universities


Christina and I have been discussing this one on and off for a few days. From time to time, I come across the argument that the more students you encourage to enter the educational system, the lower the standards become. I continue to be surprised by the range of people of who argue so: left-wing and liberal academics who bemoan declining standards; conservative governments that want to cut funding for universities; old fogeys who trot out the line that it used to better when they were young. The converse of this hypothesis is that fewer students mean higher standards of excellence.

However, the proposition has a basic flaw. Restricting student numbers is by no means a guarantee of excellence. We have only to think of the thick rich in universities and elite institutions to remind us of that fact. There is simply no correlation between larger student numbers and a drop in standards to the lowest common denominator. Instead, such increases may well ensure that the standards are raised, since there is a greater chance that the really bright students will turn up. As Ernst Bloch once put it, how many Einsteins have spent their lives behind a plough?

Drawn from a recent study in The Future of the Biblical Past, this table provides a schematic overview of the history of the relations between universities and theological colleges in Australia. The paradox here is that precisely because we don’t have a hard and fast division between religion and politics (‘church and state’), Australia is one of the most secular countries you will find.

Types of Independent Theological Colleges

Type Nature Teaching Research Economics
Wagons in a circle Independent theological colleges in order to provide unique brand of ecclesiastical education. Emphasis on training for ministry, partisan theology and exegesis for sermons. Not encouraged. Churches relatively wealthy, with enough money for buildings and teaching staff.
Federation Consortia of colleges with powers relating to course approval, granting of degrees and maintenance of standards. As above, but more uniform and with greater awareness of theological diversity. Lip service. Not quite so wealthy. There is a greater need to share resources between colleges.

 

Types of Relations Between Theological Colleges and Universities

 

Type Nature Teaching Research Economics
Donut Secular university surrounded by church-based residential and teaching colleges. Best example is University of Melbourne. Non-existent in university.Taught by surrounding theological colleges. As with independent colleges. Theological colleges remain independently funded but make use of some university services (internet and library).
One foot in each camp 50-50 deals, such as at Murdoch; staff supplied by churches, paid partly by churches and partly by university Subject to some university requirements re course numbers and content. University resources and expectations can be, but are not often, conducive to research. Churches are short of money while universities seek to cut costs on funding.
Old rubber stamp The university offers the degree and controls course structure but teaching is done almost entirely by part-time staff drawn from churches and theological colleges. Prime example is the former School of Divinity at Sydney University. Better but still varied, since all teaching is part-time. Haphazard and individually motivated. University supplies buildings and pays teaching staff. They are still part-time and still drawn from churches.
New rubber stamp Universities like Charles Sturt offer the degree, but it is taught entirely by theological colleges. The college is the theology department. University approved but in reality depends on college. Substandard with a tendency to self-publishing, although occasional exceptions may be found. Church colleges attempt to exploit ‘privatisation’ tendencies to gain much-needed money and university credentials for degrees.

 

 

Since my first degree was in the Western Classics, I have always been fascinated by its relatively recent origins, the myths it tells about itself, and its fate.

After claiming the scene in the German states, in France, and elsewhere, Classics finally arrived in that imperial latecomer, the British Empire. Understood as a ‘liberal education’, Classics provided the core of the educational curriculum in elite schools. With the bourgeoisie newly wealthy and increasingly powerful, new markers of class identity were needed to distinguish itself from both the moribund aristocracy and working class:

It is hardly coincidental that it is just at this time that several of the decaying provincial grammar schools were revived as public schools – that is, as boarding schools with a nonlocal clientele. Rugby in the 1780s, Shrewsbury the following decade, were the leaders of an expanding group. It was in these schools that the sons of prosperous bourgeois fathers learned how to read and write Latin and Greek, to lose their regional accents and to behave as gentlemen. The curriculum was almost totally dominated by classics: in the lower forms, grammar learning took up much of the time, together with mechanical exercises in verse composition (Stray 1996, 79).

Indeed, the sign that one had been to such a school was an intimate knowledge of the Classics, down to the skill of composing verse or prose in the classical languages. Such knowledge indicated one’s class status and thereby ensured one a key position in the imperial administration. This persisted even when the patronage system of appointments was abolished with the reforms of the Indian Civil Service in the 1850s, for the examination questions were geared to favour those with a classical education.

The genius in this whole system was that classical study was presented as non-utilitarian, necessary for the formation of the whole person, cultured and erudite – unlike the workers who apprenticed for a trade. The calling of Classics was meant to be greater than any worldly concern (so it was presented to me when I began its study). Nonetheless, it was precisely that approach to the world of politics and commerce that rendered one eminently worthy for leadership in that world. This was marked by a hegemonic vocabulary, saturated with classical languages and texts. The ability to engage in classical repartee, to appreciate the subtlety of a classical allusion, to put down those with no or limited knowledge of the Classics by such means, provided a distinct ruling class code.

As Thomas Gainsford stated from the pulpit: ‘the study of Greek literature … not only elevates above the vulgar herd, but not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument’.

I can now claim a significant achievement: I am the stingiest traveller at the University of Newcastle. Even those who pride themselves on budget travel are astounded: bicycles, couch surfing, youth hostels, minus star hotels, the leftover food shelves, conference freebees, basic supplies that last months, one small backpack, one change of clothes, getting in the shower with your clothes on to wash them, public (God forbid) transport …

All of which makes me ponder what I would do as a Vice-Chancellor – with some bite. Let me see:

* All must travel in the same fashion, for otherwise it will not be approved.

* Reduction – and in a few cases elevation – of wages to the average level in Australia: $70,000 per year (holy shit, that’s way beyond what they pay me). Given that most VCs are given about $1,000,000, that would immediately open up 13 new positions in that case alone. This would also negate those motivated by greed in search of jobs.

* Reduction of workload by 50%

* Increase of staff by 100%

* Average wage for all eligible PhD and masters students

And that’s just the beginning …

Must put together an application and find some willing institution, since this would be immense fun.

My first degree was in Classics. I studied it in a small department that was, like many Classics departments, it was under threat by university ‘bean counters’, the finance people who felt that classes of two or three students were a waste of money. Fortunately, we had an eccentric (and gay) professor in charge of the department. He pretended he had an English accent, drank way too much, gave lectures in his academic gown and shorts, and rode a bicycle. We called him ‘Godfrey’. But he was an astute politician and knew how to work the university system to ensure the survival of Classics.

We studied ancient Greek and Latin – their languages, literatures, cultures and histories. But it was Greek that was regarded as the basis, the founding culture, and that Latin was presented as secondary, borrowing from the Greeks. Again and again, we were reminded by our lecturers that Greek, and Latin tagging along, is the basis of Western ones such as English. We also studied Sanskrit. Or rather, Godfrey taught some of us Sanskrit. Late at night, four of us would gather for lectures – a gay mathematics teacher, a foreman at the steel works and an ageing hippie. We would chain smoke, drink the cheap sherry that Godfrey provided, laugh at his antics, and learn some Sanskrit. After all, is not Sanskrit one of the classical languages according to the (dubious) Indo-European hypothesis?

The problem for Classics in this university environment was that the discipline was (and continues) to be under threat. We asked: how can they threaten to close down the study of the basis of Western culture? If we forget our origins, will we not be the poorer? But we never questioned why these classical languages and texts – especially the Greek ones – were assumed to be that basis. That was precisely the problem, for the idea that the roots of the West may be found in ancient Greece is pure myth, albeit a convenient one, that dates back a little over two hundred years.

For the rest of the story, you’ll have to make your way to Suzhou for the Renmin University Summer Institute of Christian Culture …

This one comes up from time to time, but I have pondering it today while grouting my tiles – as you do. It is not uncommon these days for someone to be or have become somewhat hostile to theology. It is a pseudo-science, he or she asserts, studying objects that are figments of the imagination. It usually doesn’t get to the point of assuming that theology, or indeed religion, is the cause of all the world’s ills (like the ‘new old atheists’). But it may appear as consistent attacks on theology, dismissals, efforts to prove its inconsistencies, or simply disdain.

Now it becomes interesting. It is also not uncommon these days for such a person to apply for a theological position, whether in a divinity school in the USA, a theological faculty at a European university, or even a theological college.

Should they apply? Should such applications be accepted? Should they be offered a position?

It is not a matter of religious belief, which is a red herring in this context. Rather, it concerns the discipline itself. Would any interview panel seriously consider an application for a sociology position, or history, or linguistics, by someone who held these respective discipline in complete disdain?

Dan Oudshoorn has a long post on what boils down to the old problem of hypocrisy, the connection between what one says and how one lives. His targets in particular are the ‘tenured radicals’ of academia, and his favoured examples are those who hold to Marxist theory but not a Marxist ‘lifestyle’ (I wish Dan had chosen another word here, since ‘lifestyle’ has that foul odour of bourgeois ‘freedom of choice’). He compares them with biblical scholars who assume some normative claims from the Bible and yet steer clear of any collective religious involvement with marginalised people.

This fault line turns up in all sorts of places. For example, as one self-professed Marxist said to me a couple of years ago, standing at the front door of a sprawling mansion in the US northeast, ‘why can’t a Marxist be rich?’ By contrast, there was the grizzled and scarred front-line activist, with a long goatee and shaved head, beer-gut and cigarette propped in one ear, who said to me at a left congress, ‘if you’re not an activist, you’re not a f&*cking Marxist’.

I don’t want to deal with all of the points Dan raises, but rather focus on two or three. To begin with, the problem he addresses is not an anomaly but crucial to the self-definition of academia. One needs to take the mythical ‘step back’ and analyse a situation from a ‘critical’ distance. This move goes back to the time when the academic disciplines hived off from theology and sought to establish for themselves an independent basis. In this situation, ‘objective’ meant ‘free from theological dominance’. Eventually biblical studies and theology themselves tried the same trick, ending up with ‘secular’ biblical criticism and ‘scientific’ theology. What is usually missed in this standard account is that it was part of the process by which the bourgeoisie came to class dominance. One of the signal marks of that rise was the shift from the church as the dominant cultural power to education, which became a distinct zone outside church control and under bourgeois control. So those who hold to objective, secular, critical, scientific approaches, especially on matters religious, are enthusiastic ideologues of the bourgeois project.

But that means Marxist intellectuals and others are a little caught, especially if they are involved in some way in the educational system. The structural criteria by which that system operates are fundamentally bourgeois and yet the position they espouse seeks, to invoke Lenin, to ‘smash’ the bourgeois system. Yet this is not unique to Marxists, as Dan observes in passing, for it applies to any praxis-oriented approach, that is an approach that has an explicit and (more or less) radical political dimension to it. You are left with three options: buy into the system as it is, opt to be an activist, or live a contradictory life in which both are in some way held together. The pressures towards the first are immense. Journals that have the title ‘socialist’ in them are regarded as less-than-academic. Activists routinely are denied promotion and influence. Anyone who writes from a committed position is derided as ‘ideological’ or out to ‘save the world’. Or, on the theological side, academics continue to sneer at theology as a pseudo-discipline – as though they are still living the crude battles of half a millennium ago.

The solution? I will never forget a moment at a left conference, in the midst of a heated discussion about ‘what is to be done?’, about the integration or ‘merger’ (Kautsky) of intellectuals and the global proletariat. One person stood up and simply said, ‘does anyone here know how to dismantle and reassemble a rifle?’

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