Beyond the Academic Ethic, #4–The Love of Learning in a Time of Academic Cholera.

By Stephen Turner



Stephen Turner is Distinguished University Professor of Philosophy at the University of South Florida. You can read more about him and his work HERE.



#2: The Liberal Theory of Science, & Professionalization

#3: Professionalization as a Power System, & Degenerate Professionalization


The Love of Learning in a Time of Academic Cholera

For the people on the bottom, the relentless demand for teaching of the pre-professional period has changed only by the introduction of ever more scrutiny, in such forms as student evaluations, and the casualization of this labor and the attendant impoverishment and insecurity. In the older world of impoverished academia before the First World War, professors at least had to be paid enough to be kept alive. In the new world of adjuncts and oversupply, they did not: teachers who had worked for decades for small amounts of pay could be and were casually dismissed, and the pay is often below subsistence levels. This class of academic proletarians enabled institutions to compete with one another in research by off-loading the work of teaching so that research could thrive. But this system did not benefit the humanities and social sciences, except marginally. The money went to the natural sciences and to supporting its research.

Yet there is a certain similarity between the teachers of the pre-professional order and present adjuncts, if one ignores the basic features of their existence — the boredom of teaching elementary classes repetitively, the large classes, the need to police unmotivated students, and so forth. These adjuncts are free from the constraints of the professional system, and can join movements against it — such as the movement against professional philosophy. Having no status and nothing to lose, they can choose to live the life of the mind as they please, to be learned without producing, and pursue projects if they wish, or decline to do so. They are also free in their intellectual life from the limits of disciplines, and can read what they want. People without families to support can even enjoy this freedom, despite the lack of status and the poverty, if they can survive. All that is needed for a certain kind of happiness is to give up the hope of a tenured academic position.

The situation in science is only slightly better, since a Ph.D. scientist normally has skills that can be put to use elsewhere. The normal career in academic science is, however, just as marginal: if a person is lucky to get into the academic system at all, it will be in the form of a succession of poorly paid post-docs in which one performs routine laboratory tasks as part of someone else’s research. The opportunities for tenure track jobs are scarce, the competition highly internationalized and fierce, and the level of desperation high.

Academic life is selective, and the grounds for advancement at each stage are not clear, except for degree requirements, and depending on the system and the point in history, many are called who are not chosen. So the question of what sort of calling academic life has become is also a question about the calling of those who fall by the wayside. This has recently become a hot topic as a result of an op-ed by an historian who was giving up on academia, after having failed, despite some short term contracts, to gain a tenure track job. She writes that

Giving up on something that you thought was your life’s calling hurts like hell. When you experience rejection from the entire institution of academia after devoting years of your life and thousands of dollars to become an academic, betrayal and rage sometimes become your only emotions for a good long while. (Munro, 2017, n.p.)

This comment has gone viral, and there are dozens of sites devoted to “leaving academia.” They tell a bitter story about the myth of academic life and its seductions. One website describes its orientation as reflecting “a belief that the current system is flawed, cruel, unsustainable and therefore impossible to directly engage with.” As a commentator explains, “In this view, Ph.D. programs, with their false promises, lure students to serve as cheap labor, first as teaching assistants, then as poorly paid adjuncts when tenure-track jobs elude them” (Tuhus-Dubrow, 2013, p. 32). Many of the comments and contributions reflect the fact that the education that the injured academics have received is highly specialized — to leave academia is to face the impossible task of repackaging their achievements as marketable skills.

We can ask what relation this sense of “calling” has to the academic ethic described by Shils. Are these cries of pain merely laments for a lost opportunity to pursue a career and to acquire the glittering prizes of the academic aristocracy? Certainly it is a part of current academic experience that students with high hopes gradually realize that the system is not based on merit, and suspect that they lack the qualities to succeed in it. And while these victims of the system realize that the promises were false, and that the system is cruel, the cruelest consequence is that the model of the “professional” discipline in which they were trained gained them little beyond an introduction to the life of the mind that was limited and flawed.


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Formerly Captain Nemo. A not-so-very-angry, but still unemployed, full-time philosopher-nobody.

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