Monday, August 29, 2022

What You Haven't Earned Is More Important

This week there’s been a lot of hubbub about forgiving student loans. I had them. I paid them. I am thrilled others will find relief from such onerous debt because why should they have to go through this? Just because I have?

Is this one of those Two Kinds’a People Thing? You know those who think everyone should suffer as they have to “earn their way” or maybe that others needn’t have to go through it quite so ? Do we all have to suffer more to somehow be better? I think not.

Don’t mistake me, as Spinoza reminds us, “All things excellent are as difficult as they are rare.” But there’s always room for more care, compassion, and insight than self-important claims to meritocratic virtue, most of which ignore how they’ve been built on privilege, luck, and appanage. The value of an education is not merely a job, a profession, or in what you've earned. It's in the heart that can open to a deeper appreciation of what might be possible.

“Merit” has its own complications---not the least of which is that its shadow is virtue. But when you have worked really hard for something it can lead you to work harder and harder and harder and then you forget to do other important things like take time to love what’s valuable.

Merit surely has value but not everything valuable comes from merit. We don’t need to earn love. Grace must have priority.


No one could possibly believe that this loan forgiveness is a "solution." It was not meant to be. It was a political effort that appeals to important elements of the Democratic Party. The question then is whether it is good politics in addition to whether it is morally adroit. I would argue that the former is open to debate and the latter is plain.

Republicans will use this to rally resentment and pose their grievances. This is, after all, their sole political platform. They have no ideas other than to anger and inflame their base with culture wars. This will suit them just fine. Nothing Biden or Democrats could do---and I mean NOTHING---would be acceptable to them in terms of any action or policy. Part of their grievance is simply to hate us, we the Libs.

So does it rally Republicans even more to vote? Purely a political question. More importantly, does it anger, estrange, or disaffect Democrats from voting and who does it incentivize to vote? I think the people most benefited by this policy are also unlikely to vote because they received it. In other words, I find Democrats unreliable voters on issues, on voting _for_. Dobbs will more likely draw voters, as Kansas proved. Thus I think the policy is likely neutral.

Nothing changes the venal Republicans; not much affects Democrats. Are there any Democrats estranged by this policy? Not enough to matter. Politics solved. However, this was bad politics insofar as it is a distracting talking point that cycles in the news. Biden and the Democrats must talk about how Republicans are a real and present danger to democracy---because that is TRUE and that message must dominate, penetrate, be made every single moment every day.
Was this a good thing? A moral thing that attempts to redress an onerous, horrid situation? Namely that education is unaffordable and yet so important that it drives people into debt? I would assert that to be paramount. This was a good thing and certainly not the best thing or a solution. There can be no solutions without the political will to alter systems and structures. In today's America, that is a pipe dream. So Biden did what he could, appealed to some segment of his diverse coalition, and helped a ton of folks who are most in need of such relief. It is a fact that the majority of beneficiaries will come from under represented communities and working class families. It is a good thing and that might be the best we can hope for under the circumstances.





Welcome to the Department of Irrelevance and Dead Languages


You will notice from the chart above that I teach the least popular, perhaps the least important subject in the humanities.

Our Department is Religion & Classics.

As professional fields these are two very different worlds---journals, conferences, guilds, etc. Our original intent was to rescue a failing Classics program (circa 1986) but also to form a Religion Department that demurred from the apologetic description as "Religious Studies." We meant to say that we are of course NOT a theology or advocacy department (or supposed to be) but rather critical secular historians and linguists, etc.

They don't call the people down the hall from my office "Historical Studies," so "Religious Studies" is an apology implying a distinction that might be useful for some but is essentially insulting and wrong-headed. We imagined that we are NO DIFFERENT from every other subject: assumptions, evidence, reasons, conclusions, these are the things we do and we investigate. So far, so good, right?  We who study religion professionally have always had to argue for our legitimacy in the academy.

Of course the problem is exacerbated because so many Religion Departments are filled with religious people who shamelessly advocate one (usually) or another (or many?) religions. This undermines our mission.  Being religious doesn't disqualify you from studying religion but neither does it have anything to do with teaching religion.  In fact, the conversation about being religious only complicates and confuses the matter.  There should be a wall of separation between studying religion and being religious that is taller and more formidable than church and state.  Keep your religiousness out of the conversation.  I don't talk about my personal chemistries in chemistry class do I?

I also argued from the outset that Arabic, Sanskrit, and other languages we teach (not Modern) should be treated as "Classics." This angered the Classicists who saw it as undermining their guild, even their subject. You can only study Sanskrit in Religion and Classics yet Sanskrit is apparently neither religion (because it is not) nor is it classic (because the Classics guild hold that "classics" means only Greek and Latin and are ill-disposed to admit others in their sandbox).

At a place like Rochester we originally in R&C made a BFD out of our secular identity and insistence that we are not advocates.  I think that no matter how clearly or frequently we have made this case it doesn't much matter.  It is too culturally ingrained, too nuanced a point, and we are too unwilling to learn this important, nay vital distinction.  All we can continue to do is shout about it and hope someone/anyone listens.  Maybe it doesn't matter that much either.

I would not personally describe myself as advocating or adhering to any religion since that is irrelevant to my profession and work. However, our method in the study of religion is secular, I happen to be both an atheist and a Hindu measured by the duck test. Does it waddle? Quack? But so what? Who cares? BEING one IS NOT qualification of expertise.  (I might describe my own religiousness as utterly secular too inasmuch as the method and the "belief" is nothing but what I also do academically.  Secular critical study is as much my "religion.")  I am biological and chemical but that is no qualification for expertise in the study of biology or chemistry. Being "religious" is ZERO qualification for the critical study of religion. '

Being "religious" is data, it is what we study. One's personal relationship to a religion must be irrelevant if the subject belongs at all in a university. Most scientists are so ignorant about what we do as scholarship that they think we are advocates and dismiss our subject or would prefer to abolish us.

That said, now imagine how students or, worse, their parents understand NONE of these points and arguments. Religion is worse than Art History, which even Barack Obama told us could not be any longer justified. But why? Because costs make college prohibitive.

I will continue to rant.  And this is shameless advocacy but not for being religious.  If you are religious I might study you.  If you are religious I might not care if you don't make your religion my problem.  Many religious people do make their religion my problem, like Samuel Alito or Clarence Thomas. 

Unless we study history, literature, language, and culture we will be under exposed and ill informed citizens and humans. How can we presume to organize socially and politically if we have so little appreciation of what we might learn about being human from one another? The Humanities are not a luxury but a necessity, especially if we have any hope at the more complex and precarious human endeavors like the rule of law or the public good.  

However the same necessity of inquiry frames topics in science. Because we are culturally illiterate we are unable to fathom climate science. Because people are under educated, ill-informed, and under exposed to the truths of science, we frame debates about vaccines and disease in ways that should embarrass and shame us all. We look stupid. Worse, because we don't know how to study religion and how opinion, faith, belief, and unexamined data operates on the human psyche we confuse religion with science. Then we are worse than stupid because now what we feel or believe has more weight than reasoned argument.

We are human, imperfect and science is not infallible. But it is the best we have and if it is a test of personal belief versus the evidence of reputable academics, there is no serious choice. Are you with the magical goatherders of the Bronze Age or do you understand what academics has in fact done to advance the human cause?