Category Archives: Higher Education

Posts concerned with the sad state of higher education

Making Prophets

I first read 1984 around its eponymous date. The context is informative. I was a student at Grove City College, a conservative, Reagan-esque school of strong free-market inclinations. Being a first-generation college student I knew nothing of choosing a school, and since my upbringing was Fundamentalist, and since Grove City was a place I’d been many times, it seemed the natural choice. As my four years there wore one, my conservatism became effaced before what should be the effect of higher education. I was reading and learning new things—ideas that in the pre-internet days were simply inaccessible to someone from a small town which had no library, no bookstore, and, to be honest, no charm. How was someone supposed to learn in those circumstances? Largely it came down to high school (for those who finished) in a nearby town, and television. George Orwell saw the potential of the latter far too clearly.

It was in this great conservative bastion that I read 1984—I don’t even remember what course it was for. I do remember vividly the discussion of the Appendix on Newspeak—that it was a danger, a very real danger, to engineer language to prevent free thought. That was conservatism in the literal era of 1984. When that year passed we breathed a collective sigh of relief that Orwell’s prophecy hadn’t happened. Maybe Orwell wasn’t a prophet after all. The thing about prophecy, however, is that it unfolds slowly. Trump may have caught the world by surprise, but the evidence is there that the Orwellian groundwork was being consciously laid from the time of the Clinton Administration onward. Those who seemed to think Ingsoc was onto something good began working in local politics—the level of school boards and state elections, to build a strong conservative bloc. How many states have Republican governors? Go ahead and look it up, I’ll wait.

Progressives blithely moved ahead, making real ethical strides. One problem that they’ve always had, however, is believing that Evil is real. It’s an outmoded idea, fit for Medievalist thinking only. There are, however, very real racial supremacists out there. And avowed, unrepentant sexists. They feel that the great white way has been slighted and they are itching for revenge. Don’t believe me? Turn on the news. This is not your father’s Republican Party. In 1984 the Republicans were warning us about 1984. By the next decade they were actively emulating it. Orwell died paranoid and the world was relieved as his prophecy was harmlessly classified as fiction.

A Kind of Contact

I find myself in Ithaca, New York. Places have a resonance with people, and this is one of those places I feel like I belong. The feeling may not be mutual, but that makes it no less real. At least on my part. Dominated by the presence of Cornell University, this town of waterfalls and free spirits represents everything I value. Education, creativity, and an easy familiarity with nature all have a place here. And Carl Sagan. No doubt astrophysics is far more sexy than religious studies. I didn’t watch Cosmos when it aired, but I knew of Sagan as its driving force. Before being daunted by the math, I had considered astronomy as a career; Denied tenure at Harvard, Sagan came to be associated with Cornell, to Ithaca’s enduring benefit. His house above Ithaca Falls is still pointed out by the locals.

Star status for academics, so I’m informed, is a mixed blessing. Accusations of being a popularizer are flung somewhat liberally at those who know how to explain things to non-specialists. Part of the ivory tower mystique is to remain inaccessible and impenetrable. Teaching, at the same time, is expected to open lost worlds to the curious. Sagan, like Bill Nye—another Cornell star—wasn’t afraid to take his knowledge to the streets. And such receptive streets there are in Ithaca. It’s a place a child of the sixties can feel at home. Looking for fossils in the many gorges, I’m reminded that the old and new are not so different in a universe billions of years old.

The sense of place, while scientifically dubious, is nevertheless real. Part of my ancestral heritage lies in upstate New York. My grandfather, while not a college man, took a couple of courses at what was then Cornell College to launch his teaching career. Following in grand-dad’s footsteps, my own teaching career (which, however, never included Cornell) didn’t last long. Yet somehow we both ended up passing through Ithaca. People on the street. Waiting to be enlightened by stars that shine brighter than my own. Life is a series of places. All, it turns out, are temporary. Rod Serling once said, ”Everyone has to have a hometown, Binghamton’s mine.” He left the nearby town, but he has remained there ever since. Places are that way. I’m in Ithaca right now, but the stark reality of New Jersey awaits at the end of the day.

Viewing Religion

Scholars employed by the academy sometimes fall under its privileged bubble. In that rarified space, the classics, the Bible, and even serious contemporary literature can be parsed and prodded until it’s no longer recognized and everyone thinks it’s normal. Out on the streets (for some of us taste the outer darkness) people have a difficult time with such minute attention to detail. People like movies. They’re visual, colorful, and they meet deep human needs. Scholars were slow to take cinema seriously, though. It was one of those passing things. Ephemeral. Shadows flickering on a screen. Never mind that the budget for a single Hollywood blockbuster could finance an entire humanities department for years. This is a strange dynamic when you stop to think about it.

S. Brent Plate, in his book Religion and Film: Cinema and the Re-creation of the World, addresses in a very intelligent way, how film is like religion. Of course, religion is often on the university chopping block these days, so it is perhaps no surprise that among the first academics to pay serious attention to movies in their discipline were religion scholars. What is truly surprising is the depth of that connection between movies and belief. For such a brief book, Plate dives deep and quickly. In a society that seems to have outlived its need for structured religion, movies have managed to hold on through recessions and depressions and terrorist attacks. Indeed, they often provide meaning during those very times. They have a ritual form that meets the kinds of needs religion has traditionally filled. Movies are well worth the time we spend getting to know them.

Sometimes, under the barrage of rhetoric that says all answers are physical, we forget that humans are meaning-seeking creatures. If there’s no purpose to life, our wellbeing suffers. Nobody looking at modern civilization objectively would say that we’re an overwhelmingly happy bunch. One way to understand the popularity of movies is to see them as venues of finding meaning. For 90 minutes to 2 hours we’re shown some version of modern mythology (at least in some cases) that serves many of the same functions as a sermon or scripture. Although Plate hyphenates the word, it is worth pondering that this is for more than mere recreation. The Sabbath idea always involved more than just a day off work. Movies offer us a way toward meaning. So naturally, the academy tends to ignore them. There are, it seems, more important things to do.

Overdone

One of the things you see quite a lot of as an editor is “the next big thing.” Authors with an ego that awes me ensure me that this book will be the sea change we’ve all been waiting for. Things will be different after this is published. I don’t blame them. The trades all say that you’ve got to convince the editor that this project is worth her or his while. Overstating the case is par on this course. All of this got me to thinking. If you’ve read biblical studies seriously you’ll recognize the name Wellhausen. I don’t even have to use his first name—you know who I mean, right? Well, we’ve gone beyond the days when you could be a Wellhausen. When I was a student people spoke of the Wright, Bright, and Albright school. We knew who each of these gentlemen was. Now there are so many spoons in the pot that we’re not even certain what’s cooking.

Have you seen this man?

I’m not sure what the attraction to advanced degrees in this area is. If my case is anything to go by (and I don’t claim that it is) you grow up in a Bible reading family and you want to take the next logical steps. When you’re far enough along on the path to realize what’s happened, it’s too late to turn back. Many things in life are that way. There is a tipping point, a moment of crisis, then nothing will be the same. Then you learn you’ll never be the new Wellhausen. There was only one, and that was a couple of centuries ago now. I run into some pretty strange stuff when it comes to ways of reading the Bible. When the dust settles, however, we’ll still be counting J, E, D, and P on our fingers.

This isn’t a field for fame. Don’t believe me? Approach a stranger on the street and ask them if they know who Wellhausen is. Alas and alack, one of our greatest names is nobody outside the academy! In my own days among the privileged professorate, I never suspected I’d be anything but one of many voices trying to be heard. After all, my training was really more in history of religions than Bible in the first place. Dead languages had to be negotiated, but that’s all part of becoming an expert in something nobody really cares about. But then I think of Wellhausen. There was a time when all of this could make a nation such as Germany sit up and take notice. That day was centuries ago, and I’d better check that pot—I think maybe whatever’s in it may be done.

Filmy Substance

It’s all about Jesus. Well, that’s an overstatement, even in context. One of the amazing things to me about books addressing the Bible in film is just how often Jesus movies come up. If it’s not Jesus movies, it’s movies that have a “Christ figure” or some such Christian trope. Don’t get me wrong—I have no issues with Jesus. It’s just that the Bible and film have so much more in common than this. David Shepherd’s edited collection, Images of the Word: Hollywood’s Bible and Beyond, has some insightful pieces in it and some of what has become “standard fare” already in a field that’s so new. I found Richard A. Blake’s response fascinating. Maybe this was because he doesn’t approach the topic from a biblicists’ point of view.

I’m not really complaining about scholars who look to cinema for a rich source of reception history. I do it myself from time to time. Most of the books on this topic are collections of essays and collections are, by default, uneven. There’s an amazing amount of biblical material in movies that simply goes overlooked. Also, I would suggest, movies offer valid interpretations of the Bible. Somewhere along the development of the discipline we seem to have slipped into thinking that only certain people can legitimately interpret the Good Book. If it is a sacred text, however, it is as much in the public domain as any text can be. And texts in the public domain can legitimately be interpreted by hoi polloi. That’s the nature of being a text with universal assertions, I suspect. Directors and writers, therefore, are legitimate interpreters. We could learn a lot about the Bible from going to the theater.

Like many who’ve taught Bible to undergrads, I sometimes discussed films with them. I always believed students were legitimate interpreters of Scripture, too. This is a dialogue. One of the more interesting aspects of Shepherd’s collection is the pieces that focus on non-Hollywood movies. I don’t see a problem discussing Hollywood since we can assume a larger body of those who’ve seen the film. It is nice, however, to be reminded that “foreign” films also delve into what is sometimes treated as propriety material by Christians. Hindu representations of the life of Jesus? That’s a very interesting idea! Of course, not everyone likes to know how “outsiders” see them. That’s one of the beauties of using cinema as a means of interpreting the Bible. Those of us who study it don’t have the money to influence movies enough to make them in our image. It’s fun to watch someone else’s interpretation.

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.