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Academia: Broken System



Stanley Fish's NYTimes editorial describes why many people, including evangelicals, often ignore academics:

"[A] category of courses that [Naomi Schaefer] Riley believes does not merit academic freedom includes "area, ethnic, cultural, and gender studies." Here the issue is not an absence of intellectual content, but an intellectual content that goes only in one (leftward) direction. Often, she complains, "the entire premise of the discipline ... rests on a political agenda." Courses "often appear to be a series of axes faculty would like to grind." Since "the endpoint of their academic study is predetermined," the departments that offer them "are advertising their lack of a need for academic freedom."

Many would expand that category to all of the humanities. Furthermore, even the hard science departments demonstrate abuses of their academic freedom. Riley uses this lack of need of academic freedom to argue against the tenure system:

Riley quotes approvingly the judgment of educational theorist Richard Vedder: "...most of the research done to earn tenure is darn near useless. On any rational cost-benefit analysis, the institution of tenure has led to the publication of hundreds of thousands of papers that are ... read by a dozen people."

Sorry academic friends, but talk about malinvestment. Regarding undergraduate instructors, this seems logical:

Wouldn't it make more sense, Riley asks, to hire broadly educated persons who made no pretense of "advancing knowledge" to teach most of the courses? "Wouldn't someone who has spent more time on that broad education and less time trying to find some miniscule niche on which to write a dissertation be the better teacher for most of those classes?"

But of course, as anyone who attended a big university knows, your instructors often could not care less about actually helping undergraduates learn.

What Riley shows is that vocation-oriented teaching, teaching beholden to corporations and politically inflected teaching do not square with the picture of academic labor assumed by the institutions of tenure and academic freedom.

And Fish's conclusion is provocative, especially for social justice advocates:

I say, and have been saying for years, that colleges and universities should stop moving in those directions -- toward relevance, bottom-line contributions and social justice -- and go back to a future in which academic inquiry is its own justification.

What could be the basis of this justification? We know through the Scriptures the Lord created the knowable world, and he created and redeems us in Christ to know that world. Apart from that basis, academia is and will continue to be a broken system.

Cultural and Economic Development

I have no words.
What happens when a culturally and economically 'backwards' territory is suddenly made a part of a great economic powerhouse? If you're a follower of Aid Watch (and, really, you all should be), you know that the answer is 'mostly bad things.' Part of the problem, of course, is the fact that who gets to decide what constitutes 'backwards' is a pretty important question, and one with almost no good answers. But supposing we can identify a truly inferior culture-economy, that still doesn't mean the economically powerful can make things better by swooping in like a hero in red and blue.

This post by Vivek Nemana illustrates the point nicely. The antebellum American South was both entrenched in a social system that was morally deficient and locked into an industrial system that was economically counterproductive. (I realize not all my readers will agree. I stand by the strength of this statement.)

The South was heavily invested in racial subjugation - slavery directly accounted for over a quarter of the GDP. The region spent an enormous amount of resources to justify slavery, hiring silver-tongued apologists like John C. Calhoun to spin slavery as humane. In this light, slavery was an economic institution that was designed for racially hegemonic society.
Presumably, then, the North was doing the South a favor by overthrowing its destitute system and replacing it with a system based on sound property rights and the promise of true freedom for everyone, not just the landed gentry... right?

While the Civil War radically restructured Southern laws to promote racial equality and property rights, the hegemonic bonds were resistant to change. [...] As the legacy of slavery wound its way into postbellum Southern society and politics, it hindered the way freedom and property rights should have boosted the economy, denying the South the full bounty of American development.
In other words, "the very insertion of these new freedoms and property rights into a society designed for slavery [...] led to the divergent development of North and South." Improving economic and political conditions aren't enough to produce lasting prosperity, and fixing one part of a system can actually make the people under the system worse off.

(As an aside, this post really got me thinking about the economic destructiveness of even a little bit of racism, especially this sentence: "Gary Becker once wrote that people lose out on the potential gains from trade if one group is able to indulge in 'tastes for discrimination' against another." It ties in closely with a post at another blog from Jonathan Wight on the nature of property rights: "Property rights do not bestow limitless abilities on owners, and property rights come with responsibilities.")

All this brings me to an article at the Financial Times. Essentially, the article discusses how we should compare cites like Vancouver to cities like NYC, and what sort of values we express by preferring one over the other. I just don't know how to react to it. The author wants to argue for the organic, unplanned outcomes of a place like NYC over the zoned and top-down oriented nature of Vancouver. But I'm left not sure what to do with some of the elements of the argument.

In fact, it can often be exactly the juxtaposition of wealth and relative poverty that makes a city vibrant, the collision between the two worlds. Where parts of big cities have declined, through the collapse of industries or the fears about immigration that led to what urbanists have termed the "donut effect" (in which white populations flee to the suburbs, leaving minorities in the centres), there is space to be filled by artists and architects, by poorer immigrants arriving with a drive to make money and by the proliferation of food outlets, studios and galleries. These, in turn, attract the wealthy back to the centre, at first to consume, and then to gentrify.
Is he saying diversity is a good thing? That wealthy elites should not isolate themselves? I think that's a great point. But is he also saying that the wealthy should keep a few poor folk around because they run tasty food trucks? Because they offer a culture worth fixing (my wife hates the word 'gentrify,' btw)? That's something else entirely.

In a strange way the everyday conflict with the (unliveable) city can also become part of the attraction.
Again, whether I can get on board with this depends crucially on whether we're talking about opening ourselves to learn from those different from us, or whether the goal is to bring our (clearly superior) ways to influence the 'backwards' folks of the inner city.

Mumbai is probably the greenest big city there is - slums like the million-strong Dharavi use minimal land, energy and water.
Once again, does this mean that we should be willing to have some poor people around because it is good for the environment, or that economic growth for the poorest around us is worth being less green, or that striking the balance between economic and environmental stewardship is hard?

At the end of the day, how we relate to the people and city around us depends an awful lot on if we are developing full and complex relationships with them, with plenty of give-and-take and holistic engagement, or if instead we are setting out to gentrify the backwards natives. And for those of us who educate others vocationally, I think it's a call to special reflection and introspection.

urban education.jpg I had a conversation recently with a Puerto Rican brother who can't wait to get out of New York City to get his son a better education. He's only been a Christian for 3 years and he is worried about his son being at school 9 hours a day in New York City public schools with that kind of secular culture. His son is thinking about college and he doesn't want that to be sabotaged by horrible public schools. If his son goes to college he'll be one of the first ever in his family to do so. I don't think "missional" guys understand this from the perspective of minorities who were raised in the city. I often hear this, "we're moving because we don't want to raise are kids in this."

What they mean by "in this" is something the gentrifiers don't understand. They just don't get it. It's unbelievable. The city is not "cool" for many blacks and Latinos. For many it's been generations of hard living watching white-collar white people get ahead in the world while minorities, blue-collar whites, and immigrants work in the low-skilled labor jobs for those white people and struggle.

Before people get all "that's-not-missional" on me think about this: this man has only been a Christian for 3 YEARS (and in his late 30's at that). He doesn't know what it means to have a "Christian" home. He's trying to sort through much in his own life having spent most his adult life as an unbeliever. A Christian school would do his family well because he could put his son in a Christian school so that he and his entire family could be supported as they try to figure what it means to be a "Christian" family and construct a Christian worldview (something that he's never seen modelled before, ever).

This is where the missional movement derails and misses a real opportunity to serve new converts and minorities in the city. The bottom line is that he would remain in New York City if he could put his son in a Christian school. Christian minorities converted to Christ later in life (20s and 30s), who already have families, may not be ready just yet to be the kinds of missionaries that many missional leaders assume all Christians need to be with respect to their families.

Most missional pastors can't relate to what it's like to come to Christ in your 30s and 40s, when you've already been raising your children as pagans, and therefore these pastors don't see how Christian schools would really support these families while they mature in their faith.

If urban missional church planters want minority families in their churches, and want minorities families to remain in their communities, the only wise thing to do is to attach to your church plant a vision of cooperating with other churches in your area to support the establishment of Christian schools. Many minorities families need Christian education more than the pastor's kids do (who has a mom with a master's degree)

Inner-city areas need Christian schools just as much as they need new churches (because, believe it or not, minorities churches are often already there).

If you think I'm crazy watch Waiting for Superman. It's hard for me to believe Christian leaders who say they "love the city" but also don't want to see an explosion of Christian schools in inner cities. How is that possible? What's their mission really about then?

Please do not look at this through the lens of white privilege. The Schott Foundation recently reported that only 47 percent of black males graduate from high school on time, compared to 78 percent of white male students. This revelation is beyond disturbing because it exposes the fact that many public schools serve as major catalysts for the desolation of unemployment and incarceration that lies in many black boys' future.

In the ghetto a black male is much more likely to graduation from a Christian school than a public school. White privilege won't be able to see Christian schools in the ghetto as a justice operation because they experience Christian schools as elitism. Ask struggling single Moms in the ghetto what they would prefer, you'd be surprised. I wrote about that before--Read the article and watch the video.

West and George have slowly become the faces of thinking Christianity in America. Evangelicalism has no scholars who are public intellectuals of this sort. Evangelicalism is suffering, in part, because it devalues the life of the mind and depends too heavily on pastors to do the intellectual heavy lifting. Evangelicals need intellectual conversations by women and men whose vocations are devoted solely to the life to the life of mind. Pastors can't to do this. Not their vocation.

We need a resurgence of academics as public intellectuals.

I could be wrong but what evangelicals run in the public intellectual circles of West and George?

entitlement generation.jpg

I write about the "Entitlement Generation" @ World Magazine:

High schools and colleges are flooded with students who confuse busyness with performance. They have been misled to believe that they deserve A's for turning in anything, and that the burden of proof is on the professor to defend why a student has not been "given" an A.

This group of teens and 20-somethings is known as the Entitlement Generation, "who believe they are owed certain rights and benefits without further justification," according to Unfortunately for teachers, this entitlement includes the expectation of A's without having to prove that one's work warrants it, which introduces interesting frustrations in education today.

First, students assume that if, for example, they do not receive an "A" on a paper, then points must have been "taken off" for something done incorrectly. I've had to explain to students repeatedly, ad nauseam, at every level in my teaching career--high school, seminary, and now college--that they did not earn an A because their papers were not impressive. I would tell them, "You did nothing wrong; the paper simply wasn't stellar." What kind of world do we live in where students are nurtured to believe that if they did not receive an A it was only because of an error? Why would students expect an A in the first place unless it was warranted? Staying up late and working hard, at the last minute, does not mean you are owed anything.

Read the rest here.

Communicating With Academics


Pretty good, but I don't think that's how you make theologians happy.

Homeownership: If you have to ask, it probably isn't for you.


who-dat-say-dey-gonna-give-free-cash.jpgPeople, I bought a house a few years ago. It turns out that I bought at the height of the market, and I wish someone had pointed this out to me: buying a house is not a good idea for (arguably) the vast majority of the American populace. I honestly doubt that this needs to be said any more, given how painfully clear it is in our current economy that having that kind of anvil (ah, and NOW you understand the Wile E. Coyote image) on your back is a financial nightmare, but perhaps it still bears mentioning.

Do yourself a favor--consider some of the great information laid out by my friend Brian Hollar at his blog Thinking on the Margin. Brian is a fellow (or, is that former-fellow, considering that I'm now finished) economics student at George Mason University (but Brian's a superbrain, as he is completing his PhD in econ concurrent with a JD, and he already has an MBA, as well as an undergrad degree in mechanical engineering).

Buying a house is not a foolproof investment, and renting might be (probably is) wiser for you in many cases--don't believe the hype, even as housing prices fall, despite how many (vested interest) "experts" keep touting the benefits of owning.

Manuel "Muso" Ayau (1925-2010)



I just learned of Guatemala's late, great "searcher":

Driving to my hotel from the Guatemala City airport on my first trip to Guatemala in January 2000, I commented to my host that I was pleasantly surprised to find no customs agents ransacking people's luggage. In fact, once my fellow fliers and I had our passports stamped by the passport-control officials, the airport was refreshingly clear of the usual swarms of harassing government officials.

My host smiled and said,"I pushed for that. For years I pushed for that. Finally I won." He spoke these words not boastfully, just matter-of-factly.

Normally I would have been skeptical of such a claim. But in this case I immediately knew it to be true. My host, you see, was Manuel F. Ayau, whom I'd known for several years...

If your Child Misses One Day of School She Will Fail

School children singing, Pie Town, New Mexico ...

Image by The Library of Congress via Flickr

From the AP Press - Schools urge parents not to take kids to work
CHICAGO (AP) - Many U.S. school districts urged parents to keep their kids in class and not take them to work Thursday for an annual event they say disrupts learning at an increasingly critical time of year.

From Arizona to Illinois to Texas, educators alerted parents that between high-stakes standardized testing in some areas and the H1N1 virus that kept thousands of children home earlier in the school year, the timing of "Take Our Daughters and Sons to Work Day" doesn't make sense.

And this is my favorite

Some administrators said they recognized that spending time with their parents at work could be a valuable educational experience for children, but it does not justify pulling them out of the classroom - even for one day.

"Stakes have never been higher for student achievement," wrote Virginia B. McElyea, the superintendent of the Deer Valley Unified School District in Phoenix, Ariz. "Every day your child is out of school his or her learning achievement suffers."

The rhetoric of the teacher's union is amazing. Since when did they really care about learning? Second, any numbers to back up that missing a day of school has any impact at all on what a child learns? Or maybe the fact the standardized tests have more to do with the funding for a school then the education of students.

My last thoughts are parents that care enough about their kids to bring them to work are good parents. What teachers and schools are afraid of is being stuck with the trouble makers as all the good kids are with their parents. My already low view of secondary education in America has sunk further. To all good teachers I am sorry your cohorts are so bothersome.

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