Monday, June 18, 2012

My Once Upon a Time So Called Life as an Illusion...

When I was a teenager I was incredibly naive. To paraphrase the Christian Bible, when I was a teenager I thought as a child. I thought that higher academic institutions were, as some people phrased it in very idealistic tongues, places you went for intellectual betterment. I thought that the academy was a place where you went to get an education for educations sake. I thought that academics were people who were consumed by their vocations to teach their students that great and wonderful ability to distinguish what was rot from what was not rot.

During most of my undergraduate years I was able to maintain these illusions. The university I went to, Indiana University in beautiful Bloomington, was Gothic in much of its architecture and it felt like a holy place, a cathedral, dedicated to freedom of thought and critical thinking and even, thanks it part to IU's size, its pub and restaurant culture, and some of its student and faculty, it truly felt like a place where you could immerse yourself in an intellectual culture of all shapes and forms.

But then I went to graduate school and everything changed. I was hit, one might say, by one of those proverbial reality smacking you in the face moments. In graduate school I found many academics who were less intellectuals than bureaucrats working a 9 to 5 job. I found much academic aristocratic wanna be pomp and circumstance. I discovered that many academic institutions were less interested in the teaching quality of their faculty than in the research dollars, research dollars from corporations, governments, and the military (why did I not expect the military-industrial-governmental complex?) that researchers could bring into the hallowed halls because research dollars (commodity academicism?) was one of the measures research universities used and use to judge the quality of a university by. I found out that many undergraduate students, drugged up on the claims of academic salesman and others, were more interested in education as a necessary but not particularly enjoyable step on the path to a good job. I found disciplines divided as a result of their bureaucratic histories and protective of their own little academic fiefdoms. I found disciplines that divided themselves into little boxes on the basis of nationalist ideologies.I discovered, in sum, that what I was romanticising was not academia but the intellectual life and that the two were definitely not the same even if they did intersect on occasion.

But more than anything else I found at the end of it all--isn't Monday Morning Quarterbacking wonderful?--that I had wasted much of my life on the pursuit of pieces of paper that said more about my ability (or inability it turns out) to jump through bureaucratic hoops and said little about my intellectual abilities. Welcome to the modern world of mass education, a world of mass education that is becoming increasingly a mirror to modern neoliberal society. Welcome to my life as an embittered de-romanticised cynic who has been smacked in the face again and again by real rather than imagined life.

By the way, one of the things I did not expect when I entered graduate school was soap opera. But I found it in the hallowed halls anyway. There was the vanity, vanity all is vanity, in all of its various shapes and sizes. There were a couple of examples of faculty men marrying their female graduate students. But then, as one of my friends told me, people fall in love all the time and get divorced and remarried outside in the world beyond the ivy halls, the same outside world academe reflects. What surprised me more much more than the soap opera light side of academia was the seamy side of academic soap, academia soap opera dark. And it was seamy.

When I matriculated into a doctoral programme in Anthropology at a third level public Northeastern research university (I am using my own rating system here one based primarily on size of libraries and quality of supplemental books in the bookstore, a rating system that I find very rarely fails) I found a hot shot male academic who was forcing any female on whose dissertation committee he served to have sex with him and who black listed anyone who refused to attend his invite for special students only holiday parties.

When I matriculated into a History doctoral programme in the same Northeastern university I found one married faculty member puffed up on his own sense of brilliance who was regularly flirting, sometimes behind closed doors, with a number of pretty young coed things. I found a faculty member who essentially turned his gender history class into an ideological mirror of his ideological self. For him, Newt Gingrich, then member of the US federal House of Representatives, was a "fascist" while fellow academic and disciplinary and subject matter rival Richard Bushman was, as his book The Refinement of America showed, so my professor said, elitist. No matter that it is unclear whether Gingrich is a fascist or not and whether he is depends, to some extent, on one's definition of fascism, one my ideologically correct professor never offered, or that the real heroes of Bushman's book, he is a Mormon after all (another point not in his favour I suspect from the vantage point of my ideologically governed professor), is not the increasingly "refined" Americans he writes about but the very dirt poor far from elitist Smith family. But hey as they say never let reality get in the way of a good ideological tale. And some wonder why I am cynical and misanthropic.

I am so cynical or realistic, in fact, that I think one has to recognise that academia with its means ends modern bureaucratic structure (shout out to Weber), its hierarchical form (another shout out to Weber), its paternalistic follow the leaders culture (shout out to Foucault), and its arbitrary disciplinary boundaries (another shout out to Foucault) or closed doors, its reflection of the modern world in all its "glory", in other words, is not really conducive to an intellectual life of learning and skeptical questioning.

One really has to distinguish between learning as a vocation and a calling and education as a mass business, a mass bureaucracy, and a mass paternalistic and ritualistic culture. The former is a way of life that walks, talks, reads, and observes everything. The latter is a career path that takes place in a mass bureaucracy generally run by businessmen and their hired academic hands who work 9 to 5 jobs and who try to convince potential clients that a good follow the proper leaders education will land you a good job. The former is measured simply by the quality of openness to and love for ever more learning experiences. The latter is measured in quantitative rubrics and numbers because it conceives of education as a commodity to be sold by businesspeople and bought by educational consumers as though it was a Serta mattress or a Big Mac. In the former the interrogated life is the only one worth living. In the latter a well paying career working for the man is increasingly the only educational outcome worth having. Where is Thorstein Veblen when you need him?

And now for something not really completely different. Here is a blast from my music listening past, XTC's "Mayor of Simpleton". XTC was and still remains one of my favourte bands.

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