Epilogue, Academic Agonies and How to Avoid Them, Joseph Agassi






The Aims and Structure of Academe

We are done. I hope you do not think your having spent time with me is a total loss. I do care for you, but we cannot discuss your personal problems, such as health and the hazard of sitting for hours in the library or in front of a screen. I will regretfully ignore your physical health. More pertinent is your mental health, the hazard of interaction with wise people not aware of the misanthropy that our intellectual traditions are imbued with. On this, I gave you sufficient hints; I hope you can take it from here. If I had to grade you, I would grant you the highest grade for your tenacity in staying with me for so long or—if you just skipped most of the book and landed here prematurely—for your sagacity and ability to try to develop a feel for a book before granting it the readiness to go along with it for many hours. The memory still amazes me of the time I invested in worthless textbooks that my teachers had recommended. Admittedly, of these, the science ones were up-to-date; yet they were dull; those in contemporary philosophy were disastrous. I hope I have warned you sufficiently against this hazard: choose carefully what you read and read only what you enjoy reading!

What you may expect of me here is to express some nice, optimist words about the future of our society in general, about the future of the life of the intellect in it, about the positive, significant role of Academe in its development, and about your future academic career. I will not do that. Admittedly, Academe is the best part of our society, yet it is no utopia; in particular, its hiring policies stink. It will not improve it fast enough for you. I hope you take this parting shot cheerfully, ready to face the unfair world with the realism that bears your readiness to face unfair challenges with a smile. Win or lose, the game is worth playing. Anyway, remember, judged by any reasonable internal standard you care to choose, the life of honest failure is more satisfying than that of dishonest success.

Saying this I find unpleasant: it is homiletic. It is easy for the successful to deliver homilies, especially for ones whose likelihood of success is as small as that of bright young people on their way to academic careers. Still, I say, also to those who may have much more to lose than budding academics: peace with oneself signifies much more than worldly success. We all need more luck than wit, my mother told me repeatedly. My having survived my military service with no disaster is obviously due to sheer luck. (Most of the childhood friends died in battle.) My academic success is chiefly due to financial support without which I could not afford studies, and to my having grasped every opportunity that I was lucky to encounter. My experience shows that with luck one can achieve what I have achieved, with no need to exhibit exceptional virtuosity and no need to work very hard, but with some tenacity. It is more the position of the academic in our society than my own achievements that ensured me my current economic comfort. I say this with no humility and no pride, although I am proud of my achievements and of my ability to help others acquire what I have—all except for my luck. I had it and I wish that you have it too. Yet I know: it is impossible that all my readers will be lucky, except when Academe will expand. That is economically possible; it would be great for the economy, but received misanthropic work ethic will still not allow for it. The reduction of academic injustices depends on reforms that depend only on Academe, but I am not sanguine about it either. I should know: my late wife was more qualified an academic than I was—as a teacher, as a researcher, and as good company—yet her career suffered sabotage from its very beginning in all possible ways and we could do nothing about it. Still, we can reduce injustices right now: we have all the tools necessary for it except for the knowledge of how to effect a reform with ease and efficiency. I have little expectation to see it. I can only hope that progress in the ability to reform society will come sooner than it is reasonable to expect. With your efforts, boosted by your insights and your decency and your civil courage, we may still surprise ourselves.

That will be wonderful.

Remember: one thing about academe is decidedly utopian: it is devoted chiefly to study and instruction. All we need do is to weed out the misanthropy that so many of us think that it comes with the territory. It need not do that at least not to the extent that it does. It does so fortuitously. The latest cause of this adversity is the opening of the academy to the average citizen, which in itself is all to the good, of course, except that it has led some academics to fear unfair competition. The added fear is exaggerated: the initial fear is bad enough as it already makes the choice of candidates for academic jobs random: there is no rule by which to select one out of the short list of candidates for almost any academic job. The only item that makes a difference is tenacity. Yet even that is not always necessary. One of the greatest and loveliest academics that it was my fortune to meet was economist Lionel Robbins, and he tells in his autobiography how close he was to miss studentship and academic appointment.

In traditional society, almost everyone was born into a profession. The exception was the clergy, and within the clergy, the academics. The choice of a profession was born to industrialization. How this takes place is at times reasonable⸻when a child shows aptitude for some craft. Otherwise it is usually a matter of accident. Most of us have a person in our past who has served us as a beacon of hope, who had faith in us, and who guided us to the choice of occupation, often quite unintentionally, by having faith in us, by serving for us as a beacon of hope. You can be such a beacon of hope to people around you. For this, you must be open and supporting. That is all. The option is so easy and so coveted yet, sadly, few choose to take it, even though it really is what may make all the difference for some of us. Just remember yourself on a bleak day and think of students whose normal day is bleak. Stretch a helping hand to such people and see what happens. It is easy, harmless and open-ended. It may make for them all the difference between failure and a fruitful, happy life.

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