Mental block

Professorial infallibility and other modern fairy tales

-Phil Burcham-

With a new academic year at hand, some younger AP readers may shortly begin such years fondly and find that the skills universities cultivate are useful for a lifetime, any students called by God to serious study surely pursue a worthy goal.

Yet since the secularism in Australian universities is now quite suffocating, initial encounters can overwhelm young Christians. Stepping out from the safety of church school or family home, they can encounter unfortunate lecturers who seemingly gain pleasure from assailing their faith. Since lecturers possess obvious competence within their field of expertise, a student can easily imagine they speak authoritatively in other areas too: if they say Christianity is untenable, many listen.

As a veteran of over three decades in universities I am sceptical of an unspoken belief underlying such encounters – let’s call it “the doctrine of professorial infallibility”. Deeply embedded in modern societies, this outlook simply assumes that the secular worldview prevailing in today’s academic world is superior to one that is informed by Scripture or Christian beliefs.

There are many problems with this view, but one seems undeniable: if I have learnt anything from my lengthy involvement in higher education, it is that academics aren’t necessarily the paragons of wise rationality they project to students. To help make this point, I’ll tell a brief story.

My first lecturing job was in a Medical School which, despite its revered status, contained a striking architectural oddity. The building comprised two wings, both six storeys tall and some 25 metres apart. Each level housed a different biomedical discipline, and in the interest of scientific collaboration five elevated walkways linked each floor.

Strangely however, the walkway linking my discipline of pharmacology to the adjacent microbiologists was nonfunctional: no door was built in its southern end so it ended abruptly with a brick wall. This peculiar structure evoked considerable mirth; my students dubbed it “the Walkway to Nowhere.”

Wondering why this costly but useless structure was erected, I sought the truth from senior colleagues. They suggested the Professor of Microbiology at the time of construction was an opinionated chap who considered his discipline the sole legitimate field of human knowledge. Judging pharmacology a worthless pseudoscience, he banned construction of a doorway.

For decades the worthless structure stood in mute but eloquent testimony to the singular obstinacy of one highly educated individual.

Scientifically, this situation was perverse: the problem of bacterial resistance is relentlessly making antibiotics ineffective, and pharmacologists and microbiologists must cooperate to ensure remaining medicines are used wisely. Just one person’s folly thwarted such pressing needs.

Unfortunately, this episode was not an isolated occurrence: scarcely a week passes in academia that doesn’t provide lesser displays of hubristic silliness.

On a deeper level, the door-less walkway signified prickly realities concerning human nature that modern secularism seems shy to admit and powerless to contain. Although academics spill gallons of ink in lofty advocacy of Enlightenment rationalism, interdisciplinary cooperation and the disinterested pursuit of scientific truth, time spent in a university reveals that foolish pride and the perennial realities of human nature frequently undermine the ability to live up to such ideals.

In taking the biblical witness to human fallenness seriously, authentic Christianity begins where we actually are. Few thinkers have diagnosed the pride underlying our spiritual predicament more clearly than Calvin, who in his Institutes sadly notes that “the very vices that infest us we take pains to hide from others, while we flatter ourselves with the pretence that they are slight and insignificant.” Meanwhile, “if there are any faults in others… we hatefully exaggerate them.” Hence, “each one of us… wishes to tower above the rest.” To readers who are beginning university studies soon, here’s a good tip to keep in mind: if humanity could overcome its “pride problem” unassisted, Christ could have saved Himself much trouble and stayed in heaven.

Phil Burcham is a Professor in the Dept of Medicine and Pharmacology at the University of WA and PCA elder.

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