What Is a Scholar? 12 November 2007Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
Tags: Jacques Barzun, professoriate, scholarship, William James
Reading in the October New Yorker magazine the brief intellectual biography of Jacques Barzun, historian and culture critic, I found myself wondering again, what exactly makes someone a scholar? Is a scholar a teacher or a researcher? Does a scholar retreat to their study to read and think, or is a scholar engaged on the street with the proverbial “people”? Is a scholar a call to a certain ethical kind of life? Indeed, is scholarship a calling at all? If you are a scholar, how should you be spending your days? Do other people have to recognize you as a scholar in order to call yourself a scholar, or is the title “scholar” not something anyone should ever say of themselves, at least not among those who would consider it gauche? Is scholarship pretentious or vital? Does having a Ph.D. make you a scholar or just a wanna be?
Barzun has spent his life reading, writing, thinking, and teaching (he turns 100 this year). Thirty-five books and countless articles later, a popular teacher at Columbia, recognized as an originator of “culture critique” in literary theory, and a champion of a humanistic kind of history (as opposed to the social scientific mode), Barzun seems to exemplify what a scholar is or should be. Some of my favorite thinkers were immensely productive in their first 40 years of life, and most were also teachers.
Perhaps the most glaring exception to this would be William James who spent the first 36 years of his life trying to figure out what he wanted to be when he grew up. Reading James’ biography this summer, I felt somewhat comforted, not simply because of my low productivity so far, but because he and I share so much in common in our temperaments.
But the academic system of the United States has made scholarship into a job, and I feel more or less like a factory worker: produce bachelors degrees at break-neck speed and in your down time, produce enough scholarship to get you through tenure. The increasing proletarianization of the academic labor force, the loss of funding for public universities since the 1970s, the transformation of the professoriate into a temporary, expendable workforce has created a publish or perish mentality, spoken of in bitter tones by academics even as they work to keep their jobs. Research has become instrumental (and in many cases slipshod), teaching completely rationalized and assessed (the fault, in my opinion, of “scholars” of education who justify their existence by creating nonsensical rubrics for judging outcomes)), and the life of the mind is now a giggle-inducing joke among graduate students and professors alike.
Somewhere around age 16, I decided I was going to get a Ph.D. — I had loved school for as long as I could remember and it seemed like a good way to keep on keepin’ on. I loved learning and exploring, read constantly, soaked up information wherever I could find it. My mission and foray into orthodox Mormonism simultaneously halted my “mindlife” and prepared me for new directions, questions, and insights. But college did as much to squelch my desire to learn as it did to stoke my curiosity. For some reason, much of my schoolwork came to feel like a chore instead of a joy (of course, that had been true in high school as well, but as a teenager I naively thought that was merely an aberration).
Graduate school introduced me to the realities of academic work, as opposed to the sheer joy of learning. There were moments when I wondered what the hell I was doing. Teaching, which I thought I would love, proved to be incredibly difficult. My 2nd year teaching Western Civilization, I had a class of students who had waited to take their requirement until they were seniors and so thought they knew the course material, and resisted every single thing i tried to teach or do in the classroom. I had serious doubts about becoming a teacher at that moment. Despite that roadblock I decided to continue in my quest to become a university professor.
As an undergraduate, I imagined my professorial life to be one of reading a lot, and having animated conversations with curious students. I imagined thinking important thoughts and writing them down. I imagined arguments and debates with other impassioned scholars.
Graduate school introduced me to the idea of the “public intellectual”, and I began to think that perhaps my research and thinking could actually help people, change the world. I knew that it was naive and idealistic, and yet I still secretly harbored the hope. I also found a great deal of satisfaction in teaching, and thought of it as opening minds and engaging with bright young people who inspired me.
Now two years into my tenure-track job, I find I’m in a place of disillusionment. It’s a weird place to be when I knew much of this coming into the position, having been told by mentors and friends what being a professor is “really” like. Yet actually living it is somehow more bracing and upsetting than merely being told about it. I teach in the largest public university in the United States, guided by a legal dictate from the 1960s to offer undergraduate education to (I think) the top 30% of all California’s high school graduates. The CSU has to fight for minimal funding every single year, but pays its administration at the system-level absurd amounts of money and benefits with no transparency (Arnold Schwartzenegger just vetoed the bill that would’ve made executive pay in the system transparent and accountable). Student teacher ratios continue to rise, as does the ratio of courses taught by temporary, part-time faculty vs. full-time, tenure-track faculty (if I’m not mistaken, a majority of our courses are now taught by temp workers). The preparation of students coming in is often well below what is necessary to succeed in a university. The teaching load, which was reasonable before the publish-or-perish model of tenure, is now crushing if you want anything resembling a research program, which ironically you must have in order to get tenure (specifically, 2x the teaching load of the UC system, significantly lower pay, but 1/3 of tenure is still based on research). The relative comfort of tenured professors who bought houses in the 80s when you could still buy a home on our salary combined with a tight and deeply conservative institution makes institutional inertia almost a given. Like professors all over the country, I’m disheartened by the depth of apathy in many of my students.
In short, my idealism about being a scholar has been crushed. I’m not saying this to whine or complain (although I’d really appreciate making a more liveable wage for the bay area). Rather I ask the question: Given the realities of higher education in the United States today, and my particular experience in my tenure-track job, what does it mean to be a scholar? Is scholarship the privelege of a select few at Columbia University? Or is it a thing of the past? Are there no places left where curious students and excited professors talk, argue, engage, and stimulate each others’ minds? Do you have to quit academia to be a scholar at this point? Is a university truly nothing more than a factory producing credentialed workers for the economy?
In many ways, these are personal questions. I have to figure out what, if any, of my old ideas of having a “life of the mind” (before the phrase made me scoff) I can salvage; in what ways might I still, in a more realistic sense, be a “public intellectual”? Given the expectations and values of my students, what should my expectations be of them and of my life as a teacher? Should I have a reasonable expectation of being able to research and write throughout my career, or is that something I need to modify? For someone who has felt that scholarship was his vocation since he was 16 years old, these are not trifling questions. John Dewey argued that a good philosophy is one that meets the world where it is. This can be painful and difficult if you still find yourself attached to the old philosophy, one built on values that still resonate in your core world view.