Our Failure of Imagination

Andrew Taggart continues his consideration of the life of the mind, outside the university.
April 8, 2011

Why are academics so attached to the university even as it is ceasing to be a good provider? This inquiry could take me in a few different directions. I could write a genealogy of the modern university with the aim of showing that it did not always exist in its current form: it was not always the patron of the arts and humanities, and it is not likely to be such a patron in the coming decades. The intended effect of such a historical account would be to help us detach ourselves from something that is more transient and more fragile than it now appears. Maybe it is not necessary after all.

Alternatively, I could read aloud Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, a book that valorizes the independent thinking of pre-World War II, pre-university Bohemian New York intellectuals (I know, quite a mouthful that). For Jacoby, Greenwich Village provided the right conditions for intellectuals to flourish. After World War II, things swiftly changed: the university became the home of aspiring humanists and slowly their attention turned away from the public and toward their professional colleagues. Thus was born the professional who came to speak of collegiality and to fetishize the idea of tenure. In this case, the anticipated aim would be to diminish the value you currently place on university life. (“University life: It ain’t that great” might be the slogan.) If Jacoby is right, there was once a better, more vibrant life outside the walls of the university.

Both are reasonable tacks inasmuch as they seek to make the university look less desirable, but my approach will be to key into our failure of imagination, a failure “best measured,” writes Tony Judt in his final book The Memory Chalet, by our “collective inability to imagine alternatives.” I think the general line of argument goes something like this: either we choose a life of drudgery outside the university, or we set our sights on the vocational path however difficult that may be. The vocational path will allow us to pursue the life of the mind, it will provide us with an animating story (we are on the tenure track!), and it will supply us with a final end (tenure! chaired professorship! accolades! original contributions to our respective fields!). Now, as if in a tableau, contrast the vocational path with the life of drudgery outside the university. True, we may have gained financial stability but at the cost of our soul. What meaningful and, perhaps, ethically questionable stuff is this. Oh, how we are wasting our lives!

My wager is that there is an excluded middle in this argument. Suppose there were a path that happened to be just as meaningful as the vocational path and just as financially stable as the life of drudgery. What might such a life look like?

The Dead-End Notion of a Career: Changing the Topic of Conversation

So far, I have suggested that a large part of the problem stems from the way we think about leading a life of the mind. We assume that only the university can provide us with the shelter we need in order to undertake disinterested inquiry. I think this assumption is false. In order to show why this is the case, I want to change the topic of conversation from career talk to kinds of person talk.

Thinking of one’s life in terms of a career used to make a lot of sense, but it no longer does. The main reason is that the economy has changed course dramatically with the result that the concept of a career is applicable to fewer and fewer cases. To be sure, it still applies to doctors and lawyers and perhaps to a few other professions. The economic trend, however, is moving toward a world of freelancing, with skilled workers cobbling together short-term projects here with long-term projects there. The Organizational Man, someone who exchanged loyalty for welfare, is giving way to the Freelancer, one who’s free to contract and whose value is measured almost exclusively in market terms.

If the trend I am describing is roughly correct, then it follows that the notion of a career will, for many people, soon be a thing of the past. We can mourn the loss of this life-structuring narrative, or we can ask how we might see this problem as an opportunity — in our case, as an opportunity for leading the life of the mind by some other means.

A career involves fitting oneself into a pre-given narrative. By contrast, being a “kind of person” does not. I want to suggest that we’d do well to conceive of ourselves in terms of “kinds of person,” “modes,” and “activities.” To illustrate this point, it might be easiest for me to refer to my own case. In my life and work, I have sought to see the basic kind of person I am — a philosopher — as manifesting itself in three basic ways — freelance writer, philosophical counselor, and educational consultant — and as unfolding in a set of finite activities. How can these pieces possibly fit together?

According to the career view, the only way I can be a philosopher is to teach philosophy courses in the academy. Though I used to see things this way, I no longer do, and thankfully so. According to the kind of person view, I’ve come to regard my being a philosopher as expressed, for instance, in the mode of my being an educator which is, in turn, manifested in a number of educational consulting activities: I have begun looking further into alternative educational models (The School of Life in London, The Mycelium School in North Carolina, among others); I am a member of New Public Thinkers, a group of eclectic thinkers seeking to reinvigorate the public sphere; I am currently crafting a philosophy for kids curriculum; I have begun moderating Café Philo events and giving public talks in and around New York; I have taught senior citizens during the past couple summers; I write blogs about education, ethics, and philosophical counseling; and so on. Through all these activities, I am able to realize my being-an-educator in the world.

I would thus call myself a “Spinozist” according to the lumbering terminology I used in my last column. By changing the topic of conversation (or, if you prefer, by reorienting myself to the world), I have managed to realize my educational aspirations despite the fact that traditional paths no longer made sense or were blocked. Once I started looking at things from the kind of person perspective, obstacles turned into problems and problems into opportunities. I don’t see any reason why you can’t do the same.

Criteria for Success

Leading such a life will require satisfying three basic criteria. First, it must be financially stable (once again, this rules out being a “Peripatetic” — see, here, “3 Models for Post-University Life”). Second, it must be morally virtuous. Third, it must be meaningful. And, fourth, it must create a sense of wholeness.

It is conceivable, of course, that one could devise a model for living that met criterion 1 but not 2, 3, and 4; or that met criterion 1 and 2 but not 3; etc. For instance, a financially stable, virtuous, integrated life may nevertheless be meaningless: it may support life, bring about great good, make you feel whole, yet leave you feeling as though you shouldn’t bother getting up in the morning. Then, too, a particular model might be virtuous, meaningful, and integrated, yet unfeasible. Nonprofit work for an underfunded NGO anyone? To get things right, then, we need to aim for feasible, ethical, meaningful, and whole.

My strategy in this column has been part-therapeutic — getting us to loosen the grip the university has had over us — and part-speculative — inviting us to imagine a life otherwise. In the next column, I want to examine further the task of reconceiving ourselves, focusing in particular on the virtues that will be necessary for sustaining the life of the mind outside the academy.


Andrew Taggart is a freelance writer, philosophical counselor, and educational consultant. He is currently writing a general interest book on philosophy as a way of life. You can check out his website, andrewjtaggart.com, or follow him on Twitter @andrewjtaggart. He lives in New York City.


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