Friday, August 26, 2011

Pragmatism (IWU Coffee Talk)

Inspire me, oh muse, to tell of the secret to the (earthly) success of IWU these last twenty years, to the secret of the great things that came out of the IWU religion department in its Decade of Synergy (2000-2010), not least a seminary.  The answer is a goal-oriented pragmatism.  For the university at large, Jim Barnes was the primary catalyst.  For the religion department, it was no doubt Keith Drury.

With the right people around them at the right time, things happened.  Around Barnes, these were people like Mark Smith (now president of OCU), David Wright (now Provost), Todd Voss (now president of SWU), and Terry Munday.  In the religion division, you had people like Russ Gunsalus, Steve Lennox, Jim Lo, Bud Bence, and a cast of characters they could have made superteacher cards out of and sold them in the bookstore.

Mind you, most of it was intuitive.  I'll be so bold as to say that my post today is the most theoretical reflection on what the precise dynamic was.  People called it "entrepreneurial."  What it was was a penchant to see opportunities and not to let things like idealism, procedure, reputation, or academic mores distract from the goal.  Another way to put it is a penchant for lateral thinking.  It reminds me of the Cynics, who pointed out that an awful lot of society's rules are really rather made up.

Now mind you, Barnes had his own set of man-made rules.  But they didn't apply to opportunities to get more students or build satellite campuses.  As a result, IWU didn't have to lay off any faculty in the economic recession, even while more traditional schools were closing.  He really didn't care that people were saying online education was shallow.  He had the pragmatic foresight to start his entrepreneurial ventures in a new part of the university where academic purists couldn't touch it.  Criticize him if you want, but come visit the campus and see the beautiful buildings that came as a result.

At one point they were building a new dorm every year.  If a traditional academic had been in charge, IWU probably would have closed in the early 90s.  As it stands, it now has over 16,000 students, more than any other private college or university in the State of Indiana.  The next innovation was like cat-nip in those days.

This same spirit prevailed in the religion department.  There was always a friendly tension between the religion division and the history department in those years, with Glenn Martin at its helm.  Martin reminded me much of Plato.  His understanding of history was basically the story of the disintegration of ideas, from what he called a biblical worldview to the present.  He spent the first two weeks of his courses indoctrinating his disciples in his philosophy, and I understand it was fairly easy to get a good grade if you simply regurgitated his ideas and catchphrases.

Of course his entire system deconstructed on the fact that what he called a biblical worldview was really an ideological imposition on the biblical texts.  I want to applaud the fact that he inspired a lot of students over the years, many of whom came to him with no sense of direction at all.  A lot of them have gone on to do very significant things (despite the fact that I continue to irritate them, just as they often annoy me ;-).

Nevertheless, he illustrates an idealism that is generally the opposite of what made the university and the religion division such a success these past decades.  Ideas in themselves rarely have any power at all.  It is only when ideas focus the energies that are already present, much more a matter of feeling than thinking, that they have real power.

It's like the failure of the great man theory of history.  There are no doubt individuals all around us who, given the proper set of circumstances, might do great things.  But if those circumstances never arise, they will live and die without anyone ever remembering.  In the same way, ideas only have power at the right time in the right place.  Martin treated ideas like they not only had power in themselves, but as if they set the agenda.  It just doesn't work that way.

We are far more feeling creatures than thinking ones.  This is one reason why the IWU religion department has shied away from apologetics.  Very few are the people who will believe in God because of rational argument.  In that sense, the religion department intuitively got what the postmodern wave was saying without ever reading Derrida, Foucault, or Rorty.

The best theories are the ones that are built from the ground up, from practice.  The more a theory becomes self-referencing, the more the theorist starts trying to plug holes in the theory without reference to concrete reality, the less and less meaningful and effective the theory is.  It becomes a work of art, beautiful to look at and for that reason legitimate, but of no particular practical value other than the jollies it gives those who are interested.

And we learn best by doing, not by lecture.  The old academic approach that spends a hundred hours talking about the runway is less effective than ten minutes in a plane on the runway.  Don't give me three hours about Word, Excel, or Blackboard.  Give me an assignment and stand there to answer my questions as they arise.  Then I'll remember it.  It's called problem based learning and it was a core idea behind the seminary.

Erasmus the pragmatist wins, while the purists are still working on the details.  Sure, his first edition of the Greek New Testament in the late 1400s had some glaring errors, but the King James Version isn't based on the Bible the academics were slowly and meticulously working on in Spain.  You obviously have to have enough of the plane built to take off safely.  And you need a plan to finish building it.  But you don't need the landing gear until it's time to land.  And you'll get to your destination a lot faster if you work on the paint while you're in the air.  Structures should develop organically around what you're trying to do.  It doesn't matter if they're pretty.  The goal is not beauty but effectiveness.

The idealist tends to be an all or nothing person, and in this day and age they will more often than not get nothing.  The pragmatist knows that something is better than nothing.  Rules for their own sake are goal-defeating.  Meetings should only be run by people who don't like meetings.  Policies should only be written by people who don't like policies.

What's the opportunity and what's the most effective way to take advantage of it, ignoring artificial convention, reputable propriety, and goal-defeating neuroses?  That's the motto of the goal-oriented pragmatist.

Of course these are only proverbs.  If there aren't detailers to follow the entrepreneurs, eventually it all falls apart.  The key is for the detailers to come second, rather than first.  In academics, it's usually the detailers first, and the entrepreneurs are run out of town.


Angie Van De Merwe said...

The enteupernuers have to sell their idea to investors and those that will comply with their "vision" in bringng it to fruition....otherwise, it is again, "pie in the sky"!

I have a LOT of ideas about science, but when I tell my husband who is a scientist, he tells me it won't work. Should I continue to believe that my ideas are worth pursuing? (Obviously, shallow education with pragmatic results ($$$), is better than not gettng the results? ;-)).

Those that have the expertise (or details) have to 'see' or understand that an idea can even get off the ground, practically. And wouldn't that be the right of the person with the expertise to decide whether that is even what s/he want to invest his time on? or in? And is such an endeavor a value they hold?

Ken Schenck said...

You're right, Angie. These are only proverbs, and great movements require a perfect storm of factors. I believe IWU had that perfect storm these last 10-20 years.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Perhaps, a finger is put on the pulse of America, as we are drven by the ends of money.

What if there are other ends that are just as important to "get there" or to produce more opportunity to make money? What about the benefits or results upon society?

Scholars believe that their expertise of knowledge is valued because their end met some standard. And now they sell it in the "market".

If we lower the standard and give degrees to those that don't really have the knowledge base, what will that do to our society?

Practically in areas of practical knowledge such as nursing and medicine, it will put lives in danger. Will the diploma be worth the price of the paper its printed on? (of course med schools miight be a buffer, as no one will get accepted without credibility!)

Ken Schenck said...

I do believe in truth for its own sake. I support funding for pure research and for there to be scholars pursuing beautiful things that do not have obvious benefit. But of course in the allocation of resources, these sorts of pursuits simply cannot be the bulk of where funding goes. It's a question of priorities in education. The "quadrant 4" things of Stephen Covey (not urgent, not important) are not bad, just should be the last priority.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

And futhermore, those nurses will have their license on the line if they mis-step. So shouldn't we value the procedural method of educating for the sake of making an excellent "product" and not just for the $$$?

When you talk of biblical worldview. I have to agree! There is NO such thing!!! Evangelicals have a CULTURE that sanctions certain theological tenets, but such is not valueing the individual, as much as promoting an ideology about "God"...and do we want to promote such ideology when religion is the culprit of so many conflicts over and about "God"?!

The Wesleyan view of atonement, is the "Moral Government" view, isn't it? The problem there is Rom. 13 as an absolute. We honor those in authority as long as they comply with the value within a "moral government". Otherwise, we resist and isnt' this the Tea Party movement?

FrGregACCA said...

Angie, the "moral government" view of the Atonement (really simply another variant of Anselmian satisfaction) has absolutely nothing to do with the state per se, as discussed in Romans 13.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Aaahh, now we are talking about separation of church and state..? like Roman Catholicism in the Middle Ages, where religious wars were fought over the "moral code" under "God's rule"???!!!!

NO, I would rather agree with Kohlburg's assessment of Moral Government being our Civil Government that allows for liberty of conscience concerning "religious values"!!!

Kohlburg's model says that the conventional level morality is the "status quo" of religious tradition. This is where "family values" are recognized. But, strict adherence to "family values" leaves little room for life's tragic "ends" sometimes....unless you are part of a "good ole boy system"....

I would rather have a civil State that values liberty, than a "moral monster" that overintends the personal! I have friends that can do that for me! I don't need some "church official" doing that!!

Anonymous said...

Finally wesleyans coming around to evolution. now if we could just get rid of the ridiculous idea of Christ rising from the dead and admit that that to is a myth we might enter this century. He lives in us thru his ideas and example. nothing ore.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, and this is the dilemma, isn't it? what is the Wesleyan identity? not too sure myself....
Pragmatism has lent itself to various "theologies" and understandngs about "God"....which William James wrote about early in this century (wasn't it)...

So, now we have the intersection of experience (culture) and reason (how one rationalizes or understands faith) is such an academic endeavor throught the disciplines, or is it some esoteric adventure ....various understandings and various experiences...

Angie Van De Merwe said...

All of these experiences and understandings are tolerated n our country, as long as one is abiding by the laws of our nation!

Pragmatism lends itself to scientific investigation, not some theologizing about "God". Pragmatism is utlitarian and focused on ends of profit margins. Therefore, practical needs trump everything else, when push comes to shove. And such solutions are political solutions, which our country has negotiated with other countries in diplomatic efforts.

Anonymous said...

Dr. Martin was a better man and had more integrity than you could ever hope to have. And the regurgitation issue is not true. He didn't want that. And you could get good grades if you disagreed and had actually though through why you disagreed and made sense.

Ken Schenck said...

I don't doubt Dr. Martin's integrity.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Do you remember how Dr. Martin used to say "biblical Christian"? He had valid reason for describing his "worldview" as biblical. The basis of his worldview was Scripture.

The implicaton is that there are other kinds of Christians. Don't you think they have just as much integrity, but are just "grounded" or find their "answers" differently than Scrpture?

Ken Schenck said...

Actually, it was at the point of what Martin considered a "biblical worldview" that his system deconstructed because we have to have presuppositions to interpret the Bible. He claimed to get his presuppositions from the Bible but actually, what he saw in the Bible was a result of presuppositions that derived from outside the Bible, namely, I suspect, a certain sectarian stream of Reformed theology.

Angie Van De Merwe said...

Yes, Ken, this IS true!

One's presuppositions that are considered "biblical" are the Western view in Augustine, as a supernatural realm, where the poliical world has nothing or little to do with the "spiritual one". But, the Western view has a certain view about man and nature.

The Eastern view of "perfecting man" is "perfecting the earth", which is also presuppositional. One has to assume certain things about man and nature.

Arminians believe in free will and choice as a value, as man is "created in God's image", as a free moral agent. "God" is a leadership model of "perfecting man". And it has to do with how one understands Trinitarianism, and monotheism. Organizational leadership also has something to do with the "pragmatism" that is talked about in this post.

Our country was a model of government that allows for free moral agency in choice and believes in the equality of man with one another. The basis of such equality are our laws. The basis of the Enlightenment aspect to our Founding was that man's intellectual nature, his reason, could be also developed, allowing for "free choice" as to vocation. Such presuppositions leave no doubt that "God" is not intervening, but that man, by his choices, is to intervene in society.

The "language is metaphorical", but the results are "real" political commitments of value. So, education is a value to those that see or understand that man's nature is not just "spiritual". Man is a wholistic person, not segmented parts. This is why wha one believes to be true, one's understanding of life, does impact what one chooses to do....

The question is not really about "God", in the supernatural sense, but "God" as in leadership, government, and one's own personal evaluations about what one's passion in life is.