On Higher Education

Yesterday I read Jedediah Purdy’s recent New Yorker article, Ayn Rand comes to U.N.C., and it struck a nerve with me. The article highlights a series of politically motivated actions taken by North Carolina officials vis-à-vis university administration. Here’s a taste:

For several years, there have been indications that the state’s new leaders want to change the mission of public higher education in North Carolina. In 2013, the Republican governor, Pat McCrory, told William Bennett, a conservative talk-show host and former Secretary of Education, that the state shouldn’t “subsidize” courses in gender studies or Swahili (that is, offer them at public universities). The following year, he laid out his agenda in a speech at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. Using the language of business schools, he urged his audience to “reform and adapt the U.N.C. brand to the ever-changing competitive environment of the twenty-first century” and to “[hone] in on skills and subjects employers need.” McCrory also had a warning for faculty members whose subjects could be understood as political: “Our universities should not be used to indoctrinate our students to become liberals or conservatives, but should teach a diversity of opinions which will allow our future leaders to decide for themselves.”

Of course, that “diversity of opinions” should not include such frivolities as gender studies or Swahili, which is just grotesquely ignorant and disingenuous. McCrory is further promoting the corporatization of the American university because that serves his political agenda.

I also thought I’d highlight this article from last month that discusses a change Scott Walker has proposed to the University of Wisconsin’s mission statement:

In Section 1111 of Walker’s proposed budget legislation, Senate Bill 21, he strikes language specifying that the UW has a public service mission to “extend knowledge and its application beyond the boundaries of its campus” and to “serve and stimulate society.”

Walker adds “to meet the state’s workforce needs” as a core mission of the university.

Walker also strikes language ensuring that the mission of the UW is to extend “training and public service designed to educate people and improve the human condition,” as well as the language: “Basic to every purpose of the system is the search for truth.”

These are the first steps toward transforming higher education into little more than vocational training. Ed Silver made the following comments on Facebook:

Fellow scholars, don’t kid yourselves. This is a declaration of war. We can keep on doing what we’re doing and enjoying the life of the mind for now. But Walker is crossing a Rubicon here. Higher education is being redefined as job training and all the intangible goods the University creates are being redefined as luxuries–ones that can no longer be paid for in this ugly, brave new world. Scott Walker wants to become the standard bearer for the Republican Party; the agenda he lays out here is not his alone.

It’s time for us to start defending the academy with whole heart and full throat. These folks are vandals and they want to destroy what generations of scholars and students have built. And let’s be clear: what we are defending is an academy in which any kid in America, regardless of her class or income, has the right to enter into a critical and passionate dialogue with the best and most significant ideas that other human beings have had. Higher education has not always lived up to its ideals of equal access. Too many students are burdened with unmanageable debt. Curricula are not always crafted with humanism and informed criticism in mind. Administrations are bloated, and athletics and entertainment frequently eclipse schools’ missions to educate. But despite all this, we continue to think of the University as an institution dedicated to the formation of empowered and thoughtful citizens.

The University, at its best, helps people to become critical, engaged and decent human beings. If this redefinition becomes the norm, it will be deformed into a shallow machine for the training of a servile labor force. The full fruits of human existence will be reserved for those the wealth and privilege to buy them. And a vital, animating, egalitarian force in our culture will die.

Michael Law refers to Ed’s comments and asks the following question:

If you’re a religion scholar and still without a permanent position in a uni, is now the time to jump before you’re too old to transition to a new career?

I sincerely hope it doesn’t come to that.


Jim Davila on the Lead Codices

Jim Davila has a new post up on his blog briefly sharing some thoughts on an academia.edu article on the lead codices recently written by Samuel Zinner. The article argues for interpreting the codices not as modern forgeries, but as modern Jewish amuletic art. Check it out if you’re interested in the codices.

Lead Codices Update

Jim Davila notes on his blog that The Economist is reporting the formation in London of a Centre for the Study of the Jordanian Lead Books. The Centre’s board will consist of some British politicians, and an “evaluation panel” will be headed by Richard Hayward of Durham University (a phenomenal scholar of early Judaism) and Fayez Khasawneh of Yarmouk University.

This is an interesting development, and I note The Economist’s anonymous article is still taking swipes at “intemperate things” said on the blogosphere. Stay tuned!

Septuagint Vocabulary: Pre-History, Usage, Reception on academia.edu

Jan Joosten, the Regius Professor of Hebrew at the University of Oxford, has placed a pdf of his edited volume, Septuagint Vocabulary: Pre-History, Usage, Reception, on academia.edu. You can view and download it on his profile. He has dozens of his papers available for download as well. Check it out.


The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible

They don’t have a cover image up yet, but Brill is advertising a new book by Eugene Ulrich entitled The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible. Here’s the blurb:

Eugene Ulrich presents in The Dead Sea Scrolls and the Developmental Composition of the Bible the comprehensive and synthesized picture he has gained as editor of many biblical scrolls. His earlier volume, The Biblical Qumran Scrolls, presented the evidence — the transcriptions and textual variants of all the biblical scrolls — and this volume explores the implications and significance of that evidence.

The Bible has not changed, but modern knowledge of it certainly has changed. The ancient Scrolls have opened a window and shed light on a period in the history of the text’s formation that had languished in darkness for two thousand years. They offer a parade of surprises that greatly enhance knowledge of how the scriptural texts developed through history.

Certainly looks like it’ll be a great book.

The American Scholar on the Value of Historical Research

Anthony Grafton and James Grossman have published a blog post on The American Scholar entitled, “Habits of Mind: Why college students who do serious historical research become independent, analytical thinkers” (HT Zalman Newfield). The article begins by summarizing the conventional thinking on both sides of the “value of the humanities” argument, and then settles in to a thoughtful and informed discussion of the benefits of the processes and side effects of studying one particular field with the broad and diverse macro-field of “The Humanities,” namely, history. You’ll have to read through the article yourself for all the insights, but the conclusion is that the student who learns to conduct serious historical research is not just learning a vocation, but is doing much more:

When a student does research in this way—when she attacks a problem that matters to her by identifying and mastering the sources, posing a big question, and answering it in a clear and cogent way, in the company of a trained professional to whom she and her work matter—she’s not becoming a pedant or a producer of useless knowledge. She’s doing what students of the humanities have always done: building a self and a soul and a mind that she can take with her wherever she goes, and that will make her an independent, analytical thinker and a reflective, self-critical person. Isn’t that what we’re supposed to be doing?

Erin Darby on Judean Pillar Figurines


On Facebook I recently posted this interview of Erin Darby regarding her new book, Interpreting Judean Pillar Figurines. The book, which attempts a more methodologically grounded analysis of the function of JPFs in ancient Israelite practice, is based on the author’s 2011 Duke doctoral dissertation (available here) and is published in Mohr Siebeck’s Forschungen zum Alten Testament series. It looks like it will make a very welcome contribution to the field, and I look forward to digging into it. Check it out!


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