Learning To Shift

Beliefs have a way of shifting with time and learning.  A regular part of my job is to spend time on college, university, and seminary websites.  Indeed, an editor in my field has to know quite a bit about institutional affiliations.  No matter how much secularists dislike it, our institutions of higher education tended, historically, to be founded by religious organizations.  That’s not unexpected since the very idea of higher education grew organically from the concept of monasteries as the places that preserved learning.  Many, if not most, universities have grown away from their founders’ faiths.  Harvard University, for example, was founded largely for the supply of Congregational and Unitarian clergy.  Not officially affiliated, it nevertheless owed its founding vision to religious needs in the colony.  The fact of moving away from religious traditions is understandable in the cases of universities because learning is essentially a secular enterprise now.

Seminaries are a little different.  When searching for my first (and, to date only) full-time teaching job, I was acquired by Nashotah House because I was Episcopalian.  All the faculty were.  I’ve been turned down for a good many jobs over the years by seminaries silently stating that I wasn’t Catholic, Presbyterian, Methodist or ________ (fill in the blank).  Ironically, as I’ve come to know many seminary faculty members through work, most of them are not of the same denomination as their institution.  Quite often they are Bible faculty, which, when you think about it, is pretty surprising.  Denominations, especially Protestant ones, draw their lines in the sand over their interpretation of Scripture.  

All of this leaves me wondering what it really means to belong to a religious body.  After Nashotah House sympathetic Episcopalians were difficult to locate.  Even those in the academy seemed to accept my sudden disappearance with a studied lack of curiosity.  I’ve sat on the sidelines for a decade and a half now, watching others play the game.  Some win.  Many do not.  Some have denominations that open up for them.  Others do not.  Looking back at the origins of higher education, those of us who studied the original academic field are now considered non-essential even among the non-essentials.  And yet society feels like it’s reeling because of its lack of understanding regarding what religion is.  There are few places to go to learn what your particular brand teaches.  But then again, beliefs do have a way of shifting over time.


Caveat Emptor

When you work in academic publishing, various higher education news sources find you.  Not able to distinguish faculty from industry professionals that rely on them for their by-products, these sites often offer friendly advice on how to succeed in academia.  Having had not a little experience in that venue (if you’ll pardon my litotes), I noted a recent headline before clicking the delete button.  I can’t reconstruct it word-for-word, but the gist of it was that if you wanted to earn more as an academic, you should study overseas.  Your salary, the article implied, would be higher if you did.  Now I recognize that things constantly change, but in my field of study if you want to get any job at all, let alone a good paying one, you study domestically.  Specifically at Harvard.  Academics, just like publishers, rest on their laurels.

The funny thing about this headline is that it contained the same advice that I received all the way back in the 1980s.  I followed up on it, choosing Edinburgh after having been accepted at Oxford, Cambridge, Aberdeen, and St. Andrews.  Only later did I learn that of those schools only Oxford opened the door to positions in my native United States, being, as it is, the Harvard of the United Kingdom.  Defying the odds, I did get a job that, when I became Academic Dean with access to industry stats, I discovered was among the lowest paying of its peers.  Studying overseas, in other words, had the exact opposite effect than the headline promises.  Perhaps things have changed in the intervening years.  Even today I have to remind people that Edinburgh is a world-class research university, one of the four ancient schools in the kingdom of the Scots.  Some of the most famous minds in human history studied there.  Ach, well, a job by any other name would smell of sweat.

Xenophobia isn’t unique to the GOP.  It exists in higher education too.  Academics are extremely tribal, and if you try to break in from the outside—no matter where you study—you’ll learn that your money might be spent more wisely learning a trade.  As a homeowner, I’ve discovered that just about any practical job that doesn’t require college pays better than what you can get with the detritus of a doctorate on your résumé.  In fact, during times when work was scarce I tried to hide it.  One of the skills I picked up in my educational journey was not to believe everything you read.  Problem is, you only pick that up after you’ve already paid that tuition bill.  The delete button is right there; don’t be afraid to use it.


Two Unrelated Stories

Harvard University’s been in the news. Well, Harvard makes the news, so that not news. The first story that has appeared is that Harvard, like me, is giving it away. Information on religion, that is. Like a fire sale. Or making room for next season’s fashions. According to the Anglican Journal, Harvard is offering a free world religions class online. Some of us who have degrees in various world religions offer similar services but, well, we are not Harvard, are we? This isn’t really sour grapes, but I see my colleagues’ blogs—those who teach anywhere, not necessarily at Harvard—and they get plenty of hits. They have institutional backing. That job offer is a seal of quality, don’t you know. Freelancers, well, who trusts them? I’ll professionally prattle on about religion anyway.

Then a colleague sent me a story by Charlotte Allen entitled “Jesus’ Wife: The Final Debunking,” from The Weekly Standard. For those of you not up on the scholarly gossip of the deity’s latest amorous exploits, some time ago a Harvard professor advocated for a fragment of a lost gospel purporting to mention Jesus’ wife. The media had it’s little frenzy (like father, like son, so it seemed), and scholars argued—which is what they do. Most saw this fragment as an obvious fake, but when someone from Harvard declares otherwise the media listens. Now, in a piece of investigative reporting soon to appear in The Atlantic, the origins of this fake manuscript are pretty much laid out for all to see. It seems that being at the only true university in this country isn’t really the basis for not being taken in by forgers. I’m not picking on the professor—we’ve all been taken in by clever forgers—we want to believe. Deception happens all the time and all over the place: “ancient” documents are faked, someone makes money or notoriety, and we all go home shamefaced at the end of the day. Still, there’s a point to be made.

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Humans are worshipful beings. If you want a job in higher education your best bet is to attend Harvard. It opens doors for you. While in seminary at Boston University School of Theology, I applied for transfer to Harvard Divinity School and was accepted. I decided not to cross that river, however. Edinburgh was my future. In Scotland, I spent my dissertation attempting to show just how thin the evidence was for Yahweh’s wife, if you take the time to look at each piece. Naturally, the dissertation and subsequent book were largely ignored. Edinburgh used to be the Athens of the North, but it’s not Harvard, though. Now scholars are beginning to question the new orthodoxy of a happily married deity. While the academic dispute goes from one bed to another, it begins to sound like Days of Our Lives. Scholarly drama may not be front page news, but it doesn’t fail to entertain.


Beg to Differ

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“What do you burn apart from witches?” “More witches!” Earning a doctorate is kind of like learning how to get lost. It certainly doesn’t make you either cool or employable, but it allows you a few years to accumulate enough debt to keep you out of trouble for awhile. One of the things I learned along the way is that you should always follow the crowd. I look at the schools that only hire Harvard grads and there can be no doubt. I look at all the Trump supporters and I know there can be no question. Yes, the ayes have it. So, I never learned to tell which bands were truly worth listening to until I learned to follow the critics. I never studied music. Like most people, I know what I like but I can’t say why. I only discovered Radiohead in the last few months. Some of my critics claim my complaint of lack of time is only an excuse, but I don’t listen to music unless I can really listen to music. It can’t be pure filler. Put on Beethoven’s seventh and you’ll see what I mean.

In any case, my wife alerted me to the new Radiohead song “Burn the Witch.” And you can’t listen to a new song without watching it as well. This time it’s worth it. The claymation video accompanying the song (conveniently found here on NPR) is a reprisal of “The Wicker Man,” one of the truly intellectual movies in the horror genre. Of course, that’s something I picked up from the crowd. We’re told by the most powerful and charismatic bigots of our age that life is all about acquiring stuff. Were I to argue with that, well, I guess I’d be the witch to be burnt. Before listening to/watching the Radiohead song, do yourself a favor and watch “The Wicker Man” (the original, please, accept no substitutes). Go on, everybody’s doing it.

The most dangerous thing in the world is an independent thinker. No, I didn’t learn that at Harvard. On my first walking tour through Edinburgh with one of my doctoral advisors he pointed out the part of town where they used to kill witches. He was truly an original thinker (still is) and taught me to be one too. Problem is, I should’ve been following the crowd all along. You want people to pay attention to you? Go to Harvard! Want people to vote for you? Clearly show you’ve got what it takes (money). Give a man a little cash and anything will do for brains, to paraphrase one of the smartest movies of all time. The only way forward is to do what everyone else is doing. And pick up some kindling along the way—you’re going to need it.


Galileo’s Tool

GalileoMiddleEarly in my academic career I got into trouble not because a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data, but because I had pointed out that a Harvard professor hadn’t adequately checked his data. You see, I was a naive realist. I believed academics were objective, factual sorts who looked for the truth no matter how uncomfortable it was. My honesty didn’t earn me many friends, and I still can’t mention this professor by name because I have seen grown men melt into tears at his name, due to their overwhelming loyalty. By contrast, a fellow Edinburgh student once told me that he disagreed with our mutual dissertation adviser, “on principle.” As the old saying goes, nullius in verba, take nobody’s word for it. Reading Alice Dreger’s Galileo’s Middle Finger: Heretics, Activists, and the Search for Justice in Science drove home a number of important points, one of the most memorable being that academics take real risks when they won’t fudge the facts to fit the establishment’s expectations.

Although this autobiographically revealing book is about as honest as a writer can be, it deals largely with issues of social justice in the context of those who “don’t fit.” Intersex individuals, especially, are treated before they can give consent and live their lives based on other people’s expectations of what their gender “should be.” Like most people I was raised thinking there were only two genders. Science has consistently demonstrated that “gender” is a construct that occurs along a continuum. Some species change gender in their lives. Some have such complicated reproductive techniques that far more than two genders are postulated to make sense of it all. And yet, when it comes to humans, we suppose that we’re either female or male. And religions consistently claim that any sex outside those parameters is evil. We are so naive.

Dreger focuses her attention much more widely in this important book. She shows how universities, constantly becoming more corporate, often don’t support research that challenges their investments, or “branding.” She demonstrates first-hand the character-assassination that academic snipers use so well on those who follow the evidence. She is living proof that education and activism should go together. Intricate and with bizarre loops and twists thrown in, her account of what some people will do to silence others, and get it peer reviewed, saddens me. I’ve always believed that education is the surest way to solve social ills. Education, however, is increasingly being purchased by special-interest groups that protect the establishment. The establishment may no longer be the church, but we need another Galileo, and soon.


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.