Wednesday, April 20, 2011

The Beginning

"In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth."--Genesis 1.1
"The tree of Eternity has its roots in heaven above and its branches reach down to earth. It is Brahman, pure Spirit, who in truth is called the Immortal. All the worlds rest on that Spirit and beyond him can no one go....The whole universe comes from him and his life burns through all things."--The Upanishads
"And your God is the One God: there is no deity save Him, the Most Gracious, the Dispenser of Grace. Verily in the creation of the heavens and of the earth...there are messages indeed for people who use their reason."--The Qur'an, Al-Baqarah 163-4

As the passages above indicate, throughout human history the question of the origin of the universe--and of the human life that contemplates it--has been a religious one. In the foundational past, even when scientists have turned their attention to the matter, they have seen the question of origins in a religious light, which is why Aristotle's first proof for the existence of God turns on his observation from physics that all movement has a cause.

In modern times, however, things in this area, as in so much else, have changed. It certainly feels as if in the past several decades not a year passes in the United States without some controversy surrounding the teaching of creationism in the public schools. Whether it arises from choices of textbooks in the Texas schools or passage of a referendum on the matter in Kansas or Pennsylvania, this controversy is as common--and its participants' opinions as predictable--springtime windstorms in the nation's heartland.

The common opinions, however, tend to recur because they never provide consensus, and they do not provide consensus because they tend to obscure the real issuse at stake. From the traditional prespective, the real issue is that the teaching of evolution as fact is a threat. Darwin knew this back in the 1850s before he even published Origin of the Species. His wife was a devout Anglican, and Darwin knew that since evolution ultimately was incompatible with traditional religious faith his book would cause an estrangement. If one amputates God's creative hand, the limb becomes useless; gangrene eventually sets in, and before you know it, God, as Nietzsche put it in Also Sprach Zarathustra, is dead. To be sure, we do have among us our counterparts of the cheery Victorian optimists who saw, or pretended to see, no conflict between science and faith, but the problem is that the faith that never conflicts with science is not the faith that most people live by. Most Christians tend to believe in a personal God Who has intervened to create history and intervenes in history to create salvation; they do not believe in a philosophical abstraction that can, with care, be defined in terms that allows Him to coexist with the creative energies of natural selection.

It is therefore simply the case that when a parent has educated a child to believe in a God Who has created the world, the teaching of evolution as a fact in the schools is a provocation. Whether or not evolution is true, it tends to conflict with what millions of good religious people of various backgrounds teach their children. Another was of putting this is that the teaching of evolution in the schools allows the schools to enter into an area that has always been religious. To teach evolution is to teach that God did not create the world in six days; to say that is to render a religious opinion. If we must not mix politics and religion, then the schools much not teach religion, but teaching about humans origins is to teach religion. Teaching chemistry is not, since no signifcant religious group denies the existence of chemistry, any more than religious people of good faith would object to the teaching of, say, cell biology. But to teach students that life evolved is to teach them that the Bible, the Qur'an, the Upanishads are wrong, or at least that they must not be taken literally in the passages where they speak of God creating man.

TMH does not wish to be clever: we realize that it's paradoxical to say that the teaching of science is really the teaching of religion, but that is in fact true. It is also true that when a child has been raised to believe what the Declaration of Independence says--that man is created by God--the teaching of evolution will begin to raise religious doubts in his mind. And the schools are not supposed to raise religious doubt. When Bill Maher sneers at the ignorance of creationists, he does so not because he is offended at a possible violation of church and state in Oklahoma: he does so because he does not believe creation to be intellectually credible and he does not want people to believe that they were created by God. He smells a threat, which is just what good religious people smell when faced with the possiblity that their children will be taught that evolution is a fact.

The only real solution to this problem then is not to teach evolution in the public schools because to do so is essentially to assert that the religious statements quoted above either are simply not true or are not true in the sense in which many believers understand them. And this claim by the proponents of evolution is a religious claim. And religion, so they tell us, has no place in the schools. The other possibility, however, is to say that we will allow religious discussion of origins in the schools, in which case we must give equal time to both the evolutionist and the proponent of creation. However, what we must not do is to teach religion but slyly call it science so that one religious point of view gets heard while the other does not. Such passive aggression causes resentment--precisely the resentment that fuels these regular eruptions over the role of creation and evolution in our public schools.

Saturday, April 16, 2011

Power Tends to Corrupt

As if to put beyond any doubt the validity of the analogy between President Obama and Jimmy Carter, inflation, which was at almost historic lows for the past quarter century, is now beginning to resurge to an unsettling degree. One inflationary trend, however, for which the current administration cannot be blamed is that of highter education, which has been shooting upward for almost precisely that same quarter century in which the general inflation remained so low. Of all the causes, however, to which people point for this rise in the cost of college education, none is so important, and so much overlooked, as the cost of administration.

When I went to college, cost was hardly a concern. Attending the large southern state university ten miles from my home, I was able to procure a very strong education for the cost of $500 per semester (I lived at home); for the final two years, I absorbed most of that cost through scholarships received because of my academic work. Hence, a solid education almost exactly twenty-five years ago cost my family $2000. Nowadays such money would hardly come close to paying for a semester at our most modest regional universities.

Many reasons contribute to this inflation. The fact that universities now, like never before, compete with one another for students and therefore simply require lavishly appointed dormitories, cafeterias, and wellness centers (the very name a perfect example of linguistic inflation, when one considers that these used to be called "gyms"); the fact that we have ever-more-lavish sports facilties, together with the people to staff them; the fact that we now require campus psychiatrists, medical staff, security, and a daily menu of institutionally-sponsored entertainments--all of this necessarily drives up the cost of living in the campus township that students will inhabit for four, five, or six years of their lives.

But another very important inflationary pressure (as the economists call it) is the rise in bureaucratic administration. At the school with which I am affiliated, we have a campus student population of, say, 2,000--more or less the same population that the school has had for several decades. Not very long ago, a man who had begun his career at this school in the late 1960s told me (with little exaggeration) that when he arrived on campus, the administration consisted of the college president, his secretary, five deans and several filing cabinets. At present, while the number of students has increased only slightly, the administration consists of a president, a handful of vice presidents, essentially twice the number of deans, a variety of associate deans (most of them created in order to satisfy the aspirations of unremarkably talented folk distinguished only by their unquestioning devotion to the senior administration), a veritable army of chairmen (called "chairpersons" as if to demonstrate an apparently iron law that language inflates to match bureaucracy), and logistical divisions supporting all these folk. The fact that the student population has remained fairly constant throughout these rapid changes leads one to suspect that the reason for all these new positions is not to serve the students.

The cyncial might say that the purpose of so many administrators is to serve not the students but the administrators themselves, since they are all handsomely paid for the mysterious and often vaguely-defined services they provide. This situation, deplorable though it is, does have the merit of raising a puzzle, which may at least help clarify thinking when applied to institutions around the country more significant than my own. The riddle is this: if administration is so grossly inefficient and sucks up so much money for so little return, how does it survive? It would seem, particularly in a day when universities are increasingly run like businesses, that such a system would prove unworkable, since businesses with bloated administration invariably implode sooner or later.

The answer I think lies in the fact that while universities pretend to be businesses, they really are not. They are often attracted to business models because university administrations, like all administrations, seek power, and the business model is essentially autocratic. While in the golden age of American education universities were largely run by faculty, administrations now favor a more hierarchical model of government--with its lack of transparency, its limited circle of those truly making decisions, and its emphasis on rank and chain of command. Ordinarily, in government for instance, hierarchical institutions do not compete as well as democratic institutions because over the long run free contributions by large groups of individuals tend to make smarter decisions than small groups closed off from free and open discussion. Businesses, however, overcome this inherent limitation because those at the top are constantly subjected to enormous pressure to succeed. The CEOs and their staffs are immediately responsible to shareholders, who like to see healthy quarterly earnings reports. If they don't, the CEOs lose their jobs.

But the modern university is not in this way analogous to a business. The CEOs of the universities have adopted from business a more autocratic model of governance, but they have not at the same time assumed the same responsibility to succeed. They are, to be sure, responsible to boards of trustees, but they are also cushioned from the effects of corrupt or otherwise bad decisions because, being funded by the state (if public) or by the endowment (if private) or both, they are rarely in a situation in which one bad deicion, or even series of decisions, will bleed the institution completely dry. No matter how bad things get (within reason), they are always assured of a stream of revenue--not of their creating--which will always shelter them to some degree from the pressures of reality that ensure that businesses make more efficient decisions.

The problem, then, seems to be this: the contemporary university has adopted the worst of two different systems. It takes the money that allows an open, democratic institution to function despite the inefficiencies inherent in such an open process of government and combines it with the more closed management system of the world of business. And it is precisely this closed system of governance that is inappropriate to a setting like the university. Best for all is an open system of governance, and its inherently higher cost is provided for by the guaranteed moneys that flow into the university no matter what decisions (within reason) are made there. Worst of all is the closed system of governance, but it is kept honest in business because it must constantly make sound decisions in order to assure its own survival. Unfortunately, in the current system of higher education in this country, more and more universities are adopting a closed system of governance, while maintaining the supply of money that assures the governors will be able to maintain their positions for considerable periods, despite results. And when that happens, the governors will be ever more tempted to make decisions in their own best interest, not in the best interest of the institution.

And so the public as a whole pays the price, in higher taxes and higher tuition, of subsidizing institutions which, so long as they accept public money, ought to be transparent and open. That they are not means that everyone, whether student or tax-payer, pays a real price for the opaque and closed system that is the contemporary university.