Academia is currently a sad, sad place
A recent blog post by Peter Enns has me thinking. Christians who make it into evangelical academia may face extremely limited academic freedom on account of restrictive “Statements of Faith,” and many more freethinking Christians may still end up tied to such statements for lack of alternative jobs.
Before reading the article, I had already given a lot of thought to the direction I want to head in life. I have been eyeing graduate schools, but beyond what Dr. Enns’ has advised for Christians in academia, the life of a professor outside of Christianity/evangelicalism isn’t very good right now, either. My thought: we’re doing it wrong.
Rather than try to conceive of the Right Way of running high-level scholarship, as though going “back to the basics” will save us, let’s just try to work from where we find ourselves. There is no Platonic Form of Scholarship — scholarship is a cooperative effort, and the terms of that cooperation can change if we just agree to change them.
So, let’s agree to start changing things
I’m not going to pretend to solve academia in a single blog post, but I can offer some suggestions on where we might start heading in the future. One of the biggest changes to learning since the advent of the university has been the invention of the internet. What universities sought to do — bring together the brightest minds in the world to discuss and learn from one another — is now possible just by turning on a laptop without even crawling out of bed.
I started to write the rest of this post as an “advantages of using the internet” sort of post, but who really needs that? What we need, generally speaking, is a practical vision of how this might look if we took academics to the cloud.
But life interferes with our dreams
Some of the main concerns in Enns’ article and elsewhere are practical: we have to be able to put food on the table. We need a roof over our heads. The essentials of life are not going to go away as we plug away at our computer screens while pursuing our dreams in our underwear (not that I ever do that).
This is a tough question for any internet-based community. It’s also not something I can answer right away, though I will offer my thoughts. Most websites survive on advertising revenue. Many online community efforts manage to succeed based purely on volunteer work and/or donations. Universities survive on tuition, donations, and grants. A new online community of this sort will not be able to rely on these sorts of revenue sources — at least not in the usual ways.
Monetizing academic freedom
My suggestion is that we turn to the churches and existing universities while adopting an open intellectual property culture. There is a growing desire within the church to overcome fundamentalist rejections of evolution, gender equality, and same-sex marriage, among other things. The church is already an outstanding vehicle for gathering donations to support various causes, and it may be possible to sell such a vision to churches.
In asking for donations, though, we must be clear that the money must come with no academic strings attached, and we must stick by our principles. We dug ourselves into our current hole partially due to the nature of demands from donors that our universities stick by certain doctrines, essentially paying the academics to come up with fancy ways of affirming our preconceived notions (we call this “apologetics” or “sophistry,” depending on your point of view).
Also important is that by adopting an open intellectual property culture — something similar to the Creative Commons License or the GNU General Public License — we could achieve a variety of different goals which traditional universities cannot: first, we would be able to offer pastors and interested laymen open access to a wealth of information which once may have seemed inaccessible. Second, we would be able to allow small-time collaborative contributions from volunteer scholars.
Between monetary donations and volunteer work from the already-employed, such a project could, in my estimation, very easily sustain a team of researchers operating with near-total academic freedom, if perhaps at a low salary.
Hoping for a reality
This is obviously not something I will pull off by myself. If such a project is to have any success, many more people will have to give their input and effort; however, I hope I have painted a picture of a new kind of reality for Christian scholarship. If you are interested in this project, let’s chat. Comment below or get in touch with me through The Discerning Christian Facebook page.
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