On academia and cultural exceptionalism


This is Mark Griffith. I had a class from him in translation as an undergraduate and then later, in graduate school, a reading class on Horace. He is a good professor but what makes him unique in my life is that he was the only person, student or professor, who without need of persuasion signed our petition asking for health insurance for TAs. I expressed amazement and he said:

◊ yes, many people object to health insurance in general, but he did not, and
◊ yes, many faculty refuse to act in concert with students, but he did not see the institution that way, and
◊ yes, many faculty and students believe they will ruin their careers if they speak up for rights in any way, but he doubted that were true and in any case believed one should speak up for rights.

Almost no other faculty member signed on grounds that it was “not their issue.” Many graduate students declined on the grounds that having done so might, years later, prevent them from getting academic jobs. 

That is why Griffith’s reaction so stood out. Everyone else had ideas about “appropriateness” and most importantly about how academic work was not a job and should not be defiled by having health insurance connected to it. Professors were saying this while enjoying some of the best health coverage in the land.

That is what all these people so dedicated to the life of the mind were up to. They said they were above material needs and were more ethereal than we, who were dirtying our hands with practical matters. Really they were much more materialistic, if they were not bound entirely by material fears. 

They are sitting in endowed chairs now, some of them, and if you do not watch them they will sign away copyright and academic freedom because their eyes are still focused entirely on other worlds.


I got this idea from the Spanish Professor: it is not that academia is a “cult” but that it presents a strong narrative of cultural exceptionalism. One of the things I do not like about these narratives is the number of sacrificial victims they require.

I will say it one more time. The people who do not get jobs and who then say a few things about the nature of the system are not the ones responsible for the current crisis. They may unsettle one’s belief that one “did it all oneself.” If one is new to the liberal professions their discordant speech may make it more difficult to absorb the official narrative about what we are doing, with which we do all need to be familiar.

That is, they may unsettle our narrative of cultural exceptionalism. But those actually responsible for the current crisis are people it takes energy to contest and we need to “protect our time.” We are also above mundane matters. Instead we can ridicule people who did not get jobs. Then we can call miserliness and cruelty, outrage on behalf of a saintly vocation.

I know people sometimes engage in this behavior in a misguided effort to identify themselves as part of an in-crowd. It is unpleasant, if common in middle school. Many grow out of it by high school. It is entirely inappropriate after that, although I do understand we are in an environment where it continues and it is sometimes difficult to resist. Still, it is to be resisted. And now I am finished speaking on this matter.


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