Recently, I’ve had extended stays in the pub closest to my place of work with friends and colleagues describing what they see as the ongoing decline of academe. And they have sufficient substance for their worries. Enrollments at universities are down across the board as the population boom upon which much of our educational infrastructure was established starts to taper off. Fewer young people are willing to saddle their lives with permanent student debt to earn degrees that might not get them the job they desire, what with the state of certain fields being in perpetual motion. Reactionary states, such as mine, are investing less and less in higher education, thus planning the burden more and more upon students, because they regard learning as adjacent to brainwashing. And higher education itself is facing the blowback of the boom it has created, especially in the field of humanities, producing a constant stream of doctorates when the job market is declining and fewer and fewer of these highly educated and experienced people can find employment in academia. Moreover, universities tend to be saddled with more and more administrators who see their job as expanding the corps of well-heeled administrators rather than actually educating the public.
In other words, there is reason for worry, and what I am about to say doesn’t try to deny that.
But last night, I was having a few beers with a public history professor friend of mine who related to me the latest “sky is falling” report from his own university. A few years back, his own department made the decision to get rid of its adjunct workforce and hire only full-time professors, a move that normally wouldn’t be lamentable given that university departments have, in recent years, relied too heavily upon adjuncts at the expense of tenured professors. However, with the current decline in enrollment at his institution, his department is now left without the flexibility that part-timers provide, and as morale sinks and people begin to leave, there’s a real possibility that the history department could shake out in a way that leaves it weaker, with all the Americanists, for example, finding berths elsewhere, leaving a department at an urban university in the heartland with only specialists in Asia and Europe. And why are people so ready to leave? Well, because they might not have the chance to teach upper-level courses on their area of expertise. At this particular university, most professors have a load of three courses in the spring and fall each–two survey courses and one upper-level course. Lacking adjuncts to fill in on the survey courses, full-time professors are being ask to teach a semester exclusively consisting of survey courses. And even when they get the chance to offer an upper-level course, the decline in enrollment means that sometimes it just won’t make.
For many people in my friend’s department, this is the veritable apocalypse, the sure sign that academia is on decline. For his part, my friend doesn’t mind teaching survey courses and laughs at the general mood of panic among his associates, but that panic is pervasive. And I was contemplating it this morning on the commute to work, and I had a thought–
What if academia has always been in decline? That is, what if academia arose within the very conditions that led its adherence to believe it was always in a state of decline?
You see, modern universities arose from monastery-based schools in medieval Europe. Sure, the idea of formal education predates this development, for the philosophers of Ancient Greece were often hired as tutors for the elite. But an important shift had occurred by the time incipient universities had begun to emerge, a philosophical shift that shaped the institutions responsible for later universities (the monasteries), and thus shaped the expectations that would be knit into the DNA of academia. By the Middle Ages, the Christian Church had largely baptized Platonism and Neo-Platonism, especially the divisions that Plato had erected between the ideal World of Forms and the shadow world, our world, that reflected imperfectly that ideal realm. In many ways, monasteries signify the material embodiment of this division, closed off from the world so that its members can more fully reflect upon the pure light of the divine.
How frustrating it must be, then, for idealistic novices entering these sacred spaces for purposes of communion with the creator of the universe to be asked to do the dishes or fix the meals one day a week. During one of the stranger career diversions I have undertaken, for some years I was a freelancer for a Catholic newspaper and regularly visited the local convent, just outside of town, to cover the goings-on there. My visits there quickly disabused me of the notion that convent life constituted a higher order of spiritual existence, freed from the petty squabbling that subsumes interpersonal actions here in the secular realm. Get one of them away from the convent for a while, and it was nothing but a stream of complaints about Sister So-and-So who was smoking in the recreation room again or Sister Whats-Her-Face who is still trying to figure out who voted against her in the election for prioress twenty years back. Not that there weren’t some generally good people in the building, but convent life constituted a reflection of human society, not an exception to it, and contained all the interpersonal friction you find in any collective enterprise, from government on down to a marriage.
But that’s not how it’s advertised, is it? We want to believe that the sanctified life is set apart, and likely most of those who entered this convent did so out of a genuine desire to devote the better part of their lives to meditation upon the divine, not to being stuck with laundry duty for the third week straight because the other sister says she threw out her back, when everyone knows she’s exaggerating. Plus, in this aging convent, people had to work. They were expected to get jobs to support each other, because the decline in religious vocations, and the decline in donations, means that even fewer in religious life are privileged to spend their hours in prayer and meditation. And so the realm of the Ideal you had hoped to find begins to look a lot like this degraded world the more you stay, and the distance between expectation and reality only grows, and you begin to become cynical, seeing this as a sign that we inhabit the waning days of Babylon, that the apocalypse is nigh, for how can this be?
And so, if academia grew from the roots of monastic life, might its own expectations have been similarly shaped by the Platonic division at the root of Christian culture? Might those in academia conceive of their mission as rooted in pure knowledge and resent any infringement upon their time and energy with more mundane responsibilities? And when confronted with the necessity of adapting to changing conditions, might they not similar adopt an eschatological viewpoint that regards this present moment as one of the expected signs of societal collapse?
In other words, academia is always in decline because academia was born aspiring to a sense of fulfillment that could never be attained.
There you go. The Chronicle of Higher Education can now cease its endless hand-wringing about the current state of affairs.