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.

New York Calvin

So I’m standing at the corner of Fifth Avenue and 29th Street, gazing at Marble Collegiate Church, of the Reformed Church in America.  A cold breeze is blowing, and I wish I’d thought to dress a bit more warmly.  Although the building in front of me was erected in the nineteenth century, the church was founded in 1628, making it among the oldest continuous Protestant congregations in the New World.  It is regularly passed by tourists and shoppers who give it nary a glance, not realizing that the Dutch who gave us New Amsterdam also gave us a Reformed Church that has stood the test of time in an increasingly secular New York City. 

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I am not now, nor have I ever been, a Calvinist.  That may seem odd coming from a religion scholar who attended a very Presbyterian College and earned a doctorate at a Presbyterian department at the University of Edinburgh.  Nevertheless, despite the many belief systems I’ve indulged, the Reformed wing has never appealed.  That’s not to say that I don’t appreciate what Calvinists have to offer: where would we be without the many good things Presbyterians have brought to us?  In any case, I was recently considering how I automatically equate Calvinism with Presbyterianism, and how I really need to get over that habit.  The Swiss reformers were a far more fragmented sect than the Lutheran contingent ever became.  That still shows in the many historic Calvinistic traditions out there.
 
Presbyterianism, on its own, is not a uniform denomination anymore.  For the time being, however, if we consider all Presbyterian groups as one stream of Calvinism, we need also to consider the Reformed groups.  Although all Calvinists are reformed, the Reformed Church had its historic stronghold in the Netherlands.  Doctrinal differences continued to fracture the Reformed Church into several denominations, two of the most prominent in the New World being the Reformed Church in America and its splinter, now larger, of the Christian Reformed Church (not to be confused with the Christian Church, (Disciples of Christ)).  Congregational churches, which have no overarching governing body, frequently fall into the Calvinistic theological tradition, although that is not necessarily the case.  Other Protestant denominations, such as Methodism, have equally diverse origins.  Others, like the Baptists, have an early history that is unclear even today.
 
The Calvinist theological family tree is well studied, and it stretches back from where I’m standing to Huldrych Zwingli and John Calvin and their peers, some five centuries ago.  Although it never reached the size of the Baptist and Methodist growth spurts during the Great Awakening, Calvinism did make a lasting imprint on the landscape of North America, and still continues to bring some of us out on a chilly day just to look and wonder.

Instruction, through Film

In an increasingly technological world, the acquisition of knowledge often seems like a moving target. For thousands of years the process of research meant lifting yourself out of the chair, or couch, or log, and going to where the written collection of human knowledge resided—the library. Assurbanipal, emperor of Assyria, assembled a great library in antiquity, as did the sages of Alexandria, Egypt. From those days until my own lifetime, if you wanted to learn something you went to where the books resided. The birth of the Internet has changed knowledge storage considerably, but not completely. You might find bits of Assurbanipal’s Akkadian wisdom online (Alexandria’s, unfortunately, didn’t survive antiquity), next to thousands of e-books, blogs, and tweets. And of course, videos. Although many of my blog posts refer to horror movies, one of my favorite sources of information has always been the documentary. Despite the fact that it’s spoon-fed knowledge, there’s nothing quite like watching the experts tell you what you need to know on this or that topic.

Assurbanipal, lion hunter, emperor, librarian.

I was, naturally, pleased to learn of documentary-log.com. The folks from the site were kind enough to contact me since they offer many religion documentaries for free. I suspect that most readers of this blog have some interest in religion since I seldom write about anything else. Documentary-log.com currently has over thirty professionally made documentaries from various producers (including the History channel) available for viewing. Just sit back, click, and learn. I added to my own knowledge-base yesterday. This is particularly nice for those of us who can’t really afford the constantly increasing expense of buying access to television service. If your interests are greater than religion, they have many other categories of documentaries available as well. There are much worse ways to spend an afternoon.

One of the questions that arises in my conversations these days is whether all of the material online is changing knowledge itself. There’s no question that it’s a time saver. Prof. J. C. L. Gibson once remarked, while looking for a passage in class at Edinburgh, “So much of scholarship is turning pages.” He was a man who still did not use a typewriter, up to the day of his death. There is something to the old form of knowledge that stays with me as I watch the world inexorably change around me. There was a thrill to finding a book from 1516 on the open shelves at the New College library of Edinburgh University, to touching its centuries-old pages and marveling. Sitting in John Gibson’s office as he puffed on his pipe and trying to defend my new ideas against his old ones, I felt that knowledge was being hammered into me. There is an arcane knowledge to starting every day with a wee dram and a prayer that the World Wide Web just hasn’t managed to capture yet.

God Particle

Over the last couple of days the Higgs boson has been in the news. Although I seldom ventured too far from New College and the faculty of divinity at the University of Edinburgh, it makes me glow with a special pride knowing I inhabited a small corner of the university of Peter Higgs. (And many other luminaries, including Charles Darwin.) My hopes of understanding the Higgs boson are more remote than even finding a university post (very long odds indeed), but I know that it is so important to physics that it has earned the moniker of “the God particle.” I first learned of the Higgs boson through Morgan Freeman’s Through the Wormhole series. At that stage it hadn’t yet acquired its divine status. Godhood must be earned, after all, at least in the eyes of humans. It is the proposed particle that stands to make sense of quantum physics, the world of the very small and the very weird.

There is an object lesson hidden in here. When even scientists get pushed to the limits of human knowledge, superlatives grow diminished. What can we call such a radical, powerful force in human thought? The particle itself, the boson, is not inherently stronger than a proton or electron, but its divine designation comes from its ability to, dare I say, replace god. In other words, it is the particle that explains so much that it is like the new god. News stories do not tell us where the nickname arose, but the best guess seems to be that some journalist with a flair for the dramatic brought God into the equation. God sells copy. But has the name also got enough room for a snake around the tree—or rather, around the nucleus?

In America, where science is under siege, any claims for God will be taken literally by some. We have witnessed again and again sheer silliness being paraded as “science” by Bible “experts” who take nearly half the population with them. The mental gyrations of the intelligent design crowd as they try to force God back into the equation should be warning enough. The God particle is baiting them and most Americans are ill-equipped to decide for themselves what is actually science. No sooner do we get a grip on nanotechnology than we begin building nanocathedrals. In that cathedral if scientists find the Higgs boson, it will not be god. It will, like god, open the door to many more unexplained phenomena, for god is not an explanatory principle. If we need a name to convey the great, rational explanatory power of such an elusive sub-atomic bit it seems to me—and I may be biased—that we call it the Edinburgh particle instead.

The Heart of Babylon

One of life’s great ironies I’ve been pondering is how I earned a Ph.D. in a world-class university only to find myself unemployed, and apparently unemployable. Never one to rest on laurels – my own or anybody else’s – I nevertheless feel a sting whenever an alumni magazine arrives in my mailbox. All those successful, smiling faces depress me. Some of them have even studied religion and found a place in the field. When my advisors encouraged my aspirations in the academic world I wish they’d told me that it is really an old boys’ network of drinking partners and back-room favors. The university days I dream of ended long ago. I still look through the magazines to try to understand what went wrong.

FREDDY II is happy to meet you

So it was that the article on FREDDY in the Edinburgh alumni circular caught my attention. As the flummoxed president of Team 102, the local high school FIRST Robotics team, I was glad to be reminded of my alma mater’s hand in the field. FREDDY was developed in Edinburgh as the “first automated industrial robot to integrate perception and action” (according to my alumni rag). This meant that robots would be able to perform complex tasks in industry and earn lots of money the university would never see. So it is that we build our own nemeses. We look for progress and find the creature no longer requires the service of the creator. Those who gaze too deeply into the light lose their vision.

I am awaiting the automated university professor. I sing the soul electric (with apologies to Walt Whitman and Ray Bradbury). Should we not be honest about what we want? Universities seek entrepreneurs and sports stars: real learning takes place in the market and on the gridiron. Never mind the current economic meltdown; it’s all part of the classroom experience. Meanwhile the number of adjunct instructors nationally now outnumbers the full-time faculty of the university world. We have built a machine designed to deconstruct itself. As more and more colleagues join me on the sidelines we will always have something to read, as long as we share. I have enough alumni magazines to last any victim of academia a lifetime, and everyone in them seems destined to live happily ever after.