The Crevasse at the Center of Things

I recently conducted a “classroom observation” of a colleague. This involves taking a seat in the back row, with the students who are streaming Netflix and, perhaps, passing a flask, and then “observing” the fellow at the lectern for an hour or so. It’s not entirely clear what one is supposed to be on the lookout for, but my policy is to make sure that he doesn’t expose himself, tell off-color jokes, or forget to show up. Within those limits, I figure it’s his class.

I do try to follow the drift of the lecture, not so much because it is interesting as because an hour is a long time. In my recent observation, the professor had occasion to allude to the obscure and hypothetical process of abiogenesis, and to mention that this process “no longer operates.” This piqued my interest.

I should mention that no student visibly started at this arresting statement. The diligent ones scribbled away in their notebooks, just as they have since the second grade. The negligent ones displayed their usual negligence.

As a Christian, I am, of course, committed to some sort of “creationism.” I’m disinclined to dogmatism when it comes to the precise manner in which the creative act took place, or the precise circumstances in which the Creator delegates matters to secondary causes, so the implausibility of abiogenesis is not the lynchpin of my faith. At the same time, I do find it curious, and perhaps of theological significance, that abiogenesis appears no longer to occur, if it occurred in the first place.

Before commenters begin pelting me with lectures on proteins or peptides or whatever else the specialists see as relevant, let me confess that my knowledge of abiogenesis rests entirely on the Disney movie Fantasia, specifically the dramatic scenes that accompany Igor Stravinsky’s Rite of Spring. You know: primal ooze, bolt of lightning, slithering salamanders, and then mighty T Rex rears his head and roars. No doubt the science has moved on a bit since 1940, but that’s my idea of abiogenesis.

And with that idea in mind, it does seem very odd that the process should have stopped. If it were not odd, it would have to be because we have a good explanation why it stopped. But based in my colleague’s rather offhanded remark, I take it that we don’t. After all, if primal ooze in the past was more abundant, or of higher quality, it would be a simple matter to mention this fact. The same is true of prehistoric lightning.

So, what occurred to me as I sat in the back row making my classroom observation was that my colleague had rather nonchalantly stepped across an intellectual crevasse that was, perhaps, only three feet wide, but which was at the same time about one thousand miles deep. And the diligent students scribbled away while the negligent students were negligent.

This unimportant incident points to a fundamental problem with the modern university. It’s not the football team, although that is a problem. It’s not the binge drinking, although that is a problem, too. It’s not even the fraternities. It’s the fact that there is no sun at the center of the universe. It’s the fact that what lies at the center is a crevasse. This crevasse may be only three feet wide, but it is a thousand miles deep, and all that professors do is nonchalantly step across it, while the diligent students scribble and the negligent students neglect.

Obviously I believe that the sun at the center of a university should be a true theology, since I believe that theology is the queen of all sciences, and that it is in relation to theology that all other sciences take their proper place and significance. But that’s not the point I wish to make here. I will concede the possibility of a university built around a stern and manly atheology. What I deny is the possibility of a university built around a crevasse.


6 thoughts on “The Crevasse at the Center of Things

  1. Pingback: The Crevasse at the Center of Things | Neoreactive

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  3. One way of thinking about the goal of teaching is to get your students to make mistakes which are less stupid and to believe lies closer to the truth. My guess is that the guy meant that abiogenesis had stopped in roughly the way plate tectonics has stopped. That is, it has not stopped at all but continues and also that it does not operate and never did.

    Of course I agree with the larger point. We lie to tell the truth all the time. We sweep annoying side issues under the rug all the time. Our job is not possible without these shortcuts. Fundamental issues, though, can’t be dealt with this way.

  4. I’m an extraordinary – as opposed to an ordinary, that is to say a regular, or tenure-tracked, or tenured – full-time faculty member. The Germans would recognize me as an Extra-Ordinarius, a more or less misbegotten type that one encounters in the tales of E.T.A. Hoffman. While I earn less in salary than the regular professors, I’m mercifully excused from errands such as “advising” students or auditing the lectures of newly hired assistant professors to see whether they use non-politically-correct language or “flash” the audience. If only... Nevertheless, I overhear their lectures, and those of their senior colleagues, all the time through open classroom doors, whether I want to apprehend them or not. Now perhaps students say the same thing about my lectures, but I must say about most of the lectures that I overhear through those open doors whether I want to hear them or not, that, if I were today a student in any of those classes, I’d either shoot myself before morning or drop out and invest my soul in something remunerative. A friendly colleague who is an actual member of the CP USA recently said much the same to me, sympathetically. I’m sorely tempted to put all of this in my pipe and smoke it, but I gave up smoking that kind of stuff, and gave up my pipe, on my first day of graduate studies thirty-one years ago.

    When I was an undergraduate the first time around and grew nauseated from the droning or content-less or lying lectures,* I dropped out and tried to invest my soul in something remunerative. It was a total failure, practically speaking, but in hindsight I’ve learned to see the logic of it.

    I suspect that many academics are the products of something other than the normal biological processes. See Jack Finney’s Body Snatchers or H. P. Lovecraft’s Shadow over Innsmouth, two remarkable works of fiction that address fundamental issues.

    *In my freshman year, the professor of my Anthropology 101 course was a radically leftwing person of Arabic origin whose first name was – God help me – Fatwa.

  5. Pingback: This Week in Reaction (2016/01/31) – The Reactivity Place

  6. In here late, but you’ve nailed the problem with academia: even a moderately bright man feels like he’s pointlessly adrift in a lifeboat full of strangers. That and great souled people just don’t thrive there anymore. I’m a classicist by training and honestly the last person who had anything weighty to say about the Greeks and Romans was Nietzsche. I couldn’t help but think my colleagues chiefly existed to depress and discourage me, limp wristed weasels as they were. That and to demonstrate the irony that only the most prosaic of people ever teach and study poetry. It’s just sad.


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