Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Book Recommendations

Professors of the World, Unite! You have nothing to lose but your Deans!

The blogosphere begins to penetrate Geneva, NY, as the Old Oligarch takes notice of my link. I concur in his book recommendations on blood sacrifice, with the caveat that I'm not quite ready to assign Ulansey's The Origins of the Mithraic Mysteries : Cosmology and Salvation in the Ancient World. I think he's probably right, but there's a lot still missing in our knowledge of Mithraism. I'm also not entirely convinced that the Mithraic art is quite as standardized as he needs it to be to support his star-chart argument. I'm going to reread it this June in Rome and go back to the Mithraeum under San Clemente. I didn't assign the book to my class in Early Christian Art & Architecture this year (sorry for the lack of a link, but I moved almost all my course-content onto a proprietary, password-protected system called 'Blackboard.' It's a nice teaching tool, but it means I can't show off).

I did assign a very interesting book on the development of the imagery of Christ in the early Church. Thomas Mathews The Clash of the Gods is a very good thing - he examines a long-unexamined belief on the part of art historians that the image of Christ was an adaptation of imperial imagery and determines that instead the imagery of Christ was borrowed and adapted from images of wonder-workers and Olympian gods. His introduction, in which he connects (what he calls) the "Emperor Mystique" to the early education in pre-1914 imperial Europe of Ernst Kantorowicz, Andreas Alfoeldi, and Andre Grabar, is more tendentious. Still and all, a fine book and accessible to the undergraduate reader because Princeton spent loads of money on the illustrations.

Tuesday, May 28, 2002

End of University

A mild fantasy of things to come

In the next few weekends all over North America (and at slightly different times in Europe), men and women like me will put on 17th century adaptations of medieval dress clothes - scholars gowns, hoods (it was COLD in those stone buildings in medieval Europe) and hats - and walk in procession, all too frequently behind a much less useful medieval survivor, the bagpipe band.

The University (and its spin-off industry, "Higher Education") has lasted an awfully long time. The roots of what we call a university go back to the high Middle Ages and reactions by independent scholars against the12th century cathedral schools. As an institution they have survived cultural shifts, wars, extension to new continents, and enormous changes of curricula. We've shifted our means of finance from the medieval system in which students contracted with individual professors to cover particular areas required to receive a degree to - uh - what? Well. It's a little embarrassing.

Tuition increases regularly outpace inflation - see this. The full price figure for 2001-2002 at my institution, once you figure in an estimate for books and beer is $34,595. That's thirty-five thousand five hundred and ninety-five dollars. Our President and Board are reasonably pleased that the increase announced for next year is only 4.17%, which means another $1,440, for a grand total of about $36,040. (Which is far, far too close for starting salary here for people with a Ph.D. and no prior full-time teaching experience, but that's a whine rather than a historical fantasy.)

People not professionally involved in "higher education" are always a little shocked to find out how small the proportion of direct budget support states provide to their public universities. An ecorrespondent wrote to me about the situation at the University of Indiana, who thinks that I.U. gets about 20% of its budget from the state while his tuition is going up 8% for next year. Professor Reynolds could tell you some stories - the constant budget crisis for the university system in Tennessee is the thin edge of a wedge being driven into the state constitution to create a real personal income tax (I hear about it whenever I'm home from my father, a retired professor in the system and a Tennessee taxpayer). Nevertheless, without the contribution from the state, bad things would happen at public universities.

Then there's the annual campaign. You, our dear, dear alumni and alumnae, can be trusted to give us some money each and every year. Luckily, you still look back on us with a fond glow and an open checkbook. I spent weekend before last having dinner with a bunch of grateful former students and I trust my sparkling conversation will be reflected in my continuing paycheck. Without the annual campaigns we would be in trouble.

Finally, we come to endowments. Most sensible colleges and universities keep their spending to the federally required minimum - 4-5% of total endowment value per year. That means that we have to have a lot of money invested in order to have any appreciable amount to spend. This is what provokes the fantasy below.

If you're curious about the richest schools, here's some handy material on Ivy Endowments -- scroll to page nine for a chart (sorry, it's an html version of an acrobat document). Endowment per student is a particularly interesting figure. For instance, take the per student endowment at Princeton, plan to spend 5 percent, you'd have $66,000. Even Princeton isn't quite that expensive.

For those of us with a clue - that is, me and people like me - when we're in pessimistic moods we think that this can't go on much longer.

Why do people pay huge amounts of money for this thing we offer, this "education"? I like mine and have put it to good use; really, things I learned in classrooms I teach in classrooms - how many of you can say that? Are there more efficient ways to deliver what people do get out of college? I shudder to think.

In late medieval/early modern England this issue came up in a different way. The sovereign looked around and saw an institution that was delivering something but doing so fairly inefficiently. This institution also tied up considerable wealth in its endowments, which were only partially liable to taxation or exaction. He shut the institution down, expropriated all its wealth, and redistributed real estate to a large group of citizens. I'm talking about Henry VIII and the monastic foundations in England in the 1530s. The 20th century historiography on who profited from the Suppression of the Monasteries is extremely complex, but no one believes that Henry did what he did out of deeply felt religious conviction. One of the other things that is quite clear is that lightly taxed institutions which provided most of the primary and secondary education in the country and were major supporters of higher education lost all their wealth to a confiscation and redistribution fueled in many cases by envy and lack of understanding.

Oh, the analogy is strained and improbable, but that's the fun of historical analogy. Every time I read about another state legislature cutting budgets I think about Henry VIII and the prior of Glastonbury, a man very much like most modern university presidents. No one in England stopped believing in intercessory prayer, but they did believe that it wasn't perpetual endowments to support those who prayed for them and their dead ancestors. Lots of people went on believing in them, just as I'm certain that in the wake of the collapse of the university as an institution people would go on learning things. Monasticism survived Henry VIII, and learning will survive education reform in America.

In my more pessimistic moods (like right after I grade 24 Islamic Art and Architecture exams and before I grade 16 Early Christian Art and Architecture exams) I wonder whether we do a good job justifying all this wealth. I think I could do a pretty good job, but no one ever asks. I also worry about the tuition. I am, as I keep saying, a medievalist. I leave the arguments about sustainability and current value and laughing curves to Miss McArdleand Mr. Dreck. I think the term they'd use for this arrangement is "long division of labor"? Whatever. I used a calculator for the tuition and fees figures. Still and all, I don't think this is a sustainable system. At some point the benefit conferred by the degree we give will not produce enough surplus income for our dear, dear alumni and alumnae to - ahem - share with us. When that happens, it all stops.

Nevertheless, this Sunday morning I'll be there in academic regalia gritting my teeth as some nice firemen from Rochester make the bagpipes wail and we march in to declare another class graduated with "a degree Bachelor of Arts or Bachelor of Sciences as earned according to the degree requirements established by the Faculty of these Colleges." And there will be flags. And pageantry. And gothic revival architecture. And I'll feel better about the whole thing.

Wednesday, May 08, 2002

EU Flag Designed by Architect

Hurrah! We're saved! The EU are planning to ditch the current flag (a circlet of gold stars on a blue background) in favour of some kind of stripey thing containing all the colours of all EU member flags designed by a Dutch architect, Rem Koolhaas. Onward and upward to those broad, sunlit uplands!

Some feedback has already been generated. Jay Merrick, the Indescribablypretentious's 'architecture correspondent' had this to say:

Koolhaas' ideas are like his architecture. They veer in smooth mental synchromesh from position to position, from material to material, and always from the static to the fractured and manoeuvrable.


For Koolhaas, there are no pesky boundaries between things, be they ideas or physical structures. His intellect has the dual-cyclone suction of a Dyson Motorhead vacuum cleaner, and it's this huge appetite for the mysterious connective tissues of aesthetics and information that sets him apart.

Let a thousand faux-masturbatory hand gestures bloom!

The critics, as usual, are replete with trenchant observations:

The problem with the stripes is they do not really mean anything. They might also be criticised by some people because they are reminiscent of rainbow flags associated with gay movements [?!?].


[Ben] Wolstenholme added that the stripes were more impressive as they were a strong statement of the multicultural identities in the European Union, but they would be a "nightmare to implement" because the design would be too complex.


[Stephen Bayley] said Koolhaas's design was confident, modern and easily adaptable.

However he added he was less happy about the stars, which he said might make a European politician look as if he was "about to pull rabbits out of a hat or saw a woman in half."

Or pulling $45 million for Arafat out of a hat and sawing their own credibility in half, if you want to be picky. A joke flag for a joke entity? Only time will tell...