Friday, February 4, 2011

The University Is Changing

By Pamela Urfer
“The world is changed. I feel it in the water. I feel it in the earth. I smell it in the air.” 
Galadriel, Lord of the Rings
Most people don’t like change. It can be extremely uncomfortable. But there’s very little one can do about it, except grumble. Change comes to us all, especially now, as the change from Modernism to Post-modernism is at last making itself felt in everyday life. The death knell of Modernism was sounded a hundred years ago with Albert Einstein’s Relativity Theory of 1907 and Werner Heisenberg’s Uncertainty Principle of 1920. But it has taken all these years since for the consequences of their discoveries to trickle down to you and me.

Theories of cosmic “uncertainty” and “relativity” may be unsettling, or they may be freeing, depending on how we look at them. Those who look for certainty and absolutes will find few in Post-modernism. But those attributes of Modernism – certainty and absolutism – which we had come to take for granted, and think of as “normal,” had certain disadvantages we might be happy to shed.

One is the need to prove certain views, and certain persons, “wrong,” so that we can know, and make others know, what is “right.” Once that is done, we believe we can relax and stop our restless search for certainty, happy in the knowledge that we have found it. Post-modernism insists that the search for this elusive treasure is ultimately self-defeating. There is no person, no human, whose judgment on those matters is wholly untainted by their personal prejudgments or bias. The best we can achieve in this area is the courage of our own convictions.

This is especially true in religion. What to one person is religious superstition and backwardness is, to another, enlightenment and knowledge of God. The historical Enlightenment, the clearest form of modernism, made that dichotomy clear. To the “Enlightened” mind, truth lies in reason and it sees the traditions and “superstitions” of religion as an obstacle to true knowledge. This is the position the secular University has held for some time.

And with some justification. Religious practitioners had retained, and even cherished, misconceptions about the cosmos and human nature that needed correction. Many of these ideas were not among the core beliefs of any faith, but rather were hopeful attempts to mandate morality or to provide justification for claims of the inevitability of capitulation to one god or another. Some sort of compromise between science and faith had to be reached, and in many instances that realization was the price of a secular university education.

But like all true believers, the proponents of the superiority of universal, autonomous reason had their blind spots, their prejudices and biases. The fictions of perpetual progress towards peace and plenty, the neutrality of reason in the recognition of truth, and the need to subsume everything, including the creation of humanity, under the rubric of “science” eventually led to its downfall. The secular evils of World Wars I and II, Stalin’s atrocities, and the Holocaust, eroded faith in the ultimate goodness of reason alone. The failure of Communism sealed the deal.

Post-modernism can be understood as the loss of confidence in the rational as sole guarantor and deliverer of truth, coupled with a deep suspicion of science’s answers . This paved the way to a revaluing of myth, a reorienting of attitudes towards faith, and a provision of new spaces for religious discourse.

Fortunately, the secular University, which has valued the insights of post-modernism for many years, is beginning to act upon those insights. Religion is now being given a voice in the public square, and many of its benefits – compassion, mercy, community, the ability to talk about the unseen world and debate values – are being recognized as a necessary part of the process of education. At least, as far as the administration goes. It may take longer for the faculty to be convinced.

UCSC provides an interesting example of how these changes came about. In 2003, the then-Dean of Students ordered all religious groups off-campus, citing as her rationale the principle of the “separation of church and state.” There was to be no use of government facilities, no rental of rooms on campus, no advertizing at bus stops. The stunned members of the Interfaith Council eventually went to the Chancellor, Denise Denton, to ask for her help. She agreed to do what she could, replying that she knew very well what it was like to be marginalized.

We’ll never know what Denton may or may not have done, for in four months she was dead. But something was happening, for that summer the UIC was asked to take part in the Memorial Services and grief counseling that was planned to the students’ return in September. Since then, the UIC has been given a home under the auspices of Student Affairs, a mail-drop, e-mail privileges, the right to reserve rooms, and the blessing of the university. 9/11 may also have been a factor in these decisions, as all of America began to recognize the power of religion for both good and evil and to realize the need for better understanding and communication. God was not dead, at least not as dead as people had hoped, and they found that the cost of excluding religious groups from discussion is often higher than letting them in.

Still, the closet doors were opening, and believing students, staff and even faculty are now able to publically acknowledge their faith without penalty. And nothing says acceptance more than the Secular Students’ Alliance application for membership in the Interfaith Council.