Wednesday, April 29, 2009

Scopin' out the Ivory Tower

I'm 29 years old. Back when I graduated from university at age 22, I figured I'd be off to grad school in just a few short years. I took the GRE, knowing that the scores would last for five years, and I was sure I would use them.

Now it's seven years later. I wouldn't say I've been vegetating all this time, but I haven't made any steps toward graduate school either. Part of it is a fear of crippling debt. But part of it is my inability to figure out what, exactly, I would study - and my not being sure what good the degree would do me, anyway.

My father makes his living in academia. He's been a professor for as long as I have been alive, and to be honest, I figured for a long time I would pursue a similar career path. Growing up, my family seemed perfectly comfortable on his salary alone. He seemed to have plenty of free time, and when he was working he was nerdily immersing himself in topics he found interesting. I can do a lot worse for myself.

But I'm terrified of actually trying to break into academia. Once I had a tenure-track position it might be pleasant enough for me, but I've heard too many horror stories about the job market for academics and the difficulties of actually getting a decent job somewhere.

In the New York Times, Mark C. Taylor summarizes why I feel scared:
GRADUATE education is the Detroit of higher learning. Most graduate programs in American universities produce a product for which there is no market (candidates for teaching positions that do not exist) and develop skills for which there is diminishing demand (research in subfields within subfields and publication in journals read by no one other than a few like-minded colleagues), all at a rapidly rising cost (sometimes well over $100,000 in student loans).
His entire article is well worth reading. Unlike him, it makes me very happy to know that I live in a world where, somewhere, a person is making it his job to write about "how the medieval theologian Duns Scotus used citations."

But, as an indictment of today's American academia, I agreed with most of it - and with his recommendations. Of course academics should specialize, but let's not do it to excess. I suspect one reason why some of today's celebrity intellectuals - like Jared Diamond, Daniel Dennett, and Nassim Taleb - got to be popular is that they can combine and synthesize learning across very different disciplines. This appeals to someone who is intellectually curious about the world and doesn't see everything neatly compartmentalized into categories such as "biology" and "history" and "linguistics".

It's hard to say exactly why, but somehow Taylor's article makes me feel better about academia as a possible career. Maybe it's that his piece's very existence is evidence that there is a shift going on. If I were to start a career in newspapers right now, I would of course do so in the knowledge that one major era in the history of newspapers is ending right now and a new era is beginning - and pretending otherwise would bring me no benefit. I think a similar shift is in the cards for universities. Maybe it won't be as traumatic as what's happening to newspapers (or maybe it will) but I will have to be just as aware of it.

(As an aside, lately I've been reading Neal Stephenson's novel Anathem, whose main characters are the equivalent of academic professor-types in an alternate not-quite-Earth. I'm not saying I want to go live in a concent on Arbre, but I must admit that it's kindled some wistfulness for a life of reading and learning.)

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