Does a Philosopher need a University?

There is a fascinating discussion going on at the Leiter Reports blog about a piece (.pdf) that ran in the Chronicle recently about young philosophers leaving the “profession” because they don’t like their circumstances.

Here’s my response (just in case it doesn’t show up over there):

I earned a PhD in philosophy at an R1 university with, at the time, a very fine faculty.  I taught classes of my own from my second semester onward, and got an adjunct job long before I finished my disseration.  Some people have the gift of teaching, and I am one of these people.  I am certain it is a gift because I’m good at it and my graduate education never taught me to do it (or even to honor it).  I taught as an adjunct for 7 years at the same place.  I never had to be a “gypsy” as many of my friends had to.  Had I chosen to, I suspose I could still be there.  Every summer, to earn a little extra money, I’d take some kind of job.  In the summer after my 7th year, I landed a consulting job in the manufacturing industry working with engineers.  I loved that job!  At the end of the summer, I asked for an unconscionably large raise and got it.  I very much liked the idea of being rewarded for my talents, rather than being on the step-scale of a collectively bargained agreement.  I “left” academia and stayed with my consulting firm.  A year or so later, the large corporation in which I had been stationed from day one hired me for themselves.  I worked there for a total of four years, and then took a position in a non-profit organization that brings me into contact with academics from around the world (and from a wide variety of disciplines), but which is not a university.  I have been with this organization for more than 7 years.

I never intended to leave academia.  I literally grew up on college campuses (both mom and dad were academics).  It was all I had ever known.  I did apply for TT jobs, but without success.  [Academia does not hire great teachers, it hires “researchers,” a term, if we were really philosophers, we’d be a tad bit suspicious of when applied to philosophy.]  But I felt very disappointed about not being offered a TT job.  Being turned down for an academic position for a philosopher is not being told “you cannot have this job;” it is being told “you are not who you think you are.”  At least that’s what we academics–especially philosophers, I would say–tend to think.

But philosophers should NOT think that at all.  As important as I think formal education is, as important as I think teaching is, as important–despite what I am about to say–as I think academic philosophy is, I am utterly grateful to God or the fates or to circumstance to have NOT spent the whole of my working life in academia!

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I saw more of the world than I otherwise would have.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I’ve met a richer variety of people, whose lives and experiences have greatly enriched mine.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I’ve earned far more money than I would have, allowing me to care not only for my immediate family, but also for my extended family and even friends in need, as well as to extend charity to those whom I will never meet.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I’ve been far less susceptible to the myopia that tends to come from holing up in the ivory tower for a lifetime.

But NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia has not prevented me in ANY way from involvement in academic philosophy, when I am in the mood for some of its better qualities and offerings.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia I was able generate enough income to assemble a philosophy book collection that would be sufficient for many graduate students to complete a doctoral disseration. If Thomas Carlyle was right to say that the true university is a collection of books, I live in a university–just one without all the meetings, politicking, petty rancor, and other nonsense that is part of academic life.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I’ve had the opportunity to read more of what I’ve wanted to read (not always having to read in order to regurgitate, er, I mean, “research”).  Even teaching a few preps will limit one’s reading–especially if you care about your students and about teaching.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I was able to go to academic conferences wherever and whenever I felt like it (which I regularly did), and I never had to feel I was “on the make” like so many of my pure-academic colleagues, new and old, tenured or not.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I was able to learn much about the worlds of business and government, which, contrary to what so many in academia seem to think, are intellectually stimulating and potentially fulfilling.  I had just as many great teachers–probably more, come to think of it–outside of academia than I had within.  The engineers with whom I worked for a number of years, for instance, were at least as smart (and many were smarter) than my philosophical acquaintances, but with far fewer neuroses as a class.

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, when I do teach (which I just started to do again after 11 years) I am much better able to help students learn about philosophy and even become more philosophical themselves, as I am better able than many of my pure-academic peers to do something other than the only thing they have ever known to do:  take tests, write footnoted papers, get grades, and more or less reproduce themselves–none of which most students–even those in the Ivies–care for very much, and which has little to do with philosophy and much to do with “schooling.”

By NOT spending the whole of my working life in academia, I realize just how little professional philosophy sometimes has to do with philosophy–as even almost all of the discussion in this thread indicate (all about amenities of life, personal relationships, professional trappings, bruised egos, dashed hopes, etc., etc.).

Look, lets be honest with ourselves.  What we all want–qua philosophers–is to be able to read about, think about, write about, and (occasionally) to talk about exactly what we want to talk about as much of the time as possible and to be paid (a lot of) money to do it.  Some people–but not all–are able to achieve this goal within academia.  Some people–but not all–will fail BECAUSE they have an academic job with 4 sections and three preps semester in and semester out, and they don’t care about teaching and they’re no good at it anyway, and there are endless faculty meetings, committees, etc.  And–and this is what you most need to know–some people can SUCCEED in this aim just because they are OUTSIDE of academia.  You do not need to teach in an educational institution to be a philosopher.  You do not need to publish in an arcane philosophical journal to be a philosopher.  You do not need to constantly pursue tenure to be a philosopher.  For most of the history of our “profession” it wasn’t one!  And you don’t have to be in a big city or in the mountains (although, I admit, you have to be somewhere!).  You don’t have to be rich (I’m certainly not).  You just have to know how to handle distractions.  Having your loved ones unhappy is a terrible distraction (as having them happy is a wonderful boon to the peace you need to think.)  Pick a place to live that makes you and them happy–rural or urban or in between.  Having always to think about the bills is a terrible distraction.  Feeling angry and bitter is a terrible distraction. And sometimes, academia can be the biggest distraction of all (and much more dangerous and devastating as it is not recognized to be such).

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