Lower Education

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…

Professor Little

There I was, some 3000 miles from home, in the office of a professor I’d never met before. On her desk a Gorgias Press catalogue. In that catalogue a miniscule picture with my diminutive face. Such are the little ironies of life. My ric rac career began when others started making suggestions about how being a janitor might not be living up to my full potential. Sometimes, often, I wonder if they were correct. Cleaning up after other people’s messes in the halls of our educational system seems like an incredibly honest career to me. Instead I have steered a course between the halls of academia and the halls of commerce. It is easy to suppose that I’m not really in control since even if I choose the general direction, I haven’t selected the specific circumstances. Recently I attended a conference where Gorgias Press had a booth. I looked over the tables, spying names of authors whom I had given their first start in publishing. With books struggling for elbow room in my own head, it is a bittersweet experience.

Watching the glacial ballet of higher education unfold, it often occurs to me that universities are not smart. Many brilliant minds work in them, and much light shines from them, but on an institutional level decisions are often made that jeopardize the entire enterprise. Over-emphasis on sports, over-utilization of adjuncts, over-payment of administrators—these are not signs of soaring intelligence. They are signs of institutions in a muddle as to their true identity. Are they businesses or centers of creativity and education? The basic business model is not “one size fits all,” and universities managed to maintain an enviable idealism until they began to emulate the corporate world. The tattered results lie all around us.

All through my educational journey, there was no guiding light. In my experience, higher education was a wondrous journey that suddenly terminated when I didn’t measure up to someone else’s standard of Christianity. By that point, I was ill-prepared for the savage politics of higher education. The transition from author to editor may sound simple enough, but things are seldom what they seem. Education may not make one smart, but it sure puts ideas in one’s head. Sometimes I reflect on those books that will never be written. I’ve never been any publisher’s darling, but here I am staring at a little picture of a little man. I’m sure there must be a lesson here somewhere, but I’m not smart enough to figure out what it might be.

Do Unto Others

Having just finished my first week as Religion Editor at Routledge, I have learned many things. The lengthy commute into New York City is filled with many lessons along the way and working for a publisher of some distinction is a privilege. My working life began with the work of a common laborer at 14. Conditions weren’t bad although the work was hard—we have laws to protect minors against exploitation. Funnily, after people reach a certain age exploitation is freely allowed, as long as someone benefits from it (not the one doing the labor). Being from a working class family, I gravitated towards dirty jobs. My college career was supported by many long hours in the dishroom, washing the cups and plates sent back by kids whose parents could foot their bill. I didn’t complain—physical work has always been relaxing to me. Mind work is much harder.

The majority of my adult life has been whiled away under the Damoclesian stare of religious institutions or individuals. Christians don’t make good bosses. My years at Nashotah House felt like some combination of Alcatraz and Bedlam. Under the authority of the religious I was taught to quake and fear. After over a dozen years of this, released into an empty academic void, I found a job with a Christian publisher who once again lived to dominate. I try hard to believe it is not inherent in religion itself, but often those who wish to bend others to their whim have some sacred sanction. For a brief respite I had a wonderful experience at the University of Wisconsin Oshkosh. My boss was secular and very caring. The same applied at Rutgers University. When Gorgias Press tired of my efforts, the secular academy came to my rescue.

Routledge once again reinforces that paradigm. For the first time in my professional life I feel that I am truly valued. As a rule, adjuncts are like Kleenex—there when you need them, but disposable after used. The university people were kind but could offer little. Now I am accepted among the secular and the little knowledge I’ve gained over the decades is appreciated. The scars, however, still show. The fear of long years of subservience are not easily dismissed. It is my hope that some day they may become effaced enough that the terrors wielded by the religious might be only nightmares recalled vaguely in the full light of day. If such deliverance comes it will have been because of my non-religious bosses. Such a parable should teach us about what religion has become in this “Christian country.”

No mean city.

For the Love of Books

As is so often the case, publication and religion go hand-in-glove. George Routledge was a man with a vision. As a literary man of nineteenth century England, he moved from bookseller to publisher, establishing the well-known London house of Routledge (aka Warne & Routledge, George Routledge & Sons) in 1843. Although his initial successes were literary, among his first publications were the reprinted Bible commentaries of Albert Barnes. By 1854 a branch of Routledge was established in New York where it continues to operate. Acquired by Taylor & Francis in 1998, Routledge still pursues and produces notable academic books in many fields of the humanities and social sciences. The company is a testimony of the strength of vision of a man with a love of books.

I began this blog as a recently unemployed editor at Gorgias Press and part-time lecturer at Rutgers University. Both were jobs involving books and religion, but I am now moving to Routledge as a religion editor. Once again, I will be full-time in the world of books. Regular readers of this blog will know of my sense of loss at the closing of Borders this year. Although I claim no special insight into the way businesses work, the loss of comfortable space surrounded by books is something I felt very deeply. There seems to be a kind of redemption in taking on a position that will once again set me in the role of seeking to produce more books. It is as if the fabric of several loose strands of my life that had unraveled under the trials of the world of higher education have once again rejoined.

While whiling away the happy hours at the 4-H fair last week, I enjoyed strolling through the arts tent. There I noticed that someone in our county has started a creative writing club. This was a hopeful sign; the previous year I had made inquiry into starting such a club myself. When the world seems to have evolved beyond books, those of us who need them must invest the love of writing in our young. Although 4-H is not a religious organization, writing nevertheless has a sacred appeal. Those who feel drawn to the craft know the incredible grip that written expression can exert on a person—seeing your name on the cover of a book is a form of eternal life, metaphorically speaking. As editor I will not be the name on the cover, but I will be the one helping others to attain that immortality. It may not bring Borders back from the dead, but even the very idea of resurrection comes to us in the form of a book. Even so, Routledge is the agent of resurrection in my meandering career.

Ouch!

Now in a dentist office near you!

Sitting in the dentist’s office may not be the best place to be reading about pain. Nevertheless, as I was anticipating my fillings (worn enamel at this stage, not cavities) I picked up the June edition of Discover magazine and noticed a story on the brain. Since pain and brain rhyme, I took it as a kind of omen. I actually subscribed to Discover for many years as a teenager, but with the vicissitudes of the job market as an adult, and the perpetual lack of storage space in apartments, I have let my magazine subscriptions lapse. The article, which I did not have time to finish, suggested that neurologists are on the cusp of being able to pin down whence chronic pain is experienced in the brain. If a chemical inhibitor can be found for this specific region it will be like turning off a light switch. There will be no more pain (rather like John’s vision of the New Jerusalem).

As I was called back to the dentist’s chair to the accompaniment of the whine of a dental drill, I reflected on the loss of pain. Being the sensitive sort, and probably more empathetic to others than may be healthy, I never wish pain on anyone. Life is difficult as it is, and even those who wish me harm do not deserve suffering. Nevertheless, I wonder if we could thrive in a world without pain. This is all the more relevant with the growing whispers among the AI community that brains can be simulated by computers. If they are programmed not to experience pain (as seems only sensible) then what becomes of humanity when pain is abolished? Some of us identify with the pains of mental agony even if the physical does not directly impinge on our lives. It is what makes us human. When I see another person in pain, my immediate reaction is to want to help. Being a religionist, however, my options are often limited in this regard.

After a very painful termination a few years ago, I had to give in to anti-depressants for a while. The very idea depressed me. My life, including its full array of mental anguish, defined who I was. Take that away, and what was left? Funny thing was, those in the church who initiated this particular pain showed no empathy whatsoever in the face of it. I weaned myself of the medication after a few years and occasionally the pain returns—particularly acutely when yet another religious employer let me go—but it is part, a very deep part, of the human experience. Could we thrive in a world without adversity? We are often at our best when we are helping each other. That to me seems to be what true religion is all about.

Wayward Ninevites

“Come listen to my tale, of Jonah and the whale, way down in the bottom of the ocean;” a children’s song with a catchy tune that has a way of becoming a lifetime companion. Among the earliest Bible stories many children learn is the remarkable story of Jonah and the whale. And since the Bible is God’s word, it must be historical, right? Many modern readers have a difficult time fathoming that Jonah is not a book of history. As if living three days underwater isn’t enough of a stretch, stalwart bibliolaters ignore the tons of archival material from Nineveh itself and claim that the entire city spent a day, or a week, worshiping Yahweh. It stretches the imagination.

Too close for comfort

While working at Gorgias Press I discovered, in an entirely unexpected way, just how seriously some otherwise rational adults take this tale. I had to postpone an important meeting with an influential client because it had fallen on “the Rogation of the Ninevites.” As a lifelong biblical scholar and student of ancient religions, this was a festival I’d never before encountered. A web search refused to yield too much information for as long as my curiosity lasted, but I did find out that the date is difficult to nail down (apparently sometime a week or two ago), and that it predominates among Orthodox Christians of Iraq and Syria. These believers claim the heritage of the fictionally converted Ninevites. Even if the book of Jonah were intended as history, the conversion would have been to Judaism, not Christianity.

As I tried to find a new date with our lucrative associate, I realized once again just how far faith is willing and able to stretch. The story of Jonah is a cautionary tale, almost a fable, reminding post-exilic Jews of the occasional righteousness of the other. While other interpretations have been ceaselessly floated by serious scholars, I have never discovered anyone outside the putative descendents of the fabricated Ninevites who take this non-historical event to be important enough to jeopardize an essential business deal. Anyone who attempts to introduce logic into such an equation may well find him-or-herself, Geppetto-like, slowly digesting in the enormous gastric cavity of a whale that has a taste for prophets.

Two Roads Diverged

Back in my Gorgias Press days one of my co-laborers (BU) suggested that I might enjoy reading Cormac McCarthy’s The Road. Since then it has come out as a movie, and further apocalyptic events have occurred – the Deepwater Horizon disaster and the election of Chris Christie come to mind – so I finally got around to reading it. It is a harrowing book for any parent to read and I doubt I have the heart to see the movie. Already the book is spawning internet quotes and quips, but I was particularly interested in seeing how this post-apocalyptic novel handled God.

Since the Bible, via Zoroastrian influence, gave us the religious concept of the apocalypse, it is fitting to see how religion fares in its unhallowed progeny. Mostly God is absent. When the man and his son mention God, the language is spare and laced with betrayal. “There is no God and we are his prophets,” the old man declares after the man and his son leave the bunker. A few paragraphs later he states, “Where men cant live gods fare no better.” The value of the apocalyptic metaphor is that it forces us to face life as we find it: raw and uncompromising. In the fictional apocalypse it is permissible to utter aloud implications of life’s callous lessons.

My career has had its share of jagged edges. The lacerations I’ve personally received have been at the machinations of Christians eager for self-justification. Self-congratulatory individuals and collectives that suppose God has specially favored them. “There is no God and we are his prophets.” It is like reading Camus in slow motion. One of the lessons both Nashotah House and Gorgias Press taught me was that it can always get worse. Reading McCarthy’s sad yet true tale of the woe we bring upon ourselves, the lesson for those eager for the apocalypse is that they have only to open their eyes.