The Coming Post-Academic Age

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There are two very different uses of wealth. One use is as a way to show that one is succeeding in the market place; this is how wealth is displayed in Beverly Hills or Las Vegas. The other way is to use the wealth as a protective shield from the market place, so that the wealth itself functions as a way to keep away the feeling of capitalist forces; this is the point of wealth in well off college towns such as Cambridge and Berkeley.

I was aware of this second use of wealth as I was walking around the Princeton campus yesterday. As soon as I was on the campus, I could feel that distinctive feeling one gets at a rich university. I felt it walking around the grounds, taking in the beautiful architecture and the serene air of a life of the mind. But what is that feeling capturing exactly? At first I wasn’t sure; I walked around just taking it in, trying to understand it.

Then it occurred to me: it is the feeling of belonging to a community, where people are bound together by something other than the market and consumerism. The feeling I described in an earlier post that I had in the diner near my home, the sense that in the diner my relation to the people around me was mediated through the fact that we are all customers – that feeling was not present walking around Princeton. Instead, there was a sense that I was bound to the people around me in Princeton, but what bound us was not capitalism, but rather the realm of ideas, and a clear, sharp sense of our shared values in a robust, Humanistic sense. I felt a kinship to strangers on the street, as if our shared love of ideas and the intellectual life was a bond which united us in the deepest way possible, deeper even than what I have with my family.

Yes, this feeling is what I have periodically missed after leaving academia. Walking onto a campus is like going back to a childhood home, filled with the meaning of nostalgia and community.

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The richer the college, the more there is this feeling. For the richness of the college enables a deeper sense of a buffer between the college setting and the market forces of the everyday world. Though Beverly Hills and Princeton have a similarity of opulence, there is this great difference: the wealth in Beverly Hills makes one feel like one has gotten to the core of capitalism, whereas the wealth in Princeton makes one feel like one has been granted a reprieve from capitalism, as if one had entered an alternate universe where people are bound not by the bottom line of the dollar, but by the highest values of our human life.

After walking around the campus for a bit, I realized that nonetheless this was not that different from my diner experience. At the diner I bought a sense of comraderie with fellow humans beings through our being customers. On a college campus one spends much more money to buy the sense that can relate to others independent of capitalism. Not that this is actually true: contrary to how it might feel, the college campus is not magically free of the very capitalism which is so obvious even a block outside the campus. But reality be damned, it is the feeling of such independence from capitalism which is so enthralling and addictive. Even as a visitor, one luxuriates in the wealth Princeton has, as if the wealth is really a kind of non-capitalist wealth, something which is gotten from above as a treasure rather than, as in a store like Sachs Fifth Avenue, mere wealth gotten amidst our all too common world.

Ruminating on these thoughts while walking around the campus, at a certain point the illusion collapsed. What I was luxuriating in was the mere feeling of community, a virtual reality. Entering the campus was like entering a portal which gave the feeling that here peace on Earth is realized; that here is a space that all people on the planet are bound by. The feeling is vivid, and if one stays just in that campus space day in and day out, everyday, then one might take the feeling to be tracking reality, as if this feeling on the campus is slowly but surely spreading out through the world and binding everyone together.

But the fact that this feeling has to be bought by the wealth of the college itself shows that the feeling is illusory. For the feeling is lost as soon as you drive off the campus and are at a grocery store or a mall even just a mile from campus.

As capitalism eviscerates a robust, shared sense of community in the daily public sphere, colleges have to spend more money to keep up the barrier which makes it seem as if capitalism has been kept outside the doors of the campus. But, ironically, the more the wealth of colleges is to used to make it seem like academia is set apart from everyday society, the more the actual shared sense of community between academia and everyday society decreases. The very wealth which is used to keep up the feeling of a true community – the heart of the society – ultimately renders that feeling just a feeling. And so the bubble starts to form.

The bubble will burst eventually. Going from being a graduate student at Harvard to being a professor at Bryn Mawr, I could sense that something was off. Byrn Mawr is well off by most standards, but it is not financially in the same league as Harvard or Penn or Swarthmore. It was great to be part of the community on the Bryn Mawr campus, but having been only at Cornell and Harvard before then, I sensed something was different. But I couldn’t then put my finger on it. I realize now the difference was that Bryn Mawr was not as financially well off as it had been, and that made it seem more like market forces had entered the campus and was threatening its sense of ethereal community. Bryn Mawr still had the outer architecture which made it look like Oxford or Yale, but financially, like most colleges now, it was in a more precarious situation.

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Now only the ultra-rich universities and colleges can afford to create the feeling on campus of the liberal-arts community set apart from capitalism. This means that a Harvard or a Princeton or a Stanford are entering a more and more rarefied air, which sets them apart as a community not only from most of everyday society, but even from the majority of colleges.

When European universities started in the Middle Ages, there was an actual shared sense of community between the university and the society. This was enabled by the Church, which was the dominant, overarching communal force of the society. Then as secularism caught on, the Church was no longer able to play that main unifying role in the society. That task was transferred to the university.

In America, the Church played the unifying role in the society even as late as the mid-1800s, when the liberal arts education of the colleges was inseparable form cultivating citizens as understood by the Christianity of the community. With the economic changes after the civil war and the rise of the modern research university, this broke down, and the universities themselves became the central forces for community with the capitalist society.

Now, a 150 years later, as capitalism has become the very fabric of our society, it is unclear what is the shared, unifying communal force in the society. As academia itself becomes more and more a part of capitalism, it is not able to play the same communal role it played in earlier stages of capitalism. Hence the worry that it is only the ultra-rich universities which might be able to provide a liberal arts education in the classical sense of something set apart from concerns of how one will earn a living. The bubble grows bigger and bigger as the wealthy universities become richer and richer, and as they use the wealth to prop up more the sense that their campuses remain beacons of community set apart from market forces. In this way, that sense of fostering community becomes more and more narrowly defined, and accessible to fewer and fewer people – the very essence of a shared community in the broader society shrinking and dwindling, as if it can only be found behind a few campus walls.

So what happens now? If non-academia is fully caught up in capitalism, and if academia is only able to foster the illusory feeling of a shared community with the rest of society, what chance is there now for a deep sense of community in the society? Is there hope?

As the line from “Jurassic Park” goes, “Life finds a way”. Community is not simply a matter of holding on to the community of the past. It is mainly a matter of what can bind us together going into the future. Community is essentially forward looking.

The Enlightenment was a time when social organization changed such that the Church Age gave way to the Academic Age. In that period, the mechanisms by which a sense of a shared community in the society as a whole was fostered transitioned from that of the church to that of academia. We are in the midst of a similar change from the Academic Age to the non-Academic Age.

Society has become so much more complex than it was four hundred years ago, at the dawn of the Academic Age, that academia is no longer able to play the unifying, communal role in the society as a whole. New structures have to be built for these new times. Ultimately, this is what the wealth of the richest colleges hides: the wealth covers over the cracks in the foundations, and gives the feeling that amidst the green quadrangles and ivy-covered walls one can still find the basic unifying, communal force of our times. But the most the wealth can buy is a couple of decades before the cracks in the foundation become too large to hide.

3 thoughts on “The Coming Post-Academic Age

  1. Gautam

    > On a college campus one spends much more money to buy the sense that can relate to others independent of capitalism

    This is a great point. It is like someone in Beverly Hills or Tokyo spending a lot of money to create a Zen garden. The Zen garden may lead to reflection on minimalism, naturalness, simplicity, etc., that seems set apart from the hustle & bustle of the everyday world, but that space is maintained at great expense.

    Another analogy: the coolness of an air-conditioned room is achieved by taking the heat from the room & dumping it elsewhere (that becomes hotter as a result). Likewise, the peace of the Zen Garden in Tokyo, or the cultivated character of a Princeton or Harvard campus, is achieved by taking the “busyness” of that space and dumping it elsewhere.

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    1. Bharath Vallabha Post author

      Nice analogies. The air-conditioned room analogy is particularly illuminating. If one is in the room and takes for granted the air conditioning, then all one might think is that it is cool inside and hot outside; as if the coolness inside is a natural fact, or even that the things inside emanate coolness because they are better than the things outside. This is how it feels in a cool room on a hot day, as if the tables and chairs in the room are themselves somehow better, more glossy, less muggy.

      Imagine if one then thinks: “To reduce the heat outside let’s make the things outside have the same properties of coolness that the things inside have! Let’s take how it is inside and make it apply to things outside.” For someone who doesn’t know how air conditioning works, this line of thought can seem very natural.

      It seems strange to say, but is nonetheless true: academics for the most part don’t understand, any more than non-academics do, how the “cool” feeling inside academia is actually generated. One experiences just the feeling of the difference inside and outside academia, and then assumes the cause is something internal to academia. At least, that is how I was when I was in academia: I took the feeling of coolness for granted, as if it was just emanating from the buildings, books and people.

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  2. terenceblake

    I come from a low income family, but I paid for my education with the scholarships I won. I was often made to feel unwelcome or negligible all through school and university. I have seen how people in academia operate to keep its privileges for themselves, their friends and their peers, all the while pretending to be only concerned with the life of the mind. To devote your life (and time, and energy) to something as “unprofitable” as philosophy implies most often coming from a very well off context (as did most of those I met at university who went on to have flourishing careers), or being so absolutely enamoured as I was (and still am) that you hardly notice the sacrifices, the exclusions, and the disappointments that you are constantly confronted with. So I know full well the suspicion, the aversion and the despair, as well as the confidence, the attraction, and the enthusiasm, that academia can inspire.

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