Academic institutionalization I

One of the most complex maneuvers of modernity is the reduction of original thought and creativity to a quantifiable labor product. An apprentice in a Renaissance studio, placed in a time machine and dropped in a 21st century “art school“, would be perplexed about how this could have happened at all.

The method is subtle, and sinister: institutionalization. In an ex-convict, it means inability to adapt to life outside the prison. In an ex-humanities student, it means an inability to adapt to the world outside the academic bubble, and a confusion of one’s own life goals with the goals of the academy itself. In both, a sufferer finds little society and few peers outside the institution. This year I will return to graduate school, because I was asked to do so, but at the very grave risk of making my institutionalization more severe. For expatriate English teachers such as myself, the rate of recidivism is quite high.

Institutionalization has conquered every branch of the art and humanities. About a year ago, I was surprised to learn that one can now get not only a postgraduate degree called “MM”, Master of Music, but something called a “DMA”, Doctorate of Musical Arts, in their favored instrument, e.g. trombone. That is to say, if it is not enough to study the theory of trombones for four years before you start a professional career, you can extend your trombone studies for several more years, or even indefinitely, for roughly $200,000 in non-cancelable loans. The MM was invented around 1890, and the DMA was invented in 1955. Only recently have people begun to notice that both show marks of a scam.

A childhood friend of mine on Facebook is a part-time art school postgrad. Despite the fact that she works half the time, her highest goal in life is getting that continued nod of appreciation from the academy. She recently posted this message to her wall: “I feel so uplifted by passing the review. I feel like I finally did something right and my life commitment to art hasn’t been a total waste.” This is, to me, a perfectly legitimate and honest feeling. But it’s also a symptom of institutionalization that may become lifelong.

Mencius Moldbug wrote about this phenomenon in poetry. Poetry, the most anti-social and solitary art of them all, is now an institutional product, by which one might aspire to tenure by writing a good quantity of poems and soliciting reviews from “established” academic poets (of all the absurdities). I disagree with Moldbug about how this happened, but he does link to a good essay on the subject at the Mises Institute, which should highlight how completely the academy has transformed. This is some guy named Albert Jay Nock, speaking in 1931:

Traditionally, the university was an association of scholars, grouped in four faculties: Literature, Law, Theology, and Medicine. When I say an association of scholars, I mean that it was not quite precisely what we understand by a teaching institution. The interest of the students was not the first interest of the institution. Putting it roughly, the scholars were busy about their own affairs, but because the Great Tradition had to be carried on from generation to generation, they allowed certain youngsters to hang about and pick up what they could; they lectured every now and then, and otherwise gave the students a lift when and as they thought fit.

The point is that the whole burden of education lay on the student, not on the institution or on the individual scholar. Traditionally, also, the undergraduate college put the whole burden of education on the student. The curriculum was fixed, he might take it or leave it; but if he wished to proceed to a bachelor of arts, he had to complete it satisfactorily. Moreover, he had to complete it pretty well on his own; there was no pressure of any kind upon an instructor to get him through it, or to assume any responsibility whatever for his progress, or to supply any adventitious interest in his pursuits. The instructor usually did make himself reasonably helpful, especially in the case of those whom he regarded as promising, but it was no part of the institution’s intention or purpose that he should transfer any of the actual burden of education from the student’s shoulders to his own, or contribute anything from his own fund of interest in his subject by way of making up for any deficiency of interest on the part of the student. I ask you, with your permission, to remark this point particularly.

[… The topic turns to today’s colleges.] At Columbia College (which is an undergraduate college controlled by Columbia University) a student may complete the requirements for a bachelor’s degree by including in his course of study such matters as the principles of advertising; the writing of advertising copy; advertising layouts; advertising research; practical poultry raising; business English; elementary stenography; newspaper practice; reporting and copy editing; feature writing; book reviewing; wrestling and self-defence. By availing himself of some sort of traffic arrangement with a sister institution belonging to Columbia, he may also count as leading to a degree, courses in the fundamental processes of cookery; fundamental problems in clothing; clothing decoration; family meals; food etiquette and hospitality; principles of home laundering; social life of the home; gymnastics and dancing for men, including practice in clog dancing; instruction, elementary or advanced, in school orchestras and bands.

Without the least wish to be flippant, one cannot help remarking points of resemblance here between the newest type of institutional organization and the newest type of drugstore.

And this was before the late 1960s nuked the liberal arts beyond recognition. How many liberal arts students today would even know what Nock is talking about when he mentions the “fixed curriculum”? A conservative group recently confused the hell out of an entire liberal arts college by simply referencing that concept. The idea of a standard humanities curriculum is simply vanished from the shrinking liberal arts intellect, despite its continued use in the hard sciences, which are now considered to be of a different essential quality than the humanities.

In Nock’s early modern academy, success was based on quality of thought, regardless of whether it was performed inside or outside a specific kind of building. (Think Hegel, and the Young Hegelians who debated him and each other. Unthinkable today.) What existed then, that does not exist anymore? Well, only the reason you went to college in the first place: self-betterment.

Today, the humanities do not aim to complete a well-rounded education, but to point learners towards a type of specialization and critical thought which involves them in the academy itself, directing students to publish their original research and thoughts within the institutional system. This self-obsession has a large number of consequences, most notably tricking people who merely wanted an education into pursuing a professorship they usually do not need and cannot achieve.

Now, I am not going to try to make an argument about the quality of research produced by this system, because that would be another essay entirely. My point is that maybe the people who are going into this shouldn’t be attempting to “produce research” at all. I am not an activist — far from it — but there is one thing I will say in their favor: someone who wants to “change the world” and is reduced over the course of years to writing about it has been duped, and anyone who sees through this smokescreen should be applauded. Even in 1916, many academics recognized that their life energy was being redirected into something slightly silly:

Thirty years ago I went to Harvard University to study the antennae of ‘palaeozoic cockroaches’ . . . I knew there were more palaeozoic cockroaches in Harvard than in any other institution. I divided my time between regular courses and the antennae of palaeozoic cockroaches. At the end of the year I went with my manuscript, quite a bundle of it, dealing with the antennae to the Professor of Cockroaches. I wanted it considered toward the requirements for the doctorate. I was told that Harvard University was not interested in the antennae, that it was interested only in the thorax . . . The Professor would not even look at my manuscript. The manuscript covered really only the first two joints of the antennae of palaeozoic cockroaches. It was afterward published, as the first of a series of occasional volumes by the California Academy of Sciences, and I believe is still the Authority . . .

In 1940, 70% of Harvard faculty were unsure what criteria were used to judge their worthiness for promotions and tenure, and most of them viewed this as a bad thing — contra Moldbug, by the 1940s the academics had already become completely institutionalized, and their institution had devolved into something less than a Socratic symposium. Today, we can happily (?) say that the criteria have become much more clear. Contribution to the interests of the institution, both scholarly and economic, the ability to produce continued quantities of research that do justice to the institution’s intellectual reputation, and keeping one’s nose out of trouble are among the ideological principles most valued by the postmodern academy.

To be continued.

Posted: June 24th, 2013 | Signs of the Times