Academic Heroism Is A Myth

By Graham Peterson

I came to graduate school drunk on the myths of academic heroism.  Hero mythology, note, betrays the aristocratic nature of the academy.  Knights ride in with their MacBooks and fealty to The Truth.  That is at least what one comes to believe as an undergraduate.  Then once given (and often times not) a generous stipend and allowed into graduate school, one quickly realizes that one’s fealty is to be principally aimed at The Guild.

It should be clear on immediate inspection that the academy is an aristocratic holdover.  We wear monastic robes for commencement ceremonies. We love our neo-gothic architecture. We love titles, rank, pomp, and address emails to one another in language that’s otherwise preserved only in moldy country clubs.  Importantly, though, these aren’t just superficial accoutrements.  The professorate continues to work, really, actually, on the model of a medieval guild.

It’s not just romantic imitation.  Modern universities in history were modeled on and during the same time period as medieval guilds.  Graduate students are not employees.  We are apprentices.  We don’t get paid at the margin.  We get a patron stipend.  Professors for years get called Assistant and Associate Professors, because assistant professors used to merely assist full professors, like research assistants today.  In Germany, many assistant professors still just assist.

The hierarchy is deep and long.  And wherever we find deep and long hierarchies, we find inviolable prestige and sanctity.  Wherever we find inviolable prestige and sanctity, we find tribalism, social conservation, and a lot of free wheeling abuse.

When graduate students whine about needless hazing rituals devoid of pedagogical or technical content, their mentors tell them, “you just have to get your union card.”  Now that’s dead serious — the professorate is a production cartel.  Production cartels are not famous for their diversity of opinion and institutional porousness (yet these are precisely the values professors profess).  Production cartels are infamous for increasing incomes while lowering output and product quality.*

There are entire cartoons and twitter feeds premised on what an inhuman hell hole graduate school is.  There are popular websites dedicated to professional gossip (production cartels aren’t great at internal criticism, so it stays underground).  I am not sure how many other industries there are in the modern economy whose labor markets look like this, or this, or this, and this, or this, nor this.  All of the catharsis is cute, until you consider the suicides, and the imposter syndrome — the nagging idea successful people have that they are frauds and will be found out and fail.  A syndrome isn’t an (individual, psychological) syndrome if everyone has it – it’s an institutional artifact.

Everyone’s hurt feelings aside, the academic cartel defeats exactly the goal of professional thought — liberal inquiry.  When people who are bad at their jobs can’t be fired, product quality suffers.  When it comes to the academy, “people who are bad at their jobs” translates to “people who are unthinking, dogmatic, and possess low evidential standards.”  It should frighten you that such people sit on hiring committees and can veto new hires.

Now, the academy, new as it was in the early modern period, was not originally conservative and dogmatic — it was innovative.  It posed a credible and successful threat to the ecclesiastical and political thought that had dominated forever.  But that was then and this is now.

The history of the academy is like that of General Motors.  It introduced necessary competition into the intellectual marketplace, and massively improved intellectual wares.  But as it grew successful its employees formed unions (tenure is a very recent invention) and its managers got in bed with the government.  Now the cars suck.  And the union spends most of its energies protecting its membership from meaningful criticism or performance review, and enforcing the party line.

Yes, a party line.  I don’t work for The National Review.  But anyone who believes that there isn’t a problem with political homogeneity in the American academy lacks a high-school comprehension of descriptive statistics.

The leftist bias in the academy is no conspiracy; it looks to me like a historical accident.  During the post-war education boom, the academic job market was a seller’s market.  Universities had to offer job perks, and tenure was one of those.  People had fresh memories of European intellectuals getting persecuted, and the idea that tenure would protect them was attractive.**  Coincidentally, a bunch of social movements in the 1960s made the academy look like ground zero for anyone who wanted to influence society.

In flooded progressives to the professorate right when Deans were begging for bodies and handing over the keys to hiring and firing.  So here we are, with distributions of left-to-right politics that meet and exceed 16:1 depending on the department.

The story I’m telling certainly isn’t the story academics tell one another about ourselves.  We are in it for the glory, the prestige, the honor and dignity of intellectual honesty and rigor.  Like soldiering.  As history shows, getting people drunk on self important glory is a great way to keep them acceding to homogenous power.  As recent history shows, selling homogenous power with the gloss of social progress is especially effective.

The hero myth legitimates the hierarchy by suggesting that anyone who holds the keys to the temple does so because she has won them on her merits.  Yet many professors were appointed to their position early in their careers, having demonstrated their merits with almost no work, thence given lifetime employment contracts, and absolved of any incentives to compel them to change their minds ever again.

The hero myth tells us that most of what the temple guardians know is right, that they fought hard and with persuasive evidence to become right.  But most of what we know in science and the humanities is wrong , and even more of it still undiscovered.  Anyway persuasion is rarely a function of evidence, and usually a function of sociology.

Our epistemic institution has a bad sociology.

Maybe it’s not so bad.  Dogmas and naked emperors can be a good thing: they force the innovator to amass enormous evidence.  Note what that would imply though.  It would imply that the dominant ideas in the academy are already supported by mountains of evidence.  But that would mean that there are in fact no dogmas or naked emperors.

A majority of ideas in the academy are supported by the caprice of social fashions and articles of faith, just like everywhere else in society. Many sea-changes in thought take place when a confluence of events readies people for a new theory (not new evidence).  The theory catches on; people promote the theory to fame; then eager initiates scurry around for a few decades attempting to amass evidence to confirm it.  Science is mostly a process of ex post group bias confirmation.***

A few true positives come out of that process, but (as any scientist will tell you) mostly garbage comes out.  The heroism mythology uses those few successes to lend authority to the rest of the thinly tested bullshit.  It’s why we have the pomp and ceremony and king of Sweden giving out gold medals to the few who get it right.

Now like I said, in a world in which the state and the church held a tidy cartel over knowledge, academics, the new entrant into the market, were a boon.  But in the world we live in now, of widespread literacy and education, and of resources outside the academy to support researchers and tinkerers, the academy has become the church.

The academy is salvageable, I suspect.  It will become increasingly challenged by non-academic private sector research groups.  Biotechnology is an example; it is massive and stays ahead of the academy.  Computer science is another.  Think tanks aren’t getting any smaller.

What is not getting us anywhere is legitimating the intellectual cartel as a place full of knighted, daring thinkers.  That story invites droves of initiates into martyrdom and disillusionment while being paid hand-to-mouth wages for their labor, selects those who already agree with the Union bosses and don’t take too many risks, and gives the the professorate a delusion of itself.  The self deprecating tweed jokes are only funny for so long.  It is time to seriously consider firing some professors, and taking away their rights to veto job candidates who sneeze the wrong way.

*The delicious irony of the professorial cartel is that much of the institutional mythology and prestige that legitimates its own goings on is the same mythology that legitimates academic administration, and administration has captured unholy rents as tuition prices have increased, leaving the professorate to cling to its indignation and wavering prestige.

**But think about it, really.  Let’s say the United States ends up like North Korea in 40 years.  Is the firing squad going to turn around and go home because professors have tenure?

***This ain’t such a bad thing, if you have a diversity of groups fighting with one another over the truth.  We do not currently have such a situation.


3 thoughts on “Academic Heroism Is A Myth”

  1. Expectations seem to be all when it comes to graduate school, which is understandable given how opaque it can be from the outside.

    Anyway, your post made me think of this:


  2. Hey Jason. Not sure what you mean by expectations. But if you replaced that clip with me shooting *myself* in the foot repeatedly with an automatic rifle, it would probably resemble my own experience better. 😉


    1. Ha – well, here’s hoping you have good crutches (or something). As for expectations, I meant that a lot of people seem to enter into this process with that sense that they’ll be walking among greatness, and then are disappointed by the institutional realities of life in an academic department as a graduate student. I think that’s a reasonable reaction to have, but I also think it would be less prevalent if people knew going in what it would be like. Though how to get that across to them is another question entirely, especially when “the academy” itself is hardly going to do it.


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