The Success Mill

A pretty core aspect of my personality is that I like to know things. I read constantly, on as many disparate topics as I can, and I try to ensure I commit enough of this material to memory so as to be an utterly insufferable know-it-all when called upon. This habit of mine has been the subject of intense questioning throughout my life, starting with my siblings and school friends, and even continuing throughout my current occupation as a university student. ‘What is the point?’ was the refrain with which my reeling off of obscure nodules of knowledge was met, and so I thought I was being dead clever when I cooked up a batch of stock responses. There was, when having to justify my bookishness to relatives and acquaintances in the Islamic milieu of my youth, reference to the injunction to ‘Read!’ which forms the very first word of the Qu’ran revealed to the Prophet. Of course, I would conveniently ignore the open fact that the aforementioned command was a call to study the religious text of which it is a part; poor justification for the consumption of the nihilistic mid-century smut in which I spent my teenage tears indulging. For a more secular sort, I habitually wielded Bacon’s assertion that ‘knowledge is power’, despite it being painfully obvious that I’m too meek to covet any sort of serious power. Finally, I arrived at some sort of vague Platonism, arguing for the transcendent, abstract value of gnosis, but this sort of a thing has always been meagre food for hungry souls. Before arriving at university, I had an intellectual out; the objective toward which my intellectual formation then oriented itself was the vocation of a biomedical scientist, and so I could simply say I was hoovering up misshapen little particulates of knowledge in the hopes they may one day coalesce into a cure for dementia or CJD or some other such horrifying illness. This sort of reasoning very rarely brooked any opposition; when it comes to curing cancer, honi soit qui mal y pense. This remains my point of view – the work of people in many academic fields is ineffably important; STEM PhDs shall inherit the earth, etc. My choice to abandon that path robbed me of that formidable justification. I couldn’t go back to high-minded explanations of the intrinsic value of philosophy because, well, I had never actually believed them. They were shaky edifices built to hide a distasteful foundation; namely, that I pursued knowledge simply because it is something I enjoy doing. Why this is the case, I haven’t a clue – some people like fishing, some like astrology, others like being pegged, and I don’t feel any greater compulsion to explain why I enjoy reading books on the Hittite Empire or logical positivism or the invention of the lightbulb than I do to explain the origins of those other interests. Deep down, I always knew that it was all a very onanistic exercise, and not just my own study of it. I increasingly came to the view that most research in the humanities is, for lack of a better word, pointless, little altering the course of human affairs. This is a controversial dictum, and not one I shall attempt to justify (though a lot of my thinking follows the morbid, detrital contours of this excellent confessional piece by an anonymous ex-philosopher). You will either intuitively agree or disagree. If you, wholehearted in your academic vocation, feel that I am wrong, then I say masha’allah, and have no desire to dissuade you from what I hope will be a happy life.

In a series of articles for the Chronicle of Higher Education Thomas H. Benton outlined his earnest advice to undergraduates in the humanities, which was to not go to graduate school to pursue further studies in their subjects. Perhaps the most influential article in this multipartite body of work had the arresting headline ‘Is Graduate School a Cult?’, and went on to answer the titular question in the affirmative, by pointing out how well the life of a grad student is described by Steven Alan Hassan’s BITE model of cult behaviour. It’s an interesting read, arguing that graduate school inculcates a specific collection of character traits in those that squirm along its sordid pipeline in order to ensure they remain in the grinding and unremunerative world of academia. I felt that the most useful insight of the oeuvre was actually something not explicitly delineated despite repeated mentions; the psychological profile of those graduates who choose to enter this academic Gehenna in the first place. The study of the sorts of people who are vulnerable to cult indoctrination is a fertile field, and almost everyone recognises there are certain personalities and demographics more likely to fall into such a pit, varying accordingly to the wackily diverse ideologies of the cults themselves. In ‘Graduate School in the Humanities: Just Don’t Go’, Benton offers us some clues as to who in particular is drawn to academia – ‘idealistic, naïve and psychologically vulnerable people’ who need a career with ‘a clear, step-by-step process of advancement toward a goal, with measured outcomes, constant reinforcement and support, and clearly defined hierarchies’. They have to remain in academia because ‘They can’t find a position anywhere that uses the skills on which they most prided themselves in college. They are forced to learn about new things that don’t interest them nearly as much. No one is impressed by their knowledge of Jane Austen’. I don’t know about you, but I can think of a million different acquaintances this describes; not least of all, it’s a dead ringer for yours truly. It also forms, as an aside, a lot of what I observe to be the unacknowledged appeal of Call Me By Your Name, outside of the obviously seductive romance, for a lot of the people that I know; the prospect of existing in a dreamlike world where the sun always shines and where you’re loved and respected because you know the derivation of the word ‘apricot’. The reason that Benton thinks this is a problem is the engorged glut of humanities PhDs, and the dearth of cushty little academic positions upon which to plant them. A very large percentage of those who make it through graduate school will never reach the coveted status of a tenure-track position at an elite university, concomitant with some of the most enviable remuneration outside the corporate world and job security outside the Civil Service. Instead, most will spend decades as an adjunct at no-name universities and community colleges, earning an absolute pittance (often less than the legal minimum wage when all the unpaid hours of marking and lesson-planning are considered) on short-term contracts. This degeneration ever accelerates; there was a furore at Columbia University when it came out that not a single person who completed Columbia’s English PhD programme in 2017 (a year in which the programme was ranked joint 3rd in the US) managed to land a tenure-track position. An article on this dire happening took pride of place in a Chronicle of Higher Education review edition titled ‘Endgame’, the very first words of which set the tone: ‘The academic study of literature is no longer on the verge of field collapse. It’s in the midst of it’. A similar tale can be told of most fields in the humanities, though admittedly the rot is at a more advanced stage in departments which study literature. It is not at all uncommon to find American academics 10 years into their career making $18,000 as an adjunct with no job security, and the situation in the UK is similar. If you want to hear it from the horse’s mouth, the following extract from an article by John Warner should do the trick – ‘I was one of the tens or hundreds of thousands of contingent laborers whose work protected the privilege of the full members of the academy… I published two books in six years, taught up and down the curricular ladder, received outstanding performance reviews, and, had I been tenure track, easily would’ve been tenured. Instead, I was paid $25,000 per year to teach four classes per semester. People in positions like mine taught the vast majority of courses in the department.’ It is clear where these poor academics fall into the cult hierarchy; they are the benighted supplicants, and so it doesn’t take a genius to realise that the cult leaders are those tenured professors who occupy the upper strata of the academic world. Now, the cultural status of the cult leader is ambiguous – are they messianic believers in their own words, or are they cynical Svengalis knowingly misleading their flock for their own material gain? At a first glance, the latter may seem more likely in the Cult of Academia – after all, the academic system as we currently know it would be absolutely unsustainable without a constant mass of eager young post-docs willing to work for an absolute pittance, and so the professors need to keep the meat-grinder well-stocked if they are to continue in their rather cushy lifestyles (as an aside, I always thought that there was something pathological in the eagerness to paint cult leaders as simply exploitative misanthropes who don’t believe their own spiel. Arendt wrote that we are eager to prescribe an almost supernatural degree of malignancy to those who commit crimes against humanity in order to avoid the deeply troubling alternative that those people are in many ways psychologically normal; could it be that we wish to see cult leaders as self-interested and manipulative to avoid the uncomfortable idea that there are people who earnestly orient their lives around ideologies and spiritual ends that we ourselves find deeply morally repugnant? I’m just musing here). This is where I think the cult model becomes disanalagous with academia; a cult is usually founded by a leader in his lifetime and can therefore be crafted exactly to his greatest benefit; he himself is rarely subjected to the life of a regular adherent. In academia, the current crop of senior academics were not themselves responsible for creating the system which they benefit, and they themselves would have started off as a mere supplicant, with similar motivations to those that never make it to the top of the pyramid – the tenured academics themselves fit the same psychological profile as the adjuncts, they just pulled a lucky ticket in the tenure lottery (make no mistake, it absolutely was just luck. There are hundreds of applications for each tenured job opening at absolutely middle-of-the-road universities, at least in the field of philosophy, and decades of grade and recommendation inflation ensures that every single clamouring hopeful comes with a flawless academic record and six utterly effusive references. In this sort of a climate, selection doesn’t even come down to the time-honoured kissing of, because the members of a hiring committee can only receive so much adulation. Sure, you have better odds of getting a tenure-track position than winning the lottery, but they’re not *that* much better).

Whenever I tell people I go to university in London, the very first thing they comment upon is the infamous expense. The absolutely penurious state in which the living cost of London leaves many of its denizens is something we who live there are aware of, and probably the most standard small-talk between any two residents is synchronised complaining about just how expensive the city is, coupled of wistful tales of the affordable rents and pints across pretty much the rest of the country. However, we all still choose to live there, because there are huge benefits to the city – the excitement, the cosmopolitanism, the nightlife and so on and so forth. If it didn’t have something to offer us in recompense for all the money we fork over, we’d all move straight out to Newcastle or Bolton or Hull. This is, I think, a good analogy to those who choose to pursue a life in academia despite how awful the financial remuneration is; they do it because it offers an intangible reward. On my own assessment, the hidden benefit is this – academia has, amongst certain social strata, a cultural status as a noble pursuit which benefits the world, and therefore is attractive to those people who, as Benton argues, are psychologically inclined towards needing the status validation that the highly-structured and clearly defined hierarchy of academia offers. I want to expand on this point – the life of an academic is seen by the upper strata of western society as an inherently valuable position, and they are unquestionably part of the socio-cultural literati from which the ruling members of British society are drawn. An academic, however undistinguished, will always command a measured respect in middle-class British circles, despite the fact that many academics in the humanities are very poorly remunerated and, as I asserted earlier, do no actual work of value or consequence. A very good example of this is the eponymous character of Saul Bellow’s most famous novel, Herzog. Moses E. Herzog is a middle-aged academic whose second wife Madeline (a brilliant character, America’s answer to Sylvia Tietjens) has just left him for his best friend, whose son despises him, and whose life is punctuated by meaningless romances, unbelievably costly blunders and bursts of incredible neuroticism. He is an intellectual historian; his great academic work on the subject of ‘Christianity and Romanticism’, which he feels would have changed the course of world history had he been able to finish it, rots away on thousands of pages stacked in boxes under his bed. Herzog is unambiguously a loser, which he himself realises but puts down to his inability to write his hypothesised magnum opus. Bellow is a sympathetic annalist of the wastage of the seemingly-accomplished, and so it becomes clear through the novel that intellectual impotence isn’t the reason why Herzog is a loser; in fact, the reader recognises that our beleaguered protagonist is a loser in part precisely because he thinks that publishing his book would make him any less of one (I do want to say, however, that Herzog has very quickly become one of my favourite characters in all literature; Bellow casts an masterfully understanding eye over his aggrieved creation, and I am inimically drawn to the sort of hapless, neurotic, schmucky, but fundamentally good-hearted male leads of which he is a prime example. He also suffers from health anxiety, and any fellow hypochondriac can very rarely do wrong in my eyes). However, we observe all throughout the book that almost all of his acquaintances treat him with respect because of his choice to dedicate his life to academia, regardless of the obvious fact that this life has ended up in tatters. They look down in contempt at the more quotidian occupations of Moses’ brothers, and yet it is these brothers who constantly lend him the money upon which he lives. Why is this the case? Well, Moses occupies a social milieu which places inherent value upon intellectualism; namely, New York’s large Jewish diaspora. Contrast this with perhaps the opposite extreme: my own cultural upbringing. The stereotype of South Asian families valuing university education only if it awards a STEM degree is absolutely not without foundation, and if I were to become an academic, I’d be the laughing stock of the family; the man who choose to undergo 8+ years of university education only to be shuffled around short-contract post-doc positions earning a £22,000 stipend well into his thirties. My mother could not tell you what a degree in philosophy involves (that’s if she doesn’t accidentally say that I’m studying psychology, a mistake she still makes after nearly four years). This is my partial explanation of what is called ‘the leaky pipeline’, the phenomenon of undergraduate, graduate and post-doctoral cohorts in the humanities being progressively less ethnically diverse. The social clout which forms a significant part of the financial and extra-financial remuneration package of academia is a considerably less seductive prize to someone like me. When I talk about this honestly with friends who come from a background which sees inherent value in academia, they earnestly advise me to disregard any familial derision, which has always been deeply unsatisfactory. Firstly, the patrician tones with which any dissenting views on the value of academia are snubbed always rubbed me the wrong way; secondly, advising a wavering acolyte to simply brush aside any challenge to the received dogmas strikes me as somewhat, well, cult-y. Finally, it just operates on the assumption that one’s own value framework is so unassailable that there is no need to question it – to echo a phrase used by C.S. Lewis in only a slightly different context, is this ‘the greatest achievement of wishful thinking the world has yet seen?’

The term diploma mill is used in reference to businesses which claim to be higher education institutions, but in reality sell bogus qualifications for exorbitant fees; their customers purchasing academic credentials without academic talent. I think this provides us with a useful analogy; because to me humanities academia is a success mill, a path which can be taken by whose are terrified of the prospect of a real job and yet still want the status of someone who is contributing to the great project of human advancement. I don’t want to imply that these people aren’t intelligent; part of the problem is that they have more brainpower than they know what to do with. Academia is where the haplessly, impotently intelligent go to launder themselves a sheen of respectability despite being completely incurvatus in se.

Having written all this, though, what have I accomplished? I haven’t single-handedly turned off the lamp, and so moths will be drawn to it still. Academia remains an attractive prospect to those of the aforementioned psychological composition. It is possible, though, that I speak to the nagging little doubts harboured in the recesses of some academic minds, and might force them to accept the repressed consequences of their own thinking. Every other week, it seems, we hear the stories of Christian musicians and cultural figures revealing themselves to be atheists; the considerable fame and success that their religious vocation granted them giving way under the weight of their undisclosed, irreconcilable agnostic convictions. In the same way, if my belief that there are many who agree with my views on the broad uselessness of many academic lives is correct, could these painful, vital internal reconciliations similarly become a phenomenon of the academy?

I am, at the end of this sordid little post, obliged to confess my hypocrisy; for I myself shall very soon be applying to graduate study in, would you believe it, intellectual history (over in Olam Ha-ba, Saul Bellow is chuckling). Feel free to abuse me if you feel that my musings are way off the mark, and have a happy new year.

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