Interesting take on this from Matthew Milliner, a doctoral candidate in art history at Princeton.
Part of the reason for the academy’s present acridity is that many have treated doctoral programs as glorified vocational institutes—getting the degree to get the job. When the job becomes unavailable, the degree, and the years spent acquiring it, become retroactively pointless. To be sure, many who complain about academia are fully justified. They’ve been given a raw deal. Talent does not always rise to the top. The latest fusion of fashion and mediocrity gets tenure, while superior minds get shattering disappointment. That said, anyone who enters this line of work unaware of the employment odds was probably not among such superior minds. Most importantly, it is worth considering that—if Plato’s intimations were sound—then time spent in the self-justifying humanities is time well spent, whether or not it results in certain and sustained employment.
There is good reason that it’s hard to find a job teaching at the university level, both in the Middle Ages and today: such jobs are (or at least should be) enjoyable. Aristotle believed that the exercise of the mind, enhanced by the friendship of colleagues, is the essence of human flourishing. Universities—while frequently failing to realize this ideal—allow for its possibility like no place else. When such conditions are enhanced by subjects as inherently worthwhile as the humanities, life begins to look pretty good. An apocryphal tale has it that when Harvard hired its first lecturer in the fine arts, Charles Norton, the nature of his subject matter permitted his employer to ask, “And will you be needing a salary?” This is not, of course, to suggest that researching and teaching the humanities do not require work—they require a backbreaking amount. But it is worth remembering that many have found such work so inherently worthwhile, so endlessly rewarding, that they have happily done it for free.
Scott Hanley says
I could really wish you had chosen to say “an exhausting amount” of work, rather than “backbreaking.” It's another of the attractions of academia that it doesn't wear out the body.