Monday, September 21, 2015

95. Academics are unhappy.

You know that today's graduate students are unhappy when the Wall Street Journal can refer (and not entirely facetiously) to the world's best-positioned graduate students as Harvard's Les Miserables. If the discontent experienced in graduate school were only a temporary condition to be endured on a path to a better life, then it might not be so bad. Unfortunately, there is a great deal of unhappiness among those who make it all the way through graduate school, and not just among the thousands of PhDs living on welfare (see Reason 83), or the thousands burdened by crushing debt, or the thousands working as barely paid adjuncts (see Reason 14). (The plight of adjuncts has turned so tragically absurd that it's now fodder for the Sunday comics.) There are also, of course, those who have suffered through the devastating humiliation of being denied tenure.

And then there are those for whom everything worked out. Yes, a great many academics who not only found tenure-track jobs (see Reason 8) but managed to survive the long road to tenure (see Reason 71) are surprisingly miserable. For some, their unhappiness began as soon as they were tenured; the Chronicle of Higher Education has covered the phenomenon of post-tenure depression on more than one occasion. For others, an unshakable sadness took hold much earlier in their careers. The culture of fear (see Reason 76) that pervades academe ensures that the deep unhappiness felt by so many academics is rarely discussed openly. More often than not, it takes an observer working outside of academe to bring the subject to light.

The miseries of academic life are on full display, however, in fictional depictions of the university. Over the decades, those depictions have grown darker. Edward Albee's 1962 play "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" put academic torments on the stage. Countless novels put those torments on the page. As most academic fiction is written by academics, it is worth considering the source. In fiction, academics have found a way to describe their professional environment without jeopardizing their jobs. In Faculty Towers, Elaine Showalter notes that since the 1970s professors portrayed in academic novels have "become more and more grotesque figures, full of self-doubt and self-hatred." Why is this so? In his review of Showalter's book, Joseph Epstein offers an answer that outlines the trajectory followed by idealistic graduate students:

When young, the life ahead seems glorious. They imagine themselves inspiring the young, writing important books, living out their days in cultivated leisure. But something, inevitably, goes awry, something disagreeable turns up in the punch bowl. Usually by the time they turn 40, they discover the students aren't sufficiently appreciative; the books don't get written; the teaching begins to feel repetitive; the collegiality is seldom anywhere near what one hoped for it; there isn't any good use for the leisure. Meanwhile, people who got lots of B's in school seem to be driving around in Mercedes, buying million-dollar apartments, enjoying freedom and prosperity in a manner that strikes the former good students, now professors, as not only unseemly but of a kind a just society surely would never permit.

As it is, society permits some academics to live (and die) in genuine poverty, but the ranks of the miserable in academe extend far beyond the financially insecure. Academics are unhappy, and even students are beginning to notice.