Outside the Institution   Leave a comment

When was the last time you read a piece of literary analysis published in an academic journal and felt moved and inspired by what it had to say? My guess is that, if you engage in this torturous exercise, probably not very often.

Most papers are written and published, primarily, out of obligation. Academics have to show the universities that employ them that they are active in their fields, and universities, in turn, are ranked according to the productivity of their faculty. Since the squeeze for academic positions has become tighter and tighter, the situation has become increasingly worse.

How perverse it is that we allow the humanities to proceed in this manner. In the sciences, one must follow the scientific method or else the work undertaken would be declared invalid. In the humanities, by contrast, people are encouraged to write in an inhuman way. Academics in the humanities seem to lack the courage of their convictions – this idea is interesting, they say, but usually neither we nor they truly believe it.

Perhaps the most honest and perceptive assessment of this scholarly problem appears in Friedrich Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra:

“For this is the truth: I have left the house of scholars and slammed the door behind me. Too long did my soul sit hungry at their table; I have not been schooled, as they have, to crack knowledge as one cracks nuts. […] If one takes hold of them, they involuntarily raise a dust like sacks of flour; but who could guess that their dust derived from corn and from the golden joy of summer fields?” (p.147)

Nietzsche wrote those words in 1883, before the academic field of English literature had even been founded, but the prevailing attitude toward intellectual activity is remarkably similar. The joy of learning is reduced to a mechanical exercise, a matter of pedantic precision, automatic rather than dynamic.

It’s easy to be negative. Anyone who has worked in academia knows that it can be a demeaning path, even when you are part of the lucky minority who manages to find full-time employment. It’s a structural problem in which people are intimidated into a particular way of thinking. If they don’t follow the rules in graduate school, chances are they won’t finish their degree. If they don’t write in the accepted style of their field, chances are they won’t be published. If they don’t meet the research quotas of the university, they won’t get rehired or tenured. And so on. It’s an endless cycle of intimidation that ends up creating a culture whereby most academics lose any of the radical visions or creativity they might once have possessed. They become, as we say of prisoners, institutionalized.

There will always be a minority of academics – including, I hope, myself – for whom no amount of institutional pressure will change our approach to the humanities. Yes, the university will continue to require us to publish, but we write and teach and read, at base, for the love of it.

But it’s not enough. Society needs the humanities because they are the foundation of its emotional maturity, but the contemporary trend is to restrict such benefits to the elite classes. The emphasis on technical and vocational skills is the increasing curricular emphasis at your average low to middle ranking university at the expense of a liberal education, but the humanities will never disappear, for instance, from the Ivy League.

There is a surprising number of people outside that privileged elite, however, who are open to the idea that literature and the humanities have something to offer them. It is for that reason that humanities needs to consolidate its future by establishing roots outside the institutional tentacles of the academy.

Over the last few years, I have seen this approach work, for instance, with the Melbourne School of Continental Philosophy. The MSCP was founded in 2005 by a group of thinkers – some of them my good friends – as a way of promoting a neglected area of study about which they are passionate. While they rely on the local university for certain practical support for some things, the MSCP is able to run courses and seminars entirely on its own terms, without interference from the institution. Hopefully this autonomy is allowed to last.

The great challenge, as always, is economic. To work outside the institution inevitably means little or no remuneration. It also carries with it the possible future challenge of becoming institutionalized oneself, and thus closing down the openness that formerly drove the mission. But this step, I believe, is a necessary one for the future of the humanities. We must take the future into our own hands.

© 2012 Peter Mathews. All rights reserved.

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