Look Both Ways

Like many kids of the sixties I grew up watching Batman. I mean Batman—the campy, goofy, live-action version of the caped crusader that was must-see TV for young boys and other hero wannabes. This was all hung upside-down, as it were, by Tim Burton’s reboot of the troubled crime-fighter. Then came Christopher Nolan’s canon. The Dark Knight remains one of my favorite movies as it seems unstintingly honest. We are all part Joker and part Batman. Neither is ideal. More than that, this movie was my first introduction to Harvey Two-Face Dent. You see, I didn’t grow up reading Batman comics, and the television adventures never featured him. At least not as far as I can remember. Two-Face is a fearful foe because you can never tell when he’s telling the truth. That can be very scary.

The other day I asked my mother about someone I remembered from church growing up. This was a woman I hadn’t seen since the Nixon Administration and I was curious how she was doing, and even if she was still alive. My mother told me she was still around, but she doesn’t talk to her any more because the friend is “two-faced.” Among evangelical Christians this is one of the most feared of epithets. Telling different “truths” to different parties is a certain way to demonstrate want of moral fiber. Hypocrisy. It’s also a non-refundable ticket on the bus heading south, if you get my meaning. Christians want to be thought of as honest, if nothing else. Harvey Dent would’ve had real trouble being an evangelical (with some noteworthy exceptions).

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Businesses, however, are disciples of Janus. I often ponder the sheet number of items that companies classify as “public facing.” What, I wonder, is the antonym? I’ve even heard of corporations that will take legal action against former employees who honestly admit how business is done. No one is permitted to speak of what happens in the entrepreneurial boudoir. Corporations, under the law, are persons. They are afforded the secret inner life of real individuals. There was a “naked business” craze in early in the millennium, but that petered out. We have a public facing face and a reality that no one is allowed to know. Trade secrets. Information that only one corporation may have. Over in Gotham, Two-Face slips into a dark alley and escapes. In little white churches across the country, those who speak different truths are shunned. In the corporate high-rise, businesses are now people. They are, however, two-faced. I miss the Batman of my youth.

Yopp

My fellow academics, lend me your ear. Two or three friends have sent me articles this past week, featuring academics speaking out against the businessification of academia. I’ve been railing about this for years, and I am encouraged by my fellow academics who are looking up from their research long enough to realize they live in a crumbling, if ivory, tower. Too long and too often academics have taken the road of least resistance. Jobs may be rare, but hey, I’ve got one, so who’s to complain? It is tres chic not to believe in anything these days, but I am now, and have always been, a believer in education. And education is not something that can be bought or sold. Higher education is not a business, and if society insists on replacing university presidents with CEOs, then it is time for those of us who believe in education to unite and form our own forums to educate. It won’t pay as well. You might have to skip an academic conference or two, but if we really believe, we can make a difference.

I’m not finger-pointing here. I know that when I had an academic post, such as it was, I wasn’t particularly motivated to suggest that a new model was needed. But now that adjuncts and those of us who are underemployed Ph.D.s outnumber our tenured brethren and sistren, it is time for us to begin talking about alternatives. Once a university becomes a money-making machine there’s no turning back. Too many people love money too much for there to be enough integrity for a president to say, “No, I don’t need a raise. Hire more faculty instead.” Those academics who believe it will happen need to get out more. Although the most educated people in a given society, academics can also be among its most naive. If you can’t join them, beat them. (Metaphorically, of course.)

My education, in many ways, began with Dr. Seuss. We couldn’t afford the books, growing up, but we had television—especially the poor have television. I remember watching, anxious with encouragement, as JoJo sets aside his yo-yo to lend his voice to a cause. His lone “Yopp” saves an entire world. My fellow academics, those with ears like Horton are rare. His species of elephant (let those with ears to hear, hear) may be extinct. I am suggesting right here, right now, that we get together and start working on a solution. This is my Yopp. I shall not, however, be surprised if my inbox fails to light up. The temperature, I know, is already rising. And Whoville, as always, will make itself available for purchase to the highest bidder. I believe it can be different.

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To See the Sky

Stonehenge. The very name evokes mystery and myth. Although archaeology has revealed more about the monument than any mere visual survey, we are still very much in the dark about its origin and purpose. With one exception: we know it was something religious. When we discover artifacts that required a tremendous outlay of human effort in pre-industrial periods, the motivation, according to our current understanding, is almost always religious. Modernity has come to us with a cost. In any case, a recent story in The Guardian highlights the view of Julian Spalding, erstwhile museum director, that Stonehenge might have housed a platform on top of which the real action took place. As might be expected, experts disagree. With its precise solar alignment, one wonders if a roof might have been superfluous, but then again, there is the sky.

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When I begin to feel depressed working in the belly of a concrete bunker with no windows, indeed, no view of the sky at all, I find my way to a room with a view of the outside. I’ve always had a celestial orientation, and looking at the sky—especially on a day with some blue showing—can cure my sadness in a way almost supernatural. I suppose that was part of the reason I wrote Weathering the Psalms; there is just something about the sky. In that book I couldn’t really verify what it was. I still can’t. I know it when I feel it, however, and this perhaps the feeling the Julian Spalding is asking us to explore at Stonehenge. Ancient people directed their worship upward, not toward the ground.

Like all universal statements, however, there are exceptions. Some ancient religions recognized our place as children of the earth. The celestial sphere, however, is part of the package. Our atmosphere makes our world habitable. While the moon is beautiful and Mars inspires wonder, their lack of air spells their hostility toward those who need to breathe deeply and look up into the blue once in a while. Almost Frazerian in its archetypal view, Spalding’s idea has a beauty of its own, whether or not the evidence bears it out. People of ancient times had a talent we lose in our cubicle-infested, results-obsessed world. We all exist because of the atmosphere above us. And when modern views become too much for me, I head outdoors where, sun or not, I find my solace in the sky.

Hallowed Be Thy Income

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Some time ago, I was invited to attend a “best practices” session where the language was businessese. As I suffered through statements about how everything can be quantified as numbers and how emotions should be left at the door but creativity should flourish, I began to wonder when I’d become so cynical. I mean, the presenter really believed this–it was clear from his eyes. He’d been so indoctrinated that he really believed selflessness was letting somebody else have their way when they’re your supervisor. Then it hit me. It was so obvious that I felt silly for not seeing it sooner. Corporate culture is a religion. The business world has its own specialized vocabulary, belief system, deity (Mammon), prophets, and ethics code. Those who believe it pass their teachings on to the next generation with the zeal of converts. It gives their lives meaning and purpose. It even has its own origin myth, going back to Adam Smith. All the elements are there.

A point that I come back to repeatedly on this blog is that a solid definition of religion does not exist. I once had a boss who told me there was no such thing as “religious studies.” Too many universities also believe that. When we see terror all around committed in the name of religion and our response is to decide the business curriculum is far more worth saving, I believe we’ve just decided on our religious preferences. Reward and punishment. The price of non-conformity is high. Ironically, our motivational speaker indicated that we shouldn’t be just like everyone else. Only, just don’t be too different.

I couldn’t help but to think back to an episode of Ruby Wax. While living in the UK some friends had a television license and we watched an episode or two. Ruby Wax is an ex-patriot comedian. On one episode she followed a vacuum cleaner salesman for an upscale vacuum manufacturer. Her path took her to a motivational convention which was—there’s no other way to describe this—an emotional religious ceremony. Although their god (Mammon) may not suck, his prophet (the vacuum) most surely did. At the time I saw the episode I thought it was simply entertainment, something at which to laugh. I’ve been to enough business seminars now to find that I’m a heretic in this faith. I may not know much, but I do know selflessness when I see it. And it is a trait that takes a lifetime to master and those who have belong to a different line of work altogether.

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Is there anything that can’t be sold? I think in the context of the free market, with its oxymoronic name, the answer must be a resounding “No!” A concept may be sold as a piece of writing or a patent or a trademark. Souls may be sold to the devil, at least according to the entrepreneurship of demons, if centuries of folklore are to be believed. A person who has betrayed his or her ideals is a sell-out. We can sell anything. Two related stories in the Chronicle of Higher Education confirm, in very different ways, this truth above all truths. The first piece, “More Notes on the Rise of Thrun Credits,” by Kevin Carey, notes how universities are in the business of selling academic credentials. Those of us who’ve gone through the educational grind-mill that leads one to poverty with the dubious benefit of a Ph.D. diploma to hang on the wall of our cardboard hovels, found this out the hard way. What matters is not what you learned or how well you learned it: where did you go to school? That is the most important commodity that a university sells—its name. It is sad that academia has gone after Wall Street, but there’s no changing the direction of this charging bull.

The second article, which I only spied because of a link on the first, was a tribute to Irving Louis Horowitz, world-renowned social scientist and founder of Transaction Press. In my days of desperation at Gorgias Press, looking for a new position that would make use of my editing and higher education (sales) background, I had contacted Transaction and ended up having three lengthy interviews with Dr. Horowitz. He was well known for his quirks, but he always had a kind word for me, and even read my book to find out more about me. Such determination and depth of investment are rare these days. In the end, I never did find a place at Transaction, although it was literally a ten-minute walk from where I taught my Rutgers classes on Livingston Campus. Publishers, it stands to reason, are also in the business of selling on the basis of reputation. Once Dr. Horowitz said as much during one of my interviews. “Without reputation, what does a publisher have to offer?” he asked.

Both of these ventures in which I have participated began as sources of disseminating knowledge. I was naïve enough to suppose that such ideals could survive the onslaught of that hissing serpent called finance, yet it is sad to be in a world where nothing falls outside its coils. Long before the birth of capitalism universities managed solvency and provided the intellectual inquiry that eventually led to its own demise. Publishers always sold their wares, but many pieces were published for the sake of their content, not their earning potential. That world no longer exists. In order to be paid you must have something to sell. All other transactions are null and void. We send our children to college to find jobs, not to learn. Maybe it’s just as well. Schools are busy with marketing and branding, so let our young ones learn the only system that works. For those interested, I have some swamp-land in Florida to sell…

The Power of Hope

My wife pointed out at article on MSNBC yesterday that stated Robert H. Schuller’s Crystal Cathedral is filing for bankruptcy. Internet reaction has been predictably hostile, clawing at the craven, money-driven industry of television ministry. There is no question that many television ministries quickly grow corrupt under the lure of immense wealth. The average American citizen is glad to part with some money if it can buy favor with the man upstairs. When a minister is able to construct such edifices as the Crystal Cathedral with the good-will offerings of the faithful, well, s/he’s an entrepreneur, the kind of people God likes, according to the Tea Party. Schuller was famous for his positive thinking and insistence that God will do great things for you. When recession hits, however, not even God remains solvent.

According to the article, various corporate sponsors of the Cathedral are having difficulty holding up their end of the contract. Positive thinking extends only as far as the goodwill of the banks. Is there any question who the real god is here? Americans love the non-biblical concept that God helps those who help themselves. Making more money than a humble clergy-person ought to make may improve the sense of optimism, but it loses touch with where the average citizen lives. It is easy to be optimistic when you have a heavenly bankroll on your side.

Yes, but can it keep birds from flying over your head?

Over the weekend my family looked at slides from our years in Europe. The great cathedrals, even if in ruins, convey a sense of stoic strength, genuine commitment. Built with the hard-won resources, if not the actual physical labor of the local populace, these cathedrals were made of stone. I recall standing in the nave of Salisbury Cathedral while the tour guide pointed out that the very stone pillars supporting its huge steeple were bowed under the weight of all that stone above. Some day it may collapse under its own pressure, but it will have always survived longer than the Crystal Cathedral. Religion, if I may use a metaphor, is more authentic when it deals with stone rather than glass. The religion that struggles with the intractable realities of daily life will inevitably last longer than the feel-good, glass-plated, Tea Party serving “religion” of feel-good Christianity. It is too bad about the Crystal Cathedral, but maybe the entrepreneurs should be asking serious questions right now about which god they truly serve.