In one of his increasingly rare blog posts, Scott McLemee draws our attention to an article in the Chronicle by one of the foremost advocates of not getting involved in academia at all — but more importantly, he also draws our attention to a comment by “dcbetty” that is worth reproducing here in full:
One problem is when students and faculty think that the only way to HAVE a “life of the mind” is to go to grad school. I suggest prospective grad students start hanging out with writers and artists. In my experience, ideas that in academia are treated as revolutionary are in fact concepts that artists and writers outside academia often explored literally decades earlier (and without a PhD). Academia is indeed a fantastic place to explore the life of the mind– but it is also often conservative, derivative, and uncreative in its thinking, even among those who fancy themselves radicals.
Scholars might as well go be with the artists, for becoming a credentialed intellectual (by going to grad school) now has a high likelihood of landing people in the exact social and economic situation experienced by artists and writers — no, or very little payment for your “real” work, and little interest or even notice shown by the rest of the world. The difference is that writers and artists usually have few illusions about their moneymaking prospects, so it’s totally acceptable for artists to have “day jobs” that no other artist would ever fault them for having so that they could continue to do their work.
Academics, on the other hand, tend to be much more mainstream and narrow in what kind of moneymaking work is acceptable, and a lot more worried about social status. (What else can you say about a profession in which teaching high school, or publishing an essay in the New Yorker or a book aimed at the NPR-listening public, is seen as evidence of unseriousness and will, in all likelihood, be detrimental to your career?)
These days, though, scholars, like writers and artists, must accept that what they do, they must do for love (because no one really gives a damn about it except your peers), and persevere even if they have to work at Whole Foods during the day to do so. In the world outside academia they can find a fascinating group of people living an often far more adventurous “life of the mind” then you will find in a university. (and believe it or not, some in this group will be reading the same books you are, and have interesting things to say about them)
The cost is that such scholars will have to give up on the idea of upper-class social status, and know that mainstream academia will now consider you a loser/crank and probably never let you back in. The benefit is that you can work free of intellectually-restrictive career-ladder restraints. And that might produce work so interesting that you could become a professor someday after all — especially if/when the current academic model finally destroys itself.
In these dark times, where I have been more fortunate than most and yet hold no illusions that such good fortune is likely to continue, this comment was perhaps the most encouraging thing I could possibly read.