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What Is a Scholar? 12 November 2007

Posted by Todd in Academia & Education, Teaching.
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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.



1. oaklandchloe - 12 November 2007

I am left almost without words, but have one for you, no, make that two: downright depressing.

2. playasinmar - 12 November 2007

“…spoken of in bitter tones by academics even as they work to keep their jobs.”

Ahhh, a world in which everyone works to keep their job.

3. Todd - 13 November 2007

hey playa,
not sure I understand your point, but mine was that for all the reasons professors could do what they do, they are reduced to being motivated by keeping their job. In other words, they are like the vast majority of Americans in a capitalist labor force who don’t get to work for vocation or love or craft–but only for the rationale of the labor market and the bare necessity of paying the bills.

4. playasinmar - 13 November 2007

Yeah, that was my point too. I’ve always thought of universities as businesses, though. They have a product they trade to you for money. They market it like a product and are always looking for new ways to generate revenue.

I don’t think it’s a bad thing. The competition to attract the best students makes for better universities.

5. Todd - 13 November 2007

This belies a profound misunderstanding of how universities work in the real world:

By their very nature, Universities can’t be market driven, because they are producers of knowledge, only a small sliver of which has a market value. If they were, the only majors you’d have on campus would be business and engineering. The value they add to people and society and human life is for the most part not valued on the labor or commodity markets, with the glaring exception of professional degrees (e.g., business and engineering). While there is a market for a true education out there, it is relatively small: most students come to University to be credentialed to get a job that will guarantee them a berth in the middle class. Frankly, if students merely want a job, we should dismantle the university system and create a bunch of professional schools and call it a day.

The “competition” for professors is artificial and does nothing to increase the value of the education students receive at a university (in fact the research shows the opposite): It is produced by a dramatic reduction in funding since the 1970s, usually due to politically ideology and arm-wrestling, creating a false oversupply. It’s kind of like tricky math: you see, you still need professors to teach all the students, but you don’t want to pay them. So you reduce funding, force the university to leave unfilled empty positions and hire part-timers—lather, rince and repeat as needed. By 2000, 1/2 of all college courses are no longer taught by professors, but by adjuncts (who have no stake or attachment to the universities they teach for (usually two or three), no research requirement, no connection to their departments, and they’re overworked and underpaid with no job security). So you see they tell us that there is no demand for Ph.Ds, that we have a ‘glut’ in the market; but the reality is that they need all those Ph.Ds, they’re just not going to give them full time jobs. Universities still compete with each other for the top PhDs to hire, regardless; but then those professors get in tto their jobs and have unreasonable and sometimes undoable requirements. Publish or perish is literal, and it doesn’t mean that scholars are producing a lot of great scholarship, it means that desperate overworked professors are publishing as much and as often as they can to keep their jobs. Scholars are not machines; and scholarship cannot be managed or rationalized a la Taylor without jeopardizing the quality of the work.

[As a side note, there is a huge cultural shift between junior and senior faculty around the country because Senior faculty, especially thouse who got tenure by 1985 or so, simply did not have to work under these conditions, but have no understanding of what their junior faculty and adjunct colleagues’ lives are actually like. This is especially true in the CSU, where senior faculty all actually own houses and junior faculty would never be able to afford them, even at the top of their pay scale (unless they’re in Humboldt or Chico).]

In reality, Universities still have to have the same number of teachers per pupil as always, they just now get to hire contract laborers who make as little as 1/2 of the permanent employees. This makes for a disgruntled, underpaid, undervalued labor force on one end, and an underpaid overworked (60 hour weeks anyone?) on the other end — this is not for a “competitive” university. (Even Harvard saves money by hiring adjuncts and by regularly denying tenure to its junior faculty.)

In fact, Universities do not seek new ways to generate revenue: they just seek money, because they are money black holes. The wealthy universities (e.g., Harvard) are wealthy because of 200 year old endowment funds, not because they make money. Even public universities rely on donations from alumni and benefactors, not revenue. Taxes and tuition (which in california has increased more than 300% since the 1960s in adjusted dollars) pay for the education.

Other money comes from grants (both private and public), which are gained competitively among researchers–but that would happen regardless of how the professorial labor market were structured.

Universities can often bring in money from sports endorsements (which go to institutions not athletes) and by selling their students as consumers to fast food and soft drink companies (see the “food courts” in most major universities). And even more damning, the value of an education is based on prestige and reputation, not the quality of education; and the attempts to quantify that quality prove elusive, at best (e.g., U.S. News’s rankings, which are notoriously spurious).

The profit motive works in many markets, but has deleterious effects in many others: housing, healthcare, transportation, and education, for example. I’m not alone in thinking so: this goes all the way back to the granddaddy of free markets himself, Adam Smith.

In education, if we removed public funding from Universities, as many as 80% of the current university students around the country would be out of luck. Even if there were private universities for all of them to attend, none of them could afford it. Depending on the state you reside in, the taxpayers cover between 80 and 95% of your college education. When the UC system was the best in the U.S., it was because the state invested in it, attracted the best scholars from around the country, and created environments of learning.

The current state of flux and angst in Universities now is due in large part to the effort to make universities follow market rules, as we did everything during the glorious Reagan years.

This is NOT in any way creating competition among universities to “attract” the best students. This is running a university with no money, culturally expecting all students to go to college to be middle class, and then expecting universities to still do the job of universities–educate and produce knowledge–with only 1/2 of the permanent professors they need.

6. playasinmar - 13 November 2007

Maybe we’re using the word “revenue” differently (and public funding isn’t how Sear’s would go about it) but my point is that schools work to get the money to sustain themselves.

And I’ll admit that I’ve never worked for a school or anything similar but what you’re describing sure sounds like every job I ever seen: Produce or Be Canned.

I’ve never heard that anyone was immune to that but if professors used to be then I can understand the stress of suddenly being forced to compete.

I’ll admit I’m not sure what you mean when you say a diploma isn’t a product. Universities seem to treat it as such. They market it like a product, anyway.

7. DMKelly - 26 July 2008

Hi Todd,

I found your blog in thinking about preparing a lesson for high school English students on the question of “scholarship” and what it means to be a scholar, whether scholarship in the traditional sense is still valued, whether anyone can be a scholar, etc. I was thinking it would be a great discussion to have with high school students in an age of ultra-commerce. I am a person who, like you, always wanted to be a scholar. I would have gone to school for the rest of my life, if I could have afforded it. When it was finally time for me to go to college, I was so excited — ready to enter the world of scholars, enthusiastic students, professors, all just discussing ideas, late into the evening. Of course, I was disappointed. Other than a small handful of friends (who had the same dreams I had), and one or two professors, college life was more about figuring out how you were going to make money after school. I hated that. I didn’t know what I wanted to “do.” I loved my music theory courses, I loved English Literature, humanities, culture, history, social issues. I loved reading — from about the time I was four, but far beyond that, and above and beyond what I was assigned. I studied at Oxford for six months — one of the best academic experiences of my life, although it was lonely. But the focus, the pressure on me, from my blue-collar family, was to figure out what my job would be. I couldn’t decide. I had a series of jobs right out of college, and finally decided to go to law school (more because I wanted another academic experience, and couldn’t settle on one particular subject for a graduate degree than because I had any particular desire to “be a lawyer.”) I enjoyed playing in the law, but I did not want to practice, and as for finding scholars among my classmates — HA. It was a competitive, cold, suspicious, ultimately dismal environment. Professors were untouchable — forget any intimate conversations, or bantering of ideas. After that, I simply retreated. I got a non-descript, unimpressive job to pay the bills and provide insurance and began pursuing my teaching degree through an alternate route. There is a large part of me that wishes to bring back the idea of scholarship — but I know that I am naive. Because the marketplace has all but completely absorbed academia, I don’t know that any effort to revive scholarship will succeed. I fully expect to try to introduce some students to an idea of academia for academia’s sake, but I also fully expect to be disappointed and burned out. I know I won’t find scholars among my colleagues.

I hate the idea of universities as factories for spewing out members of the middle class, but I think you’re absolutely right. And I think we should stop pretending, simply dismantle the universities, create vocational technical schools, and stop the charade.

At the very least, I hope to create in some of my students the desire to seek another way.

8. Todd - 27 July 2008

Thanks DMKelly. Not much has changed for me over the past 9 months since I wrote this post, but I think I see more clearly what *I* want and have been working to make my work-space such that I can be a scholar, the kind of scholar I want to be.

Good luck with the high schoolers!


9. Axel Meierhoefer - 12 December 2008

Dear Todd
I like what you wrote about the question: What is a scholar. To use your comment/post in an academic paper, I need to be able to cite properly (which goes to show that you are absolutely right your observations of the system).
To properly do that, I would need a name, in addition to your first name. Would you be willing to reveal such detail?

I am ready to advance to candidacy and have a last chance to write about my experience. I thought I use it to be open and suggest improvements, but decided not to do it after all. I learned in teh last 4 years that the academic university is nothing but a factory of degrees run by 20th century leadership principles and many 19th century methodologies. To make that known and openly critique it in a paper before my dissertation has been defended is probably not smart. Is till like to keep your reference, so, if you would, please respond and let me know how to cite you properly for the article/post



10. janet spell - 26 December 2010

i am an uneducated woman of 56.exceptfor my high school diploma.in south carolina people on the norm hope their daughters just get married well. its sad.are there any programs to help people my age. ? i dont want to leave this world dumb. lol any help , ideas, appreciated. i have a 5yr old grand daughter who looks up to me now. no one in my large family got past a batchlor degree. janet in ga 4408 cary drive snellville ga 30039-6510

11. Todd - 29 December 2010


Don’t give up! One of the great things about the American higher education system is that you can start over whenever you want through the Community College system. You can start with your GED and go from there. It is never too late. New research on brains indicate that you can learn at any age (although it’s true that after our early 20s, we learn slower than the youngsters). You may have some social anxiety (I don’t know, but you might) because you might be in classes with people who are significantly younger than you, but don’t let that stop you. My favorite students are often my “non-traditional” students who come back to school later in life.

Good luck!

12. etemike oscar - 15 March 2011

yea,scholars are reseacher of knaledge about a particular descipline

13. Laura - 26 July 2011

“Do you have to quit academia to be a scholar at this point?”

Unfortunately, my experience has taught me that the answer to this question is a resounding, “Yes.”

Academia has become a “system”–not one of thought; but one of business. I continue my “scholarly” pursuits only as a hobby now.

Real education in the U.S. died a long time ago. Those who actually want to learn have learned that they must sacrifice their minds to the “fast-food” mentality of sales, sales, sales. Whatever makes a quick buck is that which has most students going into college these days. In other words, “I need a degree or certification to make money. Who cares if I can reason?” Mind you, I’m not being pessimistic; just realistic in stating the facts.

And we wonder why the majority of Americans can only read at a 6th grade level…? I seriously doubt our leaders care whether the masses can think for themselves. It seems we’ve been drifting back into the Dark Ages and with the government’s approval.

14. Youngone - 18 January 2012

I, however, am just now beginning to look at universities as a place to study and further my education. I hope that I might find the one in million that will allow me to inquire (and still let me be able to eat upon leaving the school) . I can say that from my current experience through the public eduation system, I have found more scholarship outside of classes. Interestingly enough, I’ve found the most logical inquiries at church. There everyone is truly searching for greater understanding. Pastors don’t make a product they only guide people’s understanding. What I love the most is that my friends and I can use what we’ve learned in school, logic, and the spirit of inquiry to cover all kinds of topics that no one particularly cares if we think about.

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