Monday, February 22, 2010

God on the Quad? Religion at America's Universities

I usually do not like to take on the topic of religion in everyday conversation. As a religious person, this is not because that I am not open to other people's ideas or that I can't defend my convictions. It is because I really do respect individuals who disagree with me and find that I am just not given that same respect for my views. With that disclaimer, I am going to try to write about that very topic, a topic which Fordham and many other establishments across America struggle with each and every day: the role of religion in the secular world.

Newsweek's religion editor, Lisa Miller, recently wrote an article called “Harvard’s Crisis of Faith: Can a secular university embrace religion without sacrificing its soul?” There are many, many other books that also take on this sensitive issue. I've read a lot of them because the subject interests me and I find that none that I have read have reached any practical conclusions. There are so many different factors to analyze- religion at campuses in the social, academic and economic contexts- but here I would like to focus on non-religious students and faculty members who choose to attend and teach at religious institutions. I find their stories to be extremely interesting and largely untold.

There are hundreds of universities and colleges in America. Why would a non-religious person choose to attend a university sponsored by an establishment they reject or disagree with? When religion does come up at Fordham with other students or with faculty members and I can't ignore it, I find myself naturally asking these people what attracted them to a Catholic institution. Their answers seem to reveal that religious colleges are attractive for many other reasons besides their faith offerings:

Beliefs That Aren't Religious: I naturally associate the faith of the University with it (Catholic-> Fordham) but I find that non-religious individuals instead tend to associate the teaching beliefs of the University with it (Jesuit -> Fordham). Theoretically, Jesuit and Catholic is one and the same- the Jesuits are Catholic priests. But the Jesuit ideals of a well-rounded, liberal arts core, a belief in critical thinking and reflective speculation and the idea of committing yourself to larger movements ("men and women for others") are ideas that are congruent with contexts other than religious ones.

Religion as an Academic Subject not a Lifestyle: Obviously, faith goes back thousands of years. Religious doctrine- and the physical texts, art and architecture associated with it- is world history. It is a part of our humanity that is simply impossible to ignore and the cause of conflicts that still perpetuate in the modern era. Studying religion as an historical discipline, like one would study science or math, instead of believing the tenets of the faith and it being part of one's lifestyle, seems to also be another reason for non-religious individuals to attend faith-affiliated colleges.

I think it is very beneficial for non-religious individuals to be present on religious campuses, that it is important for all ideas to be debated openly in an academic setting and that Jesuit universities in particular would be going against their fundamental tenets to not entertain these "opposing" non-religious ideals. I do get upset, however, when I am ridiculed by other students here for going to mass on Sunday, when I hear students complain endlessly about why birth control is not distributed freely all over campus and when when I give tours to prospective families and have eyes rolled at me by my tour when we go through the church (which I actually show for its sheer beauty and significant artifacts, not its religious relevance).

On the flip side, I am sure a lot of non-religious students here have had similar "reverse" upsetting experiences, getting ridiculed for not attending mass, feeling pressure to defend their personal rejection of faith and hating the ring of the church bells during Lent and Advent.

When it comes down to it, there are thousands of American colleges to attend. If you are not willing to accept some of the "unfortunate" social realities of attending a religious institution then you should simply go to the hundreds of non-religious ones. The same goes for religious students attending secular universities. However, I truly appreciate our diversity of opinions on faith here and hope Fordham's academic community can work together to build a community of respect for all faiths- a respect that is currently missing.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

My American Idol: Journalist David Brooks

Lately, a lot of people have been telling me that the best way to sculpt your ideal life is to find someone who is living it and copy them. My "someone" is and always will be journalist David Brooks.

David Brooks is an op-ed columnist for The New York Times, who has had a long, successful career in journalism. He has been a senior editor at The Weekly Standard, a contributing editor at Newsweek and the Atlantic Monthly, a commentator on "The Newshour with Jim Lehrer," and has held various positions at The Wall Street Journal. He also authored the books Bobos In Paradise: The New Upper Class and How They Got There and On Paradise Drive: How We Live Now (And Always Have) in the Future Tense, both excellent accounts of how economic circumstances influence American social behaviors.

Appropriately timed (this is my blog post for the week of Valentine's Day) here are the reasons why I love David Brooks and want to be him:

1. His Writing: Some people just have a way with words. His down-to-earth, worldly voice is both journalistic and academic and his blunt, short sentences have a poetic rhythm that is not normally paired with the political and economic topics on which he writes. His ledes and conclusions leave you with chills, a skill only the best journalists can execute.

2. His Sound Judgment: In an age of "talking heads," I find David Brooks to be one of the most rational commentators of this generation. He is conservative, but frequently supports Obama and other democrats when he thinks they are acting logically, when they are well-prepared, did their research and are acting in the best interests of the American people. He is critical of everyone, regardless of their political affiliation, and holds everyone he analyzes to a higher standard, an expectation to which I think all Americans should hold their politicians and other civic leaders.

3. His Timely News Coverage with a Twist: News is very repetitive - the week of the State of the Union every newspaper, news channel, news Web site and news magazine will cover and comment on it until the story is dead. Brooks knows he has to cover timely news but he ALWAYS finds an angle that it can be looked at that none of the mediums have addressed. Today, for example, he takes the topics of unemployment and Obama's job creation plan, writes about the long term social effects of this unemployment and tight job market and comes to some conclusions you would never think of.

4. His Wide Spectrum of Wisdom: In my opinion, all journalists need to be Leonardo da Vinci-esque renaissance men (and women): they need to possess an unquenchable curiosity about every single tenant of life. Brooks clearly is well-versed in politics and economics, but in his columns he also explores psychology, athletics, food, higher education, urban life, business, science, culture, language and anything else you can think of. He does his research well.

On Tuesdays and Fridays I immediately turn the Times to the last page of the front section to read his columns. I can only hope one day someone will do the same for my writing.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Paula Scher

After two long years of core curriculum classes and nearly another two years of courses for my major and minor, I’ve finally managed to squeeze an elective into my schedule. This semester I began studying graphic design, which is something I’ve always been interested in, but never studied formally. Touches of graphic design are everywhere, and if you look closely enough, you’ll start becoming aware of them. A lot of design principles seem abstract, but they make a lot of sense when applied to everyday use.

My professor showed me this video of Paula Scher, who is an extremely successful graphic designer. She’s done a lot of work in New York City, particularly with a certain landmark that most Fordham students should be familiar with. Check it out!

Wednesday, February 10, 2010

"You came to Ireland... to do American Studies?"

I wish I had been keeping track of how many times I have been asked this in the past month (because it’s a lot.)But it’s true- I am taking a semester abroad at the Clinton Institute for American Studies in Dublin, Ireland. Within the Institute, students and professors see it as completely logical and beneficial to look at the United States from an outside perspective; to others, it makes slightly less sense. Being asked this question so often (becauseeveryone asks what you’re studying, and this is the natural follow-up) has made me constantly reevaluate my own presence here, which, thus far, has been great and also eye-opening in several ways.

Two of us from Fordham are participating in this semester abroad program. Alex and I are the only undergraduates in most of our classes, and two of very few Americans. The graduate and doctoral students are studying American Studies or Media and International Conflict. Our classes are: Visualizing Americanization, Journalism: Reporting Conflict, Public Diplomacy and Soft Power, Ireland and the US, and America in the 21stCentury. In addition to our weekly classes, we have been invited to participate in the many academic and social events the Institute hosts.

On Thursday, January 21st, Hillary Clinton gave a major policy speech on Internet freedom. The Clinton Institute and the US Embassy hosted an event where we watched the speech streamed on the Internet, then participated in the online discussion by submitting questions. In her speech, she highlighted the role communication networks can play in emergency response (using Haiti as the most clear and recent example.) She stated that the US stands for “a single Internet” and that the Internet can serve as a “great equalizer.” She spoke about an American responsibility to help ensure its ability to fulfill that role worldwide. The Internet is spoken about as a space, and so the freedom to assemble can be applied as a freedom for all individuals to connect in cyberspace.

The overall response seemed to be that it was a well-delivered, well-intentioned, if somewhat vague speech. One question, asked by my classmates, that remains in my mind is that of why the US feels it is our responsibility to provide these freedoms worldwide. Is it because we feel we have ownership of the Internet, or is this attitude a vestige of the American exceptionalism that created the “city on the hill” mentality?

On Wednesday, January 27th, we were invited with our classmates to the US Embassy in Dublin for a panel discussion on Obama’s first year, modeled after a similar panel they held last year around his inauguration. The journalists and authors on the panel (Niall Stanage, Scott Lucas, and Margaret Ward, chaired by Ryan Tubridy), discussed particular issues among themselves and then took questions from the audience about Obama’s first year as President.

The panel came soon after Scott Brown’s victory in Massachusetts, which contributed to feelings that promises such as healthcare reform had not been fulfilled (at least yet.) The panelists agreed that the messianic language many used for Obama at the beginning of his presidency, while it energized his supporters, set him up for some level of disappointment from the start (in other words, he could still provide healthcare and jobs and education reform, but even for Obama, such things take time.) While the Democrats lost the supermajority, one panelist pointed out, they still have a greater majority than the Bush administration ever did. They also discussed the possibility of a Palin candidacy in 2012 and whether Guantanamo will actually close. In closing, they seemed hopeful that his future years will show better results for his hard work, and as Lucas said, that the everyday of hope could overtake a culture of fear.

The Irish people I have met so far, even in purely social situations, are quick to ask my opinions about political figures and events once they find out I am American (as soon as I speak, of course), and this has led me into several interesting conversations. I have, of course, become much more aware of how my American identity sets me apart now that I am outside of the States. While I knew that people abroad would be aware of things like the American presidential election, at times I am still surprised by the depth of knowledge they have of the American political scene.

I couldn’t help but wonder if people at home were as interested in Clinton’s speech as some people here were. I wasn’t sure if I myself would have watched the entire thing were I at home and I felt, for not the first time since arriving, a little less aware of current events on a global level than I would like to be. People here frequently ask about things like September 11th and the 2008 election, and my individual memories of those events, but they nearly always know more about the events than I would when talking about Irish history. As American students in an Irish classroom we are sometimes, but rarely, asked in class to describe how something is in America. Since much of our subject matter is on the States and on the role of the states globally, this is an incredibly new and interesting dynamic. It is so interesting to exchange our understandings of the US with our classmates and I am constantly impressed, if not a little intimidated, by how much my classmates and others I meet already know about the States.

In addition to these academic events, I have already been able to explore the city of Dublin and a few other counties in Ireland. My classmates have been quick to recommend places to visit and I am so excited for the rest of my time here. I have already been able to see Galway and the Aran Islands, hear traditional Irish music in an annual festival (and some not-so-traditional… Jay-Z and Journey are still nightly staples in a surprising number of pubs), and see my first rugby and hurling games before watching the Superbowl with UCD’s American Football Club. It is an exciting time to say the least.

I will update periodically about my experiences of American Studies abroad throughout the semester. In the meantime, I will continue working on my answer to what brought me here in the first place!

Monday, February 8, 2010

Preserving American Journalism

On Friday, I attended an event co-sponsored by Fordham's Donald McGannon Communication Research Center and the Bernard L. Schwartz Center for Media, Public Policy and Education.

At the event, authors John Nichols and Robert McChesney spoke about their recently published book The Death and Life of American Journalism: The Media Revolution that will Begin the World Again.

Nichols spoke first about the current degeneration of the media, using mind-boggling statistics to emphasize that “journalism is in a dark place.” Here is a sample of those stats: over 1,000 journalists get laid off each month, newspapers now contain 73 percent fewer stories than they did in 1990, 85 percent of those stories are based off of press releases and there are now four PR people for every one journalist in the country.

McChesney then spoke about the solutions to this crisis he and Nichols have come up with that they outline in their book. Their main solution is for journalism to return to its original operating mode- as a subsidy
of the federal government, the way it operated until the late 1800s. He explained that journalism must be looked at as a public good, an economic term for things that are mandatory and crucial for society that cannot be supported by the market. For over 100 years, advertising allowed journalism to function in the market as a commercially viable industry but because of the current economic landscape, they think it must return under the umbrella of the government and be publicly funded.

From their research, the authors learned that many other democratic countries presently use this model of press subsidies, in which the government channels funding to newspapers but does not control any editorial or coverage decisions.

McChesney and Nichols also support the formation of an AmeriCorps for young journalists, a program that would give interested media students a way to enter the field and learn by working in the industry hands-on in areas that have lost newspapers and are desperate for community coverage.

I have my reservations about their subsidy solution for censorship and editorial independence issues, but love the idea of an AmeriCorps for media students. I can't wait to read the book to see if they sell me on the federal subsidy idea.

In the context of American Studies, both authors often diverted from describing the crisis and solutions to it to discuss the important role journalism plays in an effective democracy. They described how even though the founding fathers all hated the journalists of the era (debunking Jefferson's famous quote about him choosing newspapers over government) they truly believed it was crucial that a diverse, challenging, skeptical and dissenting body exist to keep American society in order. I obviously agree and hope that other media scholars build on the research of these authors to find a viable solution to the financial and content issues newspapers are facing.

Monday, February 1, 2010

Digital Democracy

Dr. Michael Wesch is a professor of anthropology at Kansas State University who specializes in digital ethnography. The YouTube videos he makes about his work have gained a lot of attention nationally and really make you think about how much new media is changing the way colleges, corporations, America and the world operates. Below I have embedded two of the videos I found the most interesting. The first focuses on how we must rethink the ways we communicate and exchange information, how the digital world (through blogging and sites like Wikipedia) are intrinsically more democratic than the physical world we live in. The second challenges all the typical assumptions people have about information- mainly that it is constrained by its material, physical embodiment. I found both to be very eye-opening and think they speak to the changes American culture is currently going through.