EARNING MY PHD: REFLECTIONS AFTER 30 YEARS

 

Thirty years ago this month I received my Ph.D. diploma in Humanities with a major in Linguistics and a minor in Philosophy from the University of Texas at Arlington.

The Humanities department at UTA was typically left-leaning. Though there was the occasional fossil conservative—more of a curious oddity than anything else—most faculty were on the left side of the aisle, with a few on the far left. I recall with fond memories the Rhetoric professor who lamented the loss of the 1960’s because he found the 1980’s too boring. Then there was the brilliant pipe-smoking former Jesuit priest turned ultra-liberal who informed us “he had given up the business.”

Walking the Humanities’ hallway of faculty offices was a showcase of door propaganda with posters and paraphernalia extolling Marxism and excoriating Reagan, bearing mute but effective testimony to a professor’s political views. Nearly 20 years had elapsed since Woodstock and the long summer of love, but some of the Haight/Ashbury crowd were now teaching in the hallowed halls of academia at UTA.

For conservatives like me, post-graduate study was not exactly terra firma. More like terra incognita. Like a Baptist attending an Episcopalian church service for the first time. I stood out like a ham sandwich in a synagogue. The usual smatterings of jabs at Reagan, the so called “Religious Right,” and the Moral Majority sprinkled some lectures. Virtually every seminar was an exercise in negotiating a labyrinth of postmodern heroes of the faith such as Derrida and Foucault. Ludwig Feurbach, Georg Lukács, among other luminaries, were in the mix too.

My first encounter with a real live postmodernist occurred in a Rhetoric seminar in 1984. “Is there any such thing as absolute truth?” the professor queried. Faint affirmatives followed. “What is the degree of angle on a right triangle?” The class replied in unison: “90 degrees.” “Is that always true?” We said “yes.” With a grin that reminded me of the Grinch at Christmas talking to little Cindy Lou Who, he retorted: “no!” “If one draws a right triangle on a cylinder, the degree of angle is not 90 but 92,” he cheerily informed us. He then thundered forth: “there is no such thing as truth with a capital ‘T’; there are only truths with a little ‘t.’” A moment of silence ensued—followed by the instantaneous conversion to postmodernism of some of my classmates.

Of course, the illustration merely proved that in plane geometry, a right triangle always had the angle degree of 90 and in whatever form of geometry you would call a right triangle drawn on a cylinder the degree of angle was always 92. Not to mention the statement itself is self-refuting, as was postmodernism’s denial of metanarrative truth. After some discussion on this point, I am happy to report that Truth with a capital “T” survived. It was actually loads of fun.

Unlike some of today’s conservative students in institutions of higher learning, I never feared for my safety, physical or intellectual. I was never accused of being a racist, a homophobe, a bigot, or anything else. I received fair grades for my work, even from those professors who disagreed with my worldview—and most did. I once was told, good-naturedly by a fellow liberal student after a frank discussion of ethical issues, “I like you! I consider you the Jerry Falwell of UTA!”

Though identity politics was alive and well in the 1980s, it had not yet morphed into victim politics of anarchism. We could still have a dialogue without dressing in black masks and throwing barriers into building windows. No classes were canceled due to snowflakes being upset when Reagan was elected for a second term as president, and there were no “safe places” for snowflakes to curl up in the fetal position. You had to find an empty hallway corner for that. Believe it or not, some even kept intact a sense of humility and humor in the process. Thinking was actually stimulated rather than sedated, as is the case in many institutions of higher learning now, where the new campus censors are students leading the assault on free speech.

Today, most faculty and students subscribe to the Ten Commandments of postmodern academia. They are especially devoted to the 2nd Commandment:

“Thou shalt have no ultimate authority before thee: everyone shall do that which is right in hers/his/its, whatever, own eyes.”

The 5th Commandment gets quite a bit of play as well:

“Honor reality and truth as socially constructed, that it may be well with thee and that thou mayest live long in American academia.”

Recently I read an insightful article by Mark Lilla, Professor of Humanities at Columbia University, entitled “When Students See Only Themselves.” Lilla laments the narcissism of today’s liberal students—and he places much of the blame squarely at the feet of liberal professors.

“We have distorted the liberal message to such a degree that it has become unrecognizable.” “Conservatives are right: Our colleges, from bottom to top, are mainly run by liberals, and teaching has a liberal tilt.”

Who knew?

Here is the money quote for me:

“The universities of our time instead cultivate students so obsessed with their personal identities and campus pseudo-politics that they have much less interest in, less engagement with, and frankly less knowledge of matters that don’t touch on identity in the great out there.”

Well well. I hope he still has a job next semester.

Lilla is no friend of conservatives, much less conservative Christians, but his piece is a double-edged sword. If we are not careful, as evangelicals, we can sell our birthright—our identity in Christ—for a mess of cultural pottage. Some have already done so.

While in a PhD seminar on Marx, I remember reading an article by Klaus Bockmuehl (not one assigned, mind you), entitled “Karl Marx’s Negation of Christianity: A Theological Response,” Evangelical Review of Theology 9.3 (1985), 251–63. His conclusion is worth remembering:

When all this is said and the Christianity of Christ vindicated, we as Christians stand convicted: of our own secularism, having ourselves lived as if God did not exist, of the discrepancy between theory and practice in our lives, and of our rationalisations when we ignored man’s body for the sake of his soul, or his soul for the sake of his body, and when we ignored love of neighbor allegedly for the sake of love of God, and love of God allegedly for love of neighbor. Moreover, we stand convicted of our frequent manipulations of Christ’s teaching, with the intent to enhance its appeal to our generation, only to see it condemned by the next. We apologise for our zest to accommodate the Gospel to the ruling ideas of any given time and for the damage that this has done to generation after generation. Some of Marx’ criticism indeed fits theologians contemporary to him and others who followed. It does not fit the founder of Christianity. This critique functions proportionately to our distance from Christ. However, although we plead guilty to any rightful criticism of our own conduct, and want to change, we would rather identify with Jesus and have Christianity judged on the merits of his case alone.

Enough said.

 

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