Saturday, January 13, 2018

A classic movie confronts anti-intellectualism

During the holidays my family watched the classic 1960 movie, Inherit the Wind, loosely based on the infamous Scopes trial, held in 1925 in the USA.

Only after I watched the movie and read the associated Wikipedia page did I learn that the movie was not meant to be so much about the issue of Evolution vs. Fundamentalism. But rather was meant to cast a poor light on McCarthyism, which was happening around the time the movie was made.

There is much in the movie that one could be concerned about, particularly from a Christian point of view. First, it is not historically accurate. This problem and all the nuances of the trial were discussed in detail in the Pulitzer-Prize winning book, Summer for the Gods, by Edward J. Larson.
Second, the Christians in the movie are "red-necks" who come across as unthinking and unfeeling. On the other hand, unfortunately, there are Christians who do act like some of the characters in the movie.

The title of the movie is based on Proverbs 11:29

Whoever brings ruin on their family will inherit only wind, and the fool will be servant to the wise.

This is quoted during a powerful and tragic scene when a fundamentalist preacher verbally attacks his own daughter.

Saturday, December 16, 2017

Why do university students go on strike?

Previously, I discussed the widespread phenomena in the Majority World of university students going on strike (boycotting classes). Here I address one question I raised there.
There is a range of contributing reasons why these strikes occur. I give the reasons in no particular order.

Frustrated aspirations.
Increased access to university education, means students may be the first in their family to attend university and they may have high hopes about what the experience will be and what it might lead to. However, in the Majority World, they usually encounter institutions which are extremely under-resourced. There are few books in the library, laboratory equipment does not work, lecturers do not show up for work, ....
And then government and university administrators want to increase tuition fees. These fees can be way beyond what students from poor families can afford.

How did it get this way?
Some African context is provided by Joel Carpenter and Nellie Kooistra in Engaging Africa, a report prepared for two philanthropic organisations.
By the mid-1970s and throughout the 1980s, ... African universities suffered deep financial cuts as many countries experienced a crash of commodity prices and the rapid increase of energy prices, resulting in crippling national debts and austerity budgets. World Bank and IMF restructuring programs advised debtor nations to reallocate education spending from higher education to primary and secondary education. Political instability added to the universities’ woes as African nations in the 1980s experienced twenty-one successful coups, and authoritarian regimes became the norm. Rulers suspected their flagship universities of being hotbeds of subversion and slashed their budgets further while building new regional universities to serve favored constituencies. At the same time, European and North American government aid for African universities, which had amounted to scores of millions of dollars over the years, was being sharply curtailed, and so were some major philanthropic efforts... 
These problems continued throughout the 1990s, and to compound them, the World Bank and IMF-predicated emphasis on supporting primary and secondary education was resulting in a surging demand for tertiary enrollments. Governments acceded to political pressure and crowded more students into the older universities....
... conditions proved to be intolerable for thousands of African academics and exacerbated the “brain drain” syndrome as the continent exported talent to wealthier nations. ... Faculty members frequently went on strike for higher wages, while students protested inadequate services. It was becoming clear that the old social contract in higher education—which African governments inherited from the European colonial nations—had broken down. No longer could governments afford to offer free tuitions and subsidies for room and board to all who qualified on their matriculation exams. And these problems were commonly aggravated by universities maintaining large and cumbersome non-academic staffs and infrastructure....
Students and universities are struggling to find a unique identity. There is conflict about what should be done with the legacy (whether statues (Rhodes must fall) or curriculum) of the colonial era of Western dominance.

Sometimes students are protesting about government corruption, as in recent strikes in Papua New Guinea. Other times it is about the corruption that may occur at many different levels within the university. It can range from administrators diverting operating funds to nepotism in hiring to staff taking bribes for admissions or grades.

Inability to resolve conflict.
Some of my friends suggest that conflicts can quickly escalate into strikes due to the emotional immaturity of some students, particularly those from dysfunctional families or from communities in which there are high levels of conflict.

Political opportunism.
Although they may not want to publically admit it, there are outside power brokers who can actually gain from student strikes, and so they may want to prod them along, and even have them escalate to violence. On the left, student protests sometimes bring down governments. On the right, governments can crack down on protests and tap into voter resentment towards students and concerns about public "safety".
You can see this resentment by reading the comments on news stories about student strikes.

For example, Ronald Reagan successfully launched his political career using student protests at UC Berkeley campus as a target.
Smelser, assistant chancellor ... at the time Reagan ran for [Governor of California], recalled that "Reagan took aim at the university for being irresponsible for failing to punish these dissident students. He said, 'Get them out of there. Throw them out. They are spoiled and don't deserve the education they are getting. They don't have a right to take advantage of our system of education.'"
On the student side, many political careers (particularly on the left) have been launched by student activists gaining political experience and a national profile by leading demonstrations.

Saturday, December 9, 2017

Cooking up a good feeling

I enjoyed watching the movie, Chef, even if it is a bit corny with the happy ending.
It does highlight some basic things that are too often overlooked in modern life.
In jobs, freedom and creativity count for more than money, status, and security.
What really matters is relationships, particularly with family.

Monday, December 4, 2017

Talk on mental health for Christian academics

Today I am giving a talk, "Mental health and well being for academics", at a Simeon Network conference in Canberra, for Christian faculty and Ph.D students.
Here are the slides.

I refer to a relevant talk by Santa Ono, President of UBC.

A helpful book from a Christian perspective is Understanding Depression and Finding Hope.

A simple book for men is Five Steps to Mens Mental Health.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Made in the Image of God: Talk in Singapore

Tonight I am giving a talk based on Genesis 1. The forum is a weekly meeting of Indonesian students who are part of the Singapore Fellowship of Evangelical Students at the Nanyang Technological University. Here are the slides.

For background, I recommend comparing and contrasting Genesis with the Babylonian creation myth the Enuma Elish, which is nicely summarised in this short video.

Another helpful short video is Science and Genesis, featuring John Polkinghorne, Alister McGrath, N.T. Wright, and others.

I have found helpful the book How to Read Genesis  by Tremper Longman.
An excellent introductory book that puts my talk in context is Exploring Science and Belief by Michael Poole.

Sunday, November 12, 2017

Integrating Christian and academic lives

A wonderful little book, Why Study? Exploring the Face of God in the Academy has just been published by the Fellowship of Evangelical Students in Singapore (IFES).
In each chapter, a Christian academic describes their personal journey as they aim to integrate their Christian and academic lives. Fields covered include history, law, engineering, sociology, biology, ...
Most of the authors are from Asia.
I wrote one of the chapters,  Living as a follower of Jesus and a Physicist. I thank some friends who gave many constructive suggestions on a draft.

The target audience is Christian undergraduates who are beginning their studies.

I welcome any comments on my chapter, bearing in mind the target audience.

I hope this book will stimulate similar ventures from other parts of the world, and for different target audiences. For example, it would be great to see an African version and an Australian version. I would also like to see a version for non-Christian audiences and for faculty audiences.

Monday, November 6, 2017

How might Christians respond to university student strikes?

There are many things I am learning from my friends in the International Fellowship of Evangelical Students (IFES). They provide a perspective on global Christianity and bring up issues that in the affluent Western world we do not grapple with. Here I want to start to explore the issue of strikes (or class boycotts) by university students in the Majority World. In some countries, ranging from South Africa to Papua New Guinea, it is not unusual for a campus to be closed down for a substantial fraction of the year. Strikes are about a wide range of issues: student fees, racism, de-colonisation, politics, government corruption, university policies, sexual violence, ....
This disruption and the associated unpredictability has serious implications for the education of students, for campus life, and the relationship of government to the university.

Student protests are not unknown in the Western world, even right now, particularly in the USA on issues of racism and sexual violence. The Wikipedia page on Student protest, lists a long and fascinating list of actions. These range from protests at the University of Missouri in 2015-2016 to a two-year strike at the University of Paris in 1229!  Some protests are successful in bringing about significant change (even the fall of governments), while others end in tragedy such as the 1989 massacre of students in Tiananmen Square. Others just peter out...

However, most of the current protests in the Majority World are on a completely different scale to anything happening in the West. I have studied and worked at universities in Australian and the USA for the last 40 years, and I can only recall one or two day when classes were cancelled, and that was due to faculty strikes, not students. To be honest, I wish Australian students were passionate enough about some issue to want to strike! I particularly wish they were more concerned about social justice and educational issues.

The main question I am interested in is my title, "How might Christian students, faculty, and IFES groups respond to a university student strike on their campus?"

To get the flavour of the issues and one specific response look at this example from the Student Christian Organisation in Cape Town.

There are many possible responses: ignore, oppose, join, organise, moderate...
Given the diversity of issues and contexts, I think the answer will depend on the specific strike.
This is a complex issue with no clear-cut answers and I think it is best to first back up a bit and explore some other questions.

What lessons might be learned from the history of student strikes and demonstrations in different global contexts?

Why do these strikes occur?

What is my perspective as a faculty member?

What would be my advice to the strikers?

What might be a Christian perspective?

How can student Christian groups function and be a witness (in life and word) best in this context?

I will try and explore these questions in future posts. Feel free to post your own questions and answers.