How we unlearn to read

Having been busy with grading again, I noticed a strange double standard in our reading practice and posted the following remark on facebook and twitter:

A question for scholars. – How can we spend a lifetime on a chapter in Aristotle and think we’re done with a student essay in two hours? Both can be equally enigmatic.

Although it was initially meant as a joke of sorts, it got others and me thinking about various issues. Some people rightly pointed out that we mainly set essay tasks for the limited purpose of training people to write; others noted that they are expected to take even less than two hours (some take as little as 10 minutes per paper). Why do we go along with such expectations? Although our goals in assigning essays might be limited, the contrast to our critical and historical engagement with past or current texts of philosophers should give us pause. Let me list two reasons.

Firstly, we might overlook great ideas in contributions by students. I am often amazed how some students manage to come up with all crucial objections and replies to certain claims within 20 minutes, while these considerations took perhaps 20 years to evolve in the historical setting. Have them read, say, Putnam’s twin earth thought experiment and listen to all the major objections passing by in less than an hour. If they can do that, it’s equally likely that their work contains real contributions. But we’ll only notice those if we take our time and dissect sometimes clumsy formulations to uncover the ideas behind them. I’m proud to have witnessed quite a number of graduate students who have developed highly original interpretations and advanced discussions in ways that I didn’t dream of.

Secondly, by taking comparably little time we send a certain message both to our students and ourselves. On the one hand, such a practice might suggest that their work doesn’t really matter. If that message is conveyed, then the efforts on part of the students might be equally low. Some students have to write so many essays that they don’t have time to read. And let’s face it, grading essays without proper feedback is equally a waste of time. If we don’t pay attention to detail, we are ultimately undermining the purpose of philosophical education. Students write more and more papers, while we have less and less time to read them properly. Like a machine running blindly, mimicking educational activity. On the other hand, this way of interacting with and about texts will affect our overall reading practice. Instead of trying to appreciate ideas and think them through, we just look for cues of familiarity or failure. Peer review is overburdening many of us in similar ways. Hence, we need our writing to be appropriately formulaic. If we don’t stick to certain patterns, we risk that our peers miss the cues and think badly of our work. We increasingly write for people who have no time to read, undermining engagement with ideas. David Labaree even claims that it’s often enough to produce work that “looks and feels” like a proper dissertation or paper.

The extreme result is an increasing mechanisation of mindless writing and reading. It’s not supring that hoaxes involving automated or merely clichéd writing get through peer review. Of course this is not true across the board. People still write well and read diligently. But the current trend threatens to undermine educational and philosophical purposes. An obvious remedy would be to improve the student-teacher ratio by employing more staff. In any case, students and staff should write less, leaving more time to read carefully.

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Speaking of reading, I’d like to thank all of you who continue reading or even writing for this blog. I hope you enjoy the upcoming holidays, wish you a very happy new year, and look forward to conversing with you again soon.

Philosophical genres. A response to Peter Adamson

Would you say that the novel is of a more proper literary genre than poetry? Or would you say that the pop song is less of a musical genre than the sonata? To me these questions make no sense. Both poems and novels form literary genres; both pop songs and sonatas form musical genres. And while you might have a personal preference for one over the other, I can’t see a justification for principally privileging one over the other. The same is of course true of philosophical genres: A commentary on a philosophical text is no less of a philosophical genre than the typical essay or paper.* Wait! What?

Looking at current trends that show up in publication lists, hiring practices, student assignments etc., articles (preferably in peer-reviewed journals) are the leading genre. While books still count as important contributions in various fields, my feeling is that the paper culture is beginning to dominate everything else. But what about commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews? Although people in the profession still recognise that these genres involve work and (increasingly rare) expertise, they usually don’t count as important contributions, even in history of philosophy. I think this trend is highly problematic for various reasons. But most of all it really impoverishes the philosophical landscape. Not only will it lead to a monoculture in publishing; also our teaching of philosophy increasingly focuses on paper production. But what does this trend mean? Why don’t we hold other genres at least in equally high esteem?

What seemingly unites commentaries to texts, annotated editions and translations or reviews is that they focus on the presentation of the ideas of others. Thus, my hunch is that we seem to think more highly of people presenting their own ideas than those presenting the ideas of others. In a recent blog post, Peter Adamson notes the following:

“Nowadays we respect the original, innovative thinker more than the careful interpreter. That is rather an anomaly, though. […]

[I]t was understood that commenting is itself a creative activity, which might involve giving improved arguments for a school’s positions, or subtle, previously overlooked readings of the text being commented upon.”

Looking at ancient, medieval and even early modern traditions, the obsession with what counts as originality is an anomaly indeed. I say “obsession” because this trend is quite harmful. Not only does it impoverish our philosophical knowledge and skills, it also destroys a necessary division of labour. Why on earth should every one of us toss out “original claims” by the minute? Why not think hard about what other people wrote for a change? Why not train your philosophical chops by doing a translation? Of course the idea that originality consists in expressing one’s own ideas is fallacious anyway, since thinking is dialogical. If we stop trying to understand and uncover other texts, outside of our paper culture, our thinking will become more and more self-referential and turn into a freely spinning wheel… I’m exaggerating of course, but perhaps only a bit. We don’t even need the medieval commentary traditions to remind ourselves. Just remember that it was, amongst other things, Chomsky’s review of Skinner that changed the field of linguistics. Today, writing reviews, working on editions and translations doesn’t get you a grant, let alone a job. While we desperately need new editions, translations and materials for research and teaching, these works are esteemed more like a pastime or retirement hobby.**

Of course, many if not most of us know that this monoculture is problematic. I just don’t know how we got there that quickly. When I began to study, the work on editions and translations still seemed to flourish, at least in Germany. But it quickly died out, history of philosophy was abandoned or ‘integrated’ in positions in theoretical or practical philosophy, and many people who then worked very hard on the texts that are available in shiny editions are now without a job.

If we go on like this, we’ll soon find that no one will be able to read or work on past texts. We should then teach our students that real philosophy didn’t begin to evolve before 1970 anyway. Until it gets that bad I would plead for reintroducing a sensible division of labour, both in research and teaching. If you plan your assignments next time, don’t just offer your students to write an essay. Why not have them choose between an annotated translation, a careful commentary on a difficult passage or a review? Oh, of course, they may write an essay, too. But it’s just one of many philosophical genres, many more than I listed here.

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* In view of the teaching practice that follows from the focus on essay writing, I’d adjust the opening analogy as follows: Imagine the music performed by a jazz combo solely consisting of soloists and no rhythm section. And imagine that all music instruction would from now on be geared towards soloing only… (Of course, this analogy would capture the skills rather than the genre.)

** See Eric Schliesser’s intriguing reply to this idea.

Why would we want to call people “great thinkers” and cite harassers? A response to Julian Baggini

If you have ever been at a rock or pop concert, you might recognise the following phenomenon: The band on the stage begins playing an intro. Pulsing synths and roaring drums build up to a yet unrecognisable tune. Then the band breaks into the well-known chorus of their greatest hit and the audience applauds frenetically. People become enthusiastic if they recognise something. Thus, part of the “greatness” is owing to the act of recognising it. There is nothing wrong with that. It’s just that people celebrate their own recognition at least as much as the tune performed. I think much the same is true of our talk of “great thinkers”. We applaud recognised patterns. But only applauding the right kinds of patterns and thinkers secures our belonging to the ingroup. Since academic applause signals and regulates who belongs to a group, such applause has a moral dimension, especially in educational institutions. Yes, you guess right, I want to argue that we need to rethink whom and what we call great.

When we admire someone’s smartness or argument, an enormous part of our admiration is owing to our recognition of preferred patterns. This is why calling someone a “great thinker” is to a large extent self-congratulatory. It signals and reinforces canonical status. What’s important is that this works in three directions: it affirms that status of the figure, it affirms it for me, and it signals this affirmation to others. Thus, it signals where I (want to) belong and demonstrates which nuances of style and content are of the right sort. The more power I have, the more I might be able to reinforce such status. People speaking with the backing of an educational institution can help building canonical continuity. Now the word “great” is conveniently vague. But should we applaud bigots?

“Admiring the great thinkers of the past has become morally hazardous.” Thus opens Julian Baggini’s piece on “Why sexist and racist philosophers might still be admirable”. Baggini’s essay is quite thoughtful and I advise you to read it. That said, I fear it contains a rather problematic inconsistency. Arguing in favour of excusing Hume for his racism, Baggini makes an important point: “Our thinking is shaped by our environment in profound ways that we often aren’t even aware of. Those who refuse to accept that they are as much limited by these forces as anyone else have delusions of intellectual grandeur.” – I agree that our thinking is indeed very much shaped by our (social) surroundings. But while Baggini makes this point to exculpate Hume,* he clearly forgets all about it when he returns to calling Hume one of the “greatest minds”. If Hume’s racism can be excused by his embeddedness in a racist social environment, then surely much of his philosophical “genius” cannot be exempt from being explained through this embeddedness either. In other words, if Hume is not (wholly) responsible for his racism, then he cannot be (wholly) responsible for his philosophy either. So why call only him the “great mind”?

Now Baggini has a second argument for leaving Hume’s grandeur untouched. Moral outrage is wasted on the dead because, unlike the living, they can neither “face justice” nor “show remorse”. While it’s true that the dead cannot face justice, it doesn’t automatically follow that we should not “blame individuals for things they did in less enlightened times using the standards of today”. I guess we do the latter all the time. Even some court systems punish past crimes. Past Nazi crimes are still put on trial, even if the system under which they were committed had different standards and is a thing of a past (or so we hope). Moreover, even if the dead cannot face justice themselves, it does make a difference how we remember and relate to the dead. Let me make two observations that I find crucial in this respect:

(1) Sometimes we uncover “unduly neglected” figures. Thomas Hobbes, for instance, has been pushed to the side as an atheist for a long time. Margaret Cavendish is another case of a thinker whose work has been unduly neglected. When we start reading such figures again and begin to affirm their status, we declare that we see them as part of our ingroup and ancestry. Accordingly, we try and amend an intellectual injustice. Someone has been wronged by not having been recognised. And although we cannot literally change the past, in reclaiming such figures we change our intellectual past, insofar as we change the patterns that our ingroup is willing to recognise. Now if we can decide to help changing our past in that way, moral concerns apply. It seems we have a duty to recognise figures that have been shunned, unduly by our standards.**

(2) Conversely, if we do not acknowledge what we find wrong in past thinkers, we are in danger of becoming complicit in endorsing and amplifying the impact of certain wrongs or ideologies. But we have the choice of changing our past in these cases, too. This becomes even more pressing in cases where there is an institutional continuity between us and the bigots of the past. As Markus Wild points out in his post, Heidegger’s influence continues to haunt us, if those exposing his Nazism are attacked. Leaving this unacknowledged in the context of university teaching might mean becoming complicit in amplifying the pertinent ideology. That said, the fact that we do research on such figures or discuss their doctrines does not automatically mean that we endorse their views. As Charlotte Knowles makes clear, it is important how we relate or appropriate the doctrines of others. It’s one thing to appropriate someone’s ideas; it’s another thing to call that person “great” or a “genius”.

Now, how do these considerations fare with regard to current authors? Should we adjust, for instance, our citation practices in the light of cases of harassment or crimes? – I find this question rather difficult and think we should be open to all sorts of considerations.*** However, I want to make two points:

Firstly, if someone’s work has shaped a certain field, it would be both scholarly and morally wrong to lie about this fact. But the crucial question, in this case, is not whether we should shun someone’s work. The question we have to ask is rather why our community recurrently endorses people who abuse their power. If Baggini has a point, then the moral wrongs that are committed in our academic culture are most likely not just the wrongs of individual scapegoats who happen to be found out. So if we want to change that, it’s not sufficient to change our citation practice. I guess the place to start is to stop endowing individuals with the status of “great thinkers” and begin to acknowledge that thinking is embedded in social practices and requires many kinds of recognition.

Secondly, trying to take the perspective of a victim, I would feel betrayed if representatives of educational institutions would simply continue to endorse such voices and thus enlarge the impact of perpetrators who have harmed others in that institution. And victimhood doesn’t just mean “victim of overt harassment”. As I said earlier, there are intellectual victims of trends or systems that shun voices for various reasons, only to be slowly recovered by later generations who wish to amend the canon and change their past accordingly.

So the question to ask is not only whether we should change our citation practices. Rather we should wonder how many thinkers have not yet been heard because our ingroup keeps applauding one and the same “great mind”.

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* Please note, however, that Hume’s racism was already criticised by Adam Smith and James Beattie, as Eric Schliesser notes in his intriguing discussion of Baggini’s historicism (from 26 November 2018).

** Barnaby Hutchins provides a more elaborate discussion of this issue: “The point is that a neutral approach to doing history of philosophy doesn’t seem to be a possibility, at least not if we care about, e.g., historical accuracy or innovation. Our approaches need to be responsive to the structural biases that pervade our practices; they need to be responsive to the constant threat of falling into this chauvinism. So it’s risky, at best, to take an indiscriminately positive approach towards canonical and non-canonical alike. We have an ethical duty (broadly construed) to apply a corrective generosity to the interpretation of non-canonical figures. And we also have an ethical duty to apply a corrective scepticism to the canon. Precisely because the structures of philosophy are always implicitly pulling us in favour of canonical philosophers, we need to be, at least to some extent, deliberately antagonistic towards them.”

In the light of these considerations, I now doubt my earlier conclusion that “attempts at diversifying our teaching should not be supported by arguments from supposedly different moral status”.

*** See Peter Furlong’s post for some recent discussion.

In facts we trust? More on the war against education

Last week we learned that the Central European University is forced out of Hungary. While a lot of other bad things happened since then, this event confused me more than others. Why do people let this happen? And why are acts such as the abolishment of Gender Studies met with so little resistance by the scientific community? As far as I’m concerned, universities are global institutions. Expelling a university or abolishing a discipline should worry every democratic citizen in the world. But before I get onto my moral high ground again, I want to pause and understand what it actually is that I find so shocking. Perhaps you all find this trivial, but it’s only beginning to dawn on me that it is trust we’re lacking. So I think the reason that we (or too many of us) let these things happen is that we lost trust in institutions like universities. Let me explain.

In my last piece, I made some allusions about how this war against education exploits misguided beliefs about the fact-value distinction and postmodernism. I still think so, but I couldn’t really pin down what held my ideas together. I’m not sure I do now, but in focussing on the notion of trust I have more of a suspicion than last week. Loss of trust is widespread: We distrust banks, insurance companies, many politicians, and perhaps even our neighbours. That seems at least sometimes reasonable, because it often turns out that such institutions or their representatives do not act on behalf of our interest. And if they say they do, they might be lying. This distrust has probably grown so much that nobody even assumes that certain institutions would act out of anyone else’s interest.

In this respect, I guess universities and the disciplines taught there are perceived as a mixed bag. On the one hand, the commitments in the sciences and humanities seem to foster a certain trust and respectability. On the other hand, not really or not anymore. I don’t know whether this is owing to the fact that universities are increasingly run like businesses, but the effect is that it’s kind of ok to distrust academics. They might be lobbying like anyone else. They might have an agenda over and above the noble pursuit of truth.

Once you embrace this idea, you immediately see why the bashing of “experts” worked so well during the Brexit campaign. You also understand why conspiracy theories begin to be seen on a par with scientifically established results. If everyone might just be lobbying, then the very idea of academic expertise is undermined. Just today, I read a comment on FB claiming that “we don’t need any higher education, now that we’ve got free access to information via the internet”. You might be shaking your head like me, but once the trust is gone, why should anyone be more respectable than anyone else?

Now all of this is not really disheartening enough. And yes, it get’s worse. I guess most of us have of course noticed something to this effect. When we write grant applications or even papers we actually do engage in lobbying. We say: look, my evidence is better, my thought more thorough, my method more reliable! Being used to such tropes, it’s a small step towards saying that STEM fields are better because they deal with facts rather than ideologies, like Gender Studies. This simplistic opposition between facts and ideologies or values is the last straw that some scientists cling to in order to promote their own trustworthiness. But while some might be thinking that they are acting in the name of Truth, they will ultimately be perceived as just another person doing business and praising their goods.

You might want to object that it has always been (a bit) like this. But, I reply, back in the day universities were not perceived as businesses, nor academics as entrepreneurs. The upshot is that the competition for resources in academia makes us not only claim that we advance a project. It’s a fine line to saying that we are engaging in a different and better and ultimately more trustworthy kind of project than the colleague next door. In doing so, we cross the line from advancement to difference, thereby undermining the common ground on which we stand. In such cases, we insinuate that we are more trustworthy than our colleagues from different disciplines. In doing so, we undermine the trust that all academics need collectively in order for a university to remain a trustworthy institution.

Our competition and lobbying threatens to undermine the trust in institutions of higher education. Not surprising, then, that politicians who claim just that will find so much approval. If academics don’t treat one another as trustworthy, why should universities be trustworthy institutions? Why should politicians even pretend to trust experts, and why should people outside academia trust them? Yes, I know there are answers. But if we want to counter anti-democratic anti-intellectualism, we need to maintain or rather restore trust in universities. But this requires two things: we must stop undermining each other’s reputation; and we must counter the belief that a university is a business just like any other.

The war against education

Today is one of the darkest days in the history of Europe. The press reports that the Central European University in Budapest is forced to move out of Hungary despite fulfilling all demands of the Hungarian Government. We have seen this coming for quite some time. That this has not been prevented is a disaster. Or so I think. Having had the privilege to live and study in Budapest for one and a half years during the nineties, I am personally moved: I am sad and angry. While I know that there are many people – among them many friends and colleagues – who think and feel as much, I am not sure that everyone is on the same page about the meaning of this fact. I’m not well versed in the details of politics. But I am convinced that this is not a ‘Hungarian thing’ alone. I rather see it as part of a war on education and as such as a war against democracy. While I’m not in the most clearheaded mood, I still want to offer some considerations I have been mulling about recently.

The war on education is a war against democracy. You don’t need to be a convicted Habermasian to see why (higher) education is a necessary element of democracies. Informed discourse and participation cannot exist without education. Threatening teachers, lecturers and students is something we’re witnessing everywhere in Europe and elsewhere. While there is much to be said about the current Hungarian government, this move is not unique. Turkey, the US, Romania, you name it witness similar moves. As a German, I am acutely aware that the far right party (AFD) is currently attempting to facilitate a climate of denunciation, too. That’s peanuts perhaps compared to what we witnessed today, but it strikes me as part of a concerted strategy. This strategy comprises many aspects: intimidation is perhaps obvious; casualisation of the (academic) workforce, while pretending universities are businesses might seem a more nuanced way of destroying education.  If we want to fight this strategy, we have to undermine it everywhere.

As I see it, this war exploits problematic beliefs in the fact-value distinction. This second concern is more invested and difficult (for me) to articulate. But here goes: After the last US elections, there was a lot of talk about what is called “postmodernism”. Suddenly, postmodernism and relativism were held responsible for the “loss” of truth and many other things. Moreover, their proponents were held responsible for the rise of far-right opinions and politics. Perhaps trying to be defensive, some people even embraced that slogan according to which “science has no agenda”, insinuating that science deals with facts and leaves values to politics. I think I’ve never read so much crap in my life. Now, there is a lot to be said why the fact-value distinction does not amount to a dichotomy, but this is for another day.*

Anyway, I guess we’re not doing ourselves a favour, if we sacrifice discourse over such matters to such fast food slogans as “science has no agenda”. What I have in mind today is the fact that many people who should know better applauded when the Hungarian government targeted Gender Studies. Since this discipline is currently one of the favoured examples for the supposed effects of postmodernism, some people seemed not to notice that their abolishment was just another attack against (academic) freedom. While I don’t think that we have to agree about the fact-value distinction, I sincerely hope for the agreement that this is a matter of free discourse. No one should applaud when a government abolishes an academic discipline.

Finally, it is a great thing that Vienna will host the CEU in the future. But universities are not virtual places that can be moved around without loss. They are part of making a place, a city, a country, a continent, the world with its people what they are. Let’s not forget about the people who cannot move along. Being placed in Europe, we are in this together.

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* Here is a bit more on this issue.

 

Do ideas matter to philosophy? How obsession with recognition blocks diversity

When suffering from writer’s block, I spent much of my time in the library browsing through books that were shelved beside the ones I originally looked for. Often these were books that didn’t have any traces of use: neither, it seemed, had anyone read them, nor were they cited by anyone. The names of the authors were often unfamiliar and a search confirmed that they sometimes were no longer in academia. Funnily enough, these books often contained the most refreshing and original ideas. Their approach to topics or texts was often unfamiliar to me, but the effort of figuring out what they were arguing was time well spent. Nevertheless, my attempts to bring them up in discussions weren’t picked up on. People continued to cite the more familiar names. Why are we letting this happen?

Most of you probably know the following phenomenon: During a discussion someone proposes an idea; the discussion moves on. Then an established person offers almost a repetition of the proposed idea and everyone goes: “oh, interesting.” Put as a rule of thumb: prestige gets you attention; interesting ideas as such not so much. There is a gendered version of this phenomenon, too: If you want to listen to an interesting idea authored by a woman, better have a man repeat it. Now, an important aspect of this phenomenon is that it seems to incentivise that we relate our philosophical work to that of prestigious figures. In other words, we will make sure that what we say picks up on what established figures say. As Kieran Healy has shown, citation patterns confirm this. Cite David Lewis and you might join the winning in-group. We hope to get recognition by citing established people. Now you might just shrug this off as an all too human trait. But what I’d like to argue is that this behaviour crucially affects how we evaluate ideas.

I think Healy’s citation patterns show that we are inclined to value such ideas that are either closely related (in content) to those of established figures or that are presented in a similar manner or method. Put simply: you’re more likely to get recognition if you imitate some “big shot” in content or method. Conversely, if you don’t imitate “big shots”, your work won’t be valued. Why is this important? My hunch is that this practice minimises diversity of content and method. Philosophers often like to present themselves as competitors for the best ideas. But if we track value through recognition, there is no competition between ideas.

Now if this is the case, why don’t we see it? My answer is that we don’t recognise it because there are competing big shots. And the competition between big shots makes us believe that there is diversity. Admittedly, my own evidence is anecdotal. But how could it not be. When I started out as a medievalist, the thing to be done to get recognition was to prepare a critical edition of an obscure text. So I learned a number of strange names and techniques in this field. However, outside of my small world this counted for, say, not much. And when the German Research Foundation (DFG) stopped funding such projects, a lot of people were out of a job. Moving on to other departments, I quickly learned that there was a different mainstream, and that mainstream didn’t favour editions or work on obscure texts. Instead you could make a move by writing on a canonical figure already edited. Just join some debate. Still further outside of that context you might realise that people don’t value history of philosophy anyway. But rather than seeing such different approaches as complementary, we are incentivised to compete for getting through with one of these approaches.

However, while competition might nourish the illusion of diversity, the competition for financial resources ultimately blocks diversity because it will ultimately lead to one winner. And the works and books that don’t follow patterns established in such competitions seem to fall through the cracks. There is more evidence of course once we begin to take an international perspective: There are people who write whole PhD dissertations that will never be recognised outside of their home countries. So they have to move to richer countries and write a second PhD to have any chance on the international market. In theory, we should expect such people to be the best-trained philosophers around: they often have to familiarise themselves with different approaches and conventions, often speak different languages, and are used to different institutional cultures. But how will we evaluate their ideas? Will they have to write a bit like David Lewis or at least cite him sufficiently in order to get recognition?

Now you might want to object that I’m conflating cause and effect. While I say that we assign value because of prestige, you might argue that things are the other way round: we assign prestige because of value. – If this were the case, I would want to see some effort to at least assess the ideas of those who don’t align their work with prestigious figures. But where do we find such ideas? For reasons stated above, my guess is that we don’t find them in the prestigious departments and journals. So where should we look for them?

My hunch is that we ‘ll find true and worthwhile diversity in the lesser known departments and journals. So please begin: Listen to the students who don’t speak up confidently, read the journals and books from publishers whose names you cannot recognise. Listen to people whose native language isn’t English. And stop looking for ideas that sound familiar.

Against leaving academia

For quite some years, newspapers and the academic blogosphere have been packed with advice for those considering leaving academia. There are practical tips of how to enter the non-academic world or pleas against the stigma that one might see in “giving up” etc. Many pieces of such advice are very helpful indeed and imparted out of the best intentions. However, I am troubled to see that there is also an ever growing number of pieces that advise leaving academia or at least imply that it is the best thing one can do. The set of reasons for this is always the same: academia is bad, bad, bad. It is toxic, full of competition, a threat to one’s health and exploitative. On a famous philosophy blog I even read that it is “unethical” to encourage students to stay in academia. In what follows, I’d like to take issue with such claims and present three reasons against leaving academia.

Given my own academic biography, I’d be the last person to underestimate the downsides of academia. Surviving, let alone “making it”, is down to sheer luck. All your merits go nowhere unless you’re in the right place at the right time. However, that does not mean (1) that we don’t need academics, (2) that academia is worse than any other place or (3) that work in academia can’t be fun. Let’s look at these points in turn.

(1) We need academics. – Believe it or not, even though politicians of certain brands, taxpayers and even one’s parents might ceaselessly claim that most academic work and the humanities in particular are useless, the contrary is true. Discourse and reflection are an integral part of democracies. Academia is designed to enable just that: research and higher education are not just some niches; they are the beating heart of democratic cultures across the globe. Of course, our actual daily practice might often look somewhat differently. But there is more than one response to the fact that the nobler ends of our work are often under threat, from inside and outside. The alternative to leaving is attempting to improve academia. That might be quite difficult. But if masses of good people keep leaving academia, it will lead to increasing corrosion and undermine our democracies. To be sure, ultimately anyone’s personal reasons are good enough, but I find the general advice in favour of leaving slightly (if often unintentionally) anti-democratic.

(2) Academia is part of the rest of the world. – Academia is often called bad names. We are living in an ivory tower and some philosophers never even leave their armchairs. I often talk to students who have been advised to pursue their “plan b” before they really got started with their studies. They unanimously seem to be told that “the world outside” or the “normal world” is better. It seems that academics have a lot of special problems that don’t exist outside or at least not in such numbers. Again, I do not wish to downplay our problems, far from it. I truly believe that there are a number of issues that need urgent attention. But then again I wonder why leaving should help with that. Many problems in academia are problems owing to (bad) working conditions and policies. But why would anyone think that these very same problems do not exist in the rest of the world? Plan b won’t lead to some sort of paradise. The conditions apply to the workforce inside and outside of ivory towers. In fact, I know quite a number of people who have non-academic jobs. By and large, the conditions don’t strike me as much different. Competition, (mental) health issues, exploitation, harassment, misogyny, bullying, you name it – all of these things abound elsewhere, too. So if you want to leave, look around first: you might find the same old same old in disguise.

(3) Academic work can be fun. – We’re often told that our kind of work causes a lot of suffering (not solely in our recipients). Again, I don’t want to downplay the fact that a lot of things we are asked to do might feel quite torturous. But when I listen to myself and other people describing what it actually is that makes it so troublesome, it is often not due to the actual work itself. Writing might be hard, for instance, but the unpleasant feelings are not owing to the writing, but to the idea of it being uncharitably received. Similarly, interacting with fellow students or after a talk in the q & a might be stressful, but as I see it, the stress is often created out of (the fear of) unpleasant standards of aggressive interaction. Imagining talking through the same stuff with an attentive friend will not trigger the same responses I guess. Again, my advice would not be leaving but working towards improving the standards of interaction.

You might still say that all of these considerations are cold comfort in view of the real suffering going on. I won’t deny that this is a possibility. In fact, academia can be full of hidden or overt cruelties and people might have very good reasons indeed to leave academia. I don’t see doing so as a failure or as wrong. What I find problematic is the current trend of advising such measures on a general basis. But of course, for some this advice might still be helpful to embrace a good decision or an inevitable step. What ultimately encouraged me to write this post today are my students, two of whom came to me this week to tell me that, contrary to their previous expectations, they found their fellow students ever so supportive, charitable and encouraging. Where they were warned to fear competition, they were actually met with the friendliest cooperation. I don’t hear this all too often, but who would want to let this hopeful generation down?