about such decidedly low brow tripe. In order to find a written source, I had to cite a popular book. Academic reviewers responded with scorn that I would never pass on to an author, speaking as an editor. This was, however, in the old school days.

So, how would we find the backstory to the Burryman? Great Big Story went straight to the source. Andrew Taylor, the incumbent Burryman, tells what he knows of the tradition. You can’t even see the Burryman from high in your ivory tower where pure thought is your only companion. I’ve always been a street academic, though. Growing up blue collar, I find it much more interesting to see what people are doing out here where the professionals don’t tell them how to behave. The pagan past is still alive. We don’t need a wicker man to prove the point. All it takes is a bunch of dried burdock and some very thick skin.

Palms and Thorns

“Holy Week” affects only some. That thought may be disturbing to those who still think of religions as a one-size-fits-all phenomenon. So, although today is Palm Sunday for many, for others it’s just Sunday. Not even all Christians recognize the same Palm Sunday. The question that interests me, though, is the one regarding which religion is the right one. I personally suspect this is the behind the rise of the Nones, but I’m getting ahead of my story. How did we come to this impasse? How did we come to believe that only one winner takes it all, spiritually speaking? The answer may lie in evolution.

I don’t mean biological evolution. Borrowing a principal for how this factual occurrence works, however, may help to understand the diversity of religions. For species to differentiate, they must be isolated from each other somehow. Groups that are available for interbreeding will do precisely that. When populations are separated, subtle changes add up over the passage of time so that when they come together down the road mating’s simply an impossibility. Religions behave the same way. The difference, apart from biology, is that many religions allow multiple gods. They aren’t so different from each other. In fact, we’re not even sure if gods are sufficient to define “religion.” People from diverse cultures in ancient times, the evidence seems to indicate, tried to match up their gods. Your Zeus is our Odin kind of thing. Monotheism—the main form of religion that has a problem with evolution—is the ultimate exceptionalist belief system. Our one deity is the only deity and everybody else is wrong. When populations come together we can’t even agree that the God who’s historically the same is in reality the same. Ours is slightly better.

Amid all the chaos created by religions, academics have decided they’re a phenomenon not worth studying. Academics often lose sight of the larger picture. What happens outside the classroom or laboratory is real life too. And outside the walls of the ivory tower the faithful are gathering. Some today are doing it with palm branches in hand. Others are looking on, bemused. The important thing is we don’t talk about it because talking might lead to understanding. And understanding might make us concede that others have some good points to make with their religion as well. How can you feel special in the eyes of your own god when other people suggest other truths might also apply? No wonder someone will end up crucified by the end of the week.