We are arrant knaves, all; believe none of us.
No one hates higher education more than I do.
Glenn Beck and Rush Limbaugh combined have fewer nasty things to say about the academic establishment, academic elitism, and academics.
Well, okay. Maybe that’s a stretch.
But I’ve existed in academia, as either/both a student and an administrative employee, for a total of about 10 years. If I go to graduate school and teach while I’m there, I’ll have been a student, a student worker, a high-access cog in the liberal arts funds development machine, and an instructor. I’ll have done nearly everything important there is to do at a major University: Learned, taught, suffered financial hardship, and gone begging for outrageous sums of money. All I’ll have to do is write a couple of books, and I’ll be dean of something.
And I hate this place.
Potentially, no one is more preened, primed, and perfect for a doctorate and a long, tenured career in academia–likely with administrative outcomes–than I am.
Potentially no one loves that idea more than I do.
Academics, as far as I’m concerned, are functionally retarded. And invaluable.
My sentiment is not unique. All but uniformly, academics despise their institutions, each other, and less admittedly, probably, themselves.
Whether from guilt & self-loathing or from the ironic reality that often only academic people are experientially well-equipped, articulate, and interested enough to talk about everything that’s wrong with the academy, a HUGE portion of credible criticism of academia comes from people who are either near-academic in their devotion to intellectualism or who are academics proper, by occupation.
That is, even criticisms of academic and intellectual elitism somehow manage to conform to academia’s and intellectualism’s stereotypically insular and elitist reputations. Generally, academia rejects any criticisms of itself that come from outside of academia, and certainly all that come from outside of the intelligentsia. They are rejected for being ignorant, ill-informed, naive, or hostile. In other words, Philistine.
That is, of course, unless academics are slumming, a pastime they’re prone to when new ideas (or more appropriately new twists on old ideas) are in short supply. This is when the academic elite descend from the tower to mine the Volk and their various plights for inspiration, gather it into notebooks, movements, and activist tomes, then haul it all back to the tower where they huddle over it, clucking and opining and publishing-to-stave-off-perishing, for the next 10-20 years.
Inevitably, though, only experts, the expert conclusion ends up being, are qualified to point out how very much is wrong with experts being the only ones allowed to point things out.
Because they are academics, they cannot help be aware of this unfortunate feedback loop, an awareness that is able to do nothing more than shove the cognitive train along on its circular track.
What can one even do with a group of people like that? Besides ignore them completely?
In my case, the answer appears to be, increasingly, “join them.”
It is becoming clearer and clearer to me that my usefulness to the world has very little to do with application. Though I’m practical, I almost never have a practical solution to anything more complicated than mundane daily organization and logistics. Or if I do have one, it is simply one among many, none of which I’m willing to marry.
But I have worked the 9-5 job. I have worked in government & politics. I have knocked doors and sold vacuums and attended staff meetings and generally made a good try of Doing, in both the private and public sectors.
Doing is not for me.
I don’t want to make decisions for people. I don’t want to get paid to spend my life facing and trying to convince others they must face ultimatums and false dichotomies. “Buy this or that.” “You’re either with us or against us.” “Deal or no deal?” I don’t want to touch or be touched or put my “hands-on” anything.
If I’m being honest, what I want is to think for people.
I’d settle for just being able to think.
Much lip service is paid to academia’s role in teaching people how to think as opposed to what to think, but this is only half the story. What one thinks is largely determined by how they go about it, and besides that, most college kids will forget how to think by their 2nd or 3rd year post-grad, provided real, non-scholarly life takes hold as one would expect.
But academic scholarship–especially, oddly enough, theoretical scholarship–has a way of worming its way into the public discourse, consciousness, and overall zeitgeist. It is sneaky. It happens via unassuming pop-science and human interest stories, self-help books, pedagogy, literary fads, and other realms in which the interests of the intelligentsia and the hoi polloi tend to cross paths, even if only superficially.
That is, after all, what academia’s mission is alleged to be: Not to declare truth, but to affect the world through production of knowledge in a pursuit of truth that has no terminus.
The answer to “what should we Do” is always changing; picking one seems like a goose chase, and when people are fearful to admit the answer is always changing, that there may be a goose chase on, they tend to make hard and fast examples of themselves–make bold displays of ideological entrenchment and in doing so, contribute (though Doingly!) to en mass creative & intellectual wasting.
So it’s not that I don’t care. I don’t like injustice or the demise of species or teen pregnancy or AIDS. They should go away. I am definitely in the “anti-bad shit-and-pro-good shit” camp.
But if you were to ask me what, precisely, it means to be in that camp or what kind of daily activities such a camp should be engaged in, I’d be reluctant to give a straight–or even consistent–answer. Because theory–the primary operating realm for many academics and committed intellectuals–is (or should be, theoretically) stubbornly resistant to final conclusions, ultimatums, and self-certainty. When it finds itself at a crossroads, it is liable to stand there, possibly indefinitely, contemplating and describing the crossroads from a glut of perspectives and declaring all the potential outcomes (or the impossibility of foreseeing all potential outcomes) of taking one road or another rather than actually taking one.
(And thus the native hue of resolution/Is sicklied o’er with pale cast of thought,/And enterprises of great pith and moment/with this regard their currents turn awry,/And lose the name of action.)
Some people find this behavior decadent and unhelpful, even sinister. The generation and dissemination of knowledge, including obligatory guidance (or lack thereof) about what to do with said knowledge, has important, high-stakes moral and political implications.
Marxism, especially, is notoriously hostile towards academics for this very reason. Academics, in their do-nothingness, are viewed as the unwitting and pathetic beige henchmen of the bourgeoisie. The general characterization is that they lack the resolve, courage, and gumption to either be the bad guys or to stand up to the bad guys in a substantive way. Their evil, it is figured, lies in their complicity and/or their complacency, neither of which is even a respectable, hands-on kind of evil.
This, indeed, has been the driving sentiment behind any number of academic persecutions (certainly not just among communists).
Like the extreme forms of government that act upon them, feelings of actionable resentment towards intellectuals and academics stem from ideological crises or desperation. In times of frightening ideological and/or perceived moral or ethical ambiguity, in times of upheaval, shift, change, or general uncertainty about the future, people want to know what’s to be done, what will help, and where sure footing lies. No one wants to hear that ambiguity or uncertainty or calamity is simply the nature of things–a nature for which there is no one cure, no guaranteed relief, no final, tidy answer. No one wants to respect a perspective that prefers to incessantly describe the problem.
If we’re to be generous and stop short of accusing the human race of cowardice, we can at least say this habit frustrates the hell out of people in the same way anyone would be frustrated, no matter the circumstances, if he/she said, “There must be something we can do!!!” and the answer returned was simply, “Maybe. Maybe not.”
But certainty almost always (eventually) leads to hubris–or worse, zealotry–and someone, some contingent, must be willing to speak up for the humbling, humanizing powers of moral ambiguity, ethical relativism, waffling, question marks, and self-doubt.
In recent decades, the cost of college attendance has risen astronomically, and it has done so inversely to the off-campus value of the education said attendance (maybe?) provides.
In recent years, the reasons for going to college were reduced to one cynical, however honest, reason: A B.A. won’t induce enlightenment, but if you can get a job, it will probably be better than the one you’d have had without the B.A.
Now even that–if employer sentiment is any indication–is sliding off the table.
Consider, please, as a relevant aside and if you have the time, this totally fascinating and utterly disturbing article from Malcolm Harris over at n+1: “Bad Education“.
It being the case that both liberals and conservatives–in their own idioms, as they are wont to do–seem increasingly dismissive of academic thinking (though neither is above seizing upon the “experts” it creates, as it suits political purposes), and even the final, very last, practical reason for attending college is losing favor among the people and the pundits (and of course, academics), the most radical, contrarian, and patriotic thing I can think to do is to join one of the oldest and most traditional institutional pillars of the democratic (or any enlightened) establishment.
Sometimes it’s just hip to be square.
Wherever people are running out, that’s where I want to run in. Unless it’s an actual burning building and not a metaphorical one. I’m a contrarian, not a hero.
People will tell me to suit myself (but imply it’s a stupid, masturbatory pursuit, “no offense”).
They will tell me to suit myself in the same way they tell me to suit myself when I declare that I won’t buy a Kindle.
“Suit your(tedious, sanctimonious)self.”
Finally, after hearing for the hundredth time that I am a know-it-all and a non-committal, snobby person who is totally oblivious to her surroundings & reality, including the plights of other human people, I heard it for what it was. I heard what the fates had been trying to grind into my absent mind for so many years. It was a calling. A dare to take (in)action.
“Fine,” I said to myself, I said, “If I am holy, then let the Ivory Tower be my convent. If acting superior is what I do, then let me do it. For money.”
In the wise words of some chick I saw on a YouTube video:
The greatest service anyone can do for the world is to do whatever they do best.