Category Archives: Higher Education

Posts concerned with the sad state of higher education

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.

Private Browsing

Montclair, New Jersey, is a diverting place. At least it is for me. I used to teach—strictly as an adjunct of course—at Montclair State University. And like many other diverting towns, Montclair has multiple bookstores. On the occasions my wife has to spend a Saturday working in Montclair I often accompany her. If the weather is decent I can walk to both bookstores and have a leisurely browse. Since anything leisurely is rare these days, I eagerly anticipate such trips. Typically I’ll sit in my wife’s work place counting off the minutes until I can leave to get to the Montclair Book Center just as it opens. Used bookstores are a bit like archaeology—you never know what you’ll find, and some of the treasures may be unique. I often have the store mostly to myself, for private browsing.

This time, however, I had another task to accomplish first, before I could go to the first bookstore. By the time I arrived, it had been open for over an hour and there were, surprisingly, plenty of people there. We’re accustomed to hearing that people no longer care for books. While it’s true they won’t bring in the numbers of, say, those wanting the latest video game, it’s also true that on a pleasant Saturday morning an independent bookstore can be a crowded place. It warmed my heart to see so many readers out. And they weren’t all old like me. Younger people talking about the merits of this or that author, browsing in the sections I frequently haunt. Although I found none of the books on my list, I still had that blessed feeling you have when you discover you’re not really alone.

The other store, Watchung Booksellers, is a couple miles to the north, at least by the walking route I use. A small indie, it typically has what modern-day people might be expected to be interested in. I arrived to find it crowded as well. I’ve been there a number of times in the past and usually there are two or three others browsing. This time it was actually a little difficult to get around the small space. Seeing children there made me especially glad. A crowded bookstore is a sign of hope. As we struggle against the forces of ignorance and hatred that seem to have gripped the privileged classes, Saturdays at bookstores doing brisk business are an indication that the future may correct such ill-informed sentiments. Bookstores are termometers of national health, and seeing them busy made my Saturday. It’s worth getting up early just to spend such a day in Montclair.

Academia Dot

The marketplace for ideas is just that. A place of commodity and exchange. We pay our professors good money (and our administrators even better) so that we can be given “goods.” The same is true of the publishing industry. Those of us who write books primarily (I think) think we are expressing ideas we have that we suppose are worthy of discussion. The book comes out. We await reviews. Citations. Exchange of ideas. Oh yes, and royalties. Only the naive think academic publishing will lead to much of the latter in the greater scheme of things. And so many of us turn to for-profit sites like Academia.edu to pedal our wares for free. After all, Academia is offering us a free service, isn’t it? (At least if you can ignore the constant sell-ups to find out who’s been reading your stuff.) But Academia isn’t non-profit. There’s money to be made here among gullible academics.

Oh, I have a page on Academia just like everybody else. Several of my papers, long out of the payout stage for their journals or parent books, are there for free. Academia frequently asks me if I’m sure I don’t want to upgrade—increase my visibility. Make them a bit of lucre on the side. So the other day I was flattered when I received an email about my dissertation from another vendor. I didn’t recognize the sender, but the content of the email made it clear they didn’t recognize me either. It was an offer to publish my original research done at the University of Edinburgh. Problem is, it’s already been published. Twice. Both editions beyond the purchasing power of mere mortals, but still, it’s out there. Academics, I expect, are some of the favorite targets of the entrepreneurial. We, after all, don’t speak that language. We trade in the currency of ideas. We’re easy marks.

I think Academia.edu is a great idea. Often it’s possible for those of us who are unaffiliated to find papers that journals insist on selling for fifteen bucks a pop—considering I can buy an entire book for that much, no thank you—for free. There may be hidden costs involved, but some days I do miss Robin Hood. No matter how many years I’ve been an editor, I can’t stop thinking like an academic. It comes with the territory. You can’t simply forget all that graduate school taught you. One thing most academics haven’t learned, however, is how to interpret the web. Long before our government allowed the freedom of the web to end, not all sites were free.

Updates

So, I’m getting ready to update this website. I’ll give you a warning before things change. Another update, however, is in order. I’ve been promising that I’d let you know when my forthcoming book with McFarland received its final title. Well, drum roll please! The final title is actually the first title I proposed—Holy Horror: The Bible and Fear in Movies. And it has an ISBN: 978-1-4766-7466-7. And a cover design too, but I can’t share that just yet. It is appropriately lurid, matching the subject. But in all seriousness, the book makes a case for the fact that many people understand their religion via popular media. Being a bad boy, I look at it through horror movies.

The title Holy Horror was a play on Douglas Cowan’s excellent book, Sacred Terror. I recall reading that book, starting the night I bought it as SBL, curled up in the swank conference hotel bed, turning pages until I couldn’t hold my eyes open any longer. It had honestly never occurred to me that religion scholars could get away with writing about horror movies. Cowan had the natural advantage of being a Canadian, something I’ve always longed to be. He also has a secure university post. I was, at the time, just a guy trying to feel secure in what seemed like (and turned out in reality to be) a threatening seminary position that was shortly to end.

It may be difficult to understand how horror can be consoling. It can. I’m a squeamish guy. I don’t like blood and gore. I hate being startled. Nevertheless, I took comfort in this genre as my career was falling apart. Holy Horror was a cathartic book for me to write. There’s more than a little metaphor in it. One thing that will become clear to readers is that the Bible is no stranger to horror movies. Ironically, many of them are strangely conservative—Carol J. Clover’s classic Men, Women, and Chainsaws (which I’ve reviewed on this blog) made that point clearly. Horror often has the same message as your typical Disney film, although it’s presently slightly differently. How so? Well, I can’t say very much here or you’ll have no reason to read my book. McFarland does a great job with publishing this kind of title. You won’t find it in Barnes and Noble, and not likely in your local indie either, but it’ll be available on Amazon and these days that’s enough. And before long these pages will change to reflect its coming.

Scientists, Unplugged

Feeling inferior is common among religionists. When cultures list their brightest and best, scientists often top the list and those who specialize in religion are nowhere to be found. This situation gives the lie to the fact that many scientists think about, and are influenced by, religion. That became clear to me in reading Stefan Klein’s We Are All Stardust. Not Klein’s best-known book, this is a collection of interviews with well-known scientists, unplugged. There are many big names in here, such as Richard Dawkins and Jane Goodall, as well as some less familiar on a household level. Klein, himself a Ph.D.-holder in physics, asks them somewhat unconventional questions, with the goal of bringing a more human face to scientists.

When asked directly, scientists admit to thinking quite a bit about religion. Of those interviewed, several are hostile to it while others accept some tenets of one faith system or another. Most of them indicate that either religion or morality plays an important role in society, if not in science itself. The sad part is almost none of them seem to realize that the study of religion can be (and among the university-trained, generally is) scientific. In academia, religious studies is often vaguely tossed in with the humanities, while others would suggest it fits under social sciences—as a sub-discipline of anthropology, for example. Few understand the field, in part because many specialists enter it for initially religious reasons, somehow tainting it.

While I enjoyed the book quite a lot—it was a quick read with plenty of profound ideas—it also had a disturbing undercurrent. The explanation that many of the interviewees gave for why they went into science was “curiosity.” The implication was that those who can’t stop asking questions, and have intelligence, go into science. Again, this feature is true of most academic fields, if they’re understood. Greatly tempted to go into science myself, I simply didn’t have the mathematical faculties to do it. While I took advanced math in high school I wouldn’t have gotten through without my younger brother explaining everything to me. My real concerns lay along the line of ultimates. Learning about Hell at a young age, it made the most sense to me—very curious and scientifically inclined—to avoid going there. To do so, the proper target of my science should be religion. While many scientists in We Are All Stardust are friendly to philosophy, religion is considered a far less worthy subject by not a few. True, religion often behaves badly in public. It doesn’t bring the money into universities that megachurches reap. But unplugged even scientists still think about it.

Knowing It All

Reading about the Trump administration underscores once again the traditional American contradiction of, love of, but mostly hatred toward, experts. When you’re lying on that operating table, you stake your life that an expert is going to perform the surgery. When you buy that airline ticket, you’re banking that the pilot will be an expert. If you’re electing the most powerful individual in the world, you’ll excoriate experts and defer to the guy with the weird hair that says whatever he pleases and has never been a public servant a day in his life. This observation isn’t original with me, of course. I’m only an editor. Nevertheless, the same dilemma comes down to my little world of academic publishing as well. Most academics don’t understand this business—I was an academic at one time and I certainly didn’t—and yet don’t like to bow to the expertise of those who do.

Please don’t misunderstand. I’m making no grand claims to understanding this industry into which I unwittingly stumbled. I have been involved in it for over a decade now and I’m still learning. One of the things I’m learning is that many academics don’t trust experts. In part it’s academic culture. A doctoral program, if it’s a good one, will make you question everything. Sometimes even experts forget when to engage the brakes. When dealing with the experts at a publishing company, many academics doubt the expertise of those who do this day in and day out for a living. Books, however, have measurable sales records. There’s hard data for analysis. Not that it’s foolproof (but what is?), such metrics are time-tested and based on reasonable data sets. Often that’s not enough to convince an expert that other experts know more than they’re revealing. A personal philosophy, but one which I pursue with appropriate skepticism, is that other people should be left to do their jobs. As I frequently note, those who talk to the bus driver, freely giving advice, often make the situation worse for everyone.

The case of religion, however, is a special can of worms. There are no experts in this field, even among those of us who are experts. Had I realized this when I was younger, I’m not sure it would’ve made much of a difference in what I ended up doing with my life. You see, religion is all about ultimates. The big questions. The sine qua non of every single thing. When I read about things like politics, or entrepreneurship, I think to myself, “That’s all fine and good, but at the end of the day, is it what really matters?” If life is a search for meaning, why not grab it by both hands and try to become an expert at it? Some would say that’s the job of the philosopher, but let’s face it, religionists and philosophers deal in the same currency. One is more abstract than the other, to be sure. Still, don’t take my word for it. Please consult an expert.

Americanism

I’m a bit too much of a contrarian to be a regular bestseller reader. I do occasionally bow to curiosity though, and I do have a lot of time on the bus. But that wasn’t the reason I turned to Michael Wolff’s Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House. Purchasing this book was a statement. Another in a long line of protests in which I’ve taken part since January of 2017 (and even before). You see, I mourn. I mourn what our country has become. My first indication that I should write (which I of course ignored) was the winning of a statewide essay contest my senior year in high school. The topic of the essay was “Americanism.” My piece was respectfully cynical; I was surprised I won. This was in the days before personal computers and I didn’t think to keep a typed, or even hand-written copy.

The essay was cynical not because I don’t believe in America, but because I do. I’ve been confronted on this issue concerning my blog occasionally. My jeremiads. You see, you only get this fed up with things when you love them deeply. I sometimes rail about higher education, for example, because I care about it. Fire and Fury created in me a—to borrow from the book’s vocabulary—Kafkaesque bewilderment about how a nation based on high principles could possibly sink so low. Politicians are perhaps the most self-serving of human beings, but at least they try to make sure the country doesn’t go off the rails. This train leapt the tracks months ago, and our elected officials refuse to do anything about it, each playing their own angle, hoping personally to come out of it ahead. Worth a jeremiad, I’d say.

I was a Republican in high school. I wasn’t old enough to vote, so that party affliction was never official. When I did register at 18 it was as an independent (remember, contrarian). As a Fundamentalist I was ahead of the Tea Party, at the time. Even with this level of patriotism I wrote an essay taking my country to task. I was raised in a poor family. Told an education would improve my chances, I found myself facing predatory loan officers and others eager to wring my blue collar until it was possible to twist no further. If I had no money, my future money would do. I’d already had a taste of that as a high schooler. That was three-and-a-half decades ago now. I kinda hoped the country might improve in all that time. And I kinda wish I’d kept a copy of that essay as a memento of more optimistic days. Fire and Fury sells so well, I suspect, because I’m not really alone in feeling this way.