This essay, from a Dr. Zachary Ernst of the University of Missouri, has been making the rounds, or a certain kind of the rounds. I have some things to say about it, and you should read it. Start, though, from this: this is someone using the protection of tenure to whine about tenure. It is the argument of someone who is criticizing the way in which institutional protection is distributed while clad in that protection, without any consideration that this tension is worth exploring, or that it perhaps undermines his position. Coming from my position as an impoverished graduate student, without the benefit of tenure or institutional protection or permanent employment or the middle class income it brings, this strikes me as a special kind of cowardice, a preening, proud kind. Take that, first, for context.
Dr. Ernst has complaints. They are, in my estimation, not quite minimally convincing, but then there's little indication that convincing others is the purpose of this kind of argument. Dr. Ernst's relationship to tenure is complicated; he pays lip service to its intellectual benefits, but he seems deeply antagonistic to the elementary notions that undergird the institution. He mutters darkly about the "worst politics" that one encounters in the university, apparently among those who feel that left-wing politics should be permissible in exactly no professions. (I have never yet met a conservative or libertarian who complained about bias in academia who wasn't, in the end, equating bias with "you aren't flattering my preconceptions.") He additionally has nothing but showy contempt for the fact that his peers have different ideas about what should be valued in scholarship, not seeming to care or understand that differences of opinion in what is best for the pursuit of human knowledge are precisely the reason for tenure. He is endlessly proud of his pugnacity but decries the "bullying" of others. In every respect he appears to be a man who loves to swing but not to be hit.
Indeed, you can search the piece all you want, but you won't find anything resembling self-criticism, or the notion that, when considering why his career is perhaps not what or where he intended, he should first ask whether there is something lacking in his body of work. The notion that in fact the beginning of responsible inquiry of this kind should require an examination of the self, waged as publicly and unsentimentally as the essay in question, has apparently not been considered. In any event, Dr. Ernst is unhappy with the systems of professional advancement within the university. He feels that the disciplinary promiscuity of his work is not valued in the university and that this is self-evidently antithetical to the academy's purpose. (That he sailed through his tenure review, by his own admission, somewhat blunts this criticism.) As is typical of polemicists, Dr. Ernst believes that as he is, so is the world. Coming from outside his field, the notion that across the university writ large is not friendly to interdisciplinarity appears unlikely, but I'm qualified to say. As someone with wide-ranging interests myself, I am inclined to value interdisciplinarity, but I also know that the fadishness and grand claims of working across departments often produces poor research. It is perfectly possible, after all, that interdisciplinarity is not properly valued in his field and that this has little or nothing to do with what is making him unhappy.
As for his unhappiness with the professional academic life... take a number. Here is what it means to be an adult: you have to eat shit.
Repeatedly. You do things you don't want to do. You are forced to endure
indignities. Your rewards have very little to do with your talents or
effort. People who are less deserving are promoted while people who are more deserving are ignored. Life isn't fair, not in the academy or anywhere else. Yet Dr.
Ernst is deeply unhappy with the way that professional laurels are
distributed within the university (understandable) and also of the
conviction that his unhappiness matters (absurd). Let me ask: in what
professional field is there a perfect system of reward? What job is not
riven with petty corruptions of "meritocracy"? Which jobs, I'd like to
know, promise and deliver a fair system of review and promotion, free of
politics and patronage and fashion?
I can tell you this: the vast majority of professions offer not even the minimally transparent or fair system of advancement that the university affords. And what almost no professions offer is the ability to openly and publicly complain about their systems of advancement. If Dr. Ernst were to undertake his criticisms in almost any other field, he would be on the unemployment line. Like all of his many privileges-- privileges that stem from the same institutions he deplores-- this goes unexamined. Dr. Ernst is a good example of a dynamic I have observed again and again in academics: he flagrantly romanticizes the university, and then tears down the university for failing to live up to that romantic vision.
Dr. Ernst says repeatedly that his argument stems from a simple assumption: that the university is resistant to change. I don't know that, in fact, his arguments follow. I'm no philosopher. But in any event, I reject it. Yes, I know; the Internet is rife with complaints about higher education, a few legitimate, most not. But I find the idea that university has not evolved and grown in great measure given enormous change to simply not be credible. I can only offer anecdote in response to his own. I will say this: there are 80 human institutions that have existed in the same form for at least 500 years. 65 of them are universities. Those human institutions that do not evolve wither and die. I do not believe that the university writ large would still exist if it were of the character that Dr. Ernst has described. You won't find this a popular position.
Here is not an assumption but merely an observation. The university has always been the target of a particular kind of resentment, from both within and without. It is the resentment of those who believe themselves to be unappreciated geniuses. I became aware very early on that the Internet is filled with people who resent and distrust the university because they became convinced, at an early age, that they were gifted, and that the failure of higher education to recognize the full flower of their genius was a great crime. So convinced of their own brilliance, they can't fathom any reason that they might go unrecognized other than the systematic failure of the institution of scholarship. When Dr. Ernst speaks about how philosophers believe "that entrenched belief systems may be overthrown by a single person," I hear the curdling exasperation of so many who felt that they were that single person, and that the university was obliged.
I'm not saying that Dr. Ernst is such a person; I don't know the man. But I know that they litter the Internet like flotsam. And I often encounter, in the world of academics, a group of people (both women and men) who walk around in a kind of daze, unable to understand why their work isn't being celebrated. They seem to believe that they were entitled to recognition before they arrived. Dr. Ernst is not in the position of these people; he is employed and tenured at a major university, in a field where the brutal competition for jobs ensures that anyone so employed and so tenured has been greeted with profound success again and again. His publishing history is the type most of us can only envy. (You would be amazed at how complaints about which research is valued evaporate, when one is defending one's own published, recognized work.) Looking at his CV, I can only hope to achieve what he has achieved, is achieving. Yet despite his considerable reason to give thanks, his essay is soggy with entitlement. That's ultimately what's at issue here. I don't question Dr. Ernst's right to complain about his department, the field of philosophy, or the many pathologies of academia. But what he says is riven with entitlement and defined by a strange incuriosity. Neither is conducive to the pursuit of human inquiry.
Dr. Ernst's essay concludes with a complaint about the difficulty his wife has encountered in obtaining tenure in his department. I don't have the evidence to evaluate his case, but I know enough about the world and sexism to not doubt for a second that a a self-confident women would have faced hardship in employment and promotion, regardless of her profession. It seems beyond probable to me that his wife has face these hurdles, and I'm very sorry for them. The fact that her university has disassembled its system of internal review is a major failure, and if Dr. Ernst is faithfully and accurately reporting the way that his wife has been treated, the conduct of those responsible is deplorable. I am just crude enough to point out that it is precisely the people with the "worst politics" who have insisted for decades that this kind of corrosive sexism has to be opposed.
It seems clear to me: Dr. Ernst should resign. He feels, after all, that the system of professional advancement and recognition in his department is deeply broken, that the wrong types of work are being recognized, that he is not receiving high enough raises, and that his wife has been wronged and insulted. Clearly, he should terminate his own employment there. Of course, that would involve material hardship for him and his family. But that's the thing about principles. They come at a cost or are worth nothing.
Whether he actually quits will tell you everything you need to know.
Update: My commenters are deeply critical of this post, and rather convincingly so.