Race MoChridhe

There’s a Sheep Loose in the Lane

Every week, I help high schoolers with their research projects. I watch them take the assignment, type its prompt questions exactly into Google, and then copy-paste the answer from the search result preview box into their slideshow/paper/spreadsheet. They evince no awareness of whether the text they are plagiarizing is thematically compatible with what they have already copied, or even whether it is grammatically consistent with the previously stolen sentence. On those rare occasions when it does dawn on them that what is in the box may not be what they need, they look at me like I’ve started speaking Welsh when I actually click through to follow a link to a website, or try to explain to them how they can skim through that page to find a relevant section by looking for keywords (precisely the job they use Google to do for them). The moment we leave that preview box, they are utterly lost.

I know why they are, too, because every week I sit in meetings with teachers talking about how “everything is on the Internet now” and “anything they need to know they can just look up on Google,” and why, in consequence, we need to shift our focus from teaching them “mere” facts to focusing on “critical thinking skills” and the ability to “evaluate sources”. The trouble is that, as Carl Hendrick has recently written in an essay that absolutely everyone in education should be forced to read with their eyelids peeled back, decades of psychological research has shown that there are no such things as generic “critical thinking skills” abstracted from subject-specific knowledge contexts. Cognitive abilities developed in one domain or in one activity do not automatically translate into other areas. Champions of Pi memorization competitions are no better at memorizing long strings of letters than a random person on the street.

The further trouble is that the “evaluation of sources” depends ultimately on being able to judge claims against prior background knowledge. Our present focus on source evaluation is, ironically, being rapidly rendered obsolete by the same digital information culture that prompted it in the first place, as the widening availability of ever more sophisticated tools in both desktop publishing and web design makes it increasingly easy to imitate the appearance of professional sources. Thus, we are pushing students with less and less facts at their disposal to trust more and more in traditional indicators of source reliability at the very same time that we are witnessing a massive proliferation of so-called “predatory publishers“. These academic scams work by convincing trained scholars that they are legitimate sources, and thus persuading them to submit papers and to pay for open access publication. What is more, these sources are increasingly showing up as citations in legitimate research (they are open access, after all), threatening the integrity of the whole academic chain. How do they eventually get found out? A specialist in the field perceives discrepancies in their facts, which my fact-starved students could never hope to notice.

Simply put, we are producing an entire generation powerless to detect rapidly proliferating academic fraud and “fake news”, and arming them only with extensive training in general cognitive and critical thinking skills that our research shows do not actually exist.

On the purely quantitative level of the sciences, there can be said to be such a thing as “progress”. We are, collectively, more knowledgeable about the processes of the material world and more skilled at the manipulation of our physical environment than any generation to precede us (and, not coincidentally, more in danger of catastrophic environmental failure than any generation to precede us). In the qualitative realms of the humanities, however, human nature is enduring and the limits of its reconfiguration are narrow. In education, as in politics or philosophy, there are changing fashions, but nothing truly to be known that was not known a thousand years ago. The best preparation for our students in this rapidly shifting age of Google is still classical—a foundation of many years’ training in grammar (which to the ancients meant not just the rules of language, but the raw facts that formed the basis of understanding in any field). This, as cultures from first century Gaul to fifteenth century Mesoamerica recognized, is an indispensable preparation for the critical discipline of logic that engages new data to solve new problems, as well as for the subtle art of rhetoric that unmasks fallacies and sophistry.

To so many progressive educators of the past hundred years, the nineteenth century’s drone of Windsor-knotted elementary schoolers reciting Latin conjugations seemed little more than the bleating of imperial sheep. Thinking to free such pupils from their pen, the reformers pulled out their sledgehammers and knocked out the posts. I can’t help but feel, though, as I watch my high schoolers in the computer lab today, that what the progressives thought was Pink Floyd’s wall was actually Chesterton’s fence.

APCs and the Independent Scholar

As Katie Shamash says in her recent review of the impact of article processing charges on libraries, “We’re part way down the road to open access.” This road has been long and perilous, and like most roads leading to terrible unintended consequences, paved with good intentions.

The dream of open access academic publishing has been to facilitate scholarly communication and open its channels to wider participation. Subscription charges to academic journals were (correctly) identified as one of the major barriers to participation in research and targeted for elimination. It is a testament to the goodwill and energy of many in academia, publishing, and the tech industry that massive quantities of research and other data are now freely available in ways that could not have been conceived only ten or twenty years ago.

Research, however, is not free to produce, and so can never be truly free to distribute. If the cost of its production isn’t being made up at the consumer’s end in subscription fees, it gets made up at the producer’s end in article processing charges (APCs), paid by the author of an article to secure its publication. This model is called “gold” open access, and represents an ever growing share of the total academic publishing market. As gold open access has grown, APCs have grown also. As Shamash notes, “The current average APC is £1,737, up over £100 from £1,632 in 2013.”

Most of the analysis has revolved around the problems this poses for libraries, with budgets not keeping up with inflation being spliced in the midst of the open access transition, still having to shell out for subscription costs to journals on the old model while also coming up with money for APCs. This is because most universities have treated APCs as an institutional cost to be funded out of the budgets libraries already held for securing access to research through subscriptions. It costs over 1700 quid to see your article in print but, if you hold a tenured post, that doesn’t come out of your pocket.

An ever-increasing number of faculty are adjuncts, however, with slight and shifting connections to the institutions that employ them. Fully 76% of all instructional positions in the US are now contingent. These are people who, as Lee Hall writes, are generally not even included in faculty meetings, let alone covered for their APCs out of the university’s research budget. I know many of these people personally; they are my fellow members of the National Coalition of Independent Scholars (NCIS)—a mutual aid association for all of us clinging to the margins of the academic community. The NCIS struggles along on the donations possible from people working multiple jobs to make, generally, less than $30,000 a year. Every once in a while, we manage to toss someone a couple hundred dollars to help get them to a conference. We certainly can’t cover 1700 pounds sterling a piece to help them get published.

For an ever-increasing share of the academic community—indeed, a share that quadrupled between 1975 and 2011 and has been growing quickly ever since—gold open access is a cone of silence. It is a door slamming in our faces, scattering the pages of our carefully researched articles all across the floor of hallways in colleges that will not hire us for even two to three thousand dollars a class unless we can show publication credits and engagement in research, but which will never pay to help us publish that research, no matter how long we serve or how many students we take on. It is a new kind of gap, strikingly parallel to the digital divide, which increasingly makes the generation of knowledge, and with it the opportunity to define the terms of our societal conversations on a plethora of issues, an exclusive province of an ever-shrinking élite.

What is the answer? I don’t know yet (green open access has its own issues). All I know is that I will keep looking, but also that, when I do find a solution, I won’t be able to afford to let anyone know.

Sound Theology Has a Way of Doing That

Last week, I substituted in a fifth grade classroom. As I directed a transition into math lab, I was swarmed by students asking for their forgotten passwords, informing me of trivial fractures in iPad cases, and explaining how they had already done all of the assigned work but the system hadn’t logged it. Through it all, one girl hung to the back against the wall looking nervous.

When the others had cleared away and been set to doing their assignments (or re-doing them, if they were to be believed), she came forward and held her notebook out to me. On the page, in simple but artful penstrokes, was sketched an upside-down hand with an eye set in its palm. “Do you know what this means?” she asked.

I smiled. “It is the Hand of Fatima,”  I said. “It’s a Muslim sign. Fatima was the favoured daughter of the Prophet Muhammad, and her hand brings good fortune. It is a very holy symbol.”

A tension I had not fully perceived rolled off her shoulders like an ice sheet separating from the coast, and she sighed with a great, relaxed smile. “Whew, I thought it was a demon.”

I asked her where she had encountered it, and she told me that it has been coming to her in her dreams, and that her mother, who was clearly not Muslim, was concerned that it was demonic. II directed her to a couple of articles on it to read, to her great delight, and told her to take the rest of the period to get acquainted with this sign that clearly had something to tell her.

Throughout the rest of the period, a smile spread farther and farther across her face and, when the bell rang, I glanced over at her notebook one last time before she put it away. There, her timid little sketch had begun to be lovingly transformed by colored pencil into a magnificent drawing.

And so I smiled, too.


Why Apples Grow

Today one of my students had a really bad day. She pulled another girl’s hair.

I made it a worse day, and sent her to sit in a corner. That, in itself, was an ordeal, but at last she went and sat. “Now that you’re sitting,” I said, “we can talk. Tell me what’s going on.”

Here, I thought, was a blog post on how discipline and obedience are necessary prerequisites of benevolence along the Golden Chain, but then something much more significant happened; she began to talk.

At first, this being elementary school, it was a lot of blubbering and recrimination. Choked sobs hiccuping out, “She’s been mean to me all day! She tried to bite me! She did it first!” Then something came from the heart. “Where are my mom and dad? Why don’t they come?”

Here, I thought, was the real issue. It was aftercare, and very late in the afternoon. She felt abandoned and was lashing out. Poor thing, I thought, to carry so much anger.

More accusations. More excuses. More complaints. And then a sentence that changed my whole view of the room. “My dad’s sick.” I said nothing. Her eyes broke from mine. “My dad always makes us dinner.”

“Does he not make dinner anymore,” I asked, “because he’s sick?”

“Yes.” Sniffles.

There have been moments in my life—when I heard the homeless man play violin in the Joliette metro station, when the bird I was trying to save died at the SGI center, when my spirit broke on the bus to the firing range—when I could… I want to say see…  how Her love holds all the atoms together, holds my soul together, holds our whole human family together (The Clew of Love, vv. 4-5). This was one of those moments, as I realized that it was out of a pain of love that this little girl had pulled another’s hair.

It is my greatest frustration as a teacher that in no regular school classroom do we ever teach those things that lead to the cessation of suffering. Algebra and US history are all very well, but they do not overcome fear and desire, and they do not heal kear.

In the classroom, there was a book entitled How Do Apples Grow?, filled with many fine botanical facts. I imagine a book entitled Why Do Apples Grow?, which would be written by Julian of Norwich. When one turns the cover, there is only a single page…

“Because God loves them.”

And in that book would be more than all our years of schooling ever teach.

Very excited to have some of my work featured this past week over at Feminism & Religion! If you haven’t seen it yet, check it out.

My response to the recent interview with Ethan Doyle White is up at the Religious Studies Project!

The Blind Leading the Seeing

As a long-time fan of the Religious Studies Project, I have been glued to the explosion of responses to the interview with Teemu Taira, in which he discusses the problematics of the term “religion” and elaborates how his work responds to Kevin Schilbrack’s question, “After We Deconstruct ‘Religion,’ Then What?” Taira’s approach is to frame his research not as engaging some essential category of “religion,” but as studying instead the ways in which the term and its discourses are appropriated and employed in society, as in his case study of Karhun Kansa—a Finnish group that waged a successful campaign for government recognition as a “religious community.” I found Taira’s work very interesting and of obvious utility as a subspecialty of public policy, being concerned primarily with the practical effects of definitions on societal groups within particular legal and political frameworks. As a suggestion of the post-deconstruction future of the field of religious studies, however, it concerns me deeply.

Richard Newton sagely notes that a scholar’s decision to continue using the term “religion” or not largely “depends on one’s commitment to empiricism” and “whether one distinguishes religion from the other human doings. …[M]any scholars describe themselves as scholars of religion and culture—a gesture that acknowledges religion as a human activity with resemblances to other human activities.” No one, of course, means to deny that “religion” is something done by humans who unavoidably do it in ways that resemble other things humans do, and I certainly agree with Malory Nye that a scholar who considers herself religious “can still engage fully in the process of historically contextualizing the ideas, associations, classifications, and power relations that are at play when the term [“religion”] is used in public, popular, and very often academic discourses.” Most of the humans who identify themselves and their practices as “religious,” however, while recognizing the historically contextual human activity at work in their religion, do not regard their religion as an exclusively human activity, or as an activity of human origin. It is precisely because they regard their religion as having a foundation in something outside the realm of (merely) human discourse that they adhere to it in preference to others, and also cannot fail to see “religion” in general as having, at some level, a non-rhetorical, non-discursive referent. The inability of some scholars to detect this referent (as illustrated, for example, in the Theoretical Veganism response at RSP) reflects a core divergence of their worldview from that of the people they propose to study.

In his response, Paul Hedges lays out a number of points helpfully identified as not at stake in the debate—points on which the scholarly community has general consensus. Among these are the assertion that “‘religion’ exists only in relation to other terms, the most important of which is ‘secular’,” and that “[t]he separation of the religious and the secular is a modern phenomenon.” It is certainly true that the separation of the terms is modern, but that does not mean that the referents of the terms are equally unique to modernity. The supposed “emptiness” of the term “religion” is, in part, reflective of the fact that our common use of it designates a sphere of discourse and activity that, in past ages, encompassed the whole of life, so that no definition was needful; “religion” was empty for past cultures in much the same way that many did not regard the sky as having a color. What makes our discourse of “religion” unfamiliar and strange to indigenous peoples is not that we have a social sphere in which we seek to cultivate our sense of the numinous, relate to a world of spirits, or realize a sense of oneness with the ground of Being, but the fact that we have a contrasting sphere that purposefully excludes these activities—a sphere that has arisen only in response to the breakdown of what Ananda Coomaraswamy called the “unanimous society.” Ancient and indigenous societies had no need of such a distinction, so that the kinds of beliefs and practices that, in everyday conversation, we in the West term “religious” amount to the whole order of their conception of reality and their practice of human existence within it. When Harvard University’s Pluralism Project (2005) noted that “In all their diversity, people from different Native nations hasten to point out that their respective languages include no word for ‘religion,’” the point being made was precisely that they practice “ways of life in which economy, politics, medicine, art, agriculture, etc. are ideally integrated into a spiritually-informed whole.” The distinct term “religion” may be new, but the permeably-boundaried field of practices and attitudes colloquially called “religion” is very, very old. This field is made up, in fact, of the last remnants of the holistically enchanted (in the Weberian sense) world in which our ancestors lived, with “the secular” arising only as certain spheres of activity—politics, economics, physical sciences—were carved off from this primordial wholeness, creating a concomitant need for a term to describe all of the human experience and activity that had not yet been separated from the anciently undifferentiated rhythm of life. Paul Tillich forcefully made the case that God is not one being among many, but the ground of all Being; so, likewise, we might regard religion not as one human activity among many, but as the ground of all human activity.

The formulation given by Hedges, which asserts that “‘religion’ exists only in relation to other terms,” then, must be considered as evidence of the process of inversion identified by René Guénon. The Taoists say that in the beginning human beings saw only the Tao; then, they saw the Tao and things; finally, they saw only things. The same appears to be true in respect of “religion” in the West—in the beginning human beings lived in an undifferentiated field of human experience of and engagement with the sacred which, being universal and undefined by oppositions, needed no name; then, they lived in disenchanted spheres of experience and certain fields of preserved sacrality which became known as “religion”; finally, they live only in disenchanted experience. Hedges himself notes the otherwise unaccountable blind spot of those deconstructivists for whom “‘religion’ is set apart as uniquely problematic, constructed, and ‘false;’ it can be analysed by reference to, or seen as a part of, politics, law, culture but only ‘religion’ is such an empty signifier that it can have no analytic validity.” This is the point at which the inversion has become parody, as the domain of human activity in relation to the sacred is not just erroneously viewed as one domain of activity among many, but actually comes to be seen as a phenomenological derivative of its own amputated limbs. This is the point where, at the opposite end of the pole from that on which Native American leaders struggle “to persuade others of, for example, the spiritual importance of what could be construed as an economic activity, such as fishing or whaling,” (The Pluralism Project) Andie Alexander speaks of religion as being “not essentially anything” and mere “malleable socio-political rhetoric.”

I could pause here for some darkly humorous reflection on how the deconstruction of “religion,” so often justified by pointing to the term’s colonial past, can actually undermine the living efforts of indigenous peoples to secure respect for their practices and legal protection for their ways of life by ripping out from under them the only terminology the modern West possesses for communicating the way in which they experience their relationships to the land and to their ancestral practices across what the West otherwise sees as diverse and distinct fields of endeavor (fields not entitled, in Western society, to the same protections as religious belief and observance). I will leave this, however, to those who are more knowledgeable about those particular struggles.

Instead, I turn my attention to the issue which strikes closest to my home as a practitioner of a minority religion—an issue that came to me in shivers up my spine while reading Russell McCutcheon’s response, which compares religions to conspiracy theories as an “analogous case,” asking if it would be appropriate for the scholar to “grant the social reality of the conspiracy theory for these people to such an extent that you carry out all of your research while working within its parameters, so as to, let’s just say, figure out just how the mob killed Jack Kennedy?” Of course, he finds this a ridiculous idea, and affirms that sane scholarship lies “in recognizing, of course, its [the theory’s] social reality for them but never adopting and thereby sanctioning that reality for yourself, as the researcher.” Scholars who cannot achieve this separation are, in his view, “native informants,” who find it impossible “to entertain that there are only religions in the world because many of us say and act like there are.”

McCutcheon states this as though it were the most natural thing in the world, because to him it is. To a scholar with her own religious commitments, however, it is nearly incomprehensible, like a botanist being criticized for failing to entertain the idea that there are only sunflowers in the world “because many of us say and act like there are.” The breach between a position that regards it is an obvious matter that “religions” are purely human constructions to be analyzed and deconstructed like all other human activities, and a position that regards it as an essential matter that religions are, in some way, preservations of revelatory acts of God or of primordial perceptions of sacred reality (regardless how traditions of human activity and discourse may have accreted around them, or how unstable many of the discourses used to describe them may admittedly be), is fundamental. These two camps, as the Reformed apologist Cornelius van Til asserted, cannot form a common basis for reasoning.

The implications of this extend well beyond personally unsettling me or other scholars with faith commitments and arousing us to polemics; they become very practical for the lives of the world’s citizens. I certainly don’t mean to accuse McCutcheon or other scholars who take this position of some kind of inimical agenda. Their concern for objectivity and nonpartisanship is noble, as when McCutcheon reflectively asks himself whether it is appropriate that “I, as a scholar, grant the existence of that social reality … thereby sanctioning and reinforcing some group’s way of constituting their world?” The fact is, however, that sanctioning (or not) different groups’ views of the world is a necessary function of human beings living in society. McCutcheon himself observes that the discourse of “religion” is “a system of distinction that, just as Taira argues, comes with very practical costs and benefits.” Taira’s case is itself a poignant illustration, as Finnish media turned to him as a scholar and academic “expert” in the process of recognizing a new religious community—the very process he was attempting to disinterestedly study. Perhaps not coincidentally, this role of the scholar of religion as expert witness in policy discussions and legal decisions was a major point highlighted by Grace Davie in the very next RSP interview.

My concern therefore becomes that a universal victory of the deconstructive project across religious studies faculties may create an environment in which the lack of personal religious sensibility (á la Schleiermacher) is a prerequisite for academic engagement in the field—an environment in which the fundamental operating assumptions of the discipline about its object of study conflict with the fundamental worldviews of the people who constitute its subject. If that happens, it will obviously problematize the participation of many scholars, with a chilling effect on the field as a whole. It may also mean, however, that when a member of my own religion (to take only one example) petitions a government for recognition of her marriage, or access to chaplaincy services, or any other kind of legal consideration, and officials are forced to make a determination about what (if any) kinds of protections or privileges I and my coreligionists enjoy, the job of advising them will fall entirely to men who regard our doctrines as “analogous” to belief in a second shooter or a conviction that the moon landing was faked.

If that happens, I doubt whether we will achieve the same success as Karhun Kansa.

I will be presenting “Druidry 101” along with RDNA Druid John Michael Martens and ADF Druid Alyssa Johnson-Glassel at the Minneapolis Pagan Pride Day on 10 September at 12:00pm. If you’re in the area, come on out for a great crash course in Druidic orders and spirituality!