A response to Professor Elaine Phillips “A Biblical Lens on Same-Gender Sexual Activity”

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I write this in response to Gordon College’s Professor Elaine Phillips’ “A Biblical Lens on Same-Gender Sexual Activity” essay sent to the Gordon College Community. First, I would like to say that I am highly disappointed and expected something much more intellectually honest from a faculty member at Gordon College. This is nothing more than a proof-texted explanation of sexuality and the Bible. It advances an agenda and does nothing to exegetically seek the truth. Especially, her concluding arguments about the Church being different and the “light” in “darkness” is so highly offensive and dehumanizing. The heteronormative conglomeration of evangelical Christians is not the “light” and the inappropriately persecuted homosexual Christians are certainly not the “darkness” that must see and follow the light. That type of “peculiar” people and thinking is the antithesis of true Christianity.

Her tone is such that she does not have any say in how she interprets the scripture, as if they are so clear in their message and we as the church are bound by a divine revelation that is presented to all. The very fact that Dr. Elaine Phillips is allowed to even talk during chapel or about the bible is a reinterpretation of Paul’s direction for women to be completely silent on such matters and receive their instruction from their husbands.

To begin a biblical explanation of human sexuality with the discussion of Adam and Eve their command to multiply is egregious. It completely neglects the reality that even some heterosexually oriented couples cannot procreate. Are we to read that then they cannot enter into the sacrament of marriage because of their inability to procreate? Her interpretation says yes.

Secondly, she moves to a discussion, with coded language of male and female, of cleaving to one another and becoming one flesh in the sacrament of marriage. She quotes, “At the beginning, the Creator made them male and female…“ She seems to be making the argument that the souls of men and women are ontologically different; there is absolutely no basis for this in the scripture. Conveniently, her argument completely ignores Paul’s discussion of this in Galatians wherein he says, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer male nor female, for we are all one in Christ.” So then, cannot two males become one flesh? Two women?

Next, she turns to specific passages of scripture with which one could seriously take issue. She appears to use these to determine the Bible’s message to the Church about homosexuality, given the incomplete and isolated mentions of homosexuality, however, I think that one would find it difficult to argue that there is consistent opposition to homosexuality in the Bible, in any modern sense of the word.

In fact, I would argue that the modern concept of homosexuality is only in the Bible twice, both times it is presented positively: David and Jonathan’s relationship and Jesus and the Beloved Disciple’s relationship. Nowhere is there specific mandates about not participating in a loving, committed relationship with someone of the same genitalia.

It seems as though she picks and chooses the texts from the Hebrew Bible (Old Testament) that she thinks will justify her positions biblically. The first quoted proof-text comes from Sodom, in Genesis 19:1-11. Most Christians know the story. The townspeople wanted to rape Lot’s male visitors and eventually G-d destroyed the city. Aside from the fact that most Orthodox fail to even discuss the fact that Lot, the person G-d was willing to save, was all too willing to pimp/prostitute his underage daughters to an angry mob, who would have no doubt gang-raped them.

The church wants to use this story as justification for condemning homosexuality. Would it not be more appropriate to see this story in relation to power and not homosexuality? Nowhere does the text mention that G-d destroyed the city because two people, who love each other, are committed to one another in a sexual relationship. The story does not address a same-sex relationship, but rather it is about a group of people who want to force a sexual act on an unwilling participant. I wonder if the moral of the story we are supposed to take away is one that states that G-d will not tolerate the dehumanization of the minority (male visitors) by the majority (angry mob) rather than a condemnation of homosexuality?

She then moves to the Holiness Code in Leviticus. 18:22 – 20:13. The text says, “Do not lie with a man as one does with a woman.” The underlying importance of this “Holiness code” is the fact that the Hebrews were trying to separate themselves from the surrounding Canaanites. This is the time when they were “becoming” the chosen people of G-d. The surrounding cultures were very similar and many participated in homosexuality; it was an acceptable practice. It seems to me that the “chosen people of G-d” were simply trying to change their behavior as a way of looking different than everyone else. Aside from that, we must pay attention to the context and read the entire holiness code to make any sense of this passage.

Two passages earlier we are commanded not to have sex with a woman while she is menstruating. Both of these claims have the same force of holiness. In fact, men were supposed to wait seven days afterwards before having sex, mostly because the women were considered ritually unclean and not allowed in the camp during menstruation and seven days afterwards. I think it is difficult to choose one of these commandments to make Christians follow and not the other. The Church needs to either mandate both or neither one of them. Rather, should we not look at this passage as something that served its purpose for that time and it is no longer socially or theologically relevant to Orthodoxy? This is to say nothing of the parts of the holiness code like not eating shellfish or not cutting specific parts of your hair. How can we as Christians pick some of the holiness code and not the others? If you respond by saying that Peter had a revelation and changed the eating habits of the holiness code, please do not forget that Paul had a revelation that he explained to us as well, “there is no longer Jew nor Greek, no longer male nor female, for we are all one in Christ.”

In the New Testament, there are primarily three instances of Scripture that are used to justify the condemnation of homosexuality by the Church. The first consists of Paul’s letter to the Romans, chapter 1:26-27, wherein he discusses the “unnatural” and “shameful lusts” of the Romans. During the First Century, there was a practice that many participated in called pederasty. In Greek culture, it was an honorable and accepted practice that society valued very highly. Basically, it was a teaching mechanism used to educate boys—it included an erotic component wherein the men had sex with the boys. It included a specific etiquette and rules from which the participants could not deviate. Those who did deviate from the rules and etiquette were typically outcasts.

The Greek word Paul uses here to discuss those who have violated the rules is the same word used in other Greek texts for this type of man. He uses the same words in 1 Corinthians 6:9 and 1 Timothy 1:10  – arsenokoites (male prostitute) and malakoi (lack of Roman masculinity). Professor uses this word, but does not provide the appropriate historical context of the definition of the word. Paul could have used another, easier word but he chose this word. Could we not argue that this is the type of sex and “unnatural” relations about which Paul is talking? He is definitely not talking about two consenting adults in a committed relationship. Could we not see this request as an attempt to convince the Romans to stop violating the real rules of the game, and stop raping the children and stop resisting giving them the educative, spiritual element that they claimed pederasty provided–in a healthy, non-sexual way?

There is no doubt that Paul is aware of pederasty, particularly the stories in Homer’s The Iliad about Achilles and Patroclus.  The context of the passage, when understood in light of an uncommon word usage, indicates that Paul was referring to pederasty; this is seen in the fact that Paul spoke of “shameful lusts” and being given over to “unnatural” relations. I see the unnatural aspect to which Paul is referring (when seen in the context of the passage and interpreted in light of other extra-biblical sources that employ the same language) as the deviation that pederasty in particular fosters. In other words, Paul is not saying “stop having consenting-adult same-sex relations,” but rather he is saying “stop asserting your sexual dominance.” It seems to me that Paul was more concerned with the violations of the power differential than he was with the Greek’s cultural expression of same sex behavior.

I am not arguing that the Bible or the Apostle Paul is in favor or would ever support our understanding of homosexuality. I am simply saying that what we understand homosexuality to be is not in the Bible. Period! It has not been addressed substantively by the Church or the Bible. Therefore, should we not acknowledge that the Bible is unclear, at best, on what to make of same-sex behavior, particularly for a 21st century understanding of homosexuality? Would not doing so enable the Church to have a constructive dialogue with the LGBTQ community about their role and participation in our faith? This provides us with the perfect opportunity to see that with whom Christians have sexual relations does not dictate the path of or the destruction of our salvation, as it did not with David or Abraham.

What does seem to be a clear about the connection between the Bible and same sex behavior is that we should not see it as an abomination, but rather it presents a message about not exercising sexual power over others. To separate yourself from those that do, and be hospitable to the various peoples of G-d. I cannot help but find it ironic that this is exactly what Professor Phillips is doing. We try to exercise our heteronormative sexual power and authority over others, the exact thing that the Bible is clear about us not doing.

If Christianity does not change its approach to homosexuality, it risks becoming irrelevant just like the Pharisees. It is going to lose the opportunity to share the Gospel. I would like to see Gordon College participate in a constructive dialogue with the LGBTQ community rather than every conversation beginning with their non sequitur that participation in the faith is prohibited by those who are living in sin. If you claim to be a Christian in any form, you are in fact living in sin. Being a Christian is tantamount to being a sinner; the two are inseparable by definition.

 

Much of my explanation regarding the scriptures and how we should interpret them is taken directly from an article I wrote for the State of Formation.

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An Open Letter to President Lindsay of Gordon College

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The recent ruling from the Supreme Court pertaining to the Hobby Lobby challenge to specific forms of birth control has caused quite a stir. The ruling was intended to be narrow in scope; however, anyone with basic political science training knows that incrementalism would open the door to further challenges and religious exemptions.

Therefore, I am compelled to write this after President Lindsay of Gordon College, my alma mater, provided his support to a letter that was sent to President Obama. In this letter, President Lindsay asked, by way of religious exemption, to be excluded from the mandate that federal contractors not discriminate in hiring on the basis of sexual orientation. Are individuals, workers, or employees completely reduced to their sexual behavior, which as anyone knows is such a small portion of that person’s life.

I sent a message to President Lindsay through twitter and received no response. Moreover, in a seriously cowardly move, he was ‘unavailable for comment‘ when the Boston Globe reached out to him. There are some arguments that people espouse that need to have a response, whether or not anyone ever hears or understands that response.

President Lindsay paints a masterful picture of a simple request for religious liberty, the common good, and national unity as the justification for his exemption from treating people with basic dignity. I guess they forgot to address, in the letter, the religious liberty of those whom they have already decided they aren’t going to hire. As we all know, excluding a minority group from basic civic life because of their rather normal behavior is the pinpoint of a society’s common good and national unity. I hope you caught the sarcasm there.

President Lindsay’s support for this exemption is so disconcerting for our country and our political discourse that we should all be concerned, not just as alumni of Gordon College but as citizens of the United States. This is not a small and isolated incident. This ‘exemption’ has the potential for lasting consequences and the path dependency of civil rights in America. This ‘religious’ exemption is not innocuous. This letter is not about a College’s decision to adhere to its ‘sincerely held religious belief,‘ but rather a decision to contribute to the solidification of discrimination policy or the destruction of progress.

Allowing discrimination on the basis of ‘sincerely held religious belief’ is so dangerous to the public good. The ‘sincerely held religious belief’ is not based on fact but rather belief. This is exactly what the Hobby Lobby case determined. This entity can completely believe that a form of contraception is an abortifacient despite the fact that science says it is not. There is no end to what can be sincerely held. For instance, the discrimination of African-Americans in the Mormon Church is a good example.

I completely understand the nuances of the important legal concepts of ‘compelling interests’ and ‘least restrictive means’ that play a crucial role in this discussion. However, when each religious organization gets to choose which beliefs it sincerely holds and can exercise over those subject to their belief and actions, I think the State not only has a compelling interest but a moral, ethical, and constitutional responsibility to intervene for the true common good.

What is this sincerely held belief that Gordon’s President thought would further the public good? Hetronormative sexual behavior? Is Gordon going to regulate the sexual behavior of every other employee and potential hiree? How would one do that? I guess there could be questions on the hiring application: Do you masterbate? When you climax, where do you put your seed (Genesis 38:9)?

Along those lines, what is ‘appropriate’ sexual behavior that does not violate religious expression? This is to say nothing of who’s religious expression?

How about in 1 Corinthians 7:3-5 wherein Paul says that men control women’s bodies during sex and women control men’s bodies during sex or that neither can ‘deprive’ one another from sexual intercourse. Imagine the look on the face of the interviewee when asked this, “Have you asserted your biblically mandated sexual dominance over your partner?”

How about in Matthew 5:28 wherein the Gospel writer says that if men look after women with lustful intent that they have already committed adultery? Should Gordon College’s lustful college age men and women gouge out their eyes, as required by the next verse? In my experience, there would be many blind people at Gordon.

How about in 1 Timothy 1:10 wherein Paul completely equates lying with homosexuality? It is not sexual behavior but reiterates my point. Again, how about in 1 Corinthians 6:9-10 wherein Paul again compares homosexuality to greed and thievery and drunkards. Once more in Galatians 5:19-21 he makes similar comparisons with anger and envy and jealousy. See my article at the State of Formation wherein I discuss how Paul is not really condemning homosexuality in the way that people think.

Is Gordon College going to enforce these beliefs? Or are they going to pick and chose which ones are more in line with what they want? Those that are spiritually convenient or politically expedient? Those that mobilize donors? The answer to these questions leave me to believe that Gordon College’s decision to just regulate the sexual behavior of the LGTBQ community is a decision on a political matter, despite what they said. If it is not a political choice then it is simply bad systematic theology, which completely undermines their entire mission statement. I definitely expected more from them. I know for a fact that my exegesis professors taught me to be more intellectually honest than that.

We, as a society, have encountered a similar situation during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960s. Some business owners in the South maintained that they were able to refuse access to the services they provided. They argued that their private establishments were not subject to government intrusion or regulation. This approach allowed for a drastic and systematic discrimination and dehumanization of many African-Americans. They had legal precedent to do this in many of the states.

Congress purposefully and deliberately corrected this potential for discrimination. They justified their action by the Constitutional clause that enabled them to regulate commerce. Congress has the power and authority to force a small business owner to allow specific people to frequent their establishment. Congress, through the Affordable Healthcare Act (Obamacare) has the power and authority to make Gordon College treat people equally. Gordon College definitely receives federal dollars and is therefore under the power and authority of Congress.

The Supreme Court confirmed this regulation and approach to ending discrimination by unanimous decision. They outlined the law in the case of Heart of Atlanta Motel v. U.S.  This case, under the umbrella of the ‘Commerce Clause,’ established the promise of civil rights to potentially marginalized American citizens. The current law and U.S. policy force those to act more civilly when they inappropriately and unjustifiably use their prejudices to discriminate against others. This action is not a mechanism of government intrusion but rather an instrument of equality with regard to our citizenry. The civil rights of the LGBT community are at stake.

Imagine the Civil Rights Act getting passed if businesses in the south asked for a ‘religious exemption’ to not hire African-Americans? Imagine if those in the southern establishment had a Supreme Court decision to justify their discrimination on the basis of religious belief?

President Lindsay does not represent every person that goes through Gordon College. I believe, as do many of my peers from Gordon College, there is a path to salvation for those who are LGTBQ — just as there is for every other human being in the world. I am simply saying that what we understand homosexuality to be now is not in the Bible. It has not been addressed substantively by the Church or the Bible. Therefore, should we not acknowledge that the Bible is unclear, at best, on what to make of same-sex behavior, particularly for a 21st century understanding of homosexuality? Would not doing so enable the Church to have a constructive dialogue? This provides us with the perfect opportunity to see that with whom Christians have sexual relations does not dictate the path of or the destruction of our salvation. It most certainly does not say that Christians can legally discriminate against LGTBQ community in hiring.

What does seem to be a clear about the connection between the Bible and same sex behavior is that we should not see it as an abomination, but rather it presents a message about not exercising sexual power over others. To separate yourself from those that do, and be hospitable to the various peoples of G-d.

Without such action, one has to ask where the discrimination ends? Can we justify nearly everything and anything as religious expression? So, now bakers are not going to bake cakes for gay weddings? Photographers are going to decided not to take pictures at gay weddings? Christian schools are not going to hire gays? What about the many gays that currently work there? Are you going to have an inquisition or witch hunt to find them and fire them? How about a Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell policy? Are we able to frame our most disgusting and vile xenophobias as religious virtues and hope that the Court will find a First Amendment justification for our actions?

Thankfully, the State has successfully argued that it has a right to regulate religion and religious expression if it has a compelling interest in doing so, particularly when that expression is harmful to the civil rights of other citizens or if that expression is some action that the government would usually regulate (Employment Division v. Smith), like discrimination on the basis of intrinsic characteristics. Moreover, and most importantly, the Court has argued that the government is able to make a differentiation between the ‘belief’ of a religion and the ‘action’ of the religion.

President Lindsay and Gordon College are constitutionally protected in their belief that homosexuality is contrary to G-d and the Bible, however, exegetically weak and anachronistically ignorant it may be. However, they should not be permitted to act on that belief and take away the civil rights of the LGBT community in their hiring practices. The minority rights of the LGBT community must be protected if we are to exemplify, in society, the principles our Constitution and our Christian faith embodies. We cannot let the offensive and anti-Biblical religious views of some dictate.

 

——- Portions of this article appeared on this blog in 2012 and at http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/10/religion-gays-and-a-nice-little-b-and-b/

and at

http://www.stateofformation.org/2012/03/homosexuality-a-microcosmic-electronic-post-to-a-virtual-wittenberg-church-door/

 

Images are taken from Wikimedia Commons, a “media file repository making available public domain and freely-licensed educational media content.”

The images are of LGTB Flag by Sparrov and D Michael Lindsay.

Commencement

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Completing a dissertation in political science at West Virginia University is no easy task for an individual. It takes a significant amount of work, dedication, and, most importantly, collaboration with others. Therefore, I must recognize the help of many other individuals, whether they provided support that helped my work or encouragement of my commitment to it. Their contributions and support were instrumental in this undertaking and deserve mention. Even though the words pale in comparison, thank you for everything—as insignificant as it sounds.

I would like to mention a few specific individuals who made this original research and small contribution to knowledge possible. The first and foremost has to be Robert DiClerico, Ph.D., who chaired the committee for this dissertation. His passion for the Presidency, his socratic-method approach to teaching, and his legendary seminar on the American Presidency cultivated my interest in the president and engendered in me the desire to use my dissertation to learn more about this area of research. He is the quintessential professor: rigorous, engaging, and challenging as well as friendly and approachable. I will continuously strive to emulate him as a scholar, professor, and academician. His presence provided continual encouragement regarding my ability to undertake this and future scholarly endeavors. I am not able, in the space allotted, to say enough about how much I owe to Dr. DiClerico for his help with this project. He provided guidance, questions, and comments that enhanced this research and enabled me to think about the Presidency as would a serious scholar. Dr. DiClerico’s fastidious and meticulous approach to the use of language has, without doubt, made this a better and more readable piece of research. I am honored to have had him as the Chair of my dissertation. I am forever in his debt.

I would like to thank Richard Brisbin, Jr., Ph.D., for his incredible insight and comments about this project. His unmatched intellect and memory helped me tremendously during the construction of this dissertation, the writing of the actual project, and the editing of the final product. Moreover, he has challenged me to be a better scholar, researcher, and teacher throughout this entire process. The seriousness with which he approaches scholarship is noteworthy. Dr. Brisbin has contributed to the field of political science by publishing voluminously; I can only hope to follow, in some small way, his example of scholarship.

I would also like to thank Jason MacDonald, Ph.D., for all of the time and effort he put into helping me make this dissertation better. Dr. MacDonald provided me with many productive revision suggestions and comments about how to connect my infant ideas to a sound theory that was grounded in the extant research. His constructive criticism was instrumental in the final draft of this dissertation. Mostly, however, I would like to thank him for his insistence in ensuring that the statistical model and specification of my dissertation made sense and did not violate any assumptions or rules. Without his guidance, this dissertation would not have the statistical rigor that accompanies political science research. Moreover, I would like to thank Dr. MacDonald for his commitment to political science scholarship and his goal of making sure that all political science graduate students at West Virginia University understand how to contribute to the discipline in a professional manner.

I must also mention my appreciation for Jeff Worsham, Ph.D., who provided valuable comments, insights, and constructive criticism about this research. He was able to help guide my research into a more comprehensive and scholarly attempt. He helped me to conceptualize an initial idea, develop it empirically, and articulate it in a scholarly manner. He has continually challenged me to produce concise and articulate scholarly writing. His constant encouragement about “putting a brick in the wall of research” and “not building the entire wall” helped to alleviate many of the pressures that dissertation writing brings to graduate students. Moreover, Dr. Worsham, as the graduate director, was instrumental in my progress throughout the Ph.D. degree. Without his guidance and direction, it would have been easy to unnecessarily prolong my time in the program. For his help, I am truly grateful.

This original research could not have transpired without the work of other scholars who have come before me. Their work provides insight and inspiration. Moreover, their creativity and inquisitive approaches to the Presidency have engendered an abundant collection of research that, once understood, can lead to further studies that advance knowledge. Suffice it to say, I am forever grateful that I can stand upon their shoulders and contribute to the literature and research on the Presidency, however small that contribution may be. These scholars are numerous; I would, however, like to mention a few of the most prominent and most significant: Matthew Eshbaugh-Soha, Ph.D.; George C. Edwards, III, Ph.D.; Jeffrey Tulis, Ph.D.; Dan Wood, Ph.D.; Jeffrey Cohen, Ph.D.; Paul Light, Ph.D.; and Richard Neustadt, Ph.D.

I would also like to thank a few of the professors I have previously studied under during my educational pursuits. Their passion for teaching and research cultivated my interest in graduate school and scholarly endeavors. Their encouragement helped me along the way to develop my own path: Steven Hunt, Ph.D. (Gordon College); Norman Faramelli, Ph.D. (Boston University); Stanley Marrow, SJ, Ph.D. (Boston College); Gerald Pops, Ph.D. (West Virginia University); Jennifer Hevelone-Harper, Ph.D. (Gordon College); Carol Bohn, Ed.D. (Boston University); Roger Green, Ph.D. (Gordon College); Kevin Madigan, Ph.D. (Harvard Divinity); John Kilwein, Ph.D. (West Virginia University); François Bovon, Ph.D. (Harvard Divinity); Adrianne Williams, Ph.D. (West Virginia University); Paul Borgman, Ph.D. (Gordon College); Robert Duval, Ph.D. (West Virginia University); V. Rev. John Behr, D.Phil. (St.Vlad Seminary).

It is to my wife, Joni R. Magnusson, that I owe the most thanks for helping with the writing of this dissertation. She always provided the type of support I needed to keep me sane and focused. She is, without a doubt, the smartest, most beautiful, and most determined individual I have ever met. She is steady in the pursuit of her goals. I have never seen a person work harder than she does. Over the years, this attitude and perspective have motivated me to be the same way. I am forever grateful for her presence in my life. I never would have had the fortitude to undertake or complete such a thing as a Ph.D. had it not been for her encouragement. I am unable to count the number of times I returned home to tell her about my plan to leave school due to my inability to cope. It is because of her support that I never quit and continued onward in my pursuits. I must also mention how much I appreciate the fact that she edited many of my undergraduate and graduate papers as well as this dissertation. Her ability to help me clarify my scattered ideas and her consistent willingness to be patient with the subject matter, and my feeble attempt at explaining it, are nothing short of saintly. Moreover, I have to mention what a great wife she is and mother she will continue to become. From the first time I saw her, I have been and continue to be enamored of her. I hope that our daughter can become the strong woman her mother is. She makes me want to be a better man and person. My life is forever enriched by her presence in it. I love her so much, and I cannot wait to see what life has in store for us and our future.

I would like to thank my daughter Sophia Katherine, an incarnation of pure joy and happiness. Her smile is illuminating and life-changing. While writing this dissertation, I saw her develop from a newborn to a toddler. I will never forget the many nights she slept on my chest as I wrote and wrote. Her mere presence was motivating and inspiring. I am so proud of her. I thought that the day she was born was the most amazing day of my life; every day since then, however, has been more rewarding and fulfilling. Being Sophie’s dad is the most humbling, greatest privilege and honor I have ever experienced. I love her so much, and I look forward to the many more years we have ahead of us as a family.

I would also like to thank Joshua Woods, Ph.D., a friend, colleague, and mentor of sorts. Not only did he help with “simplifying” my dissertation research, which vastly improved my operationalization, he has also shown me, practically and candidly, what it means to be a scholar and producer of original knowledge. During our collaborative scholarly work, he helped me learn valuable research and writing skills that I will use for the rest of my career. Moreover, he has, on many occasions, mentioned his confidence in my ability to be a teacher and researcher at a university. This encouragement, coming from such an accomplished academician, makes me believe that I can accomplish my goals and undertake such lofty endeavors with great aplomb.

I would like to thank Cindy Drumm, the Director of the Student Support Services Center at West Virginia University where I worked while completing this degree, as well as the other staff, namely Vivian Lama, Vanessa Harrison, and Heather Van Gilder as well as Sherry Rose, Erica Bentley, Kylie Evans, and most importantly, the students of SSS. I am so appreciative of their encouragement and support for the pursuit of higher education. Without the flexibility allowed me in my work schedule, I would never have been able to finish this dissertation. Moreover, the encouragement and inspiration I received from so many first-generation and low-income students was humbling and nearly life-changing.

I would specifically like to thank the West Virginia State University for hiring me as an Assistant Professor of Political Science. It is an honor to have been selected for this opportunity; the greatest career in the world. The support and flexible schedule that accompanied this prestigious position enabled me to write this dissertation more successfully. Moreover, the privilege to teach and mentor students from the great state of West Virginia is an honor and the fulfillment of a lifelong goal. I am so grateful for the trust they bestowed upon me and for the confidence they have in me.

I cannot have an acknowledgements section without mentioning my fellow graduate students who were either dealing with the same challenges as I was or were about to enter into the comprehensive exam or dissertation writing phases of their studies. Thank you for always listening to my complaints and sharing in my successes. Having fellow graduate students around to take part in the process of complaining, bickering, and dissecting failures as well as the sharing of camaraderie, productive discussion, and profound insights was greatly cathartic.

I must also make mention of the many other persons who made this goal of mine possible. I am sorry that I am forgetting, in my post-dissertation writing and defense stupor, to mention you by name. Please know that I am grateful and appreciative of all your help.

Graduate School: To go, or not to go, is that the question?

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If you read the Chronicle of Higher Education, Slate Magazine, or the New York Times, you have come across a story about the decision of whether or not to go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. It is a topic of much concern within the academic community, particularly given the budget crises, the lack of available jobs, and the ethics surrounding whether or not to encourage our students to attend when the likelihood of a tenure track job is nearly improbable.

As a social scientist, I know the numbers regarding jobs, the statistical likelihood of being ‘successful’ on the job market. Please do not let what I am about to say fool you with regard to my understanding. I just came from the market. I NEVER want to go there again. However, I must also contribute an anecdote to this discussion, given my experience.

I was the first person in my family to attend college. In fact, no one had even graduated from high school. My community knew drugs, alcoholism, prison, and the common theme between them all, poverty. The opportunity to go to college kind of just happened. I never planned it, no one really ever talked to me about it. When I say opportunity, I mean opportunity. I have no idea how it happened. I had a 1.8 high school GPA, and no idea how to pay for it or what to study. Were it not for the Pell Grant …? I had no idea what I wanted to do with my life.

I was not a terribly bright student. I made average grades. I did work hard, however. I made all the mistakes and faced all of the challenges that first generation low-income students encounter. I managed to transfer to a better school, Gordon College, a small-liberal arts college on the North Shore of Boston (How my heart breaks for Boston and those injured right now). I graduated in 2004. I developed a desire to learn more, more about myself and about the world, and my place in it.

What an easy four words to write. However, it was not so easy. Being a first generation college student and a low-income student puts you in a unique category. Only 5% of those students in the low-income quartile brackets graduate from college. First-generation and low-income college students have higher drop-out rates, higher stress rates, and lower levels of traditional support. When you couple this with my 1.8 high school GPA, I had about a 3% chance of finishing college within six years of finishing high school.

I did attend graduate school at Boston University. If you want to know more about my academic life, click here. I decided to pursue a Ph.D. in Political Science. I graduated in a reasonable amount of time and secured a tenure track position at West Virginia State University, a Land Grant HBCU, which I love. I have great students. I publish. I contribute to the academic community. I guess it is easy for me to make this argument given that I found your version of ‘success’ rather quickly, but my point is still valid.

Obviously not everyone is going to find a tenure track job. The numbers do not lie. However, I think that the current discussion about whether to pursue a Ph.D. is one sided and inappropriate. Of course the tenured faculty at Tier 1 Research schools are correct about the fact that if you go to graduate school and pursue a Ph.D. you will fail, if you graduate. And, you will fail more miserably if you do not attend a Tier 1 research school. Do you know why they are correct? They are only defining ‘success’ as a Tenure Track job at their Tier 1 Research school.

These faculty are telling others not to even attempt to pursue this form of higher education. I am utterly flummoxed by this line of thinking in my community. Why are they doing this? At what point did we, as society, discourage people from trying to overcome the odds of a difficult problem? What about the fight? What about David and Goliath, Prometheus and Zeus, Sparta and Thermopylae, Martin Luther and the Catholic Church, the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendements and Southern stubbornness, Martin Luther King, Jr. and Jim Crow, Women and the World, Hilary Clinton and the World, Barack Obama and America’s racist history, and on and on we could go forever. Overcoming difficult odds is the Human story, the American dream and promise of a better world.

It seems to me that there is a propaganda machine at work. I know that William Pannapacker and Daniel Drezner, amongst others, think they are providing advice that will make it easier for those that would have ‘failed’ at becoming that which they seek. I would assume that they believe that they have an ethical responsibility to ‘warn’ people that pursuing a Ph.D. is dangerous, both financially and emotionally. These arguments have some merit. However, the arguments need serious clarifications.

I think that in their current form, they perpetuate elitism. The elite remain the elite. There is no opportunity for class change. There is no opportunity for intellectual diversity. If Ph.D. work is dangerous and not worth the risk, who will pursue it? Only those with nothing to lose? The elite have no risk in their pursuit of the Ph.D. The risk is for the poor, minorities, and downtrodden. Their articles suggest what is best for those thinking of pursing a Ph.D., only mentioning the negatives, only mentioning that a person will not be a tenure track professor. They never mention the enjoyment and the rewards of pursuing graduate work. They never mention overcoming.

Ph.D. students are some of the most intelligent, creative individuals. They spend hours every day trying to locate problems and then creating models that solve those problems. Why do we want fewer persons like this in the workforce? Why do we want to discourage such hard workers from producing solutions to complex problems? Why do we want fewer critical thinkers at the highest levels participating in any market?

Personally, what if I had listened to them? If I had not even tried to beat the odds of attending college? Seriously, who bets on 3%? Who takes that chance? No one! The odds of me graduating from college were abysmal. Should I have not tried graduate school either? Where is the spirit of rising to a challenge? Where is the fight? At what point do we let ‘odds’ determine what we pursue, what life we want, what type of society we want? The odds are always against us. There is always a reason not to do something, not to change your life or your neighbor’s life. The highest levels of education are an illuminating force. They can provide a person with opportunities that might not otherwise exist, particularly for the poorest of society. Education provides those persons with choices, and the ability to think through those choices; something that true poverty completely obliterates.

Pursing and completing a Ph.D. was the most difficult thing I have ever done. It was mind-grueling work. I worked 70 plus hours a week for about $10,000 a year. It challenges every aspect of your identity, personhood, and future life. You are immersed in a world that suffocates you with the notion that a tenure track research job is the only measure of success; it is the only reason to pursue such a level of higher education.

Nevertheless, it was one of the most rewarding things I have ever done. In a complex sisyphean manner, there is beauty and power in the work itself. The constructed ‘outcome’ is irrelevant. The work literally changes who you are and the way you think. It breaks you down to nothing and then rebuilds you in a completely different way. So, do not tell me that if those persons discouraged from pursuing a Ph.D. are smart, they will still be successful if they chose not to pursue the Ph.D. Some persons ‘become’ during the degree. Learning from the process makes you different. It gives a person skills, substantive critical and analytical thinking, and an ability to process multiple perspectives simultaneously, all the while understanding the nuances of an argument with which you disagree while simultaneously contemplating a solution to the posited extant problem.

Instead of simply presenting the myriad of negative aspects, would we not be better served to think of other careers for Ph.D.’s, other ways to contribute to society, rather than simply defining ‘success’ as a tenure track research job. For instance, 53% of political science Ph.Ds work for the federal government. There are other areas wherein Ph.Ds could contribute. Could they not better the workforce in advising, industry, and healthcare, et cetera? Could not the military be better with more Ph.Ds? Could not our high schools be better with more Ph.Ds? Could not our lawmakers, bankers, lawyers?

Are not those faculty members such as William Pannapacker and Daniel Drezner actually perpetuating the problem? Are not they actually the failures? They are facilitating the prepostrus notion that if a person does not get a tenure track position at a Tier 1 research school, that person has somehow failed to reach the ultimate goal. Have they not failed by constructing a pseudo-reality of ‘success’ and then criticizing the system that they actually created? Have they not failed for not embracing their responsibility to see the larger picture with regards to defining the successful outcome of a Ph.D.? A tenure track research job is not the only answer. What about defining ‘success’ as the completion of a Ph.D.? What you do afterwards is not the measure of ‘success’.