Alexandria Online

Monday, June 21, 2010

Authority, Fascism and Academia

Academia has long occupied the throne in the palace of intellectual authority, backed by the tenure system and the university press system. Any self-respecting media, publishing or broadcasting any kind of story requiring research or testimony from an authority, needs to throw in the words, "Stanford," or "Harvard" or some such brand name. The brand is actually academia itself, not a specific university. The pyramid of status is well-defined and publicly acknowledged, and the closer you can get to the top the more believable your story will be.

Scholars, of course, are famous for disagreeing. So it would seem that a lively diversity of ideas would thrive in academia; however, because of the way that people get tenure, there is some danger that a kind of intellectual fascism can also take hold.

The training for a career in academia is shockingly long and arduous. In the Humanities, it takes about ten years to get a PhD. That's before you apply for your first real job. During those ten years, you must do exactly what your professors tell you to do. Most professors tell you to do original, creative things with your time, and embrace a wide range of views and methods. Some, however, simply set you to work on their own projects. And while this experience can be a tremendous opportunity for young scholars, it can also amount to abuse of power. The professor has all the power and the student, like an apprentice, has none.

It would be different if a student could choose to move to a different institution. But after a few years in one doctoral program, that is not really an option. You are essentially locked into an apprenticeship with this particular group of professors. It is an an environment in which abuses of power -- sexual, psychological, and professional -- can occur.

The mentor/apprentice relationship is an essential element the academic training process. I am proud that I studied under Mabel Lang at Bryn Mawr College, and that I took a class with Albert Lord at Harvard (he even knew my name!) I am their student for life. I witnessed Camille Paglia greet Harold Bloom at a cocktail party with the repeated salutation, "oh, great father!" while he shook his head and waved away her adulation in mock modesty.

We should not be surprised, however, when some young scholars develop excessive admiration for their mentors, just as hostages sometimes develop loyalty to their captors: Stockholm Syndrome. But the training process is just the beginning of the apprenticeship, or the "indoctrination," or "hazing" depending on how it all turns out.

The tenure process takes seven years and at the end of it a small committee decides your fate. Generally, one negative evaluation from an influential colleague is enough to blackball the candidate. If you work in the sciences, you may have alternative career paths outside academia; if you are hot enough and young enough,  you might have a shot at getting tenure at another institution. Otherwise, you will be looking to build a new career in your mid-thirties.

Rejection is disastrous for the individual, but it also represents a failure of the institution and of the profession, which has spent seven years nurturing this scholar and must now start the process all over. While some rejections are based on scholarship or teaching that is universally recognized as inferior, some are based on the sad fact that the candidate has something new and creative to say that threatens somebody in power. This committee of tenured faculty has, essentially, absolute power. They may question each other, but no one may question them. The candidate may appeal but only on procedural grounds.

Candidates for tenure, then, are strongly motivated, indeed desperate, to please their colleagues in order to gain tenure. They must write -- and think -- in the grammar of the university presses in order to publish their work. The higher up the pyramid of status they can place their publications the more their colleagues will respect them and the better their chances at getting tenure: not Stockholm Syndrome, but "Tenure Syndrome."

I worry about the authority of Wikipedia, blogs, Flexbooks, etc., but I also worry about the authority produced by academia. I have great respect for many of the academic authorities in my life, some of whom I have never met, some who have been dead for centuries. But there are serious problems with the process of establishing that authority, which must ultimately effect the work of academics.

Where authority and power is absolute there will be abuse and degredation of academic freedom and creativity.