Monday, February 24, 2014

The ambivalent academic, round 2,671

I can never get enough of these "what's wrong with the academic profession and what should we do about it" discussions, for pretty obvious reasons (I'm a PhD, doing "other stuff" besides teaching at a university). When Nicholas Kristof's column lamenting the lack of public intellectuals came out, I thought, God, he's right! Then came a flurry of both outraged and more nuanced rebuttals, like this one, and I thought, Those are all right, too! And so is Josh Marshall's new post!

Whether we stay in academia or leave, I can't help thinking a lot of us who went to grad school end up disillusioned in some way. I venture to suggest that we're a more idealistic lot than most, attracted by the prospect of a lifelong job creating and disseminating ideas--not products; not shareholder value; not, God help us, lies to induce others to buy products. We loved thinking, talking, writing, mentoring, discovering, sharing. And then, at some point, we realized that the profession involved lots of activities other than these, time-consuming efforts which even ran counter to our ideals. There was unfairness. There was infighting. There was insincere schmoozing and jockeying for position. There was pettiness and envy and full-on stupidity and grossness. Sure, such conditions existed elsewhere, but we joined this rarified world to get away from all that. When it showed up in our world, we felt particularly betrayed. Whatever decisions we made after the scales fell from our eyes, we were never the same again. Call us naive, or at least call me that. I was.

Still, one thing is different today: we have the Internet, and we're not afraid to use it--at least if we're not aiming for tenure. It's already changed the equation for people like Josh Marshall, and it will continue to do so. I find this very hopeful--those who enter grad school will do so less innocently, with a wider view, I hope, of their eventual options.

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