Mere Humanities

Categories, while necessary, can be troubling things.  One place to see this clearly is in academia, which is itself a category.  In the long history of deciding what counts as a legitimate job (you can make a living now being a YouTuber!) somewhere in the Middle Ages, based on the idea of the monastery, the university arose.  This required some justification—people are to be paid for researching topics and teaching others to do the same?  Not quite back-breaking labor, but it can lead to lumbago nevertheless.  Topics had to be worthy to permit this excused absence.  Law and theology were the earliest majors available.  Hobbes’ two swords.  Church and state.  This makes sense since monasteries were all about obeying rules and obeying God.  Theology was the queen of the sciences.

Perhaps unbelievable in today’s world, it was thought that other topics than theology—called humanities so as to distinguish them from divine discussions—should be added to the curriculum.  These were topics that the educated were expected to have mastered, and they included things like history and, yes, mathematics.  In the early days the building blocks of science (such as math) were considered humanities.  Theology wasn’t.  The Reformation complicated things because now there were lots of theologies.  And this thing called the Enlightenment was suggesting that they were all just a bit naive.  Still, universities grew up around theological training grounds, including places like Harvard, Princeton, and Yale.  Slowly, however, theology began losing relevance and became more and more a humanities subject.  Call it a strange form of incarnation.

By the time I became aware of theological study, it was firmly, and deeply a humanities subject.  Often called “religious studies,” other academics often considered it a throw-away major, but if you dug deep enough you found yourself learning dead languages that even a scientist couldn’t comprehend.  When I began attending a Christian liberal arts college, it was clear the engineers and others of what would come to be called STEM topics were given preferences.  Science, Technology, Engineering, and yes, Math.  Some of the subjects that had started out as mere humanities, now received the praise (and cash) while theology—religious studies—had become a purely dispensable humanities topic.  These days humanities majors are dropping like theologians, and going to university means preparing for either business or science-based careers.  Subjects in which you make more mere money.  And one of the founding subjects of this entire enterprise will earn you a starting salary position at Walmart.  And that’s a category worth avoiding at any cost.

Photo credit: Ben Schumin, Wikimedia Commons

Sacred Education

A recent story in the New Jersey Star-Ledger describes the dynastic culture of some of the newer evangelical colleges. Presidents of such “universities” as Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, and Liberty, were drawn from the sons (not daughters) of the founders. Mostly they seem to prefer to name their schools after themselves, it seems. What strikes me as odd is not the dynastic succession—after all that is common in both business and Bible—but that society seems so content to see the explosion of evangelical colleges while holding traditional higher education in a strangle-hold. According to the article by Mark Oppenheimer, combined enrollment (online and in-person) at Liberty is over 100,000. For comparison, the full-time equivalent at Arizona State University (recently the numerically largest university in the country) is shy of 77,000. We bemoan the conservative evangelical impact in government and stop the flow of money to mainstream scholars of religion (among other disciplines) and wonder what’s wrong.

Education is costly. There can be no doubt about it. Still, most academics (apart from a few who’ve learned to sponge cynically off the system) are willing to work for modest wages. We don’t get into this field for the money. No matter how tall they build their towers in New York, or Dubai, some of us will believe it’s all vanity and that the life of the mind is more than a myth. But we will be the ones shouted down by the majority welcomed with open arms at Bob Jones, Oral Roberts, or Liberty. And it’s not with justice for all. Exclusion has always been the name of the game.

Higher education was established (largely by churches) with the premise that an educated society would be a prosperous, forward-looking one. And while some of those church-monied ventures took off (who can catch up with Harvard or Princeton?) they’ve left their Protestant roots far behind. In a society where bigger is, by definition, better, what hopes do universities founded with education in mind really have? You can put Ph.D. after your names whether you studied at Harvard or Bob Jones. Ours is a society of great equalization. Unless you happen to have one of those degrees from a suspect, secular university. You can see pretty far from atop the Mound in Edinburgh. Far off into the Kingdom of Fife and your mind is free to wander far beyond that. You can’t see as far as America’s shores, however, and if you want to get ahead here the safer money is invested in the dynastic colleges of the recently departed.

Evangelist at Arizona State

Evangelist at Arizona State

Education for Hire

FallOfTheFacultyCapitalism takes no survivors. Ironically, the very concept of capitalism was the result of deep, intellectual reflection. Not that trade hadn’t existed before then, but the arguments that an economy could be based on these principles took an academic setting to become established facts. Universities have been the bastions of new ideas for centuries now. In the United States, however, they are being eroded into corporate playgrounds. Benjamin Ginsberg’s The Fall of the Faculty: The Rise of the All-Administrative University and Why It Matters, will, unfortunately, probably be read only by those who actually care about higher education—faculty and a few curious parents who wonder why they’re paying so much. This is a very important book, and Ginsberg addresses a theme that has been repeatedly expressed on this blog: higher education is in severe crisis because it is treated as a business, not as an educational enterprise. Unlike most situations in life where ambiguity reigns, there’s no question, in this case, whence the blame lies. Ginsberg places the finger firmly where it belongs: professional administrators do not understand, or really even care for, higher education. If you’re curious why you’re paying top dollar for your child’s education, and yet they’re being taught by adjuncts, look no further. Ginsberg has your answers.

Administration, while somewhat necessary, has become an end in itself. A self-perpetuating lackey of capitalistic double-speak. I’ve worked in corporate America enough to know that recognizing a person’s true strengths (what we used to call gifts) is not where managers excel. The bottom line is all they can see. Ginsberg’s is an angry book. And this anger is full of justification. Higher education has become just another garden-variety business, for profit at the heart of it, because faculty have let it slip away. I have been formally associated with eight institutions of higher education, and I’ve seen this pattern operate over and over and over again. Despite the fact that universities thrived in the centuries before professional administrators began treating them as “businesses,” even my alma mater, where Adam Smith himself once taught, could not help hiring a public relations firm to try to bolster the image of an institution which could claim David Hume, Walter Scott, Charles Darwin, and Alexander Graham Bell, among many others.

How the mighty have fallen. Ginsberg does offer some solutions, but is skeptical that many schools can be saved. The fact is, the highest growth rate in the higher education “industry” has been administrators. As faculty jobs are cut and diced ever finer, administrative posts increase at triple-digit rates, and their standards are those of businesses, not educators. Hindsight, of course, comes with greater acuity than foresight, but now that faculty realize they’ve been outmaneuvered, there is little hope of turning the ship in time. Nine-tenths of this iceberg lies hidden beneath the sea, and everyone presumed this ship was unsinkable anyway. Universities were devised by theologians, not entrepreneurs. Like ants crowding around cookie crumbs, business interests have been drawn to the great, untaxable bastions of what used to be called higher education. Factories come in many shapes and sizes. One of the most deceptive is that which bears the once honest nameplate of university.

History Department

Rather like an embarrassing personal blemish, many universities tend to hide the fact that they were originally servants of the church.  Ouch!  I know that hurts.  When I was working at Routledge I had to educate some of my fellow employees about the strange interaction between religion and higher education.  Most of the earliest universities were founded primarily as theological colleges.  That stands to reason, since as light slowly began to dawn at the fading of the Dark Ages, the practice of literacy had largely been the domain of clerics, and even today, the clergy are among society’s most dependable readers.  Universities sprang up because churches desired leaders who were informed—educated, even.  Men (at that point) who knew how to reason well.  This impetus eventually led to the kind of thinking that allowed science to emerge, although it soon had fights with its parents over who had the better perspective.  Some things never change.

University or church?

University or church?

Even considering the Ivy League here in the United States, we have schools that were generally founded for clerical purposes.  Harvard was founded mainly to train Puritan ministers.  Yale was intended to provide clergy and leaders to the colony of Connecticut.  Brown was founded by Baptist clergy, while Columbia owes its origins to the missionary wing of the Church of England.  Princeton was founded for the training of Presbyterian clergy.  Dartmouth’s Puritan clergy founded wanted a school for preparing missionaries.  Even non-sectarian Penn had clergy among its early leaders.  Cornell was the lone gunman of the truly secular schools.  The pattern even reaches to state universities that now cower at the thought of expanding or sometimes even maintaining their religion departments.  Rutgers, where I had the privilege to teach as an adjunct for a few years, was originally founded as an enterprise of the Reformed Church in America, scion of the old Dutch Reformed Church, thus giving rise to the small New Brunswick Theological Seminary that still sits in the middle of the College Avenue Campus of the State University of New Jersey.

Every now and again, I ponder this state of affairs.  Religion, love it or loath it, is foundational not only for higher education, but for civilization itself.  If the evidence of Göbekli Tepe is to be believed, religion may have been the very glue that brought societies together in the first place.  Despite the decline in mainline denominations, public survey evidence indicates Americans are just as religious as ever, or at least spiritual.  How quickly we forget that it was biblical mandates to go out and spread the news that led to the idea of a literate, educated society.  The lure of money and technology is great, and has managed to reshape the higher education landscape.  If you look, however, at the lists of institutions of higher education in the United States, even today, the largest subset is either currently affiliated with, or had been founded by, Christian groups wanting to offer education to their children. Today there are still hundreds of universities and colleges affiliated with religious groups.  Somehow I get the sense that the affection showed is not completely mutual.

Hire Education

Physicians are trained to notice symptoms before a condition becomes fatal. That’s their job and our society pays them well for it. Who wants to die? “Where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” a very wise person once said. If we had a physician to look over the health of the nation, I would tremble at the diagnosis. A colleague just reminded me of this by pointing out Un-Hired Ed, an infographic that reveals the chart the doctors don’t want the patient to see. My daughter is starting college. Long ago, however, we gave her that talk that parents give their kids—you know the one—the beware of the lure of higher education talk. As Un-Hired Ed points out, our society has been putting on weight: universities consume far more doctoral candidates than there will ever be jobs. I speak from first-hand experience with an earned doctorate from a world-class research university and a list of solid publications, in saying that the prognosis is distressing, likely fatal. I spent nearly a decade of my “best earning years” functionally unemployed because I was “overqualified” for job after job after job. How many people don’t even rate an interview to become a meter reader for the electric company? Well, with the unending awarding of doctorates, that, like the national cholesterol level, is sure to rise.

Universities have turned greedy eyes towards the profit margins of businesses since about the 1980s—those years of “me first” that have plunged us into an economic dark age. Salaries and privileges skyrocketed and so did college enrollments. I worked at a university that was seriously considering a “Marina Management” major. To cover all the additional courses that universities must offer to “educate” the vast numbers of students, they face a financial brick wall. College presidents expect to earn a certain (unrealistic) salary, and football coaches deserve even more. Stadiums don’t come cheap, you know! So they hire adjuncts; Ph.D.s who are functionally unemployable, and pay them less than the janitors. Woo-hoo! We’ve beat the system of fair compensation and it has only cost us the livelihood of those whose professors encouraged off to grad school because they were the best and brightest in the class!

“Like lambs led to the slaughter,” as the saying goes.

Can higher education be redeemed? I have to believe so. You see, back in the Dark Ages some of the theologically literate began to congeal into clumps of readers and writers that eventually became universities. They valued learning and passing that learning on so that, like the physician, society might heal itself. And it did. Bologna, Oxford, Paris, Cambridge, St Andrews, Edinburgh—lights began to shine in the darkness. Then business models assured our great institutions that more is better, and doctorates spread like an unstoppable disease. Society’s interests had moved on. Who needs higher education when there’s something really entertaining on YouTube? Prognosis: chronic obesity. Don’t you agree, doctor?

Un-Hired Ed: The Growing Adjunct Crisis
Source: Online-PhD-Programs.org

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.