Reality check: knowledge is cheap

by rightscholarship

Last week, while I was perusing the higher education sphere of the Internet, two related high-profile stories caught my attention and left a lingering feeling of sadness.

The first sad story I came across was the release of the Modern Language Association’s Job Information List. The JIL contains most of the year’s job ads for faculty positions in English. As many anxious PhD students on Twitter were quick to point out, the current paucity of jobs is appalling. Tenure-track jobs still exist, but only enough for a small fraction of the future and current English PhD-holders on the market.

The situation is disheartening for all involved. Hiring committees will face avalanches of applications, faculty members will write countless letters of reference for doomed applications, and failed job-seekers will soon awake to a non-academic working world in which a PhD is often seen as worthless at best.

What are the alternatives to academic work for those with PhDs? I’ve heard some people toying with the concept of the “public intellectual,” as if that’s a serious option. The world of the public intellectual is far harder to break into than the world of academia. Maybe one or two of the thousands upon thousands of unemployed or underemployed PhDs will become the next John Ralston Saul or Slavoj Zizek. It takes persistence, charisma, connections, a deep understanding of what sells, and an unwavering confidence in the profundity of one’s every utterance. For most, “public intellectual” will mean “unpaid blogger.”

Some will blame the university system. There are certainly changes that could and should be made, but ultimately universities are at the mercy of the political and economic regimes in which they are situated. They need to survive as institutions, and they can’t print money to pay for new tenure-track hires. I feel that scholars should be equally business-minded: if the university has nothing serious to offer, politely pack up the contents of your office cubicle and leave.

If you really want to live an intellectual life, you will find a way to pursue your research. Many professors shoulder heavy teaching responsibilities and find it difficult to attend to their own research. If you can find a new career that will pay the bills, you can devote free time to research, and you may end up with more free time than the average professor. Best of all, you can study what you want to study, write what you want to write, and publish where you wish.

I am also increasingly convinced that the culture of academia can’t be changed from within. It can only be shaken out of its current state by the formation of a new and more vital intellectual culture outside the academy. In saying that, I should be clear that I am not advocating the further democratization of higher education, as this democratization is precisely what led to the current crisis. I do not mean to suggest that anyone should be kept from pursuing a university education, but only that perhaps it shouldn’t have been touted for so long as the key to happiness, prosperity and the betterment of society. However much we may instinctively wish to shower the blessings of critical theory upon each and every one of our brothers and sisters, we must also recognize that in the age of the degreed masses, knowledge is cheap. I don’t just mean that there are fewer good jobs to go around (even in our robust “knowledge economy”). This may be a hackneyed observation, but I mean that knowledge itself has become commoditized. It is generally no longer considered something to be pursued for its own sake, and is packaged and traded (see my earlier post regarding the looming threat of “knowledge mobilization“). Of course, some would try to persuade us that the trade in these knowledge-commodities is supposed to help us construct a better global society, but the end-result of this commoditization is still that knowledge and scholarship are debased.

The new JIL reflects the fact that while the commoditization of knowledge may benefit some, it has been a disaster for the humanities. It was once thought that humanities professors needed to descend from their ivory towers and become more engaged with society. However, by desperately seeking ‘relevance,’ humanities departments have made themselves glaringly irrelevant. This shift in status has become especially apparent in English studies over the last three or four decades. While championing the dismantlement of both ‘the canon’ and the disciplinary apparatuses of old, English departments embraced the interdisciplinary study of all realms of ‘culture.’ The aim was noble, but the result has been the creation of an intellectual free-for-all in which political fads rise and fall and fundamental principles remain unexamined. There are no signs of reform on the horizon, and it seems the pursuit of relevance will continue until the last English department vacates its office space.

The mania for relevance in academia is not new. Julien Benda famously chastised the clercs (or intellectuals) of his day (1920s France) for embracing politics and upholding biased, strategic versions of the truth. He felt that true intellectuals embrace knowledge for its own sake, and should remain at a distance from the rest of humanity. He writes:

“. . . the ‘clerk’ is only strong if he is clearly conscious of his essential qualities and his true function, and shows mankind that he is clearly conscious of them. In other words he declares to them that his kingdom is not of this world, that the grandeur of his teaching lies precisely in this absence of practical value, and that the right morality for the prosperity of the kingdoms which are of this world, is not his, but Caesar’s. When he takes up this position, the ‘clerk’ is crucified, but he is respected, and his words haunt the memory of mankind.” (153)

This sentiment seemed alien in the 1920s, but is even more out of place in our current intellectual landscape of TED Talks and knowledge brokers.

Leo Strauss, who shared some of Benda’s concerns, corrected him by pointing out that Benda’s clercs can be divided into two groups: intellectuals (a.k.a. gentlemen, sophists, rhetoricians) and philosophers (34). I would venture to say that most academics fall primarily within the “intellectual” category. They live off their intellectual work and depend upon the existence of the academy and a healthy job market. They are paid to conduct useful research, and to teach. Philosophers, by which I mean those who pursue knowledge for its own sake and never lose sight of the fundamental problems that have always confronted thinking humans, can function well outside the academy. If they find employment that does not interfere with their philosophic endeavours, they are happy.

The employment crisis in the university job market means that one can no longer be both an intellectual and a philosopher. To succeed, you must professionalize. You must network, blog, twitter, publish for the sake of publishing, and make all the right moves before you even begin your PhD. Your research must align with the key themes that granting agencies are looking for; above all, your research must be relevant. To lose professional focus, even for a brief period, could result in your banishment to the realm of the eternal adjunct.

This brings me to the second sad story I came across last week–one that deals with a more mundane form of crucifixion than that of which Benda speaks. The details of the story of Mary Margaret Vojtko, an adjunct faculty member at Duquesne University, can be found here. I don’t know all the facts, so I will refrain from blaming Duquesne or even the university system in the US and Canada, since this is an exceptional case, I hope. What I will say is that the death of Mary Margaret should make every contract instructor at least contemplate other employment options. Those who pursue such options might, after the dark night of the soul that leads into the bracing daylight of non-academic employment, find they can think clearly again.

Benda, Julien. 1928. The Betrayal of the Intellectuals (La Trahison des Clercs). Trans. Richard Aldington. Boston: The Beacon Press, 1955.

Strauss, Leo. 1953. Natural Right and History. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, n.d.