Qaulity Education

Perhaps it’s from having a stubbornly blue collar, but snobbery has never appealed to me.  While in seminary at Boston University, I applied for a transfer to Harvard Divinity School.  In spite of being accepted, I stayed at my alma mater and paid the consequences.  There’s a strange loyalty among the working class, you see.  And now I’m finally seeing my former mistress, academia, taking a turn toward the lowly but worthy.  The title of a recent article in the Chronicle of Higher Education says it all: “As Scholars Are Driven to Less Prestigious Journals, New Measures of Quality Emerge.  Hmm, why might that be?  The industry mantra, “publish or perish” has grown more aggressive over the years and the number of publishers has decreased.  Your academic net worth, it seems, can no longer be based on how elite you are.

People are funny that way.  We’re very impressed by those paraded before us as successes—as if some kind of magic clings to those who are where we wish we were.  In academia where you went to school matters more than what you’ve proven yourself capable of.  If you attended the “best” schools your work will be accepted by the “best” journals and publishers.  What rarified company you’ll keep!  For the rest of us, well, we have the numbers.  And blue collars aren’t afraid of hard work.  Let the academic aristocracy enjoy its laurels.  Laurels are poisonous, however, for those with an eye open for parables.

Primates, according to those who know them best, can see through pretense.  I often wonder if our political chaos isn’t based on this simple fact of biology.  As a priest I knew once told me, “We put our pants on one leg at a time too.”  This didn’t prevent many postulants I knew from anticipating the day when they would be ontologically transformed.  Priesting, I was informed, would make them better than the laity.  Closer to God.  Here it was, even among the clergy—the desire for prestige.  Chimpanzees will take down an alpha who abuses his power.  Nature has a set of balances.  Tampering with them leads to, well, scholars being driven to less prestigious journals and the like.  The net result, as the Chronicle suggests (if read one way), is that the last shall be first and the first last.  Probably it’s the result of reading too much Bible in my formative years, but I’ve always appreciated parables.

Just Books

It’s very difficult to make your voice heard in this world. I’ve been talking for nearly half a century, and most of the time it’s like nobody’s listening. For those who follow the Chronicle of Higher Education, the fact that Herbert Richardson, the founder of Edwin Mellen Press, is threatening to sue some librarians for comments made on various blogs, is not really news. When the Chronicle ran a story this week on Herbert Richardson’s career, I gained a renewed appreciation for what he’s doing. I say “renewed” because I remember the days when I was very poor. My first year of teaching, with my wife in a university program and my own student loans due, I was paid a measly ten grand for a salary (this was in 1992). Despite these privations, my wife and I attended the Society of Biblical Literature annual meeting on a very tight budget. For those of you who’ve not been, SBL offers a book orgy for scholars. Publishers of all descriptions offer books at a discount, but even so, many titles are out of reach. My wife was researching Methodist hymnody for her thesis, and Edwin Mellen Press had a resource that she needed. We simply couldn’t afford it. Herbert Richardson saw our earnest discussion at his book stall, walked over, picked up the book, handed to my wife and said, “Take it.”

Although Herbert Richardson would not recognize me, he has on other occasions, shown me unsolicited kindness. Reading the Chronicle account, I learned that he is a Presbyterian minister and that he had taught at Harvard Divinity School. He is unconventional in some respects, but he also enjoys bucking the trends. Edwin Mellen Press publishes good research that mainstream publishers pass up because their eyes are always on the prize. The bottom line. I never published with Mellen, but I have had snooty presses turn down very careful scholarship of my own. My sympathies are with the underdog, and with the guy who tries to help the underdog. Academia is a cruel world. Some of us have received nothing but backhanded salutes from “established institutions” for all of our adult lives. It’s hard to feel sorry for them. What are the needs of one man in a machine so vast? Not much, apparently.

I’m not the litigious sort. Lawyers have generally caused mostly grief, in my experience. But I don’t castigate the important work Herbert Richardson is trying to do. It might be easy for those lucky enough to be welcomed by academia to forget just how lucky they are and noses are easily looked down towards those of us who never received a chance to shine. No, I wouldn’t sue those who bad-mouth me, and I’m sure there are plenty, but I think Herbert Richardson’s heart is in the right place. As a guy who would happily work for books if food, shelter, and healthcare could somehow be had, I know what it is to covet a book and not be able to afford it. I know what it is like to feel want. Herbert Richardson, based on my encounters with the man—we continue to cross paths from time to time—understands those who love books. That is a principle I can live by.


Soul University

ExcellenceWithoutSoul Cambridge, Massachusetts is a likable town. As students at Boston University my friends and I would occasionally take the red line to Harvard Square and shuffle through the leaves of that venerable institution that gives the square its name. One of the treats was stopping in The Coop, the Harvard bookstore that made us all feel smart. While at Harvard last year, The Coop was part of my professional, editorial remit. I spied a book entitled Excellence Without a Soul: Does Liberal Education Have a Future?, by Harry R. Lewis. I have often thought about how higher education has slipped its moorings these past few decades, and wondered what an erstwhile Harvard dean had to say about the matter. The leaves on campus weren’t so abundant last October, but I felt that same inferiority complex that being on the Harvard campus always gives me. Of course, I had received an acceptance letter from Harvard Divinity School when I considered transferring there, but it was easier to stay at BU and complain.

Lewis’s book is a somewhat nostalgic consideration of how Harvard has evolved from a seminary to a powerhouse university—the powerhouse university—in the new world. There is no doubt that Harvard is our oldest institution of higher education, and there is no doubt that it has the money to be “the best.” But by what measure? This is one of the questions Lewis asks, repeatedly. Still, the assumption is always lurking in the background that Harvard is the best, but as Lewis notes in the book, there is no one best doctor just like there is no one best book. Harvard is good, but so are many other schools. They all suffer from the same indifference in a society that takes education for granted. The real problem is that we like simple solutions. Take a look around you—you’ll see what I mean.

It is difficult to feel sorry for Harvard. The elite of the elite, it has that time-honored patina that antique specialists love so much. What it doesn’t have it can afford to buy. There is no doubt, however, that as Harvard leans, so tilt the other universities of this country. In my professional field I’ve seldom met an unemployed Harvard Ph.D. Those of us who attended even older universities (yes, the Europeans came up with the idea first) with even more recognizable alumni—has anyone heard of Charles Darwin or David Hume? Adam Smith?—are used to being passed over for positions while Harvard writes its own checks. Elitism may be at the heart of the problem. It’s not that I wish hard times on Harvard, it’s just that I wish we’d be honest about the academic enterprise. Has higher education lost its soul? To find the answer we’re going to have to look beyond Cambridge, Massachusetts. But the leaves in autumn are certainly pretty, if not so abundant as they were before.