Beyond The Academic Ethic

Philosopher Stephen Turner published this essay in 2019:

* the German academic system of the late nineteenth century, which became the model for the modern research university…

* Harvard University, for the first three centuries of its existence, was essentially a training school for congregational ministers, a task it still performs. The ministry was a paradigmatic profession: a calling but also a source of income and a status in an established institution, in this case the church. The same could be said for Cambridge and Oxford, which not only produced for the religious market but had religious tests for entry late in the nineteenth century, and whose presses still rely on revenue from the Bible market. One could multiply examples indefinitely. On the continent, the market relation was to the state – which needed educated administrators. The value of the university was not for its pursuit of truth, but for its ability to provide some sort of educational experience and some sort of certification which the market, in the Harvard case the congregations hiring the minster, valued. To be sure, there was a small minority of students who valued knowledge for its own sake and were able and willing to pay for instruction. But this small minority would never be large or rich enough to support a university, and there were never enough academic jobs for them to constitute an academic class of the scale of present academia.

The relationship with the professions produced a particular kind of university which persisted and grew over a millennia, with typical groupings of ‘faculties’ associated with the professions, and some sort of core liberal arts faculty which provided instruction that was considered to be more elementary and general. Until the nineteenth century these faculties were more concerned with the transmission of dogma than ‘discovery’ and were often strikingly retrograde in relation to the knowledge available outside the university. The logic of exclusion was central to the traditional university: it was a means of certifying that those trained within it conformed to the accepted truths. This fits with the demands of certification, and exclusion helped make the certification valuable.

It is important to understand how the university and academia related to intellectual life at large. Universities were places where people were learned, and went through various tests to show they were learned. A dissertation in the sixteenth century was a recapitulation of the professor’s notes – the real test was the viva, in which the candidate demonstrated an ability to defend these views on his feet. In Britain, college fellowships were awarded based on exams, not production – and production was largely optional and in many cases non-existent, well into the postwar era. At the same time, there was a lively non-academic world of learning, and also of production – indeed, this is where the ideas normally emerged. This dual world was somewhat permeable until what William James called ‘the Ph.D octopus’ (1903) strangled the university – as evidenced by the career of James himself. But until the academic revolution, which occurred over a long period, led by the ‘research universities’, the qualifications of a professor were learning, not production. And one can see this even in the institutions of the German university, where the Habilitationsschrift must be in a different specialty than the PhD dissertation, and where there was originally no expectation that professors produce beyond this demonstration of learning.

* The point of professions is to exclude and gain benefits from excluding. And the transition to professionalisation was marked by a kind of punitiveness towards not only amateurs but also deviants, people who failed to get with the new programme and so forth.

* In the older system, it was taken for granted that appointments were culturally coded, and that merit was secondary.

* For the first time academics who were considered disciplinary leaders or celebrities received enormous salaries: one chair of political science was rumoured to be making $100,000, in the mid-1970s, a salary equivalent to more than $600,000 today. The era of celebrity academics had arrived, though now they needed only to be disciplinary celebrities, who were only read by other academics. The political scientist who cashed in on this status at the University of Chicago, David Easton, was not at all a public intellectual, nor did he even write about politics in a way that was remotely relevant to actual politics, despite working in the heart of the south side of Chicago, home of one of the most corrupt and powerful political systems in the country.

* science professionalised successfully, though not without its own issues of overproduction and waste. But the standards of science and the standards and reality of non-science fields differ dramatically. The use of science standards for non-science fields is an inevitable consequence of the need to balance the claims of each. But because science is the tail that wags the dog of the university, and also the source of its main claims to public utility, science .sets the standards for everyone. These standards are, however, impossible for the humanities and social sciences to meet. The money is not there for large grants, there are no patents or marketable technologies, or very few. And we come to a basic fact. The project of professionalisation in the humanities and social sciences failed, and the analogous project in the sciences succeeded. In both cases the effects on traditional academic values were devastating.

* the basic fact of intellectual life is that it does not pay for itself. All knowledge regimes, of which professionalism is only one, need for there to be a source of income and support that derives from something other than the intellectual work itself. The academic regime in science derives this support from grants and teaching. In the humanities and social sciences it derives from teaching, and for a few highly exceptional people – public celebrities – from lecture fees and writing for the public, or writing widely used textbooks. Professionalisation was a way of marketing teaching in which the students did not become merely learned, but mini-professionals in their field.

* Adjunct teachers and lecturers: “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 PhD 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 enough 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 is highly internationalised and fierce, and the level of desperation is 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, May 14, n.p.r.)

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 labour, first as teaching assistants, then as poorly paid adjuncts when tenure-track jobs elude them’ (Tuhus-Dubrow, 2013, November 1, p. 32). Many of the comments and contributions reflect the fact that the education that the injured academics have received is highly specialised – to leave academia is to face the impossible task of repackaging their achievements as marketable skills…

* The market rewarded a certain kind of cleverness and the peer-review system rewarded conformity. The winners were, accordingly, clever and conformist, though they would deny this, and point to their minor technical achievements as evidence of their innovative thinking. Nor could they be challenged within the system, which was increasingly unequal. The system of disciplinary enforcement that had been imposed as a personal mission by the generation of the mid-twentieth century now was a machine that simply perpetuated itself – an enforcement mechanism that did its enforcing impersonally and therefore apparently objectively and without authoritarianism.

* Education became, tacitly, education to succeed in the system. Peer-review became predictable as an affirmation of the hierarchy. Merit was no longer a matter of debate, but a matter of counting. What counted varied, but the importance of the top journals remained and was confirmed by such things as impact factors.

* The institutional order has also changed, to one driven almost entirely by metricised standards of quality, together with calculated administrative responses to public issues.

About Luke Ford

I've written five books (see My work has been covered in the New York Times, the Los Angeles Times, and on 60 Minutes. I teach Alexander Technique in Beverly Hills (
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