[Marxism] The cult mentality of academia

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue May 14 00:07:49 MDT 2013

RA (Ryan Anderson, Savage Mind blog owner): Looking back, is there 
anything you would change about your experiences in graduate school? 
Anything that you think should be done differently about how we train 
and teach graduate students?

SK (Sarah Kendzior): Graduate students live in constant fear. Some of 
this fear is justified, like the fear of not finding a job. But the fear 
of unemployment leads to a host of other fears, and you end up with a 
climate of conformity, timidity, and sycophantic emulation. Intellectual 
inquiry is suppressed as “unmarketable”, interdisciplinary research is 
marked as disloyal, public engagement is decried as “unserious”, and 
critical views are written anonymously lest a search committee find 
them. I saw the best minds of my generation destroyed by the Academic 
Jobs Wiki.

The cult mentality of academia not only curtails intellectual freedom, 
but hurts graduate students in a personal way. They internalize systemic 
failure as individual failure, in part because they have sacrificed 
their own beliefs and ideas to placate market values. The irony is that 
an academic market this corrupt and over-saturated has no values. Do not 
sacrifice your integrity to a lottery — even if you are among the few 
who can afford to buy tickets until you win.

Anthropology PhDs tend to wind up as contingent workers because they 
believe they have no other options. This is not true – anthropologists 
have many skills and could do many things – but there are two main 
reasons they think so. First, they are conditioned to see working 
outside of academia as failure. Second, their graduate training is not 
oriented not toward intellectual exploration, but to shoring up a dying 

Gillian Tett famously said that anthropology has committed intellectual 
suicide. Graduate students are taught to worship at its grave. The 
aversion to interdisciplinary work, to public engagement, to new 
subjects, to innovation in general, is wrapped up in the desire to 
affirm anthropology’s special relevance. Ironically, this is exactly 
what makes anthropology irrelevant to the larger world. No one outside 
the discipline cares about your jargon, your endless parenthetical 
citations, your paywalled portfolio, your quiet compliance. They care 
whether you have ideas and can communicate them. Anthropologists have so 
much to offer, but they hide it away.

I got a lot of bad advice in graduate school, but the most depressing 
was from a professor who said: “Don’t use up all your ideas before 
you’re on the tenure track.” I was assumed to have a finite number of 
ideas, and my job as a scholar was to withhold them, revealing them only 
when it benefited me professionally. The life of the mind was a life of 
pandering inhibition.

I ignored this along with other advice – don’t get pregnant, don’t get 
pregnant (again), don’t study the internet, don’t study an authoritarian 
regime – and I am glad I did. Graduate students need to be their own 
mentors. They should worry less about pleasing people who disrespect 
them and more about doing good work.

Because in the end, that is what you are left with – your work. The more 
you own that, the better off you will be. In the immortal words of 
Whitney Houston: “No matter what they take from me, they can’t take away 
my dignity.” And in the equally immortal words of Whitney Houston: “Kiss 
my ass.” Both sentiments are helpful for navigating graduate school.

Academic training does not need to change so much as academic careerism. 
There is little sense in embracing careerism when hardly anyone has a 
career. But graduate school can still have value. Take advantage of your 
time in school to do something meaningful, and then share it with the world.


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