Time of the Scholar


I wonder if the scholar has vanished and I do not think that is a good thing.

I do not mean scholarship, but the class of people sufficient in means and time to devote their entire life to study. In many ways, I aspire to that life, but adjunct teaching between several universities has not yielded much time that other full-time professors have. I’m lucky to have gotten done this year what I could. And the pressures of contemporary academic life push teaching on the full-time academic more so than in previous times. In addition, we teach more people of varying degree in intelligence and willingness to work. As such, there are many forces undermining the ideal of the scholar.

Perhaps, a contemporary example is in order. To publish my writings, I had to work on them in my own time, often intruding upon my marriage and other non-academic duties life throws at you. Since I do not have kids and doing philosophy on the weekends or even when I get home from commuting between two-part time positions at local universities, I have had little personal time to devote to the things of life other full-time people take for granted.

And here’s the clincher: with full-time positions disappearing and being replaced by contingent adjunct faculty, the real crisis of the humanities is not their already established irrelevance, but the fact that the very life of the scholar that would show the relevance of the humanities is a lost way of life nobody could recognize at all. The scholar is vanishing before us.

The strange irony is that we are all given a taste of scholarly satisfaction. All of us may have been excited by our dissertations, the pure intellectual satisfaction of drawing connections at a time when we may have been funded just to research it and write it. That may be the last time any of us had a taste of what it meant to be a scholar.


4 thoughts on “Time of the Scholar

  1. Reblogged this on AGENT SWARM and commented:
    “I have had little personal time to devote to the things of life other full-time people take for granted”. The scholar is a figure of someone able to make their living out of their passion. The academic is the banalised form, and would give up their job if they could get more money elsewhere. So what do we call someone who wishes to lead the life of a scholar, having the passion, but must sacrifice time and sharing to live a fraction of that lifr? A “would-be” scholar? No, because they are being scholars in their private time. Nietzsche called them “private thinkers”. Must they be resigned to being seen, even by themselves, as “second best”? In moments of sadness or doubt it can seem so. Yet I think that Ed is overly pessimistic in thinking that the time of the dissertation was the sole and unique time of intellectual satisfaction.

    • I think that “someone who can make a living out of their passion” and an “academic” are one in the same. I certainly attach no pejorative meaning to the term “academic” and think of it as an honorary term. There are just fortunate souls to have won the right to be full-time and scholars in their own right. My experience in this world suggests that nobody becomes an academic without passion about their subject matter they study. What Nietzsche called them, what Arendt called “professional thinkers,” or what Heidegger derided as the same professional thinkers who are still not thinking are all phrases of wit, and ad hominems in their own way. I would not rely on Nietzsche to evince the claim that academics are either banalized forms of the scholar or that there exists the passionate “scholar.” On its surface, it feels like a false dilemma.

      You must also live in a society that values the work of the scholar. Scholarly activity must be found meaningful, well-received, and that entails a cultural awareness in which scholars can contribute to conversations even beyond themselves. Sadly, this does not happen.

      As for the dissertation, I may be a tad over-pessimistic, but I don’t know the last time I was paid to write. I remember making connections in writing that baffled me. I remember the pure raw energy of self-discovery during that time period. One could learn by writing. I wish I could get back a lot of what motivated me then.

  2. Even the supposed scholars who are in academia are too often not scholars, but curators of CVs, who write materials to maintain academic positions, but not advance the field.

  3. I am a little sad about our disagreements. What attracted my attention in your post was the shared situation of having to work normally, and then to use our leisure time to work on what we love. I am an English teacher in a technical school, which involves a lot of work. I have two children. I use nearly all my leisure time reading and writing on philosophy, which means sacrificing other activities, chronic over-working as I do not rest, and let us call it social and familial deprivation. Yet I do not feel totally frustrated intellectually. Especially over the last four years, since I started my blog, I feel great intellectual inspiration, freedom, and satisfaction. I did not say this explicitly in my reblog comment, as I wanted to give you some solidarity and consolation, not make it about me.

    “I think that “someone who can make a living out of their passion” and an “academic” are one in the same”. This does not correspond to my experience, which suggests that the passionate ones are few and far between. If you don’t like Nietzsche, I can cite Feyerabend and Deleuze who talk about thought-bureaucrats. This is not necessarily a bad thing, as many bureaucrats are interested in their job, and do it well. However, when I began university I thought that at last I would be joining a community of scholars, and I was very disappointed. When I saw an opportunity to come to Paris and attend Deleuze’s seminars, I lept at the chance.

    “There are just fortunate souls to have won the right to be full-time and scholars in their own right”. Once again my sociological experience disconfirms this idea. I was very slow to see just how people who succeeded in getting academic jobs and later tenure were, from the very beginning as undergraduates and later, “playing the game”, doing everything they could to succeed, eliminating all passionate attachment to personal ideas and taking up the ideas that would get them ahead. I have seen some people do this very deliberately and consciously, and many others who were just instinctively adapting themselves. It’s a scarcity situation, the competition is intense, and it is not always degree of passion for the subject that decides on success.

    As to the loss of the “aura” of the scholar, the increasing hegemony of extrinsic norms and administrative criteria of evaluation, and the disappearance of the conditions making scholars’ continued existence possible, that is a worrisome affair.

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