Models for Post-University Life

With higher education no longer a reliable patron of work in arts and letters, it's time to consider new approaches to living the life of the mind, writes Andrew Taggart.
March 16, 2011

Can one be devoted to the life of the mind outside of the university? Since World War II, the university has been the chief patron of artists, writers, and philosophers, but it seems clear that one can be any of these kinds of persons in these “post-patronage” days.

Over the past 30 years, the university has changed its structure and aims. Around 1980 or so, we began to see the university shift from a “welfare system,” one of whose purposes was to support humanities scholars in their intellectual endeavors, to a “neoliberal system” governed by the research ideal, measurable productivity, and managerial principles. Precisely how this happened is still hotly debated, yet the results are not. Strangely, many of those pursuing the life of the mind still seem to think that the university is a patron of arts and letters despite the fact that it no longer regards this — in practice if not in principle — as its overarching mission. They are sorely mistaken and unfortunately deluded.

What we are witnessing, then, is a slow, awkward, painful change in the role of the university in modern society. Exhibit A: Ideologically blind graduate students working for universities that require their labor but then fail to value it. Exhibit B: The life of the professional researcher who writes for colleagues, not for a general readership; who’s rewarded for asking manageable questions, not for examining the big ones; and who values theoretical knowledge over practical wisdom. Exhibit C: The wasted lives of adjuncts.

Hence my question: How will creative types go about “manufacturing” a patronage system in the early 21st century? Let’s consider three figures, three plausible models of living.

1.The Peripatetic

The peripatetic scholar, musician, or artist is an independent thinker roaming about the countryside. In a New York Times job market article, “Independent Scholars: A Moving Lot,” Katherine Wentworth Rinne describes how she left the academy in 1992 in order to devote herself to completing a cartographic project on ancient Rome. Over the past 20 years, she has lived on anywhere from $8,000 to $80,000 a year and has moved around 15 times. Hers has been the peripatetic existence, one that by her own reckoning has not been entirely fulfilling.

There are two major problems with the peripatetic way of life. First and most clearly, it is financially unstable. I agree with Aristotle that financial stability is a necessary (but not a sufficient) condition for living well. Having enough money in the bank is very useful if one wants to do something worthwhile: fear and anxiety, countless hours spent worrying, moving about vagrantly, and so on are all mentally exhausting; all take away from the mental focus that is necessary for creating good art. Artists need a room with a view.

Second, this model entails self-division, the severing of one part of my self (my scrounge-about worklife) from another (my life as an artist). The work gets in the way of the art and vice versa, it feels meaningless and distracting, and the only value it has is instrumental (I work for the sake of making art). Worst of all, rarely does it pay well. Alienation breeds moodiness, resentment, and, not infrequently, spells of depression. Why, the peripatetic asks, can’t these people see that I have a Ph.D., that I studied at Juilliard, and that I shouldn’t have to bus tables or make lattes? What kind of topsy-turvy world is this after all?

Rule out the peripatetic way of life since it fails to meet the financial stability and the wholeness requirements. The peripatetic will always be torn in two.

2. The Hustler Entrepreneur

Then there is the “hustler entrepreneur,” a figure best likened to a clever slacker. He does not believe in working a 40-hour week for some large organization. Instead, he insists that we need to reconceive of the very idea of work while reimagining the aims of leisure. He may even be interested in doing something that provides social utility, though this is not necessary. In my view, the great hustler entrepreneur is a cross between a visionary, a Great Awakening evangelical preacher, a good-old American pragmatist, and a P.T. Barnum.

A fine example of this quintessentially American figure is Timothy Ferriss, author of The 4-Hour Workweek and, more recently, of The 4-Hour Body. Ferriss is not only remarkably clever; he is incredibly charismatic and immensely resourceful. Part pseudo-scientist, part-orator, part-businessman, part-opportunist, part-self-help guru, Ferriss seems to pull off the self-made man with elegance and brio. And, frankly, there are some good bits, some useful tips in his book. He hasn’t filled the thing up with sawdust and corn syrup.

Still, there is one major flaw in the design, and that is the hustler’s dubious final end. Ferriss claims that the latter is a life of hedonism: enjoying what you want rather than deferring until you retire. Of course, when he writes this, he may be stretching the truth, but then he is caught in a dilemma. Either he believes that a life of pleasure is the highest end, or he doesn’t. If he does, then he is wasting his life (and, if we follow him, then we are surely wasting our own). If he doesn’t, then he is living a life of insincerity (on the problem of insincerity, see Bernard Williams’s Truth and Truthfulness). But neither hedonism nor insincerity is admirable. It follows that this way of life, though not without its virtues, is not entirely satisfying. The hustler may get what he wants but not want what he should.

3. The Person of Integrity

Which brings me to the third way of life, that of the “person of integrity.” A person with integrity (integritas) experiences a sense of wholeness throughout the various facets of his life. On good days, he feels that the most important bits have come together in a synthetic, aesthetic whole. He would not say that he feels constantly riven by doubt or interminably ambivalent about his basic commitments. As the moral philosopher Harry Frankfurt nicely puts it, he feels “wholehearted.”

There are (at least) two subspecies of the “man of integrity.” They are the “Spinozist” and the “Neoplatonist,” two concepts I shall apply freely and loosely.

a. The “Spinozist” likens himself to nature, regarding his whole self as being expressed in different modes. That is, each mode fully expresses his being but in a different way. I think my new friend, the philosopher Robert Rowland Smith, is a fine example of the “Spinozist.” He writes academic and trade press books on philosophy, he does business consulting, he teaches at the School of Life, and he writes practical wisdom columns that regularly appear in The Sunday Times. I doubt that he sees one bit as being completely separate from his whole being. Rather, I suspect he regards each mode of his life as completely expressing the life of a philosopher.

b. The “Neoplatonist” takes a slightly different approach: that of infinity. For him, god is a being who must actualize his entire being in the very act of creation. All potency must be actualized (it cannot not be), and, in being so actualized, emanates outward into a diversity of things. Hence, each concrete thing is an expression of god’s power, and all things partake in him. The historian Arthur Lovejoy had a beautiful name for this: he called it the “principle of plenitude.”

My new friend Dougald Hine is a “Neoplatonist,” so understood. When you look at his website, you’re immediately struck by the range and diversity of his projects, plans, and ideas. At first blush, the experience is rather overwhelming as though you had stumbled upon a cabinet of curiosities or a hoarder’s dingy apartment. And yet, you ultimately see that his life is governed by a novel understanding of education, public-spiritedness, and friendship, all of which are expressed in a near-infinite plurality of projects, start-ups, institutions, and ideas. One of his projects, The School of Everything, is especially apt.

My provisional conclusion is that the “person of integrity” is a workable, indeed a noble and beautiful way of life in these “post-patronage” days. Unlike the hustler, he is involved in projects of ultimate value. Unlike the peripatetic, he is financially stable. Also to his credit: he doesn’t suffer from compartmentalization or alienation because he sees his work in his life and his life in his work. We might say that he has his life-of-the-mind in order.


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, or follow him on Twitter @andrewjtaggart. He lives in New York City. A subsequent column in this series will suggest new ways of thinking about work for scholars in life outside the university.


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