Monday 15 August 2022

Academic life - the niche that was, but is no longer

I was brought-up from my latter childhood in an academic environment; and through the teens of my schooldays I was strongly drawn to the idea of being a university teacher and/or researcher. 

I could easily imagine myself in such an environment - and the subject matter was somewhat secondary. 

But at the time I was applying for college and leaving school, I was instead going through a phase in which my idea was to become a clinical doctor - probably a general practitioner - half time, and spend the rest of the day growing my own food, and maybe keeping a few animals on a smallholding. 

Mostly I was drawn to the biological side of science, but I was also interested in economics and politics (from a left wing and 'environmentalist angle). In fact - as I recall - when I had done my pre-university A-level exams, I thought I had somewhat messed-up (objectively so, in a Chemistry practical) and would maybe fail to get-into medical school; which had, at the time, the most competitive entry requirements. 

If I failed; I then had a serious idea to change direction altogether, and to study economics and politics, applying a year later*. I can remember a conversation with a good friend in which I said exactly this. In retrospect it can be seen that I was more drawn to the university life generally, than to any specific subject.  

(In the event, I had done extremely well in my A-levels, and could probably have got in to any university to study anything for which the A-levels were appropriate. I never was able to predict my examination results - five years later I was seriously worried - on what seemed like rational grounds - that I had failed my final exams at medical school - yet again I had done extremely well). 

In a nutshell; I implicitly saw university as a kind of 'ecological niche' in which I might find a suitable environment; and later this implicit understanding became explicit as I realized that I was an unusual kind of person, with unusual motivations in life. I had a sense of 'destiny' but no clear idea of where it led - only that I could tell when I was off the path, and found such a situation intolerable. 

Within two weeks of starting work as a qualified doctor doing clinical practice; I knew I would not be able to function in that environment - and the only question was how best to extract myself from this path and return to my older idea of being an academic. Lack of courage, combined with unclarity of my own objectives, meant this process took two further years. 

I began doctoral research in medical bioscience; and it was rapidly obvious that academia was right for me. I felt at-home, confident; and I knew inwardly and by instinct what was right and wrong in that world. 

I used to say that - compared with medicine - I did a half-time job for half the salary - which 'bargain' provided the 'broad margin' to life that was essential to me. 

But the primary subject matter in which I should 'make a living' was still unclear; because my serious interests still straddled several subjects. 

I began to gravitate towards philosophy (which I had been reading for several years, and doing some evening classes), and got as far as being offered a place to do an accelerated degree in two (instead of the usual three) years at Trinity College, Cambridge. 

But then, as the possibility became concrete; I realized that this was not the right path - for several reasons; and that English Literature was closer to what I wanted or needed. In the end, after finishing my doctorate, I did an MA by research at Durham - which felt very helpful and positive, although did not answer any deep questions. 

By this time, I felt that my unusual combination of interests and abilities made me able to contribute something distinctive to academia. 

I was not doing any genuinely original and creative work - but the combination from my background made my contribution at least novel - and I thought that would suffice, for the time being, anyway... 

In retrospect, unconsciously, I think I was waiting. Waiting partly to mature (which took longer than for most people), and partly to find 'my subject' - a field in which I had aptitude, and that would mobilize my spontaneous and deep motivations; a subject into which I could pour my best mental efforts.  

And while I waited, I worked as an academic; teaching and doing research (and avoiding administration) - and pursuing other interests including journalism. I did not pursue an academic 'career' - because I kept moving 'sideways' and changing subjects; and I would not do more than the minimum necessary administration.

I was seeking a suitable niche rather than climbing a ladder. 

And when I eventually found my subject - and then further subjects; and began to do serious creative work, this academic niche enabled me to do so. 

I did not know of any other job that would have enabled it. 

It is a sadness that the niche which made possible my proper work no longer exists, nor has it been replaced by an alternative. Seriously-motivated and creative work can now only be done unpaid, as an amateur - which means unintegrated with whatever material means of support enables it. 

And the 'community' for which such work is done, has likewise been driven from all professions and exists only among voluntary affiliations of 'friends', rather than among professionals. 

For myself, I am pleased that the niche lasted long enough to enable my period of innerly-driven and intense scientific engagement - which ran from 1994 to 2016. 

By the time I retired, the job of being an academic had only a very superficial resemblance to forty years before, a job that went back in its essence to the Middle Ages. 

By 2019 - in depth and in nature, in its essence - the academic bureaucracy had become integrated into the global establishment with its core ideology of materialism-leftism and its ethic of value-inversion. The job of an academic had been transformed into that of a bureaucratic functionary. 

And, like all traditional institutions, the situation is irrevocable. Real universities and real academics are dead and gone; they cannot be revived, and the attempt should not be made. 

Whatever that is good and possible must start - here-and-now - from the personal and voluntary work of idealistically-dedicated individuals; outside of institutions.  

As for 2022 niches for people like I used-to-be?... well that is their problem, not mine; since my primary interests have changed. 

If someone is serious about his work, and insofar as that work is aligned with divine creation, it will be made possible.

One-off niches will be created for long-enough to enable what needs to be done

*I had no idea that university economics had (unfortunately for all of us) become highly mathematical by that time; which would in reality have ruled-out the subject for me; both in terms of aptitude and interest.  


JMSmith said...

I undertook an academic career for similar reasons and observed the same catastrophe of bureaucratization. The environment for which I was adapted has disappeared and been replaced with one that is far less congenial. Survival of the fittest has eliminated all but a few of my type. As you say, the "ivory tower" is no longer a world apart, but is now a rather silly and affected branch of the universal bureaucracy. The elevated vantage that Lucretius first described as the "ivory tower" is now on a level with everything else.

Francis Berger said...

I began to refer to universities (ivory towers) as "citadels of darkness" about twenty-five years ago for many of the same reasons you and Dr. Smith note.

Charlie said...

I like this chronicle. I like that you were pursuing your niche and often moving sideways in pursuit of your interests.

I agree, it's sad that the niche is gone.

I also agree, there's no chance of reviving it.

Working outside the system and FOR an audience of friends is the only way to go now. It's not lucrative, but it's the only way.

And I love your point that God will provide. We need to pursue the Good, the Beautiful, and the True. And in some ways, maybe it's for the best to separate this from "making a living."

This reminds me of something I read once about how many people claim to yearn for a creative life or a life of the mind. The piece noted that one could indeed pursue the life of the mind in America by moving to a cheap small town and maybe working a few months a year to cover expenses. And it further noted that very few of those who claimed to yearn for such intellectual freedom ever pursue it, because they actually can't bring themselves to forego status and money and social life and actually move to a cabin in the mountains.

Nowadays the choices are harder, more stark, but at least more clear. Do we want to be professional liars in journalism or academia or bureaucracy? Or do we actually want to think and write about the truth? For no money and plenty of scorn?

Joseph A. said...

What a loss!

The Anti-Gnostic said...

I found my niche about the time it was turning from a profession into a business and, in my lifetime, turned from a business into an industry. Which is fine. I've got about 7 more good work years and I'm done. In the meantime I try to do more fishing and socializing than working.

I have a much-beloved family member in a challenging STEM discipline who would have dearly loved to be an academic but is looking at the perverse government-grant/pyramid-scheme and is horrified. What advice for a physics/math major?