administration · femimenace · intolerant shrew · politics · reflection

Idealism: the life of the mind versus institutional cynicism

I don’t know about you, but when I decided, back when I was several inches shorter and living rent free with my parents and legally obligated still to attend school, to be a professor when I grew up, one of the main inducements was this:

I would never have to sully myself with the concerns of the world.

By that, I sort of understood that most private sector jobs (my mom, I should note, was an elementary school teacher before retirement, and my dad worked for the Ministry of Natural Resources before his, so “private sector” was always sort of imaginary for me) involved worshiping the god of profit, which seemed sorta Glengarry Glen Ross to me, or maybe Clerks. And I always imagined this worship was going to involve compromising my principles. I just couldn’t square that circle in my head, of being a Nine Inch Nails / Nirvana-listening, nose-ring wearing, Salinger reading, Sassy subscribing weirdo social justice vegetarian eco-friendly feminist, with … what other people called “real life.” So I chose what I imagined to be the intellectual meritocracy of School-for-Life.

And I kept choosing it, because, as a bachelor’s then master’s then PhD student, it kinda is an intellectual meritocracy. Learning for the sake of learning! Taking the long view! Searching after (contingent and partial, but nevertheless meaningful) truth!

Even seeking out The Job still seemed to be the path of ideals: what is tenure after all but the guarantor of academic freedom, the heady amazing freedom sometimes to say, when no one else can risk it, that the emperor has no clothes?

So it has proven to be in my scholarship. I say whatever I want, on the basis of my critical judgement and careful research. I am of course subject to peer review, and rigorously held to high standards of enquiry. Totally fair, and totally awesome. And so it has been too in my public pursuits: public and university lectures, news interviews, TV punditry, national radio–I say what I want, on the basis of my expertise, serving no agenda but what I perceive as what’s right and what’s true.

But in my service? In my teaching? Hm. Maybe not. I’m a staunch idealist in these areas, too, but I don’t know if that’s what’s required–if that’s what’s effective, or pragmatic, or leading to anything but frustration and eye-rolls all around. Over my seven years here, I have both earned the nickname “Gosh, tell us what you REALLY think,” and been counselled to choose which battles to fight, to be more pragmatic, to engage in horse-trading, etc.

As I enter the mid-career stretch, facing more administrative work, and more important administrative work, I wonder: what is the place of idealism in the academy?

Was I wrong, in high school, to think I could do this job and keep my ideals intact? To not have to hold my nose and go along with something I think is wrong? To not lobby hard for something I think is right, and damn the torpedoes?

I’m no saint, nor am I omniscient. Sometimes I’m wrong–I’m always willing to change my mind in the light of new evidence or clearer thinking. But I always vote / write / grade / decide according only to my best judgement of what’s really right: I proceed according to my ideals, not any other kind of calculation. I’m worried, though, that being effective at this level means believing one thing, but doing another, in some kind of cost-benefit calculus where I play the balance of effects rather than the absolutes I currently hold so dear. And I don’t like the person I am when I think about doing that.

Am I naive? Am I avoiding the hard decisions? Am I being a Pollyanna? Or a priss? What do you think?

One thought on “Idealism: the life of the mind versus institutional cynicism

  1. Not claiming to be an expert in such things, and admitting to also being someone who is thought by some to have, um, too direct a link between the “think box” and the “talk box”, I do have a couple of thoughts on this matter.

    First, in my experience, a lot of the academics who counsel being a wheeler-dealer and who think of themselves as operators are almost stunningly ineffective at it. The transparency of their motives and their obvious sucking up to “power” (what's power in a university, after all?) is more likely to produce eye rolling than “tell us what you really think” ever will.

    Secondly, I think that being someone who is realistic about the tools available to make change, is willing to take the long view and try to get where we should be going by accumulating partial wins, but who is regarded as fundamentally honest and direct is actually most effective—certainly much more effective than the “operators”. This does require the view that honesty commits you to not saying to someone you think is a jerk that you think s/he's wonderful, but it doesn't commit you to saying “y'know, I think you're a jerk.” It's rarely productive to question someone's motives, so you focus on the (lack of) merits of the proposal being made, etc.

    Finally, idealism and persistence need to go together. One frequently hears (justified) complaints about “learned helplessness” as a work avoidance strategy. Another one is glorious defeat … Let's stand up at Senate and demand X! Let's resign in protest from this committee! Once defeated, let's hold our heads high and blame the dark forces arrayed against us! Then let me get back to my office and do my own thing. … Being willing to absorb a defeat gracefully when necessary, but to really be working to win instead of seeking the glorious flame out—to win on the merits of your case, and above board, by convincing people to be your allies—and to keep coming back again and again, chipping away at big problems: that's real idealism, I think.


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