How Academic Celebrities Distort Learning

06 Aug

Or, how academia serves the wider purposes of government policy.

James Crossley has been arguing that academics, and especially biblical scholars, often serve the policies of western governments. He’s not alone in that opinion. This book looks like something everyone actually interested in the search for truth should read (though its focus is middle eastern studies, the parallels to much in biblical studies is self evident).

Nearly thirty years ago, as a first-year undergraduate, I was assigned to read Elie Kedourie’s essay, “The Chatham House Version.” It was an exacting refutation of an entire school of error, one that rested on a nihilistic philosophy of Western guilt, articulated by a self-anointed priesthood of expertise. It captivated me then, as it does even now. In the years that followed, I witnessed my own chosen field fall under the spell of the same idea, propagated (as befits America) by celebrity professors and their fans. Since that time, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst / Are full of passionate intensity.” But the spell is now diminished. Might it be broken?


Middle Eastern studies used to resemble a quaint guild, emphasizing proficiency. Now they more closely resemble a popular front, demanding conformity. Professional success depends, in large part, upon deference to certain icons and their defense. And so this is unavoidably the work of an intimate stranger, one who, these last twenty-eight years, has entered and exited the American arena many times, first as a student, and later as an occasional visiting professor and research fellow. Its insights have been sharpened by the experience of directing a major (foreign) academic center for Middle Eastern studies, and observing the American campus many times from a Washington window.

In the context of biblical studies, what phrase better describes the work of Ehrman and Avalos and other angry atheists than ‘a self-anointed priesthood of expertise’ whose ideas are propagated by ‘celebrity professors and their fans’?  And, be honest with yourself just for a moment, how very true is it that even in the field of Biblical Studies

Professional success depends, in large part, upon deference to certain icons and their defense.

Give the book a read.  It’s free and downloadable.  With thanks to Joel for the tip to this very intriguing essay.



2 responses to “How Academic Celebrities Distort Learning

  1. Erlend

    6 Aug 2011 at 12:00 pm

    Absolutely. It has even effected Classical Studies. The E.U. funded research that argued Rome didn’t really ‘fall’ and suffered barbarian invasion. Instead barbarian invasions were structured to appear like an ancient, cordial, experiment in multiculturalism and cross-European immigration- a thesis that was torn to shreds by Bryan Ward-Perkins’ ‘The Fall of Rome and the End of Civilization’, Oxford 2005.


  2. Jo an a Wail

    6 Aug 2011 at 12:59 pm

    Celebrity professors and fans, wait until you go to Univ. North Carolina-Charlotte one of the professors there and maybe a few more have fan clubs, yes fan clubs. Maybe a good idea as they have lost creditability among colleagues, so in the end what does one want, celebrity status with a fan club or disrespect and from colleagues and no integrity ? SJ has a fan club as well.