Wrestling with Academia

When it comes to my academic life, I have, over the past year, entered the disgruntled zone. I’m sure one can come up with a handful of good explanations: the fact that I’ve not been formally enrolled for over a year now; the fact that my dissertation proposal is stalled; which fact is predicated on the fact that I have been pulling very long work days with a plurality of jobs for well over a year; which fact is itself predicated on the need for enough income to provide for my family; which cumulative facts leave me precious little time for my family, let alone for research and study. I suppose you could cite my disappointment in failing to receive funding (itself a left over problem from the previous university president who gutted the financial reserves of the department). There are a whole host of reasons, I suppose. Part of it has come about through teaching about a couple of dozen classes in the last few years, and needing to heed all the bureaucracy. Part of it has come with wrestling with justice issues related to how adjuncts are utilized in academia–a very existential question with which I’ve wrestled together with another parishioner (who has his earned PhD).

My friend, Gabe, has at least once, offered his own disgruntlement over the state of academia at his law school.

One faces all this, and asks: Is it really worth it? It’s an especially tough question as I am now experiencing the sort of disproportionate economics of working in the corporate non-profit world versus working as an academic. Or to say it bluntly: the pay is a hell of a lot better.

But all that said, most of the impetus for my wrestling has come about through my reflections on philosophia, from last summer. It is clearer to me now than ever before that the sort of philosophy I have always sought to do, the sort of philosophical discipline practiced by the men I study—Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, the Stoics, Epicurus—is not the philosophy practiced today. A case in point: I just received the program for the American Philosophical Association’s Eastern Division meeting at the end of the year. One of the topics, among the many, that will be discussed is the integration of philosophy into the K-12 curriculum. Note that: the integration of philosophy into a school curriculum.

This is philosophy as an intellectual subject. Not classical philosophy. Nor, in my opinion, true philosophy.

One of my patrons, Blessed Hieromonk Seraphim, wrestled with similar concerns. He famously had his decisive moment regarding his academic career, which he expressed in a letter to his parents.

It’s time that I chose the academic life in the first place, because God gave me a mind to serve Him with, and the academic world is where the mind is supposed to be used. But after eight or nine years I know well enough what goes on in universities. The mind is respected by only a few of the “old-fashioned” professors, who will soon have died out. For the rest, it’s a matter of making money, getting a secure place in life—and using the mind as a kind of toy, doing clever tricks with it and getting paid for it, like a circus clown. The love of truth has vanished from people today; those who have minds have to prostitute their talents to get along. I find this difficult to do, because I have too great a love of truth. . . . If I am going to serve God in this world, and so keep from making my life a total failure, I will have to do it outside the academic world. . . .

And what would happen if, in one of my classes at the university, I would one day tell my students that all the learning of this world is of no importance beside the duty of worshiping God, accepting the God-man who died for our sins, and preparing for the life of the world to come? They would probably laugh at me, and the university officials, if they found out, would fire me—for it is against the law to preach the Truth in our universities. We say that we live in a Christian society, but we do not; we live in a society that is more pagan, more Christ-hating, than the society into which Christ was born. [Letter to his parents dated 14 June 1961] in Seraphim Rose: The True Story and Private Letters 165, 166]

He wrote later, in a draft of a chapter of a book he was working on (which was later published separately):

The academic world—and these words are neither lightly nor easily spoken—has become today, in large part, a source of corruption. It is corrupting to hear or read the words of men who do not believe in truth. It is yet more corrupting to receive, in place of truth, more learning and scholarship which, if they are presented as ends in themselves, are no more than parodies of the truth they were meant to serve, no more than a facade behind which there is no substance. It is, tragically, corrupting even to be exposed to the primary virtue still left to the academic world, the integrity of the best of its representatives—if this integrity serves, not the truth, but skeptical scholarship, and so seduces men all the more effectively to the gospel of subjectivism and unbelief this scholarship conceals. It is corrupting, finally, simply to live and work in an atmosphere totally permeated by a false conception of truth, wherein Christian Truth is seen as irrelevant to the central academic concerns, wherein even those who still believe this Truth can only sporadically make their voices heard above the skepticism promoted by the academic system. The evil, of course, lies primarily in the system itself, which is founded upon untruth, and only incidentally in the many professor whom this system permits and encourages to preach it. [Nihilism, 32-33]

I can guess two possible reactions to all this. There are those, themselves in or aspiring to be in academia who look at this and think, “Ah, the petulant whining of a man who is not cut out for academia.” And that may very well be the case. I certainly have thus far been able to do the formal work. And I think I can do the dissertation level research and writing as well (though admittedly this assertion is to date unproven). But the follow-up question is: Should one want to cut it in academia? Not much has changed since Blessed Seraphim wrote his words, more than thirty years ago. I suspect it would not be inaccurate to say that the situation is likely worse today than it was then at the end of the Fifties and beginning of the Sixties. Would one want to “cut it” in such an atmosphere, at the cost of what it may well do to one’s soul (a “construct” not even accepted by most academics)?

And then there are those who argue that it is precisely because academia is what it is that faithful souls need to enter academia, “so as to save some.” No one fancies, and certainly I don’t, that a single professor can turn the godless tide of the university. But the influence of one professor in the life of one student can have not only eternal impact in one life, but in the lives of all whom that person will love and care for. I have had glimpses of just this sort of thing, even as recent as last semester’s class on philosophical anthropology. But these are rare and infrequent. And even worse is the whole sort of “diploma mill” mentality of the overwhelming majority of students who have been trained by the university system itself into thinking of classes in pragmatic and economic terms. They have paid their tuition, they deserve their A, so that they can get their diploma, so that they can make a higher salary upon graduation. Rare is the student who asks me for more reading on a philosopher or a philosophical topic.

And I have never, not once, ever had a student ask me what it might mean to live the life of philosophia.

In fact, the present life of a philosophy professor is, in many ways, fundamentally prohibitive of a life of philosophy. To live like a philosopher is something that one would have to do in one’s spare time, as one’s occupation as an academic would require endless loads of administrivia, the galling ball and chain of mindless pluralism for pluralism’s sake, and the hubristic pursuit of notoriety instead of sagacity.

Believe me, this reflection should not be taken as an indication I’m going to jump ship on academia. I am certainly not abandoning my degree program. Come hell or high water I will see this dissertation through, however long it takes. But although I am currently enjoying my present run in my new job as a contact center manager for a non-profit organization, I also have never seen anyone retire at 65 from being a contact center manager. This is not my vocation, it is an accidental occupation.

Still, I’m wondering if it would be best for my own soul, my wife and my daughters if, degree notwithstanding, I seek the philosopher’s life as Socrates did, among the hoi polloi, and outside the ivory tower.

4 thoughts on “Wrestling with Academia

  1. Clifton,

    I dropped out of small, private university back in the late 90’s for many of the same reasons you cite here. It was not the rigor of the program but the spiritual exhaustion that ended up overwhelming me. I just graduated this year (English major with a Philosophy minor from a large, urban state university). While I’m glad I finally went back and finished, I lost a lot of my zeal for the “academic life”, especially as it exists in most university humanities departments.

    I think that it is in the raising of our children, teaching them to love the life of the mind, and providing an intellectual rich home life that we may find our “academic” vocations being used most fruitfully.

  2. sigh….I had to drop out of my PhD program in psych because they wanted me to do a 9 month minimum wage internship doing what I had been doing under supervision of staff psychs for 5 years as I worked on my Master’s degree. So I’m ABD/internship since 1982. When I got fired/left the ministry I got a job as a laborer for my brother’s construction company while I looked for a “real job”. 3 months later when he and his buddies went belly up due to a drug deal they botched up, I inherited it. That was 26 years ago… I’m still a drywaller/painter with an MS and 90+ hours of grad work. I’m still looking for that “real job” that will pay me to do what I love doing, but at 54 years old, I’m not holding my breath. I’ve found some existential peace knowing that my “job” has supported my “passion and vocation” for many years and I’ve never given up on what I love doing.

  3. Looking back, I’m so glad I didn’t stay in academia (English and anthropology). Even 30 years ago, a practical and Christian worldview was too, too non-chic. I believe if I’d stayed there to build a life I would be very unhappy today. Which I’m not, having gone elsewhere and taken what God sent.

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