Modern academia.

So I just noticed that this was published in ’96, but as is often the case due to The Independent’s strange social networking set-up, it’s popped up a fair amount on Facebook recently. Noel Malcolm laments the state of modern academia:

This year more than 80,000 new books will be published in this country. In the US, the figure will be more than 160,000. Not all of these are academic, but academic publishing is where the rise in quantity is matched most startlingly by the decline in readers per book. The books are bought by libraries, not readers. This is even more true in the case of academic journals… It is estimated that 200,000 academic journals are published in the English language, and that the average number of readers per article is five…

I am not exaggerating when I say that this flood is eroding academic intellectual life. It has become impossible for anyone to maintain an overview of a single, even fairly narrow subject – let alone a discipline as a whole.

And so much of it is unnecessary regurgitation. Academia should aim for clarity and concision and importance, and yet it’s drowning in an unmanageable swamp of bullshit. I lost count of the number of times, as an undergraduate, that I had a reading list for a topic with up to ten introductory books on it, each one saying the same thing in slightly different language, perhaps offering one new interpretive insight at best in an entire chapter. There’s a place for secondary texts to shed light on primary material, but this much light? It becomes blinding. Almost every line in Malcolm’s piece resonates with my experiences.

Which is why I’ve chosen to take my next set of supervisions in the philosophy of Hume. It’s very easy to get bogged down in detailed modern debates which it’s difficult to assess the real significance of. There’s a good chance that if I spend my time reading papers in modern metaphysics, a few decades from now I will be deemed to have wasted my time. Thanks to history, I know that won’t be the case if I do Hume. Letting the great and classical thinkers guide you ensures that you study what matters.

But what Malcolm says about why academia has reached this condition also explains why I am increasingly sure that I’m ready to leave in eighteen months. The pressure on potential professors to inflate the size of their CV with a list of publications to prove that they’re even worth considering is crazy, and I just don’t think I could contribute to that self-supporting bubble. It wasn’t always like this. Neither of my two oldest tutors here at Oxford – Lesley Brown and Ralph Walker – had extensive publishing records. A handful of books and articles between them, but certainly not hundreds. But they were still the most awesomely wise and attentive tutors I have had. They took a passion in teaching and they were good at it. That used to be the main purpose of a professor. Nowadays, it’s not enough. It might not even be necessary. (Incidentally, Lesley didn’t even do a doctorate. When she was young, it wasn’t necessary for academic employment and suggested you couldn’t get employed. How times change.)

If I thought I could teach one day and only write papers when I had something novel worth saying, then I could give more consideration to pursuing this path. But that doesn’t look possible. And even if it was, there are other reasons for leaving. For instance, everything I have learnt over the last three years has been about all the good we should do as humans in the world. Something tells me I should stop thinking about that at some point, and instead begin to actually do it. And I’ve been foolishly writing here as if it would be entirely up to me whether I do a doctorate. Even having the option would be conditional on miraculously receiving further funding and an offer of a place.

None of this is to say that I do not immeasurably appreciate my current and past opportunities. I was not ready to leave after my amazing undergraduate degree. So many cans were opened in those three years that I couldn’t possibly abandon. But after these further two years of Masters study? If I use them well, and write about what genuinely intrigues me and seems important rather than just what will enhance any further applications, then I think that will be enough. That’s why I’ve decided to look at climate change next. And I’ll have to write something about it even if I find myself simply agreeing with what someone else has already said. But at least it will be for the sake of clarifying my own thoughts, and stimulating discussion with my supervisor. I won’t be financially forced into saying something because of the career I have chosen.

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3 thoughts on “Modern academia.

  1. Got squeezed out as well by a similar question: if I change tunes completely and plunge headfirst into a specialized stream, so that I gain a position to speak from, I’ll have essentially wasted a lot of energy publishing what others want to see published (not read, just see published). With financial concerns already and little chance of a job at the other end, it was time to try something else — English teaching and occasional independent research (this I feel is akin to your look at Hume, I’m looking at al-Ghazali with no thesis preparations as yet).

    Long way of saying, cheers to what you said and best of luck.

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