Today in Cognitive Dissonance: Graduate School and the Market

Zuska has a thoughtful post up about  the influence of advertisers at ScienceBlogs.  I’m not really interested in blog monetization just yet, but I found this particular statement to be particularly quote-worthy:

If an enterprise like ScienceBlogs cannot be funded except by taking money from sources that you and I, Dear Reader, deem offensive and unethical – why should I continue to contribute? I think this is another version of skeptifem’s question. I will rephrase it for my own purposes, more generally, thus:

How are we to live in this world when every action we take is tainted by some sort of injustice, some infliction of injury-at-a-distance? (and sometimes not so distant.)

I don’t know. It’s nearly impossible. Tread as lightly as one can. Each person has to decide where the breaking point is for her or himself. Pal’s or Grrl’s may come sooner than mine. Without a job, ScienceBlogs is like my workplace, where I hang out at the water cooler and catch up on the gossip. I am loathe to lose that, even though my primary care physician told me pointedly at my last visit that caffeinated sugary beverages are the devil’s drink. And their decaf, no-cal substitutes are no better, she added. Water! Pure clear water from the tap for you! she commanded.

I often feel like the blogosphere, graduate school, and academic careers are packaged as spaces that are somehow free from the market, unfettered by corporate influence and therefore “pure” in a way that, I don’t know, financial planning is not.  In yesterday’s Tales From the Writing Center, I think I revealed a little bit of my rancor toward the mammoth business school at my university, because it gets so much goddamn attention and resources.  Seriously, I work in a building that hasn’t been renovating since the Nixon administration, and their study areas are like palaces, PALACES I tell you.

So, in some ways, my snobbery toward business school is an effort to reduce cognitive dissonance, to prove that I made the Right Choice because graduate school is a place that produces pure-hearted lovers of literature and lefty politics and business school produces evil corporate overlords.  It’s about my desire to believe that this choice–which places me considerably behind those business school graduates in terms of present and future income–makes me a Good Person, a person who will not go on to exploit employees or trash the environment or perpetuate the suffering of women of color in the third world.  I probably don’t need to tell my readers just how naive and arrogant this attitude is.  For one thing, universities are basically corporations these days, and it does me no good to pretend like I won’t ever be complicit in that system.  But even more importantly, my ability to attend graduate school, to pay for graduate school, to even conceive of the possibility of going to graduate school is predicated on privilege, and it’s delusional to pretend otherwise.  Pursuing academics or even art as a career does not exempt you from systems of privilege and exploitation (and the illusion that it can may be part of the reason why so many graduate students and adjuncts are themselves willing to tolerate a certain amount of exploitation) nor does it give you access to some pure, untainted Life of the Mind, as Thomas Benton at the Chronicle of Higher Education has said:

Graduate school may be about the “disinterested pursuit of learning” for some privileged people. But for most of us, graduate school in the humanities is about the implicit promise of the life of a middle-class professional, about being respected, about not hating your job and wasting your life. That dream is long gone in academe for almost everyone entering it now.

Now, I do think that some of the hand-wringing about the state of the academic job market obscures the fact that finding a job sucks for everyone right now. There has never been a worse time to graduate with a college degree, much less a post-graduate degree.  My brother-in-law who has both a law and an accounting degree (and a sextuple-digit debt load) was recently laid off and is trying to establish a private practice along with my sister, who also has an accounting degree.  He will tell you that just about anybody in their garage can get accredited as a law school these days and that–as with Ph.Ds in the Humanities–these schools are churning out far more lawyers than the market can possibly support. In some areas of the country, lawyers are taking clerking jobs at $20,000 a year with no benefits just to be “doing something with their law degree.”

However, graduate school seems to be particularly problematic in the way it frames what is (and frankly should be) the pursuit of remunerative work as a pledge of loyalty and sacrifice for something greater (and those sacrifices are frequently real, as when my university demanded that I pay $1200 in tuition in order to make $2300 as a research assistant this summer, even though I’m taking no classes).  In many ways, it reminds me of what my uncle says about seminary.  Having grown up in a highly religious part of the country, attending Evangelical High, I know quite a few people who have attended the seminary in my hometown.  Keep in mind, this isn’t one of those Ivy League Modernist Divinity Schools but rather Bastion of Southern Fundamentalist Seminary.  My uncle is the former admissions director and is now the dean of something or other.  I think that the reasons many of these twenty-somethings went straight from college to seminary are similar to the reasons many twenty-somethings wind up in grad school:  it sounds like an honorable living, we feel–perhaps–a sense of calling, we like school and are interested in furthering our education, etc.  But many seminary students get tricked into believing that the ministry is also strangely “outside the market,” that it is a place where one can pursue a Life of the Spirit.

Now, one might think–given the rate of growth among evangelical congregations these days, that many of these seminary students would be just fine.  But while these congregations are expanding, the number of well-paying church jobs out there remain decidedly few.  The celebrity pastors who bring in seven figures on book tours and lecture circuits are to the average seminary student what professional athletes are to the average high school athlete.  Furthermore, many of those celebrity pastors became such by a curious combination of luck, charisma, and business acumen, not because of how well they translate Hebrew and Greek.

My uncle’s son (my cousin), like many young Christian men who grow up in this environment and spend their summers as camp counselors, wanted to be a youth or music minister.  It was his father’s unhappy job to point out the fact that youth and music ministers have a pretty short self-life, since most of the big, ultra-hip churches aren’t interested in hiring 50 year olds to do those jobs.  What my uncle and some other honest folks in this line of work have repeatedly said is that it is possible to have a spiritual life without committing oneself with to the ministry.  And, in fact, I know plenty of former pastors who went into the ministry because they felt compelled to and then burned out hard ten years in only to find that their spiritual lives were improved when they no longer carried the burden of having to be an “example” for their congregations and when they were free to struggle with spirituality far from the judgment of parishioners. I believe that the same is true of the Life of the Mind.

Living in a way that is 100%congruent with one’s intellectual, spiritual, or political ideals is nearly impossible today, as Zuska says, we have to negotiate our boundaries.  When I’m not feeling bitter about the fact that some professor at the business school is kind of a douchebag about the humanities, I’m able to acknowledge that it is possible to live an intellectually and spiritually fulfilling life, even a life that is based on altruism and compassion, with a business degree, but you have to try.  Furthermore, it is possible to life a stultifying and spiritually vacant life based on selfishness and assholery with a graduate degree in the humanities or a degree from seminary.  Pursuing a particular academic path or a particular career does not make you a good person and should never allow you to feel comfortable with your particular place in systems of privilege.  No matter where you are, if you want to live a life of compassion of idealism of fulfillment and of change, you have to really, really try.


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