In 2004 I decided to leave my job as a high school teacher in a boarding school to go to graduate school in philosophy. My reasons for doing this were varied -- a mixture of naive idealism [maybe the study of philosophy will give me some insight into life] and real fatigue from the work of teaching young people [reading books and writing papers sounded pretty awesome at the end of yet another 15 hour day devoted to young folks.] My reasons had little to do with career. I was realistic about the instrumental value of a philosophy PhD. I hoped it would be a great way to spend a few years and left thoughts of Future Ramifications for Career to the gods.
Ten years have passed since that decision, and I am happy to report that it was a good one. A recent article by Nicholas Kristof in the New York Times caused me to reflect a little on my nine year stint in academia as a graduate student, as a professor (though never tenured), as a writer and thinker, and as an educator. In the article, Kristof brings forward a common complaint these days that academia is insular and increasingly irrelevant. I mention this problem as reason for starting this blog, and I think it's worth noting that the insularity of academia is something that academics worry about much more than the general public.
Academics -- being driven people with high standards for themselves -- want to have it both ways. They want to be part of an intellectual elite, but they also want to be relevant to all. This is a tension that is written into the university life, and it's something that everyone in academia has to struggle with and make their peace with. Some are more comfortable with the elite end of things; others with the educational and "public service" aspect of intellectual work. My suspicion is that this tension is a productive one -- less a problem to be solved once and for all, and more an animating and productive sort of tension.
Individually, academics may struggle with these questions, but their temperaments eventually resolve it for them one way or another. Those who are educators at heart drift to the educational side. They end up writing more blogs, more editorials, engaging in more activism and land at smaller institutions where undergraduate education is central to the academic mission. Those who are intellectuals at heart end up at the big universities and spend most of their energy and time writing for top journals whose audience is a small group of elites. Then, there are a few rare souls who have the temperament, time, and talent to bridge the gap between these two sorts of academics and also the gulf between academia and a larger public world that likes to refer to itself as "the real world." These are the few that get to have it both ways -- probably at large personal cost.
Having left academia and returned to at least a real world if not the real world (my present job as academic dean of a high school asks me to communicate with all sorts of people with all sorts of educational backgrounds), I feel like I have something real to say about the gulf between academia and this "real world."
First: I find the work that I did while in my PhD program and then later as a professional philosopher to be extremely useful outside of academia. The qualities that make a good academic are useful in all kinds of contexts -- to trust in reasons, to listen to argument, to make distinctions, to disagree civilly, to write carefully. I lean on these capacities every day.
Second, I want to say that the work I did over the nine years I spent in a university philosophy department felt to me like it was fundamentally real and valuable in itself. While I decided not to spend my whole life as a professional philosopher, I was hugely enriched by spending a good chunk of my life doing this sort of work in a time when I was still growing as a young adult. I also allow myself to believe that I made a small contribution during those nine years to something I really believe in.
Yes, this experience was narrow and at times felt distant from certain realities. But, the ivory tower epithet has always struck me as a bit odd because it seems to me that the specialized careers we all lead in contemporary life subject us all fairly equally to a certain isolation and narrowness of perspective. Academics hope to speak out of their isolation towards public values -- thereby exposing themselves to the ivory tower critique -- but to my mind the attempt is virtuous, even if it so often fails. In a society of specialization we all ought to feel some anxiety about the reality of our worlds.
Finally, I just want to say that the pace and place of academic life, with its large blocks of time, its architecture that encourages interaction, the intensity of its push to think hard and well, and its care and concern for young people did not arise accidentally. It is the result of hard work and generous support of people from within and outside its walls. It's not a perfect world, but our world -- this real and fractured and hardly aware world --is more perfect because academia exists: fundamentally flawed, fragile, and necessary.