My friend Kate sent me a note the other day stating that my alma mater, the University of Pittsburgh, is shuttering its graduate program in Religious Studies. Any friend of mine knows that I have always had a tenuous relationship with my schools. Whether I was an activist or just a tired student, this environment always made my blood boil. And now it is starting again. I have 2 degrees and one of them is a Bachelor of arts in Religious Studies and History. At one point, I really wanted to become a professor in religious studies, but quickly realized three things: I was never going to really become proficient in second language; I just wasn’t very good at research; and to get a job you couldn’t just be smart, you had to be fucking amazing.
I always enjoyed that department. It was a small rag tag team of professors in a section of the Cathedral of Learning few stopped by to visit. It was less modern than the history department office, and the offices had a bit more of the lost library feel to them. The department wasn’t just interesting, because of its quirkiness, but everyone there was brilliant. Alexander Orbach is one of the smartest and most interesting people I have ever met. His lectures were even, insightful, and he never let us get away with bullshit. He is a true scholar and the type of intellectual that one recognized from books, not real life. That man was very honest with me about my GRE scores and how they would not get me into a graduate program. I really appreciate his honesty to this day.
Adam Shear is probably the last of his kind. I cannot imagine there will be many more young professors who are passionate about religious studies and equally passionate about teaching. That guy liked teaching and loved students. He once told me after I turned in a paper with grammatical errors, “Josh, this isn’t the Pitt News, I am not your editor. It’s a good argument, but bad writing. Never forget to edit.” That is true to this day. My first drafts continue to be shit.
This reminded me of a conversation I had with my friends Bruce and Jack at the end of the year. We talked about how STEMs are all the rage at the university now (and even our president is promoting that trend), and humanities are suffering an enrollment decline. My first question was, “what’s a STEM?”
STEM means science, technology, engineering, and mathematics and I kind of became one. After undergraduate I was never able to apply my enjoyment of the humanities like religious studies to anything other than armchair academia. Work became technology focused and I ended up getting a Master of Science in Public Policy in graduate school. The language of the literate was no longer French, but code. My career tools are excel and (basic) math, not libraries and research.
I enjoy being a computer nerd, and I really enjoy that you do not need to be a nerd to care about technology and its applications. I want kids to learn how to code at a young age, and I want people to make their apps, not buy them. Am I forsaking my love for the humanities and maybe my humanity along with it?
Maybe it is just my age. Is practicality winning out over passion? Maybe it was more practical for me to become really good with excel than it ever was for me to pour through versions of the Gospel of Mark in the oldest Koine I could find. The reality of it is, it doesn’t really matter how I feel about never fully embracing the humanities as a career choice.
What does matter is that the University of Pittsburgh will never produce another Doctor who is an expert in the field of religion. That is really sad to me. When I am 90 years old I want to say “See that expert. She’s the foremost scholar on the Eastern Orthodox political factions in the Middle East, and her and I went to the same department.” I won’t be able to say that about religious studies.
Are the STEMs taking over? Yes, and I am not ok with it. I want more STEMs, I really do, but not at the expense of our Humanities. No STEMs at the expense of the Humanities and no Humanities at the expense of the STEMs. The University of Pittsburgh needs to have a graduate program in Religious Studies. They claim it is about the money, but that argument is invalid when you have a $3 billion endowment.
The bosses cut the weakest, most unpopular department in the school. It’s the same way a bully picks the weakest and most unpopular kid in class. Bullshit austerity needs a fall guy and religious studies was it.