Truth, Justice, and

Martin Luther King, Jr. attended Boston University School of Theology long before I did.  We remember him today as a great leader, a man willing to die for what he believed in.  And all these years later we’re still struggling to find some semblance of racial equality.  We can’t seem to admit that race is a social construct and not a scientific category.  Indeed, the only race is the human race.  King saw that, and staked his life on it.  Today we’re ruled by politicians who, when faced with the truth immediately shout “fake news!”  “Liberal!”  They may stop short of using some words not because they don’t want to, but because they could cost them at the polls come November.  America is watching.  I’m sitting here thinking how Martin Luther King died when I was just five.  He’d started something righteous and just.  And millions were out marching in the cold on Saturday to say we still believe in justice. 

I didn’t pick Boston University School of Theology just because King was its most famous alum.  The other day a guy noticed my BU stocking cap and asked if it was “Boston University.”  This wasn’t an educated person, but I’m guessing that most school paraphernalia has to do with sports and the game was on in the background, so the question was logical.  I told him it was Binghamton University, a school with which I also have an intimate connection, one step removed.  He said, “Binghamton!  I saw your cap and thought Baylor?  No.  Must be Boston.”  But ironically he ended up with the right school for me, but the wrong school for what I was wearing.  I did pick BU because I realized that strong academics are nothing without social justice.  Of course, academia wanted nothing to do with that.

Recently I read how Republican resentment towards liberals has very solid roots in racism.  Oh, they will deny it—their “fake news” trigger-finger is very itchy—but the whole package is tied up with anger that an African-American was elected president.  Follow that up with an old, white racist.  How will history look back on this insane era?  I think we already know.  While the privileged are trying to build their own legacies, I ponder an African-American preacher with clear vision as the one we remember today.  I went to Boston University naive and full of hope.  I heard a lot about King when I was there.  I knew something of dreams and how costly they could be.  Today I sit here and cuddle the epithet “liberal” and think how it’s become a swear word for some, while its real meaning of “justice” continues to go unheeded.

Belonging

You never know where you might find yourself, but wherever it is it’ll cost you some money.  Well, at least in this instance it did.  Nashotah House sent me packing just as we were thinking about college for our daughter.  It took several years to find any kind of full-time position again, and when university time began I had had a full salaried job for a total of one year of the last seven.  Not ideal, of course.  I remember sitting (again) in the financial aid office, explaining the situation and, as it often goes in higher education, receiving no mercy.  As much as I remember the conversation, I don’t recall a photographer in the room.   There must’ve been, though, since I recently showed up on the Binghamton University website.

I had, of course, applied for a job or two there.  When out of state tuition is riding on such a deal, however, I doubt there’s any way to get considered.  I actually like Binghamton University quite a lot.  I appreciate the fact that it doesn’t pour its money into a football team and that it has the reputation of being a “Public Ivy” school.  I even like the campus removed from city bounds—just like Nashotah House.  I did end up paying them quite a bit of lucre through the years, even as my own alma maters were asking alms.  Higher education is a funny world.  Standing somewhere between a money-making venture and a site of education for its own sake.  Many professors don’t realize just how privileged they are to have jobs like that.

Upstate New York, although I’ve never lived there, is one of my ancestral homes.  My grandfather and his family had lived in the area at least as far back as the 1770s.  I tried to convey that sense of connection in my application, many years ago now.  Academia doesn’t put much stock in the idea of belonging, I guess.  It has become far too businesslike for that.  Binghamton was also the town in which Rod Serling, one of my childhood heroes, grew up.  There seemed to be so many reasons to be in that area.  Eventually I settled for life in my own native Pennsylvania.  People sense, although academics less than others apparently, that they belong in a place.  And if you can’t actually be there, you can still spend your money in any location.  I’ve now got a picture to prove it.

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.

Ready, Ames,

Ames, Iowa is famous for many things. Not only is it where my wife grew up and where we were married, but it’s also the home city of Howard Bannister from What’s Up Doc? and it served as the staging ground for the crew of Twister, which includes some scenes shot in the area. Probably its greatest claim to fame, apart from the sadly defunct Do-Biz Cookies, is being the location of Iowa State University. Often I lingered near campus during family visits, wistfully hoping that someday someone in the religion department would welcome me among the faculty. My academic curse, however, is a powerful one. And that brings me (finally!) to the topic of this post—the haunted history of ISU.

Even the first president had a biblical name.

The website onlyinyourstate (we’re evolving out of the need for a spacebar) has a whimsical story about the hauntings on ISU’s main campus. The story isn’t scary at all, but it does raise that interesting specter of the ghosts of higher education. I’ve read a few of Elizabeth Tucker’s books about haunted campuses (Tucker teaches at another family school, Binghamton University) and, having spent a good deal of my life in academia, I’ve heard many tales first-hand. The very institutions that repeatedly bash our heads with facts can’t escape their own spooky pasts. Even conservative Christian Grove City College had its share of hauntings that we all knew about. You know, the Ketler ghost, and the spirit of the basketball player who broke through a glass door and bled to death right there on campus? Every campus I’ve known has had its baleful wraiths.

Sometimes I wonder if such stories aren’t a natural reaction to having the wonder excised from the world as we mature. Most of us can make it through high school somehow believing in the real possibilities that the world might offer, only to graduate from college to a 9-to-5 existence robbed of any supernatural splendor at all. Is it any wonder coeds see ghosts? Just the other day I read that a tree trimmer with a high school education in Iowa makes a much higher salary than I do with a Ph.D. working in New York City. Maybe that’s why I enjoy the movie Ghostbusters so much. When the reality of higher education and its politics and cruelty become clear escapism can be your best friend. And if you find yourself in Ames, you might want to avoid Friley, just in case.

Playing God

College is a rare time in life. Unlike any time after you find yourself with a diversity of intelligent and talented people open to possibilities that life tends to close shortly thereafter. At Parents Weekend at Binghamton University we took advantage of this wondrous juxtaposition to enjoy student talent. One of those offerings was the play “God of Carnage” by Yasmina Reza. It isn’t literally about God, but rather about two couples whose children had a playground fight. Parents try to solve the crisis, only to end up showing that they are really the ones who need to grow up. One of the vexed parents claims he believes in a God of carnage—that all people will seek their own good first and will eliminate those who get in the way. Perhaps might is right.

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The play is quite funny as the negativity grows and hidden assumptions come to the surface. There are no heroes here. In fact, any factor that might divide people does: gender, socio-economic status, race, sense of importance in the work one does. Each is turned into a weapon to make oneself appear more acceptable than others. Ironically, acceptance is just what’s missing here. Each of the four characters is alone and only finds company in teaming up with another to point out someone else’s foibles. As in most plays, the circumstances are exaggerated, and as in real life, peace is harder to attain than it should be. The god of carnage here is the individual desire to exceed at the expense of others.

The play reminded me, in a rather literal way of the verse stating that a child shall lead us. Not that children are entirely innocent, for they are people too. They can’t be held accountable in the same way adults are. We do our best, but our intentions seldom rise to our ideals. Our own needs and desires get in the way. In my experience of over half a century, most of us never really grow up. Selfish behaviors are magnified in a setting like New York City where so many agenda are crowded in together. If we believe in a god of carnage—that our own desires are more important than those of others—our differences will only emphasize that. Apart from high school and college performances, I have been to few plays in my life. Each time I attend one, however, I learn a bit more about how art reflects reality. And if we could only learn to consider others to be just as important as ourselves, the god of carnage would be the one who ends up unemployed.

Truly Educated

Binghamton University looms large in my consciousness, for rather obvious reasons. Although it sits in a small corner of upstate New York not particularly near anything famous, it has its own culture. Having taught at several schools, and having studied at many along the way, I’ve always been particularly struck by the genuine nature of Binghamton. For example, it is the only school—apart from a hazily recalled “Bible Study” led by the then president of Grove City College—at which the president has made himself available to be met and chatted with by hoi polloi. I’ve met and talked with him twice, and although I taught a phenomenal number of courses at Rutgers, and conveniently solved a crisis in the religion department for a year at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh, I never found a time or place when the president was available to the likes of mere mortals. Not only that, but at a time when other universities are cutting whatever faculty they can to make more administrative posts, Binghamton is actually hiring faculty and expanding. I feel renewed when I visit the campus. You can tell they care about people.

A story in the Washington Post underscores this. One of the graduation speakers at the Watson School of Engineering is an Orthodox Jew. His commencement ceremony fell on Saturday—the sabbath. According to the dictates of his faith, speaking through a microphone system that passes through a soundboard is considered work, and could not be done on the sabbath. In today’s climate, I would expect most universities to say, “too bad.” Religion is not to be taken seriously, right? So just get over it. Here’s where Binghamton, however, shines. They taped the address beforehand, allowing the speaker to take the stage and have someone else broadcast his speech. This isn’t about picking apart the logicality of anyone’s personal Torah, it’s about recognizing the human.

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Our very religious society has a way of compartmentalizing religion so that we can still get away with what we want to do. We can be religious when our clergy so dictate, but otherwise we’re pretty much free to look out for number one. This story is one that makes me proud to have once been a part of a system that includes a school that can truly lay claim to the designation “higher education.” We learn about the world to become, ideally, better citizens of it. Any university that is able to take what might seem to be a petty problem and recognize its human dimension deserves to have our admiration. It restores my faith in the future. At least in a small corner of upstate New York.

Just Binghamton

I seem to find myself in Binghamton again. The town, while clearly economically depressed, still retains a bit of its 19th-Century charm with some beautifully restored downtown buildings and a sense of history. While too many store-fronts are still vacant and too little money exists to improve the area sufficiently, I happened upon a warm and cheerful independent bookstore—River Read—and that always gives me hope in such circumstances. Bookstores such as this are like seeing the first crocuses after a long, harsh winter. There is some life in this seemingly dead planet yet. Outside the bookstore stands a statue of Martin Luther King, Jr., backed by a sluggish river and yet more vacant windows. I think of justice and all that it means.

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My own hometown (not Binghamton) is virtually a ghost town. It is a feeling difficult to describe, visiting a place that served as your first secure setting in the world only to find it crumbling under an economy with so much wealth with so little reach. Where is the justice in that? Binghamton, near the founding location of IBM, ironically began suffering at the decline of the Cold War. Manufacturing has gone for pastures of a different kind of green, leaving a sometimes sad and forlorn city in its wake. Binghamton sheltered a young Rod Serling, a man who would give the world the Twilight Zone and its endless spinoffs. It is home to a first-rate university. And a wonderful bookstore.

While in River Read we heard some locals talking, in almost Springsteenian fashion, of local civic traditions that had disappeared. Times have changed. Cities like Binghamton don’t draw in the curious or those with liberal purse-strings. Endicott Johnson, the shoe manufacturer, developed a strong sense of welfare capitalism in the city last century—capitalism with a heart seems to have gone extinct these days. The idea that those with the means to create jobs and livelihoods should care for their employees would seem to be a matter of common sense. Instead, common cents have come to rule. Binghamton University is investing in the town, and a sense of cautious optimism dares to suggest itself. Justice is a matter of distribution rather than entitlement. And that’s why I’m standing out here under gray September skies, staring at the statue of Martin Luther King, Jr.

Thar She Blows

Any survey of “armpits of America” will laughingly include New Jersey. Having lived here for nearly seven years now, I know the apocrine insults are undeserved—I actually knew that before moving here. New Jersey has the highest per capita Ph.D. concentration in the nation. It also has the highest number of college graduates, and, for what it’s worth, the highest per capita income. These first two points come especially to the fore regarding New Jersey governor Chris Christie’s recent speech, made in Boston—a city with some small higher education affiliations itself. Propping up his creds for a presidential run, Christie said, “I think that we have some folks that believe that our job is to be college professors. Now college professors are fine, I guess. You know, college professors basically spout out ideas that nobody ever does anything about. [Rim shot!] For our ideas to matter, we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern.” (This according to the New Jersey Star-Ledger.)

The United States, for many years now, has been falling behind in education because we won’t fund it adequately. I’m no jingoist, but I do believe that the principles upon which this country were founded were inspired. To thrive, we must be smart. Education has been the key to our improvement over the decades, and as the focus has shifted from education to capital, the hull has begun to leak. I know that I have felt it. With dismay I’ve watched as colleges and universities have hoisted the November Charlie and no vessel has come to their aid. Departments are jettisoned and we are still taking on water. And the governor of “the education state” guesses that “college professors are fine” but completely irrelevant. This man for president in 2016?

Meanwhile, yesterday, the unexpectedly happy news was announced that President Obama will be visiting my daughter’s university next week. Binghamton University is frequently overlooked by the monied special interests paid to the Harvards and Princetons of the green-lined ivies. It is, however, frequently cited as a “public ivy” for its quality education at state-school prices. Obama’s visit is for precisely that reason: good education can be affordable. Chris Christie went on to say, “For our ideas to matter we have to win because, if we don’t win, we don’t govern. And if we don’t govern, all we do is shout into the wind.” And if we don’t win we gather up our marbles and go home. Yes, I was a child once, too. And I grew up. Higher education does matter—far more than some politicians’ bluster would indicate. Do you agree, Dr. Einstein? I’m sorry, governor, I can’t hear you over the wind flapping the sails.

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Bing Spring

Binghamton University is, like most institutions of higher education, home to many rituals. Back around a century ago, anthropologists were convinced that religions began as a set of inchoate rituals that coalesced into primitive belief systems. Although most anthropologists today see this as an overly simplistic analysis, I found a recent story on Binghamton’s website an example of a nascent religion. It has to do with placating, or perhaps defying, the weather gods.

Like most good rituals, Stepping on the Coat has a practical pedigree. According to Bing’s own archives, the ritual began the year that I was born. An undergrad that year, overwhelmed by an April snowstorm, removed his coat and stomped on it. The snow stopped. As befits a scientifically inclined institution, this was initially chalked up as coincidence, but the same result occurred again the next year. Stepping on the Coat seemed to be a cure for late season snowstorms. In this year of lazy, lingering winter, many people—some of them not even students—must be seeking a cure for unseasonable weather. Perhaps Binghamton University students a half-century ago stumbled (stamped?) upon the solution. In the whimsical tributes given on the BU magazine webpage, the sacred and the profane are never very far apart.

Binghamton in spring

Binghamton in spring

I have done considerable research on the weather and its sacral implications. Most of my research has never been published, but the overarching idea, I believe, is sound. Our human perceptions of the divine are focused on the sky. Nietzsche declared that God is dead, but that death only really occurred when we penetrated our atmosphere and landed on the moon. Even then, looking up, we saw only blackness beyond. Infinity hangs, like Damocles’ sword, above our heads. We may pollute our skies, we may shut them out with artificial walls and ceilings. We may even punch through them with rockets. But our gods are up there, somewhere. And they are the ones who dictate our weather. The human response is up to us. Do we sit inside and complain, or do we stomp the coat in defiance of an uncaring deity? Binghamton is a green university, so that even amid the burgeoning religion of coat-stepping, there is a real awareness that when the weather goes awry in this industrial era, we know where the blame truly lies. As humans, however, our religious inclinations will insist that we continue to step upon the coat and claim the whole earth as our prize.

Real Life Zombies

In recent months Binghamton University has been on my mind. Binghamton has a number of videos available on YouTube which I find to be entertaining and even, sometimes, very funny. I like Bing’s style. Even though I catch myself laughing once in a while, I know that Binghamton takes higher education seriously. I watched a recent, 17 minute talk on a vital topic. It is located here, and I would recommend that you watch it too. Don’t worry, I’ll wait.

Back? Okay. The situation raised here is one that makes me shudder. Few things are as debilitating and vulnerable as an uneducated populace. Both religious and political forces have made great efforts to prevent certain orthodoxies from being challenged by what they term, as an obvious swear-word, “higher education.” The fact is, folks, higher education is nothing more than an attempt to get people—often young people—to learn how to think critically. That last word is a stumbling block sometimes. Any number of people will suppose that critical thinking is the same as criticism. It isn’t. Critical thought is the ability to approach a problem—any problem—rationally. To respond with the best that our minds have taught us to do, rather than with knee-jerk reactions. Yes, emotion and jerking knees have important places in the world, but they only work well if they are accompanied by the ability to think critically.

The video makes it pretty clear that the ability to think is rapidly eroding in our culture. Perhaps not quite zombie apocalypse, but not comfortably far from it. The death of Borders was blamed on its inability to get into the electronics markets by various pundits. I disagree. Borders fell victim to a culture that has lost the joy of challenging reading. We like spoon-feeding (otherwise much of the internet is difficult to explain). In order to exercise our brains, we have to use them to read hard things. Like my high school coach used to say, if you don’t use your muscles they’ll atrophy. Looking at my mid-section, I can see that his words were true. What Coach didn’t warn us about, though, is that the same holds true for the mind. The unchallenged intellect is a dull one. This is a threat far more insidious than any Communism, or liberalism ever was. It is the dummification of America. We are a nation that loves zombies. We are also a nation in danger of becoming them as well. Fight the zombie apocalypse—read a book. And like that baseball bat you use to swing at the undead, the harder it is, the better.

They don't write them like that anymore

They don’t write them like that anymore