My friend Greg probably didn’t mean to send me into an existential tailspin when he tweeted about this column in the Chronicle of Higher Education earlier today, but it is the nature of the internet to cause such serendipities — or whatever the negative equivalent of serendipities is — and thus I spent a good portion of the day thinking about academia and my relationship to it.
I don’t think it was intentional on her part, but my mother brought me up in such a way that The Academy was something like the church, or more exactly something like the source of those shadows on the cave that Plato writes about, as read by C.S. Lewis (which brings us back to the church, of course). I don’t think she intended it, but it would be hard to avoid. She holds five degrees — a BA and MA in English acquired before I was born, a PhD in Englished finished shortly after, and an MD and an MS, just for good measure. My father was a Classics professor, and though he died when I was quite young, my early memories of him are set in a fixed location: a dilapidated late Victorian house a block away from a college campus on a hill, the sort with old stone buildings and leaves that crunched underneath your feet in the fall. People from the college were always coming over to the house, and dozens of students stored their bicycles in our barn in the winter. (I wish I had a picture — all the racing bikes that looked so hip in 1979 would look so dated today.)
My father’s direct influence on my life ended when I was five, but his presence never quite left. He was the sort of man who had sayings. Some of these he liked to print onto 3″x5″ cards at his hobby press in Vermont in the summers (“Every silver lining has a cloud”); the rest are things that were repeated to me for many years. “The true purpose of a liberal arts college,” my mother would say, “was, according to your father, to provide a very, very fine education to a very small group of men — by which he meant the faculty.” She also told me that my father believed that once you had written the first sentence of a paper, you were halfway done. It was my recently-deceased great uncle who said there was no point in writing if you couldn’t write like Milton, but it is a sentiment for which I suspect my father might have had sympathy.
I grew up in a house that contained my mother’s books, my father’s books, and the books that had once belonged to a man named Frank Carey, who was also a Classics professor from Enosburg Falls, Vermont, where my father’s family spent every summer. When he died, he left his library to my father, the only other Classicist (or so he believed — someone may well prove him wrong) ever to come from that tiny town. I took with me to college my father’s elementary Greek textbook, my mother’s Latin dictionary, and Frank Carey’s copies of the Iliad and the Odyssey. The weight of three generations academe (my father was twenty-four years older than my mother, and Frank Carey was a good bit older than my father) was already on my shoulders, quite literally.
I knew I wanted to study Greek in college, and I knew that I would love college. I did both those things, and I do not regret it. I spent four years among old stone buildings, and four years crunching leaves underfoot in the fall, and four years trying to learn some of the things that were in all those books I brought with me. But then, of course, those four years came to an end, and while that eventuality is obvious to anyone who has observed the passing of time, I did not ever quite realize that it was going to happen. And I was utterly unprepared when it did.
I was an okay student, but I was not a star. I got nice comments on some of my work from my professors, but none of them ever encouraged me to go on to graduate school. I have only myself to blame for that. I ended up in an MFA program, not a PhD program, although the MFA is just as terminal, if not more so — terminal in the sense that it leads nowhere. Part of my is grateful that I never went after a PhD; part of me believes I will always be lacking because I failed to do so.
Benton’s Chronicle piece comes too late to serve as advice for me, and I most probably would not have listened to him even if it had not, in part because I had, at age 22 and 23 and 24, no other idea of what to do but more because I had not then, and have still not now, entirely come to understand academia as the god that failed.
Some people raised in particularly strict systems are able, when they come of age, to shuffle off those beliefs like so much snakeskin. But others climb away from them on what Karen Armstrong pictures as a spiral staircase — true, it goes up, but it comes around again and again to the place it was before.
I can see that universities treat humanities graduate students as cheap and easily exploitable labor. I can seee that they have little use for them beyond that. I can see that that very, very fine education for a very small group of men is a sort of upper middle class fantasy world. I can see that the shadow casters in the cave are, ultimately, no more real than the donkey in lion’s clothing that the evil ape tries to pass off as Aslan in The Last Battle. I can see all that, but I still cannot let it go.
A long time ago (nearly ten years ago now!) I quoted Chelsea Cain’s memoir, describing her mother’s reaction to the Vietnam War: “Her identity had been closely wed to what it meant to be an American and when what it meant to be an American suddenly included napalm and mortar fire, her self-concept began to unravel.” My identity has been no less tied to the idea of the academy, and the academy turns out not to be at all what I somehow once thought it to be, and it has indeed caused my self-concept to unravel, and I am not at all sure of just how I can put it back together again.