Monday, December 23, 2002

A Pox on the Academy

This may be my only blog of the week—so I made it a nice rant against the academy. Just to get into the spirit of the holidays.

I recently reread the forward to R. C. Sproul’s book Faith Alone. Here are some excerpts from the pen of Michael Horton, who wrote the forward:
'It is also revealing (a) how little most Protestants know about their own convictions and (b) with what great ease they find the concerns raised by the Reformation to be irrelevant. How can this be? Has Rome’s position changed? In fact it has not. The Vatican II documents as well as the new Catechism of the Catholic Church reinvoke the theological position of the Council of Trent, condemning the gospel of justification by an imputed righteousness.'

'Today one can easily find theological professors at leading evangelical institutions who no longer find justification by faith alone to be true, much less necessary.'

'R. C. Sproul has rendered the church an enormous service at a critical moment. The Reformation was not primarily concerned with the issues evangelicals today often think of first: the papacy, superstition, and the cult of the Virgin and the saints. First and foremost, it was a challenge to Rome’s confusion over the very meaning of the gospel.'
I was especially delighted by Horton’s comment regarding theology professors.

It should go without saying that Horton is not "Romophobic", nor is he a bigot—he, as do I, simply thinks that Catholic church is very wrong when it comes to her doctrine of justification. Of course, in today's PC world there is often little distinction made between disagreeing with an organization or group and being an "anti-whatever" intolerant zealot.

There is no doubt that the doctrine of justification is under something of an intramural attack, and I hope to write about this in the coming year. But in truth, things are probably not as bad as they would seem. For a great deal of the challenge to what has been the standard reformed doctrine of justification comes from academics, and the professoriate is notoriously impotent and irrelevant. As history demonstrates, the dung heap of discarded ideas contains plenty of "challenges" to conservatism—stillborn "revolutions" that spent their entire life-cycle in the ivory tower. After all, the name of the game is tenure, and nobody gets tenure affirming that we pretty much have things figured out. Mop-up work, not matter how well done and how scholarly, is a ticket to the front door. Tenure, in the social sciences, is a reward for published radicalism.

When I was a professor, I recall being dismayed by a study (a study which now delights me) showing that the average number of readers (apart from the author and the referees) of a published academic research paper is one. Just one. And since every discipline has some papers that virtually everyone reads, the inevitable mathematical conclusion is that a great number of papers, though published in respected refereed journals, are not read by anyone.

In my own publication history, I have published in my native field (physics), in education, and in computer science. My out-of-field papers in computer science and education generated far more reprint requests that my physics publications, of which, no doubt, more than a few fall into the never-read category. (In fact, some of them I cannot even recall reading.) Far more people have read my blogs than any of my published research.

Do you really know how most universities work? Here it is in a nut shell, and keep in mind I am not a cynic:
  • Professors in certain departments, such as physics, computer science, chemistry, biology, engineering, and medicine, vie for large research grants. If they don’t get them, they usually will not be tenured. The grants are taxed by the universities, ostensibly for "overhead", such as providing an office and heat for the dear professor, but in reality it is a form of profit, understood as such by all involved, that makes its way into the general coffers. If a professor gets a $500,000 grant, then something like $375,000 will be available for research expenditures. The other $125,000 goes to the university as overhead, to be spent, for the most part, however it pleases the university to do so.

  • Professors in the social sciences have a much harder time attracting grants. They tend to be evaluated more on the numbers of their publications and the journals in which they were published. They sometimes get in-house research grants from the university, funded in part from the tax on the "real" grants of the scientists and engineers. (Sometimes they buy computers with this money, and use them to send emails complaining that an engineering or physics professor shouldn’t get paid more than a philosophy or english professor. It’s called biting the hand that feeds you).

  • Everyone writes papers, most of which nobody reads. To be published in science, there are standards of precision and accuracy, but not (except in the most elite journals) of importance, originality, or creativity. In physics you can publish a paper that confirms a result that someone else obtained, improving only the accuracy, or demonstrating an alternative method. The social sciences do not have the equivalent of this type of publication, one which reports modest, incremental improvement. The goal is to make a big splash. The standard is radicalism.

  • Teaching ability plays little or no role in evaluating faculty, at least at a prestigious university or at a large state university. Are you a student at MIT, University of Virginia, or Stanford? Do you fill out teaching evaluations at the end of the semester? Do you know you are wasting your time?

Having been on the inside (and tenured), and knowing how disconnected the academy is from the mainstream, gives me hope that today’s ideas circulating about the seminaries and universities, purporting a new view on justification, finding nuances in scripture where none were intended, claiming enlightenment about scripture that proved elusive over two millennia, attaining heretofore unknown insights into what the reformers really meant, will suffer the same ignominious fate as most of their predecessors: they will be ignored. As long as they are naught but fodder for tenure dossiers, topics of discussion at faculty cocktail parties, and material for self-aggrandizing lamentations about the stupidity of the outside world, they will continue to be more amusing than harmful.

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