How can I lead a life of the mind outside the academy? (part 2)

This is Part 2 of a 4-part series on leading the life of the mind outside the academy. In Part 1, I examined 3 models for living well. In Part 2, I discussed what we need to do in order to change our conception of leading a life of the mind. In Part 3, I try to give a fairly broad picture of how we’ll need to re-conceive of ourselves. In Part 4, I discuss the virtues (e.g., resourcefulness, modesty, self-mockery) necessary for leading such a life in this the new economy.

The Problem of the Excluded Middle

I want to begin by examining why academics are so attached to the university despite the fact that the latter is ceasing to be a good provider. There are many strategies I could employ. I could, for instance, 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. The implication would be that it is unlikely to be such a patron in the coming decades. The intended effect would be to help you detach yourself from something that is more transient than it now appears. Maybe it is not necessary after all.

Alternatively, I could write a Borges-esque version of Russell Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals, a book that valorizes the independent thinking of pre-WWII, 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 WWII, things 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 cares about Collegiality and Tenure above all else. Writing such an account might have the effect of diminishing the value you currently place on university life. (“University life: It ain’t that good” 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, but neither one I wish to take. My approach will instead be to key into our failure of imagination. 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 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 I am wasting my life!

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. Let’s follow this conjecture and see where it takes us.

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

I have suggested so far that 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.  (Here as elsewhere, I assume that you’re not independently wealthy. If you are, these blogs will only be of antiquarian value.) I think this assumption is false. In order to show why this is the case, I want to change the topic of conversation.

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 economic situation has changed swiftly and dramatically. Increasingly, the concept of a career can be applied to fewer and fewer actual cases. It still applies, of course, 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 is, for many people, 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 yourself into a pre-given narrative. By contrast, being a “kind of person” does not. In what follows, I want to talk in terms of “kinds of person” and “activities.” To illustrate this point, it might be easiest for me to refer to my own case. I am a philosopher. I am also an educator. Let’s take the simpler case: namely, my being an educator.

According to the career view, the only way I can be an educator is to teach in the academy or in K-12. Though I used to see things this way, I no longer do, and thankfully so. According to the kind of person view, I see myself qua educator as instantiated in a number of cases: I’ve begun crafting philosophy for kids programs, I’ve starting doing public philosophy events, I’ve taught senior citizens during the past couple summers, I plan on teaching continuing education courses, I’ve done educational consulting, I work as a philosophical counselor, I write these blogs, and so on. Through all these activities, I am able to educate, to manifest my being-an-educator in the world.

I’ve 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, discrete activities. (I would call myself a “Spinozist” according to the lumbering terminology I dredged up yesterday.) By changing the topic of conversation (or, if you prefer, by reorienting myself to the world), I’ve 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 became problems and problems opportunities. I don’t see 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 sustainable (once again, this rules out being a “Peripatetic”–see Part 1) In a future column, I’ll have to discuss how one goes about doing this, but for now I can say with confidence that it is quite doable. Second, it must be morally virtuous. And, third, it must be meaningful.

It is entirely possible, of course, that one could devise a model for living that met criterion 1 but not 2 and 3, or that met criterion 1 and 2 but not 3; etc. For instance, a sustainable and virtuous life may not be meaningful: you may not be able to see why you should bother getting up in the morning; it may all seem pointless. Or a particular model for living might be virtuous and meaningful yet not feasible. Non-profit work for an underfunded NGO anyone? In short, we need to aim for feasible, ethical, and meaningful. Take some time to think about how you could satisfy these 3 criteria.

“All right, Andrew, but apart from the ‘kind of person’ song and dance you gave us and apart from commonsensical criteria you tossed our way, how do we aim at this new model for living the life of the mind?” A promissory note: I’ll broach this topic tomorrow.