Category Archives: Higher Education

Posts concerned with the sad state of higher education

Unnatural Connections

The last time we moved internet service was just becoming an issue.  When we first came to our Somerville apartment we had dial-up.  Do you believe it?  Shortly after that FIOS came to town and we decided to give it a try, but at a fairly low speed.  We’ve always tried to be responsible with money and I naturally balk at paying for something as intangible and amorphous as “internet connectivity.”  I guess I’m a naive realist after all.  In any case, one of the top priorities in moving to our new place was getting internet set up.  Even before electricity or gas or water.  It has become THE utility.  The place to pay the bills for all the other utilities.  And since I’m now telecommuting, the umbilical cord that connects me to work.

I don’t mean to sound all grandpa-ish on you, but just twelve years ago we struggled for any connection at all.  We had one computer (and one work laptop) and only the desktop had internet access.  Many of the arcane pieces of hardware found in the attic were from attempts to get us onto the net more efficiently.  We even had to draw up a contract for who could use the computer and for how long since all of us wanted that magic window onto the virtual world.  Now, like most households, we have wifi and high speed access.  When we’re not at the computer, we have our smart phones at hand.  The strangest thing about all of this is that now that we’ve got constant connection, our nation has become as polarized as it has ever been.  Perhaps we see a little too much of each other?  Or too little?

The web has connected us to those we like.  Walking down the street it’s rare to find someone not staring at their phone, ignoring all living beings around him or her.  We’ve been able to filter out those we don’t like.  Those who have different points of view.  The net shows us that we aren’t alone, and even those with extreme views can find plenty of compatriots in cyberspace.  There’s a reason we used to be told not to discuss religion or politics.  Now we know everybody else’s business.

There was a time when moving meant going to where the jobs are.  Especially in academia.  Colleges and universities exist in set locations.  In space-time.  Telecommuting isn’t an option (although even that’s happening in some cases now).  Moving these days means weighing your internet access options.  Satellite is just too slow and unreliable.  Who would’ve imagined, for those of us born just after Sputnik went up, that now even space-based connections just aren’t advanced enough?  Cyberspace has become more infinite than outer space.  And I still prefer pencil and paper.

Not Enceladus

I’m moving.  It turns out that transport companies don’t offer service to Enceladus, and inter-planetary moves are expensive, so we’re moving just one state over.  If, by chance, you know me from work you need not worry—my job will remain the same but the commute will become tele.  Over the past several weeks my wife and I have been sorting through the accumulated effects of thirty years of married life.  Our current apartment has an attic.  Uninsulated, there are few days when it’s not too hot or too cold to stand to be up there for very long—kind of like other planets, come to think of it.  Also neighbors don’t appreciate creaking floorboards over their heads the hours I’m awake.  Going through things that were hurriedly packed to get out of Nashotah House was quite poignant.  That’s the way fragments of past lives are, I guess.  You see, that was an unexpected move.  Life has a way of being complicated.

One of the more remarkable discoveries was how much we used to put on paper.  As a scholar of ancient documents, I have an inherent distrust of electronic media.  To be written means to appear on a permanent—as much as material things can be permanent—medium.  Back in my teaching days assignments were handed in on paper.  Grading was done on paper.  Teaching evaluations were distributed on paper.  Academic publications were done on paper.  In order to be a professor you needed a house.  I taught at five different schools over a span of nearly two decades.  There was a lot of paper to go through.

The academic mindset is seasonal.  I kept waiting for summer to come to have time to sort through everything.  Outside academia, I’m still learning, summer is just another series of work days.  Yes, you can cash in vacation time, but you’ll not have that entirely sensible canicule hiatus that allows you to examine what you’ve accumulated and determine if you’ll ever need it again.  It was like archaeology in the attic.  When volunteering at Tel Dor in the summer of 1987—summers were like that, as I said—I learned that by far the majority of pottery found at digs is discarded.  There are literally tons of it thrown away.  You can’t keep it all.  So the attic was a kind of triage of memories.  Not all of this was going to fit in the new house.  Decisions had to be made.  I guess I was thinking that if a company could take us to Enceladus they’d have figured out how to transport everything.  It turns out that to escape earth’s gravity, you have to get your ship as light as possible.  With over half a century of memories, however, there’s bound to be some weight to be left behind.

Fictional Facts

“If you want truth,” Indiana Jones famously said, you need to go to philosophy class. The sad fact is most people have little practical training when it comes to such issues as discerning truth. Some time ago I read an article about how fake news travels faster and is more deeply believed than actual truth. I suspect that’s because the truth is hard. The age-old trope used to be a wizened elder sitting atop a mountain in the lotus position. A lifetime of thinking through the labyrinthian corridors of wishful belief to get to what is finally and unassailably true. Our president, with the full complicity of the Republican Party, is out to dismantle the concept of truth once and for all.

Indiana Jones was contrasting facts to truth in this scene from The Final Crusade. The idea was that facts sometimes make you question truth. In GOP University, however, facts have alternatives. He who bellows the loudest is the harbinger of truth. Never mind that still small voice that comes after the raging wind. The voice that can stop a fiery prophet in his tracks—a man who could raise the dead, for crying out loud—but even his successor called Herod a FOX. In the culture of the shrug, who really cares? Finding the truth is so much navel-gazing. There are real enemies to bomb and somebody has some money that I can take away and claim as my own. To do so we can make up facts as we go along and lies will see us through. With the Evangelical seal of approval.

Even with rumors of a fifth film swirling, I miss Indiana Jones. In his formative days fascists were the enemies, even of the Republicans. Although he was showing his age in Crystal Skull, Jones still couldn’t countenance oppressive regimes. Scientific studies show people would rather believe fake news. We’re hopelessly prone to fantasy, I guess. Even as I volunteered on the archaeological dig at Tel Dor, although I had little money a fedora was required. There was a difference, however. I knew I really wasn’t Indiana Jones. I was digging for facts so solid that they could be held in my hand. Unlike Dr. Jones’ students, I did go down the hall to Dr. Trammel’s philosophy class. Surrounded by the young Republicans of Grove City College, none of us doubted that truth was spelled with a capital T. Now Truth is apparently an artifact buried in the sand, awaiting a hapless archaeologist to bring it to light. Amid all the forgeries that non-specialists can’t tell apart.

Ask an Evangelical

News stories this year have plowed up a frequently repeated question: what’s an Evangelical? This was the subtext to a Washington Post story that declared “Half of evangelicals support Israel because they believe it is important for fulfilling end-times prophecy,” as if it’s news. The media’s a little shy, I get it. Those of us who grew up Evangelical could have told them that at least 40 years ago. As a child I knew that Israel had to be fully restored for Jesus to return. Politics, we thought, were holding God hostage. You see, if the Bible says something, and it’s infallible, then even the Almighty has to obey it. And some parts seem to indicate that Israel has to be restored—interpreted a certain way—before Jesus gets his invitation back.

This Evangelical support isn’t because they love the Jews. No, no. Let’s not get personal about this. It’s because the second coming isn’t coming until the pieces are laid out in order. The Bible’s like a crystal ball, only it’s holy. It can predict the future with great precision. You can be sure someone like Trump is in there someplace, maybe in the passage where an ass speaks. In the 1970s it was Nixon. The wonderful thing about prophecy is that it’s made with interchangeable parts. As Millenniarians know, if you get your year wrong never apologize. Simply recalculate and keep preaching as if nothing happened. The Almighty is a forgiving God. At least to those He likes.

Intellectuals seem to think Evangelicalism is contagious. Well, to be fair, historically it has been. That was the whole point of camp meetings. Most Evangelicals aren’t too shy to tell you what they believe. In fact, their reading of the Bible sort of insists that they do. If you’re too bashful, many of those in the academy (or even formerly so) started out in their ranks. Rare is the biblical scholar who decided on that field of study purely based on intellectual curiosity. There was likely a method to their madness. Yes, of course Evangelicals support any politician who moves the embassy to Jerusalem. Tis a consummation devoutly to be wished. The divine heels have been dragging for a couple of millennia now, so it’s time to get this show on the road. All you have to do is ask an Evangelical. They’re not hard to find; in fact, they seem to be everywhere these days.

Russian Passions

Dmitri didn’t do it; guilty anyway. That’s it in six words. I have to confess my tolerance for really long novels isn’t what it used to be. Blame it on being a child raised by television—every thirty minutes I’m ready for something new. I first read Fyodor Dostoyevsky’s classic The Brothers Karamazov when I was in seminary. Seminarians are an odd breed, and many of them relished the deep, ponderous novels with profound things to say about humankind. The Brothers Karamazov is such a novel. When you’re a student, reading’s part of the job description. As a writer Dostoyevsky gets away with things that’d lead to you failing composition class these days. Speeches that stretch on for chapters, characters taking 100 pages to die, and children talking like adults. It’s a heady mix.

I’ll have to admit that I remembered very little of the story from my last reading. I knew Fyodor Karamazov got killed. I couldn’t remember by whom. All the buzz in seminary was about the famous Grand Inquisitor scene. That’s the part where the Grand Inquisitor interrogates Christ and finds him wanting in the eyes of the church. So daring. So deep! And so early in the book. As I made my way through many heavy-lidded pages, with some dismay I realized that after I’d read the high point of the book I still had 457 pages to go, none of which I remembered from my reading three decades ago. I don’t mean to disparage the classic—I noted and underline several passages as I read. The blame is entirely on me. Still, the endless gloom of personal guilt that hangs on every character, even Alexei—whom Dostoyevsky states outright is his hero—become overbearing at times. This is a nation battened down by Christianity.

Often I’ve expressed the idea that we force children to read great novels before they’re ready to do so, ruining the classics for them for life. I first read Moby-Dick in seminary and I’ve read it several times since. It seems nobody’s really ready for Melville before their twenties. What is the age for Dostoyevsky? I think I comprehended more this time through. There were ideas here that, had I more time, I would likely have enjoyed lingering over. If life were so kind as to allow us the leisure to digest huge books I have no doubt that we would all be wiser, if not more satisfied. Fyodor Karamazov is dead. Alexei is cheered by the school boys. This long journey has itself been the goal.

Call It What You Will

I didn’t even know the House of Representatives had a chaplain. Then Paul Ryan fired him. I wondered once again if evangelicals were interested in religion at all. We all have labels we’d like to claim but lack of legitimacy prevents us from keeping them. My secret wannabe title is rock star, but given that I can’t sing and can’t play any instruments, I have trouble retaining it. Evangelicals, however, have no challengers. They are so flexible they’d make Proteus blush. Such theological promiscuity, traditional religion teaches, will have its comeuppance. If 45 has accomplished nothing else, he’s forced the religious right to show its true, secular colors. Of all the great ironies of the situation none is greater than the fact that “nones” of whatever description hold up the weightier matters of morality better than those most vocal about their faith. Evangelicals, however, control the narrative and claim to do so with God’s own authority. They have few challengers.

Source: Beinecke Rare Book & Manuscript Library, Yale University via Wikimedia Commons

Then, mere days latter, Rev. Patrick J. Conroy was reinstated by the whiplash GOP. Did somebody warn the religious right that “religious” was part of their name? “Hypocrisy” comes from a Greek root meaning to play a theatrical part. As my stepfather used to tell us, “do as I say, not as I do.” He was a secular man, so his hypocrisy could be overlooked. Noble, even, at times. When those who stake their entire identity on WWJD promote, vocally and enthusiastically, an unrepentant candidate for sinner of the year, you’ve got to wonder if even hypocrisy has lost its punch. How can you reason with people who refuse to reason? We used to lock them away in asylums. Now we throw them into the swamp.

Double standards are the new normal, I guess. Nobody really paid any heed when the fall of the towering televangelists showed, decades ago, that the idol they proclaimed as true religion was rotten to the core. Oh, they made the headlines for a while, but their tumble did nothing to dissuade their true followers. Evangelicals control their own narrative. For many decades now higher education and the media have pretty much ignored religion as a force for social change. Once upon a time Evangelicalism meant change based on ideals that more or less fit the recorded words of the carpenter from Nazareth. Now that its inspiration is the ninth circle below, those who have access to the funds of higher education prefer to put their money elsewhere. Why study something that threatens democracy on a daily basis? Why bother trying to understand Evangelicals? Call it what you will—there’s no way to object to anyone claiming whatever name they want. I should know; I’m a rock star, after all.

Candles vs Demons

Among scientists who write Carl Sagan has always struck me as one of the more open minded. Dedicated to the scientific method, he nonetheless admits that there are some things scientists don’t know. The last time I was in Ithaca, therefore, I picked up a copy of his tour de force, The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. I wasn’t really sure what to expect—I’ve been researching demons and I supposed they would be addressed in his book, since they feature in the title. Although that is indeed the case, the book is a collection of essays vindicating in various ways the practice and teaching of science. It is quite a scary book. It was also Sagan’s final book published in his lifetime.

Reading this just after Gabriele Amorth’s An Exorcist Explains Demons, noteworthy for its credulousness, The Demon-Haunted World was like whiplash into reality. Back into the realm of observable facts and testable hypotheses, it was indeed like a candle in the dark. Sagan admits that science can’t speak definitively on the supernatural—something that sets him apart from other science writers—but that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t apply scientific thinking anywhere it’s appropriate. And that includes the universe of politics. Published some two decades before the rise of Trump, the book is surprisingly prophetic when it points to the possibility of the rise of fascism in a nation that distrusts science. Indeed, the book shows Sagan clearly worried that an authoritarian, totalitarian government was on the rise. It’s almost preternatural in its accuracy.

The tome is large enough to dissuade a full summary within the word-limits I set for myself on these daily posts, but I can say that this book is necessary now more than ever. Sagan was a celebrity in his lifetime, a “rock star” scientist. Even so he worried about the deplorable state of science understanding among political leaders he met. For many years America has been mired in conservative causes that distrust science implicitly. Another strain that runs throughout this book is the need for education. Not only has America catered to anti-science groups, it has fallen behind much of the rest of the world in science education. Those who claim to make America great again can’t see that their very tactics have made our nation fall behind the rest of the world when it comes to education, across the board. Surely Sagan was right that a good grounding in scientific thinking is the equivalent of lighting a candle. As for the rest of the country it has been getting darker and darker, and our “leaders” have no idea even how to strike a match.