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.
Image: “Medieval writing desk” [Public Domain], via Wikimedia Commons
Life guidance from Edward O. Wilson: ‘Search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression’
Edward O. Wilson, 2003
Edward O. Wilson is of course most famous as the seminal thinker, author, scientist, and figure in the field of sociobiology, which he defined in his 1975 book Sociobiology: The New Synthesis as the “systematic study of the biological basis of all social behavior.” Although there are many valid criticisms to be made, and that have been made, of the scientific reductionism that is built into sociobiology, this doesn’t mean Wilson isn’t a fascinating and inspiring figure in his own way, and these qualities come out beautifully in a recent interview that he gave to the Harvard Gazette.
The conversation ends on a high note as Wilson reflects on his lifelong excitement over the field of biology and offers some piercingly excellent advice — framed in terms of science but applicable on a wider basis — for students and young people in search of a life calling:
Q: What is most exciting about your field right now?
A: I haven’t changed since I was a 17-year-old entering the University of Alabama. I’m still basically a boy who’s excited by what’s going on. We are on a little-known planet. We have knowledge of two million species, but for the vast majority we know only the name and a little bit of the anatomy. We don’t know anything at all about their biology. There is conservatively at least eight million species in all, and it’s probably much more than that because of the bacteria and archaea and microorganisms we’re just beginning to explore. The number of species remaining to be discovered could easily go into the tens of millions.
. . . Q: What lessons can a young student starting out today, looking at your career and thinking, “I want to make an impact like that” — what lessons can he or she extract from your life?
A: It almost sounds trite, you hear it so often, but you don’t see enough of it in college-age students, and that is to acquire a passion. You probably already have one, but if you haven’t got one, search until you find a passion and go all out to excel in its expression. With reference to biology and science, do the opposite of the military dictum and march away from the sound of guns. Don’t get too enamored by what’s happening right at this moment and science heroes doing great things currently. Learn from them, but think further down the line: Move to an area where you can be a pioneer.
Photo by Jim Harrison (PLoS) [CC-BY-2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.5)], via Wikimedia Commons
What do you desire? What makes you itch? What sort of a situation would you like? … [When counseling graduating students who ask for career advice,] I always ask the question, “What would you do if money were no object? How would you really enjoy spending your life?” … If you say that getting the money is the most important thing, you will spend your life completely wasting your time. You will be doing things you don’t like doing in order to go on living — that is, to go on doing things you don’t like doing. Which is stupid. Better to have a short life that is full of what you like doing than a long life spent in a miserable way … See, what we’re doing is we’re bringing up children and educating them to live the same sort of lives we’re living, in order that they may justify themselves and find satisfaction in life by bringing up their children, to bring up their children, to do the same thing … And so, therefore, it’s so important to consider this question: What do I desire?
Hat tip to Brain Pickings