[Marxism] Is Academe a Cult?

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Tue Oct 6 19:16:21 MDT 2015

Is Academe a Cult?
By Kelly J. Baker OCTOBER 05, 2015

During graduate school, a friend of mine had a recurring dream about our 
shared adviser as a charismatic leader who required devotion and 
obedience while also meting out punishment. All of his advisees followed 
his words as if they were holy writ, and we even wore robes.

When my friend told me about this dream, we both laughed nervously. "Do 
you really think we’re in a cult?" I asked. After a few moments’ 
hesitation, he said, "No." But the notion has stuck with me for more 
than a decade.

And I’m not alone. On her blog, The Professor Is In, Karen Kelsky tells 
us that "academia is kind of a cult" that doesn’t tolerate deviation 
from shared norms. PhD Comics proclaims that "coffee is the Kool-Aid" of 
higher education. In The Chronicle Review, Rebecca Schuman compares 
academe to a cult because it isolates grad students, breaks them down, 
makes them believe there is no other path than the life of the mind, and 
uses the threat of shunning to keep scholars quiet about the conditions 
of our labor. "What are the similarities between academia and cults?" 
someone asks on Quora, where an upvoted answer emphasizes mind control, 
shame, and struggling adjuncts who can’t bring themselves to quit.

Many but not all of these comparisons are made at least partly in 
provocative jest by writers I read and admire. But the cult label puts 
me off because it understates academe’s allures and mistakenly casts 
academics as passive victims.

I have a Ph.D. in religious studies, and I’ve taught and written about 
"new religious movements," the term sociologists and religious-studies 
scholars now use instead of "cult." We’ve largely abandoned "cult" 
because of its tainted connotations for general audiences, who associate 
it with Jonestown, Waco, and Heaven’s Gate. A cult, to most people, 
signifies danger or downright evil.

Since the late 1970s, this stereotype, according to the 
religious-studies scholar Lynn Neal, has become "firmly entrenched in 
both journalistic endeavors and public perception." Conjured are images 
of indoctrination, brainwashing, charismatic leaders, obedient 
followers, special clothing, mental and emotional harm, separation from 
the larger world, and the inability to break free from the system.

In The Chronicle in 1999, Margaret Newhouse writes about the need for 
"deprogramming" from the cult of thinking of academic careers as 
"superior to others." This emphasis on only one type of success leads 
graduate students to think that other careers represent a "failure." She 
asks, "On your deathbed, what are you going to regret more — 
disappointing your advisers or not being true to yourself?"

Also in The Chronicle, Meredith Clermont-Ferrand describes how grad 
schools, like cults, seek to mold you in their image by giving you an 
identity, rituals, sacred texts, colleagues, and leaders, while also 
taking your money. Like other cults, the doctoral ones have "priests 
who, like Jim Jones or Charles Manson, use their positions as bases for 
abuse." Fear of exile from academe (i.e., the job market), she admits, 
"drove her nearly crazy." In spite of everything, Clermont-Ferrand 
describes herself as reasonably content with her choice to get a Ph.D. 
"Despite the difficulties of reaching the prestige of Ph.D. priesthood," 
she writes, "I have experienced many more joys than sorrows." It didn’t 
hurt that she got a tenure-track job.

Sometimes, if we love an intellectual arena, all we have are bad 
choices; brainwashing has nothing to do with it.

Writing as Thomas Benton in 2004, William Pannapacker remarks on the 
similarity of graduate school to "mind-control cults." He cites the 
controversial anticult consultant Steven Hassan’s BITE model of 
behavior, information, thought, and emotional control.

The most recent resurrection of the meme is Daniel Drezner’s in The 
Washington Post: Graduate school "has a cultlike effect on what you 
think you should want as a graduate student." Training for the doctorate 
changes your goals because "part of you drinks the Kool-Aid while 
earning a Ph.D." Yes, yet another reference to the poison that members 
of the Peoples Temple drank to commit suicide at Jonestown. I flinch any 
time I hear someone use the distasteful, cynical phrase. Drezner insists 
that adjuncts persist at low-paying jobs in academe because they "have 
been trained to believe this is the only thing they should do with a 
doctorate." Graduate school warps our sense of success, so we remain 
there against our best interests. Why else would we stay? (Never mind 
that many of us don’t.)

For all the analogy’s rhetorical cheap thrills, it’s misleading. It also 
shuts down conversation before it’s even started. It’s a cult, and 
that’s all we need to know, right? Explaining away the plight of 
adjuncts as brainwashed dupes ignores the structural realities of the 
disastrous academic job market. Sometimes, if we love an intellectual 
arena, all we have are bad choices; brainwashing has nothing to do with it.

The cult reference obscures important questions about how graduate 
students are trained and the effects of that training. Take a look at 
Academia Is Killing My Friends, on Tumblr. Subtitled "Anonymous Stories 
of Abuse, Exploitation and Suffering in Academia," it includes a 
warning: "This site contains descriptions of suicide, self-harm, mental 
illness and all kinds of abuse, harassment and oppression."

If that’s what academe has become in practice, we need to think 
carefully about the norms and behaviors we encourage. How do we keep our 
institutions from harming those we are supposed to train? Why do we need 
people to reassure us that it is OK to leave? Why did it take me more 
than two years to recover from my time in academe?

In seeking a better metaphor, I find myself drawn to Erving Goffman’s 
vision of the total institution, "a place of residence and work where a 
large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider 
society … together lead an enclosed, formally administered form of 
life." Goffman was writing about asylums, but he wanted to characterize 
the ways in which institutions in general take over and recreate our lives.

Religious orders and the military fall under his definition, and academe 
does too. Total institutions are in our worlds, but separate from them. 
They are "training stations" consumed by bureaucracy and chains of 
command, with a "work-payment structure" different from the rest of 
society. They untrain us in what we know, so that we can learn their 
system of being. Other roles are lost to us because the particularity of 
what the total institution wants us to be. They treat us as less than 
adults by wearing down autonomy and freedom of action. There are rewards 
and privileges for obedience, yet little loyalty from the institution. 
We grant institutions power over our fates when we enter into them. We 
don’t just participate in the total institution of academe, we support 
and bolster it. We help create it and perpetuate its norms. Mary Douglas 
cautions that we, in fact, let institutions think for us.

Academe is an all-encompassing institution that comes to define our 
lives. It is high time to think about what we give up to be a part of 
it, what we expect from others who do so, and what we might do to reform 
it. What are we perpetuating by our participation?

The cult analogy is perversely comforting even as it discomforts us, 
because it lets us too much off the hook. The total-institution model, 
on the other hand, makes us recognize our collusion. Victimization by 
cults is scary. Complicity in work and social structures that we’ve 
readily, even hungrily, surrendered to — well, that’s scarier still, 
isn’t it?

Kelly J. Baker is a columnist for Vitae. Her books include Gospel 
According to the Klan: The KKK’s Appeal to Protestant America, 1915-1930 
(University Press of Kansas, 2011) and The Zombies Are Coming! (Bondfire 
Books, 2013).

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