Academia Shrugged? or, Why You Should Just Quit Your Ph.D. Now

Grad school and academia as a potential career have taken a real beating in the media lately. It seems the world has finally woken up and smelled the (three-day old, re-used) coffee beans that are all grad students can afford. The bottom line is that humanities students should run, not walk, away from a life of debt and uncertainty, and a “dream job” that will never quite pan out.

In an article for, William Pannapacker, himself a professor at a liberal arts college, proposes a few steps to fix graduate school in the humanities. Some of what he advises – such as providing networking opportunities and internships, and recognizing that it may be better to keep one’s passion for obscure fields of study as a hobby – is similar to what I proposed in my own post on a Three-Pronged Approach to Saving Humanities Departments.

But I was really intrigued by his addition of a final, “nuclear option”: quit. In his words:

Just walk away. Do not let your irrational love for the humanities make you vulnerable to ongoing exploitation. Do not remain a captive to dubious promises about future rewards. Cut your losses, now. Accumulate work experiences and contacts that will enable you to support yourself, have health coverage, and something like a normal life. Even the more privileged students I mentioned earlier—and the ones who are not seeking traditional employment—could do a lot of good by refusing to support the current academic labor system. It exists because so many of us who care about the humanities and higher education in a sincere, idealistic way have been passively complicit with the destruction of both. You don’t have to return to school this fall, but the academic labor system depends on it.

Wow. A group of highly intelligent, capable individuals upon whom “the system” depends but who are scorned by it decide one day to “go on strike” in the hopes of seeing said system implode and leave behind a twitching lump of ingrates suddenly begging them to return and save them.

This sounds familiar. Where did I read about that recently? Oh, yes – in Atlas Shrugged, Ayn Rand’s infamous treatise on objectivism. In it, the heroes grapple with their own superior morality in a world of incompetent ingrates and eventually come to realize they are complicit in the very system that condemns them for their unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed. (Of course, unchecked ambition and capitalistic greed are positive attributes in Rand’s heroes.) So, one by one, they go on strike by withdrawing to a hidden, magical place where labour is justly rewarded, and nobody ever gives anybody anything they haven’t worked for, while they watch the world crumbling around them without their input.

(There, I’ve saved you from slogging through 1000+ pages of libertarian/objectivist bluster that would probably outrage and offend anyone who believes in silly things like equality of opportunity and altruism.)

But putting aside the absurd pairing of tweed-jacketed academics and Wall Street “fat cats,” let’s think a minute about the implications of this Randian proposition for academics. Would it work? As Pannapacker points out, there is always the possibility of having a day job with health care and indulging in one’s “irrational love for the humanities” as a hobby. As he says, “more and more people are learning [that] universities do not have a monopoly on the ‘life of the mind.’”

Maybe. But I think universities should at least have a competitive edge on it, or else they stand to become exactly what vocationalists want them to be: training for jobs that exist today and have clear mandates and required preparation. This would certainly be the case if all the most brilliant liberal arts minds suddenly decided to be brilliant elsewhere in the world.

Because if not universities, then where? Will we have to start paying people to hear about their ideas? Will we have the same level of interaction if everyone is decentralized and off thinking interesting thoughts in different industries? How will we prepare people to think innovatively, and prepare them for the jobs of tomorrow that don’t have clear mandates or preparatory courses?

The whole point of a university is that it is a hub, a place a little apart from the rest of the world (yes, perhaps even an ivory tower) where people can reflect on the “big questions” that may not be directly related to the pressing fads of the moment. What happens when this education becomes more decentralized? Can we trust that individuals will independently seek out all of the different perspectives they’re likely to get in an undergraduate humanities course?

I reflect on what Stanley Fish wrote in the New York Times a few weeks ago: basically, that academics, and by extension universities, should just abandon trying to be relevant and focus instead on academic inquiry for the sake of it alone. I think that would be unwise. Knowledge for the sake of knowledge is a great thing, and we need independent places (i.e. not ones funded by corporations) that will ensure that people continue to seek it. But relevance is important too, and while it should not be the only goal, it needs to be a goal.

In short, the current academic system needs to be refined from within, not by walking away and shrugging off all its problems. (Besides, academic types don’t have a magical land in Colorado where we can retreat and live out our ideals of hard work and free love and no taxes.) Professors and administrators could start with being honest about the reality of life as a grad student, i.e. mostly unemployed without the health coverage Pannapacker so enjoys having. And they should stop denigrating non-academic career choices by framing them as a continuation on the path of intelligent, creative thinking, not a deviation from it.

And then we – all of us – can start changing the way we view “amateur” non-academics outside the system, and invite them in. Let’s not exclude people with insider jargon and inaccessible writing. Let’s make a place inside the ivory tower for people who think about the “big questions” of life outside of it, so we can examine the practical implications of our ideas. Let’s show the vocationalists that “academic” is not a dirty word but one that can bring significant insight and positive change to the world outside universities, as well as in its libraries.

Let’s ask people to help us hold up the world, instead of just dropping it.


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