The Imperative to Leave Academia

by Bharath Vallabha

In the coming decades academic philosophy is going to dwindle significantly. When I see philosophy departments shutting down, I feel bad for the people losing their jobs and for PhDs looking for jobs. But as someone who left academia, I also think: “Let’s go! There is a lot of work to do in the new era of philosophy outside academia!” The dwindling of academic philosophy can open the possibility for society to become more philosophical through new, better structures.

Society needs academic philosophy. But society also needs people who cultivate philosophy outside academia.

The shrinking of academic philosophy will be part of an overall downturn of liberal arts education in colleges. Right now the system of liberal arts education is under duress, with college and grad school becoming a continuous stream of professionalization. The threat to liberal arts education isn’t mainly because of the cultural relativism of the left or the neo-liberalism of the right. That kind of blaming of the other allows for the fantasy that if only they stopped being stupid, all would be better. Rather, the stress on the system is coming from a rupturing fault line within it. Modern liberal arts education has an intrinsic tension between its form and its aim.

The form of liberal art education is based on Plato’s Academy and the medieval universities. Back then it was mainly for aristocrats and monks, who were necessarily a small percentage of the population. The education they got is elitist in an obvious sense: it was seen to make them the most elite human beings in society. This was natural since societies back then had to be hierarchical to be functional, and universities were for educating the leaders. A knowledgeable person was a wiser person – someone who ideally could resist their impulses in a way the masses weren’t trained to do and so could focus on the larger needs of the society.

One of the main aims of modern liberal arts education, however, is universal education; the ideal that all people can go to college and partake in the great debates of the ages. Naturally, this pulls against elitism in the ancient sense. Geniuses aside, in modern liberal arts education, knowledge is more a reflection of one’s opportunities than of one’s nature. If you get a liberal arts education and I don’t, it isn’t because, as was assumed in pre-modern times, you are made of gold and I am made of bronze. Rather, on the modern view, we are all made of gold, and you are simply luckier than me in being able to cultivate it and have it recognized.

The ancient form of academia is now buckling under the weight of the aims of mass education. For two hundred years, from the middle of the 18th to the middle of the 20th centuries, the ancient form and the modern aim coexisted relatively harmoniously. But in the last fifty years, academia’s egalitarian aim has been pushing against and breaking its ancient form.

The recent history of academic philosophy bears this out.

The Harvard philosophy department in the 1960’s was exceptional: Quine, Putnam, Rawls, Nozick, Cavell, Goodman, Dreben, Kripke (Society of Fellows) and others. One of the golden ages of the department. In one sense, I would have loved to be there. The breadth and depth of these thinkers was immense. But in another sense, it would have been hard to be in that department. I would have felt it was deeply flawed: sexist, Eurocentric and narrowly analytic. Martha Nussbaum has described how even into the 1970’s, when she was there, sexual harassment was tolerated. B.K. Matilal, who helped bridge analytic and Indian philosophy, studied with Quine in the 1960’s, but the department itself taught little outside the European canon. There were exceptions. Rawls was famously supportive of female students, and later on, Nozick taught Indian philosophy, Cavell taught continental philosophy, etc. But structurally there were issues.

How can one think it was a golden age and yet feel it was deeply flawed? Because back then form took precedence over aim. These were elite philosophers: you could disagree with their views or philosophical priorities, but you couldn’t deny their excellence. It was a department of superstars. Each was free to pursue his talents without worrying about the new masses coming in. It was assumed that the mere greatness of the thinkers would suffice for fostering a liberal arts education for all.

Quine, Putnam, et al. were brilliant thinkers on the topics they addressed. But they had almost nothing to say about the philosophical problem of how the ancient form and the modern aim of academia might be reconciled. They assumed academia was infinitely expandable and that mass education would stretch the system they knew without breaking it.

But mass education broke it.

This was evident already by the end of the 1970’s, when the job market system was implemented through the American Philosophical Association. Before then, jobs were allocated mainly through personal connections. Cavell once said how he never had a job interview: as a graduate student at Harvard, he got a call from Berkeley (where he went to college) offering him an assistant professor’s job, and a few years later he got a call from Harvard offering him a tenured position. The new job market did away with this kind of privilege. There would be formal applications, interviews, openness to talent irrespective of gender, race, etc. Professionalization was the way the elite form and the egalitarian aim of academia were to be reconciled. A necessary, commendable change.

But as a grad student at Harvard in the 2000’s, I hated it. Or to be more precise, I hated its side effect.

When I started graduate school, a sea change was happening in the department. The old guard from the pre-professional days had retired or were retiring. A generation of younger philosophers who saw professionalized philosophy as the norm was ascendant. These younger philosophers were passionate about philosophy and also about making it more inclusive. But something was lost along the way. Inclusion through professionalization had come at a cost.

I felt the new professionalized generation was no less talented than previous generations. But the institutional changes required by mass education seeped into how one talked and wrote philosophy. To give up the old boys’ network, the job market was instituted, which led to a focus on areas of expertise, which meant that every paper you wrote and every comment you made was seen through the prism of whether you could speak confidently as an expert or had to speak deferentially as a non-expert. One’s thinking had to be circumscribed by the expertise reflected on one’s resume. To transgress these boundaries – to assume to speak on an issue that wasn’t on your resume – was seen as falling back on the habits of the bad old days.

Of course, there were a lot of bad privileges in the old days. But there were good privileges too. Main among these was that professors could pursue philosophy in a holistic way without worrying about sub-disciplinary boundaries. This was true not only at famous places like Harvard and Oxford, but at smaller departments across the country. In fact, it was essential for any professor providing a liberal arts education. A professor could pass on to an undergrad how to reflect holistically, because reflecting that way was the professor’s job. Sellars, Strawson or Foot could read whatever they wanted, in whatever area, slowly process it and synthesize it in their writing without worrying about what their resume entitled them to say. If an undergraduate liberal arts education was a privilege for four years, being a professor was that privilege for life. It was not a mere luxury but the foundation of a liberal arts education.

Normally the threat to liberal arts education is seen as students not signing up for humanities classes. But the threat is much deeper: most professors teaching the classes no longer have the privilege to be liberal scholars. This is not due to nefarious reasons of scientism or neo-liberalism or identity politics. Those are symptoms exacerbated by the simple – and now irreversible – fact of mass college education, and the pressure that puts on how jobs are allocated.

The situation will get worse over time. In order to bridge deep disagreements, the kind of holistic vision that liberal scholars provide is needed. But professionalization pulls exactly in the opposite direction. Instead of reconciling disagreements, it reinforces them by legitimizing boundary policing.

If Sally Haslanger, as an expert in feminism, says the APA’s latest initiatives are great for addressing sexism in the profession, should a non-expert in feminism like Brian Leiter defer to her? After all, how is that different from Haslanger deferring to Leiter on Neitzsche scholarship? But taken to its extreme, this line of argument does away with thinking for oneself, replacing civic engagement in the profession with a narrow adherence to specialization. Leiter is admired by many because he is resisting this. I respect that.

Then again, a reputational ranking like the Gourmet Report prioritizes expertise over thinking for oneself from a different direction. To trust it is to defer to the expertise of the people filling out the surveys, and to their sense of which departments, sub-fields and professional trends are to be emulated. The ranking divides the profession into the best and the rest, and treats the vast advantages this affords the ranked departments as entirely natural. Haslanger is admired by many, because she is resisting this institutional elitism. I respect that too.

The debate between Haslanger’s and Leiter’s visions for philosophy is genuinely interesting. It would be great if they and their supporters debated each other to move the discussion forward. The dearth of such public debates in the profession is telling. The focus is not on the ideas themselves, but on which kind of expertise should be deferred to: the kind Leiter has as a philosopher of law or the kind Haslanger has as an epistemologist; the kind he has as the creator of the Gourmet Report, or the kind she has as a professor at MIT. Professionalization has made it hard for professors to debate each other just as thinkers, as liberal  scholars. But professionalization on its own, without holistic thinking, can’t determine how competing forms of expertise should be reconciled. The result is instead of debating ideas, a lot of effort goes into positioning oneself as the right kind of expert and the other as the wrong kind of expert.

This means that as society struggles with questions of expertise vs democracy, academia is not able to stand above the fray. Conservatives who want to shut down humanities departments or don’t believe in climate change support their views by saying, “Some experts agree with us!” the implication being that reason itself is partisan. Academics claim they are not partisan and can lead the way. But it’s unclear how they can lead the way when professionalization has splintered even philosophy into dozens of competing sub-specialties.

What is the alternative for academics?  Give up professionalization? Not possible, since there is no other method for divvying up jobs. To have at least some academics be liberal scholars and so aim beyond specialization? This is the inevitable future. As more and more teaching is done by adjunct professors, and as public universities and small colleges are under increased economic and social pressures, it will be mainly the faculty at rich, private universities who will have the luxury to be undergraduates for life.

Society needs liberal scholars. People who think big and write big, who look for large patterns across whole fields of knowledge and the human condition. Who might fall on their faces and get a lot wrong, but whose risks might also pay off big or just be thought provoking. As academia becomes more professionalized, people struggling or unhappy in academia have a choice. They can leave to continue a life of liberal arts reflection outside academia, and so contribute in a grass roots way to creating a more reflective society.

If being in academia means so much to people that they are willing to teach five courses a semester for minimum wage and no benefits, or are satisfied with being on the job market for the fourth straight year, more power to them. But there are alternatives. Not just for one’s career, but for having a philosophically rich life and making a difference. Compared to the oasis of libraries, classes and conferences in academia, the world outside can feel like a desert. But contributing to new structures has its own rewards, including the potential of new ideas, new forms of communication and new communities.

The coming digital age won’t accommodate the habits of the medieval or the industrial age university. It will disrupt them in unpredictable and far reaching ways, changing both academia and society in the process. If the disruption to academia ends up being very great and if we don’t prepare for that future by creating new possibilities outside, future generations will wonder how we could have been so complacent.

18 Comments »

  1. Hi Bharath

    Your basic analysis of the problems rings true for me.

    The phenomenon of mass higher education has changed everything, but it was never viable longterm. As you say, form and goal were at odds.

    Two quick observations…

    Academics (especially in the humanties) are no longer respected as they once were. The loss of prestige has been dramatic and precipitous. This is very significant, but what precisely it signifies I am not sure. (Is it more a matter of changes in academia or changes in the broader society?)

    Secondly, the trends you describe with respect to philosophy could be interpreted in various ways. And your interpretation depends at least in part on a particular view of what philosophy is or should be.

    My view is that part of the confusion and disagreement is due to the fact that different people are using the word ‘philosophy’ to mean very different things.

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    • Hi Mark, I agree humanities professors are not respected as they once were. The respect in the past (say, 50 years ago) was due to (a) American culture being seen as a unified thing (“Western civilization”) and (b) humanities professors being seen as passing on that culture.

      I like that in the last 50 years American culture has grappled more with diversity. But contra leftist academics, I think there is no way to do this while retaining for humanities academics the kind of stature they had prior to the 60s. Making society more diverse means it is confusing what “the” culture of the society is or who passes it on. Leftist academics can’t have it both ways: blow up the unified sense of American culture that existed in the 50s, but then have the respect the professors had back then.

      Agree as well re people using ‘philosophy’ to mean different things. Just part of the new reality. Diversifying is great. But it doesn’t lead to an obvious coalition with a clear structure. It leads to a cacophony of voices battling to get heard. It doesn’t matter if someone has a PhD or if he teaches at a R1 school. I am not going to listen to them because of that. What matters is: can they stand out through the cacophony and can they be inspiring? If someone can do that as an adjunct or with a blog or a youtube channel, great. Take your shot. I much prefer that to caring whether someone is a professor. I think a lot of people feel similarly.

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  2. This is really interesting. Coming from a science background I never really saw any of this. I think the problem with Leitner/Haslanger example is that there is no such thing as an expert in addressing sexism. This is a complex socio-cultural issue with a large psycholigcal dimension. I don’t see how being a feminist suddenly makes you capable of answering it. After all, feminsts weren’t that great in explaining why the majority of white women voted for Trump. In fact, I don’t see why it’s a philosophical issue at all, surely there should be an empirical component to this?

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    • Certainly there is an empirical component. But that also pulls towards issues of expertise, as in: who is best suited to get clearly at the empirical facts? Inevitably there will be some background assumptions, which is what feminists or whoever else might question. Agree there can be no expert in addressing sexism as such. Anymore than there can be in addressing philosophy as such. Most of the things we care about have elements which people can have expertise in, but they are sufficiently broad that they can’t be handed over just to experts either.

      We as a society need to figure out how to balance expertise with this kind of broader holistic thinking. In the past the sense of a unity of culture (“Western Civ”, etc.) enabled the balance. I am happy to talk about Western civ (don’t think we can or should ditch it), though clearly it is more complicated now.

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      • > I think the problem with Leitner/Haslanger example is that there is no such thing as an expert in addressing sexism. I don’t see why it’s a philosophical issue at all, surely there should be an empirical component to this?

        While there is an empirical component, I think the challenge here is the issue of values: what are desirable values, what is their priority relative to each other, and how do they get applied to a situation at hand. More bluntly, the “empirical component” can shine some light on “what is” but not on “what ought to be”.

        As an side, the APA site has a nice summary of Haslanger’s perspective (http://www.apaonlinecsw.org/). I think it makes the case for why feminism provides a framework for understanding sexism in philosophy.
        “What is the problem with philosophy? This cannot be approached rationally, as Sally Haslanger has so effectively argued. Among other problems, there is a pretty obvious but largely unarticulated concern about the fact that the humanities, in general, has strong feminine gendered cor relations. The humanities are soft, qualitative , vague , and concerned with style. Philosophy’s own self image does not fit well here, and thus it has a fear of its own feminization as the numbers of women in the field increase. Philosophy’s self-image as the most rational of disciplines, where reason giving and critical thought rules along with purity and clarity and technical mastery, would be compromised by acknowledging its problems, such as irrational sexism and racism, much less addressing them. “

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    • “Leftist academics can’t have it both ways: blow up the unified sense of American culture that existed in the 50s, but then have the respect the professors had back then.”

      This is really true and most people just don’t seem to realize this because, as you point out, they want to have it both ways. Human all too human….

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  3. Gita 18: 47,48:
    It is better to do one’s own duty inadequately than another’s well; no man is at fault performing an action enjoined by his own nature.

    Son of Kunti (Arjuna), a man should not abandon the work he was born into, even if it is faulty, for just as fire is wreathed in smoke all undertakings are attended by faults.

    The focus on specialism and micro-topics is perhaps a feature of the research side of academia. The much more important aspect in the university is teaching and here the scope of philosophy is enlarged. Unfortunately unless you show an aptitude for the micro the macro will not be given to you. Good teaching is rare and precious and in later life we remember it and not the boring individual who performed in a perfunctory way but no doubt wrote profoundly on minute aspects of modality.

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    • The job market was essential to get away from the old boy’s club, but it has had a horrible side effect, as you say: “Unfortunately unless you show an aptitude for the micro the macro will not be given to you.” Ideally we could give jobs based on the macro, but that lets in too many implicit biases (whether of phil bros or sjws, etc.). So the job market’s response to avoiding implicit biases is to make everything procedural, which pushes towards the micro and the minute and how many publications you can push out.

      One reason academia is not going to be leading the way with our current social and institutional issues. It hasn’t figured it out itself.

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  4. Thanks so much for this, Bharath. Measured, fair, and wonderfully expansive, as usual.

    Like Mark, I imagine that much of this depends upon what one means by ‘philosophy.’ And I suspect that what one means by it is informed, at least partly, by what one takes to be the paradigm philosophical achievement.

    Here are some things you mention which have been, or might be, taken as paradigmatic: having a philosophically rich life, creating a more reflective society, making society more philosophical, specializing (perhaps in the sense of “contributing to the literature”), publishing, thinking big and writing big and discovering patterns in the human condition, taking intellectual risks.

    There’s some variety and some overlap here. But except perhaps for having a philosophically rich life, all of these candidate paradigms of philosophical achievement are, or purport to be, public achievements. If philosophy is ultimately meant to contribute to public life, yes, academia may no longer be the best place for it, and for all the reasons you adduce.

    But if among these paradigms of philosophical achievement we include personal ones — such as one’s coming to understand something, or see something, or savor something, or appreciate something — academia might still be among those institutions that secure an opportunity for philosophy to “happen.”

    I teach at a two-year college, and in my Intro course, I often assign Jonathan Lear’s book, Radical Hope, about the profound existential suffering of the Crow tribe as they transitioned to life on a reservation. Last semester, a Gulf veteran approached me and said that being guided through Lear’s book helped him understand his own sense of unease after transitioning to civilian life. This kind of result of “doing philosophy” is irreducibly personal. It’s communicable, of course, and in that sense public, but its impact is indexed to the person who comes to the understanding. It’s not just some “result” to be published and debated and deemed either worthy or unworthy of inclusion in our store of knowledge. And though such personal revelations might have public benefits, bringing those public benefits about just isn’t the relevant achievement in such a case.

    It’s not lost on me that if Lear hadn’t published his “results,” this vet might not have come to the understanding of himself he came to. I’m not saying, “Forget about the public achievements of philosophy.” I’m wondering aloud about what the circumstances would look like if we remember to include personal (or indexed-to-the-person) achievements as paradigm results of doing philosophy. Might colleges and universities look less irrelevant if we acknowledge the value of something so simple as one’s coming to see something about one’s own life, something so important and yet something the publishing of which is laughably beside the point?

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    • Great point. Fully agree. As I say in the post, I am all for academic phil. Even the specialized stuff. But even more, exactly the kind of personal connections and growth that happen in classrooms you describe. As a student there was a lot about academia I found painful, but also a lot which were transformative and uplifting – and which requires the many things made possible by a classroom setting.

      As academia comes more under threat, I think the best argument for academia is just the kind you make. But to enable this, academia will have to somehow address the job market problem. To enable student’s to see something about their lives, one has to be teaching. But if the process by which one gets to teach gives no priority to such teaching, something is really wrong with the process. It can’t be enough of a defense of the procedural job market that it enables diversity. Am all for diversity. But if the method to enable diversity is making the job much more limited, something has gone wrong.

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      • Thanks for your reply.

        “But if the process by which one gets to teach gives no priority to such teaching, something is really wrong with the process.”

        That’s exactly right. It’s depressing.

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  5. I agree with Bharath that this era of specialization is harming philosophy but having just attended UBC this year, the philosophy department appeared pretty healthy with overflowing classes and lots of graduate students. I wouldn’t be surprised if things were quite different in the U.S. My concern is the hyper-specialization in philosophy. If philosophy has any continuity it needs to be understood in its entirety. It’s important to know the history and study a range of philosphers, not just one era or one technical subject. If philosophy is about everything then anybody should be able to understand it.

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  6. Hi Bharat

    You spell out the problem very well — and the comments above are also excellent. I think there was one (and perhaps only one) of the great 20C philosophers who understood the difficult place of philosophy in a democratic culture, namely Dewey. He focused on the theory of democracy and its relation to education, and he understood how it is specialisation rather than democracy that is the source of the difficulty.

    My experience (at the bottom end of the educational hierarchy) fits with that story. Philosophy has a lot to offer as the discipline that reflects critically on the argument process and on the ethical dimension. I have found that sometimes other disciplines see the value of philosophy and try to incorporate it in their courses. Over time, however, pressures emerge from discipline specialists to squeeze philosophy out of their programs. Since they have the decision-making powers, philosophy always loses that contest. I’d add that we philosophers have not been very smart in articulating a role for ourselves. That’s where the mandarin tradition failed us. With, as I say, one exception.

    Alan

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    • Agree about Dewey. He was amazing. Dewey was possible pre WWII because society had a sense of shared American culture, and of high culture. That shared sense enabled liberal scholars like Dewey who could range across the spectrum of knowledge and practices – and to have academia be a place for such unified thinking. People, nonacademics as well as academics in other disciplines, listened to him, or atleast heard him, because they felt he was channeling something they all had in common – a common culture.

      Post WWII, that sense of common culture started to break down with the rise of diversity movements. Positivism and a scientific minded philosophy took over in America because science seemed like the only thing which held everyone together. Even with analytic phil becoming post-positivist, it mainly held this sense that science is what binds us all. It’s an understandable view, but fatal for academic philosophy. It gave up on the role of philosophy, as Dewey and many others saw it, as itself something distinct which holds people together – by speaking to our shared sense of culture. In academic philosophy, things went from pre WWII sense of american culture is European based to post WWII sense that what binds us is that we are all biological beings. The aim of transforming our sense of shared culture got lost, and is what Rorty and others, including some feminists, race theorists, etc., were trying to bring back since the 80s.

      I see the current left identity politics in academic philosophy as a flat footed attempt to bring back the culture issues without working on the background foundations necessary for that. We want to continue what Dewey did. But how to do that given all the changes re diversity in society and coming changes in techonology and globalization which could be even more disrupting? Need to tackle this question, whether inside or outside academia.

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  7. You have pointed out that this is university wide, not just the humanities or philosophy but also “safe” STEM areas like biomedical research. What is everyone else going to do? 😉 A certain amount is the economy over the last decade, but many of these trends go back to the 1990s.

    As to professionalism, I presume most people agree with you that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing professionally?

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    • The issue is not limited to humanities or even academia. I found this op-ed in the NYT interesting, which circles similar issues:

      What is happening in academia is happening in society broadly. The 20th century saw great movements (feminism, civil rights, end of colonialism, etc.) which opened up vast portions of the population to middle and upper class life, and the sense that they are not second to anyone. All that is good. But the institutions in the 20th century were not really equipped for this mass change. In 1900 the leaders and the elite in America really were a small percent of the population – and they came from a pool which was itself small. By 2000 that pool is very big, but still the nature of leadership and elites being what it is, they are still only a small fraction of the population (only now that small group is more diverse). This has created a bottle neck and fears that many are being left behind altogether.

      Being professional is great, as opposed to being unprofessional. But being professional is not a solution to the problem of the bottle neck. Whatever the solutions might look like, they would have to involve an expansive, big picture thinking which isn’t limited by one’s professional expertise.

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  8. Academics want to preserve a philosophical canon. The traditional types look to the canon of classical Europe. The liberal types are more likely to choose another famous canon, or to invent their own. This can’t work anymore, because we now know that the range of philosophy a human mind is capable of includes many traditions unknown to most of the world.

    But in the attempt to broaden our perspective, we forget that we’re merely cogs in the process of humanity investigating itself. Despite our liberal pretensions, we still haven’t shaken off the colonial conceit that we’re a coherent “half” of humanity trying to make sense of the rest of the world. We send our experts to interview their street-folk, and then get surprised that this results in an unbalanced transaction.

    Every culture has philosophers. Every culture has expert thinkers respected for their wisdom. In classical times, we could only imagine them and chase their footprints. Today, we can reach out and find them, and talk to them as equals. But we don’t, because we aren’t looking outside our own styles of signification. The difference between a room and a field, between a god and a phenomenon, between a guardian angel and an insurance company, etc. The distinctions are our own, but the common ideas they encompass may be closer to universal than any academic realizes.

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