Theological education bubble VI: blowing bubbles overseas

Theological education overseas is a marvelous idea.  Basically it goes like this:  rather than send people overseas to do mission work, why not train the native leaders in local schools of theology and they will do the mission work in their own countries?  My experience is that these schools are expensive, rarely self-sustaining but in need of constant  stream of revenue from the West in order to survive.  Furthermore, the leadership is often compromised by the strings that control the foreign money.  But this is just the beginning of the woes.

The problem is even more profound in that the product of such schools is dubiously qualified to serve the church.   Why?  Because the focus is too often head knowledge and not issues of character.  Who is promoted in theological education, the most virtuous person or the most clever?

My own experience as an instructor is to try to teach people to be clever because I don’t know, especially in cross cultural context, how to teach virtue in a theological course.  Virtue must be caught, and it can rarely be taught.  So I can only really teach virtue by practicing it in front of others who are learning from me and with me.  But the classroom model is not adequate for this kind of learning.

I had the experience last year of a doctoral student explaining to me that he wouldn’t  return to Africa, despite signing a detailed contract agreeing to do so, and that he was just going to take a job here in the US which would then be his base of ministry.  Then he explained that his PhD had taught him to be an academic, a person that does high level theological research, and that he would not be able to carry out such elevated thinking and writing within the pressures of his African context.  This is symptomatic of the problem in academics generally, as Thomas Benton has written:

Also, remember that most grad students start out as dilettantes, thinking they’ll just hang out for a few years on a stipend. But eventually they become completely invested in the profession, unable to envision themselves doing anything else.

I told this man that his donors paid him to study at the PhD level so that he could go back to Africa and train leaders there, not so that he could teach undergraduates in America.  But to no avail, he would not give up the idea that it was ok for him to break his agreements.  We had trained someone who had no virtue but his cleverness had led him to think he could only be useful doing research like our funding had enabled him to do during his studies.  So the church in Africa has again been deprived of a great talent, and our North America scene has another developing world academic who probably won’t  return to work in his own context where such talent is actually needed.

But the problem does not begin at the level of doing the PhD in America.  It starts at a much earlier level.  Perhaps his own PhD supervisor was partially to blame; he wrote to me:

The ministry opportunities that are open to Michael [not his real name] in his home country would not enable him to use his gifts and training. Michael is a gifted scholar and writer; his dissertation is very well-done, indeed. He has spent many years working hard to polish his skills as a scholar. I would hate to see them “wasted.”

So there we have it:  a full time North America scholar at an evangelical seminary could not see how his doctoral student, with the training that he had received from him, could work in his own country given his skill set as a fine researcher and scholar.  Whatever occupation this man would find there working in his own church would be a waste. So says the man that supervised his very fine dissertation work, a very well-respected and well-known evangelical scholar who himself is the best product of Western theological education.  In my view, the only waste in this matter was the money spent training Michael at this particular supervisor’s school of theology!  Michael had learned to be clever, but he had not learned virtue: certainly not the virtue of keeping one’s word.

But I find that this is the problem with theological education in general.  I was promoted through the ranks and yet not for any particular virtues that I practice, whether goodness, generosity or gentleness, but because I was smart.  It has always been this way.  But shouldn’t theological education teach us to be people of our word.  What kind of God would we worship if He did not keep his promises?  Yet we are called to be imitators of God.  And to what suffering did our Lord Jesus Christ not submit?  Shouldn’t we be willing to suffer like Jesus Christ, who was obedient even unto death–and yet the only suffering we asked this African scholar to endure was to keep his word and return  and to use his training and skills to help the African church, because that is what his donors required of him before they gave him the scholarship to study in the US.

I wrote about the difficulty I had working in an evangelical setting because of the exploitation of desperate PhD labor.  In my opinion, theological education which is caught not taught is more profound than classroom training.  By mistreating adjunct labor, the theological school was actually teaching the students, without realizing it, that it was ok to be a bad employer and to exploit a glut in the PhD market.  First the theological schools create the glut by promoting too many people to the PhD level, then they exploit their labor by using them as part-time workers.  It is a vicious problem of exploitation, and yet this is what is modeled in many evangelical seminaries.

I have written that I question the efficacy of school as a model for theological education. But this model which is ineffective here in North America has been exported to the church overseas.  What can we do to resolve such issues?

Theological Education Bubble V: On the payment of adjuncts

Fourteen years ago, after finishing a PhD at Cambridge, I managed to land a part time job at a seminary as an adjunct instructor.  The pay was $2700 per course, and I taught a full-time equivalent load (6 courses) in the year that I was there.  The salary was thus about $16,200.  But as a first-year instructor, I had to work essentially full time, despite having no committees or other administrative responsibilities.  One of my students was making more working at MacDonalds, with benefits.

I left after realizing that the seminary had no plans to regularize my appointment.  I made known my complaints, which were actually more about working conditions than it was about pay.   Afterwards, I taught at an African seminary for eight years on short term mission trips for no pay at all–in fact, we paid out of our own pockets to make it happen.  It really was more about working conditions (no office, no email, no key to building, no parking spot, etc.)  and the lack of any real status or respect that there is for the poor guy who can’t manage to find full-time employment in a field with an extremely limited number of job prospects.  I’ve known other adjuncts who have felt exactly the same way.  And you can read about these people and their stories all over the internet and in such distinguished publications as the Chronicle of Higher Education.  But when you are going through the experience, you feel isolated and like you are going to go insane.

The former dean who hired me wrote to me in an e-mail the following comments:

You may feel that they have treated your poorly, but …  I, as former Dean … , certainly do not agree …. I was giving you an opportunity to teach in a graduate seminary. This was intended to open the door to you to find long-term employment in the area, eventually.

There are dozens and dozens of young and older men and a few women who have PhD’s in biblical and/or theological studies who would love to have had the opportunity that I gave you. You had an inside track because I knew you from [before]. The fact that you had a PhD from Cambridge was of marginal value in securing this opportunity. During my time at [as dean], six of your colleagues were willing to teach without any pay at all, and one of them continues to teach regularly without pay. And there were dozens of others who were in regular contact with me asking to teach who were willing to take whatever we had to offer, or even teach for free, whom I could not, or chose (for a variety of reasons) not to, invite.

You have every right to set whatever salary you would like for your gifts and skills, but each of these institutions has every right to offer you whatever it thinks it can afford to pay you. If you do not come to an agreement, then each will have to go its separate way. This is the way the world works economically (and this is also the way the church and the non-profit world, which has much more limited resources, works as well).

He very kindly warned me not to make such a protest when deciding to leave, because in doing so I would give myself a negative image in the Christian community.  He was undoubtedly correct.

I write because many people who might stumble across this post, even some whom I know, might be spared this agony.  The academy is a ruthless place for scholars–Thomas H. Benton compares graduate school to a cult.  If you don’t act just the right way, you become branded and since there are so many other candidates for any position you might be competing for, you may as well kiss your career good bye.

In this post and my previous posts, I describe the bubble in academics and theological education which is so bloated and out of control that it seems irresponsible for educators to continue down this destructive path.  And yet I think they will not heed these kinds warnings because every institution seeks to survive, and every employee to preserve his own position.  Education in general is a bubble:  students on average get little out of it, its costs are escalating out of proportion, and afterwards, graduates experience the pain of  inescapable debt with few job prospects.  The bubble is there but few employed in it can admit it, nor are they necessarily well positioned to determine how to address the problem.

Theological Education Bubble IV: Is a PhD a good investment?

Let’s consider the costs of doing a PhD:

(1) Tuition and living expenses:  My guess is this is going to be in the range of an average of about $55K per year for a family; 45K per year for a couple with one PhD student, and 35K for a single.


(2) Minimum of three years lost wages for British PhD; average of six years for North America.  The average salary is $40,000.

=$120,000-240,000 lost wages; but if the above numbers living expenses would have to paid for in any case, so let’s subtract 50% for living expenses and 25% for taxes = $30,000-60,000

(3) Interest costs on student loans.  Let’s say you need to borrow only $50K at 5% and payments start only after graduation.  This calculation counts only PhD debt and assumes that the Master’s level education is already covered.

The first monthly payment (interest only): = $200.  Let’s conservatively say that the cost of interest loan will be $8000 over the lifetime of the loan.

So now, let’s see where we are, adding up these expenses; realistically a PhD will cost between $140-370K.

Suppose you were about to do a PhD and you had that kind of money available to you.  So instead you invest it, and for argument’s sake you put it in an average TSX dividend stock that pays 4%.  You started your PhD in 2004 and you graduated in 2010: the TSX has gone from 8300 and 13400 = 60% gain.  So now those funds would be worth between $224,000 and $592,000, and they would have provided a modest investment income at 4% of between $5600 and 14,800 per annum.  So at the end of a six year PhD you start with a negative equity of $50,000 instead of positive equity of between $260,000 and $680,000.

Now some have likened getting an academic job to winning the lottery.  The fact is that for the most part, most jobs, except academic jobs, a PhD is superfluous.  Of my friends that did PhDs while I was at Cambridge, only 50% landed jobs in academics.  Those jobs on average pay less well than if these men of considerable talent had applied themselves to some other professional occupation such as law [update:  well maybe not], medicine or engineering, and I don’t know anyone I would call well-off working in academics that wasn’t already well-endowed with family wealth.

Suppose I come to you and say I have a great investment idea.  You put up $150,000 dollars and at the end of six years you will have $50,000 in debt, and at the end of ten more years, you will get your money back–oh, but wait, there’s another catch: you have a 50% chance of losing the initial investment permanently .  Doing PhD degree would seem to have a very bad risk to reward ratio.

“Ah!” you say, “But you haven’t dealt with the intangible (non-renumerative) benefits.” Ok there are benefits, I agree.  But there also other intangible risks.

Intangible Benefits:

(1) Bragging rights:  with a PhD you have a great accomplishment behind your name and the right to brag and lord it over others who don’t have one.  People might even call you “doctor”.

(2) You may learn how to do research at a highly specialized level and to solve problems, for you get to spend three to six years researching a subject about which you are passionate. Of course, you might be in a bubble without realizing it.

(3) You remain attached to the academic world the whole time you are studying, meet some interesting people, perhaps learn a foreign language.

(4) If you are lucky, your marriage will survive, your children will love you, and you will write several books that will make you a household name throughout the world. But of course you don’t need a PhD to do this.

(5) If you do land that elusive job in academics, your self-esteem and future career will now be determined by 18-22 year olds who fill out teaching evaluations (oh, wait, that should perhaps be in the category below).

Intangible Risks:

(1) You may have to deal with the bitterness of failure if you don’t complete your dissertation or if after completion it is not accepted.  I knew one lady who went into a 25 year cycle of depression after failing her Oxford dissertation (due to no fault of her own).

(2) You may feel isolated and detached from society during your years of focussed research on a subject about which few people know and fewer still care.

(3) You may have to deal with resentment towards the academic community for letting you spend so much of your life and financial resources for a degree that doesn’t land you a viable job.  While you are waiting on tables during your day job, that resentment manifests itself in poor tips from your customers.

(4) You may end up in adjunct hell, i.e.,  the work of teaching post-secondary education for less than minimum wage without the respect that comes from being a real professor.