Faith for Sale

Materialism can be defined in a number of different ways. One of the more common is that people desire material things. We want stuff. Now, we all need things to survive. My sympathies are always with the poor for whom each decision can be a potential tragedy. Spend too much on something and you may not have enough left to purchase something you need. As people, though, we all long for nice things. So it is that places like dollar stores exist. The dollar store is not the same as the “five and dimes” with which I grew up. The latter stocked things that were, in large measure, practical. Things you might need: pencils, string, soap. A dollar store, however, may lead you down a different path. A lot can be had for a dollar. Some of it may seem to promise more than it can deliver.


My wife sent me a photo of a dollar store where the window was lined with what appears to be religious statuary. I’d be lying if I weren’t to admit that my first impulse was to go and purchase some cheap salvation. I’m sure the statues aren’t made of stone. I’m not even Catholic, so I’m not sure a one-dollar Mary would help with much of anything. Still, it is something to buy. Something material. Something that seems to make promises beyond itself. Here is the danger of the dollar store. It’s only a dollar!

Every now and again I play with this thought-experiment: if I knew that I would only survive one more year, what would I buy? Many things seem superfluous in the face of eternity. Would material comforts, or larks, do anything more than depreciate the little I would leave to others? That game tends to show materialism in a rather crass light. What do I really need to buy? We all have our weaknesses, for sure, but it can’t hurt once in a while to think that the material is just that: material. And we might have a very different set of values if we didn’t measure worth in terms of material gain. Faux-stone Mary would likely back me up on that.

Chronic Religion

The Chronicle of Higher Education publishes a surprisingly large number of articles that touch on religion. I write “surprisingly” somewhat ironically here, since religion and higher education have been inextricably tangled from the very beginning of post-secondary education (and even before). A recent article by Donald L. Drakeman caught my attention because of the tag-line: “A venture capitalist with a doctorate in religion sees the value of a bear market in the disciplines.” In all honesty I have no idea what a venture capitalist is, but I do understand “doctorate in religion.” Dr. Drakeman’s article is entitled “The Highly Useful Crisis in the Humanities.” Drakeman points out that during times of economic hardship the number of students studying the humanities declines. During times of economic prosperity they rise. And he also points out that this can be interpreted in more than one way. Since I’m afraid of venture capitalists, I feared that religion, along with the rest of the humanities, was about to take another trip to the woodshed where it would come back again but might chose to stand rather than sit for a few days.

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Dr. Drakeman suggest that this disparity actually demonstrates the inherent value in the humanities. Tough times lead us to pare down those things that we value so that we might survive. Once a kind of stasis is reached, we try to climb once again. Humanities, in other words (speaking for myself and not Drakeman), represent the pinnacle towards which we strive. When money gets in the way, as it often does, we lose our focus and down comes baby, cradle and all. The humanities are what we live for; money represents pure survival. It is no surprise that those who lose their sense of human fellowship sometimes become survivalists—the individuals who can thrive with no other people around. But what about when the post-apocalyptic stock market recovers? Where will they be without the humanities?

Education, apart from simple survival skills, began as a means of ensuring that the religion that sustained our ancestors through hard times was passed on to the next generation. At times the more literal-minded suppose that means that the religion itself should never change—as if the religion were the point of it all. Although they may not have articulated it so, the ancestors, I believe, had a different goal in mind. Those who are parents already know what it is. We want our children to have it better than we do. If religion helped us, it should help them. It only becomes a problem when the religion itself is mistaken as the goal of the process. Everything evolves. A religion that changes with the needs of society is among the most vital aspects of the humanities, whether or not our forebears would even recognize it as religion at all.


The PhD Supply and Demand Crisis

As a special treat, I am presenting a guest blog post by Sofia Rasmussen. This is an issue very relevant to readers of this blog. Enjoy!

The PhD Supply and Demand Crisis
By Sofia Rasmussen

It is traditionally believed that getting a higher education is the key to gaining successful employment. So it is not surprising that the number of students earning a doctorate degree, either through a traditional or online PhD program, is at an all-time high. However, with the economy struggling and job growth crawling, many job seekers with PhDs are having difficulty finding full time employment. The overabundance of doctorate holders has created a supply and demand crisis in the academic job market leaving highly trained PhD graduates looking for employment in other fields and often accepting lower wages. This crisis is effecting the university education system, PhDs and the economy as a whole as the nation’s brightest are unable to reach their fullest potential.

With the economic crash of 2008, the United States government was forced to make severe budget cuts to the university and education system. As a result, universities are unable to offer the same tenure track positions that were previously available to PhD holders. And although many doctorate students are being recruited for their research abilities, those abilities do not translate into full time positions once they earn their degree. Instead, tenure positions are being replaced by underpaid adjunct positions and recent PhD graduates are left struggling to find employment in the academic sector.

The supply and demand crisis for academic positions has had a profound effect on recent PhD graduates entering into the job market – there is a huge deficit in available jobs for PhDs. From 2008-2009, 100,000 new doctorate degrees were awarded while only 16,000 new professorships became available.

PhD graduates are left looking for employment in non-academic sectors. This is creating additional employment challenges for recent doctoral graduates since many non-academic positions do not require a PhD and many hiring managers are reluctant to hire overqualified candidates who would require higher salaries. This leaves many new PhD graduates in jobs unrelated to their academic expertise and making significantly less money than they would in an academic position. So what is being done to combat this employment tragedy?

Sadly, not enough is being done on the part of the American government and universities to quell the PhD job crisis. Free research in the form of graduate students motivates many universities to admit an increasing number of doctorate students every year. However, in response to the growing budget cuts to the university systems, many universities are cutting academic positions, leaving nowhere for PhD graduates to go for relevant employment. Between 2008 and 2011 there were 35% fewer assistant professorships offered in Sociology and 39% fewer assistant professorships offered in Political Science. In addition, for the 2011 fiscal year, funds for higher education where cut by $1.2 billion; and cuts are expected to reach $5 billion this year. With more budget cuts to universities and fewer endowments for students, the government is making little effort to expand academic positions and create more jobs for PhDs.

The PhD supply and demand crisis not only effects those who have earned a PhD, but it effects the university system and economy as a whole. As tenure track positions are being replaced by adjunct assignments, PhD graduates are forced to look elsewhere for employment. This drives the most talented PhDs away from the university system and leaves university instruction lacking.

This is a disservice to college students who are not getting the best education and entering in to the job market without having received the best training in their field. The economy is further affected as highly qualified people are unable to be adequately compensated for the skills, more graduates are unable to pay back student loans and less students are motivated to pursue a graduate education.

As the gap between the number of PhD holders and academic positions for PhD holders widens, more and more talented researches and scientists will continue to leave the academic sector in search of more lucrative careers. This leaves universities in need of talented professors and doctorates in need of relevant work. As the economy slowly recovers, more academic positions will become available but the mass discrepancy between academic positions and qualified candidates will only decrease significantly by increasing university funding and academic endowments for students.

Gas Bubbles

Human brains display a strong preference for patterns. Looking out my office window at the repeating series of windows that make up much of Manhattan, there is a pleasing sense of symmetry. We seek meaning in patterns—this is likely what gave rise to the idea of prophecy; a pattern repeated in nature seems to bear divine significance. Now, I don’t claim to be the best analyst of patterns, but like all humans I look for them and try to make sense of them. With headlines declaring that gasoline prices are on the rise again, set to hit record highs in April, I think, like an elephant that doesn’t forget, over the past several election years and wonder if anyone else has noticed a pattern. When a GOP incumbent is in office, gas prices seem to go down in an election year. When a Democrat is in office, they tend to skyrocket in election years. This is not based on market analysis, but by the sharp pain in my backside that is caused by a starving wallet combined with repeated kicks by the petroleum industry.

Even as far back as high school I remember that alternative-energy cars were being designed. Keep in mind that this was over thirty years ago. When we asked why people couldn’t buy them, our teacher informed us that oil companies buy up patents for competing technologies. Television told us that such energy efficient cars were the stuff of science fiction. With Toyota often leading the way, we have seen, however, that electric-powered cars can perform on the highways as well as city streets. They don’t line the pockets so thickly for the big oil barons, so we’re lead to believe they’re wimpy and underperforming—not manly vehicles at all. To me it sounds like a lot of gas.

I’m not sure how America came to be under the ponderous thumb of the oil industry, but the finger-pointing and downright criminal activity of such companies as Enron and BP should be telling us something. It may be mere coincidence, but the past several Republican presidents have been very friendly with big oil. I remember when Clinton ran against Bush Senior that prices of gas dropped so low that a ten could fill the tank on our little Toyota. Here we are with a Dem in the House and prices are set to soar. Perhaps my cynicism is misplaced, but I don’t recall seeing many oil barons standing in the breadlines—not even after Enron imploded. No doubt we will be told it’s just the ebb and flow of the market, nothing more. No matter what the excuse may be, I have an idea which way the flow is going, and it has a pipeline from Americans’ bank accounts right into that internal combustion engine that is fueled by creatures long dead. Death and oil, by whatever means, go together.

Take me home, country roads

Defining Humanity

Positions of power replicate themselves. In a sense this is understandable as power is the most addictive substance on the planet. Once superiority is asserted, it will never allow itself to be uprooted. With the recognition of homosexual marriage in New York, many heated reactions sprouted from the position of power man-plus-woman (always in that order) camp. Such a response was predictable and anticipated. I suspect it is largely based on fear. I have many friends with differing sexual orientations than mine. Raised to castigate such individuals, that outlook became increasingly difficult to uphold once I got to know my gay friends as people. I count them among my most loyal friends. People are people.

The problem lies in labels. Humans are natural categorizers: bird, fish, or mammal? Predator or prey? Religious or secular? We want our world to stay true to categories we devise. People, however, are seldom easily classified. Still, we try: skin color, ethnic ancestry, religious heritage, sexual orientation. People are people. The world of trite classification is ending, and those in positions of power tremble. Anything that is different might upset the economic balance that keeps those on top in their positions. (My own amateur observation, however, is that the economic balance is naturally top-heavy and readily upsets itself. It seems to have been that way since before this blog began.) Would we not do better to try to understand those who are different than ourselves?

As an exercise in this direction, I recently read Alvin Orloff’s smart satire, I Married an Earthling. As my long-term readers know, I have a slight soft-spot for aliens, and this story of a gay man finding nothing but rejection on earth and eventually marrying an alien seemed quite fitting in the present climate. Not part of the gay subculture, many aspects of the story were foreign to me, but what was painfully clear throughout is that people are people. Some are accepting, others are not. When reality offers so few options that he must flee his own planet, Chester, one of the protagonists, takes to the stars. At a couple points before his exodus, he notes the role that religion played in his antagonists’ outlooks. The book is lighthearted and funny overall, but the serious issue remains. Those in power tend to horde privilege. When that happens, economies—material and spiritual—collapse.