Called to academe: The university’s monastic ideal in a neoliberal age
Here’s media studies scholar Siva Vaidhyanathan making the case for recognizing the reality of an academic/scholarly calling — in the authentic religious vocational sense — in the midst of a neoliberal age obsessed with the economic and political concerns of the so-called “real world”:
In the United States, and increasingly in the world at large, we tend to reduce the conversation about the value, role, and scope of the scholarly life to how it serves short-term and personal interests like career preparation or job training. Sometimes we discuss higher education as an economic boon, attracting industry to a particular location or employing thousands in a remote town. Or we probe it as an engine of research and innovation. And sometimes we use academia as a tableau for satire or social criticism when we expose the excesses of the lazy and self-indulgent professoriat or giggle at the paper titles at the annual meeting of the Modern Language Association.
But none of these appraisals of the life of the mind gets at the real heart of the matter: the now quaint-sounding matter of the university’s “mission” — the bigger-picture question of what our institutions of higher learning do for and with the world.
. . . Within every great American university, even MIT, there is a monastery. It’s at its core. Sometimes the campus walls and spires make that ancestry undeniable. More often, the stadiums, sweatshirt stores, laboratories, fraternity houses, and career-placement offices mask the monastery. But it’s still there. European universities emerged from the network of monasteries that had accumulated, preserved, copied, and catalogued texts and scrolls over centuries. The transformation from cloistered monastery to slightly less cloistered university occurred in fits and starts over three centuries. But by the eighteenth century, universities throughout Europe were able to converse about this new thing called science and reflect on the meaning and utility of ancient texts that bore new meaning at the dawn of an industrial age.
Early American colleges and universities were likewise religious institutions built to train clergy to serve a sinful people. Soon they took on an additional role: exposing idle sons of the landed gentry such as James Madison and Thomas Jefferson to dangerous books coming over from Europe.
. . . [But today] When we scholars explain our passions — the deep satisfaction we feel when we help a nineteen-year-old make a connection between the Mahabharata and The Iliad, or when our research challenges the surprising results of some medical experiment that the year before generated unwarranted headlines — many of our listeners roll their eyes like my fellow students did back in that classroom in 1995. How embarrassing that people find deep value in such uncountable things.
It’s been a couple of decades since any American faculty member could engage in the deep pursuit of knowledge untethered from the clock or calendar. But many of us still write for the guild and the guild only, satisfied that someday someone might find the work a valuable part of a body of knowledge. But if that never happens, so be it — it’s all part of the calling’s steep price of admission.