Disquiet in the groves

All is not well in academia. From rank-and-file victims of Left politics and academic consumerism, who are choosing early retirement, to superstars of postmodernism and critical theory, who now seem to agree that political engagement doesn’t engage anything, more and more academics are asking themselves “why bother?”

It’s surprising it took them so long. When the postwar existentialists announced that “existence precedes essence”—that the concrete existence of a thing comes before the decision as to what kind of thing it is—everyone thought it was cool and liberating and antiestablishment. Everyone was stupid. Because when you apply that principle to (e.g.) a university, what it says is that the buildings, programs, course catalogs, and above all the endowment of the university come before any notion of what it’s there for. “What it’s for” is a later add-on that each can choose as he likes. It’s not a functional part of the system.

The consequence is that position, notoriety, money, size and motion have become the accepted common standards in academic life. Those things aren’t about anything outside themselves, though. If there are no essences that precede existence—no truths that transcend us—a scholar can’t be eminent for his relation to anything beyond himself and the system of which he is part. He can only be eminent for being eminent, or perhaps for unusual skill at manipulating the system. The academic world has thus become well-furnished with counterparts to the con-man, the shake-down artist, and the TV celebrity who is famous for being famous.

So what will happen now? Probably not much. Colleges are as they are because the world is as it is. Academic life has become pointless because no-one involved can imagine anything fundamentally different from what already exists all around us. If they could, theory would have a point; it doesn’t, which proves they can’t. So academic life will stay just as it is, kept going zombie-like by the human need for authority and for rites of passage, and by the demand of employers for some sort of certification. It expresses our civilization, and it’s doubtful that it can be reformed short of some radical renewal that extends far beyond it.

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