The phrase “life of the mind” is most evocative of a university idyll, of ivy-covered walls and quadrangles, of tweed jackets and dark gowns, of time spent in reflection and of packed lecture halls. To a great extent, the imagery of the life of the mind is a combination of late 19th and early 20th century Anglo-American university stereotypes. This world no longer exists, if it ever did – even Oxford and Cambridge find themselves invaded by government inspectors demanding to see their RAE results and quantifying their value to society. Even were the barbarians not at the gates, not all people who value the life of the mind desire to spend their lives in the real or imagined university setting. Yet the university provides the only institutional support for a life devoted to ideas. Or does it?
This is a problem for every person who goes to graduate school for a subject in the humanities and, either by choice or by necessity, must find employment outside of the academy. It turns out that there are options that allow an intellectual lifestyle while also being economically viable and, perhaps, even more rewarding than the traditional, university-bound life of the academic.
Most obviously, there are many options for teaching at the secondary level, which allow for personal interaction with inquisitive and motivated students. American readers are probably familiar with the Advanced Placement (AP) program, in which secondary students take individual subject courses at high school level and, by passing a finishing exam, can receive college credit. An even more rigorous program is the International Baccalaureate (IB), particularly the IB Diploma Program. The IB Diploma Program is a 2-year liberal arts program available at select high schools. Like the AP, IB courses can be used for college credit, but unlike AP, IB is an integrated and philosophically coherent educational program. Teaching in such advanced programs offers the university graduate a way of staying connected to valued subject material as well as spreading appreciation and understanding to others.
Another option is to work in libraries, museums or other heritage industry institutions. This often requires specific training at degree level, but large organizations such as Colonial Williamsburg and the Library of Congress employ people with a variety of academic backgrounds. In particular, such institutions often require staff to work on preservation and outreach programs that allow someone interested in the life of the mind to have a direct impact on society. Such organizations are often backed with public money or private endowments and can provide the same institutional stability as a university or high school.
A third option, which may not occur to a conventionally-trained academic, is employment in the vibrant world of online journalism. Legacy magazines such as The Atlantic, Harper’s, and The New Yorker all maintain vast websites that integrate their paper offerings with web-only content. They are joined by other media organizations such as National Public Radio (NPR) and the New York Times. These magazine-sites offer content that ranges from the daily news to thoughtful discussion on topics of arts and letters.
This may strike a graduate student, accustomed to peer-review and an academic environment that emphasizes specialization and hierarchy, as not a “real” life of the mind, but I would argue that it can be more real than the university alternative. My own time in academia has left me with a sense of unreality and of an academy that is increasingly cut off from the concerns of society. The debate over tenure is partly about money, but also about disciplines that play for such low stakes that they have difficulty justifying tenure, a seemingly outdated policy intended to protect professors from public opinion that they have largely ceased to influence.
The first principle to which I adhere is a belief that liberal education can lead to a better society. This is a utilitarian value that places me outside of the accepted “research ideal” that is the modus operandi of higher education and which emphasizes knowledge creation for its own sake. A purely philosophical approach to one’s subject is not necessarily a bad thing, but when the reality is that such an approach leads to insularity and to sophistry, in which academics engage only with the limited range of ideas posed by their limited number of colleagues, in which the university resembles an academy less and less, and a monastery more and more, then it is the university and its faculty who need to change. Barring that, it is the individual’s responsibility to look for a new forum.
Given this, I believe that people with advanced training in the humanities have a duty to be active members of society, either as teachers or as producers of published and disseminated knowledge and criticism. There will always be a few whose exceptional genius justifies their devotion to knowledge creation alone, but rarity is an intrinsic attribute of genius. Therefore, most practitioners of the humanities, i.e. those who wish to lead a life of the mind, must do so in a way in which they engage with society.
My hopes in this post are two-fold. I hope that I have given some ideas to people who are earning PhDs and have no idea what constructive use to make of them. But even more so, I hope that people with enthusiasm for the life of the mind will avoid doing PhDs, which teach a single skill set, that of the research ideal, and will be inspired to find other, more creative, and more socially aware ways of utilizing their talents while also enjoying a life of the mind.