Academic careerism

Academic careerism is the tendency of academics ( professors specifically and intellectuals) to pursue their own self-enrichment and self-advancement at the expense of honest inquiry, and research and dissemination of truth to their students and society. Such careerism has been criticized by thinkers from Socrates in Ancient Athens to Russell Jacoby in the present.

Socrates’ criticism of the Sophists

In Xenophon’s Memorabilia , Socrates draws a comparison between the proper and honorable way to bestow beauty and the proper and honorable way to bestow wisdom. Those who offer beauty for sale are called prostitutes, and are held in disrepute by the Athenians. Those who offer wisdom for sale, on the other hand, are highly respected. Socrates believes this is an error. The Sophists should be seen for what they are, prostitutes of wisdom.

When we see a woman bartering beauty for gold, we look at such a person as a common prostitute; but she who rewards the passion of some worthy youth with it, gains at the same time our approval and esteem. It is the very same with philosophy: he who plays for the public, to be the most popular, is a sophist, a public prostitute. [1]

In Plato’s Protagoras , Socrates draws an analogy between peddlers of unhealthy food and peddlers of false and deceptive wisdom. Food peddlers advertise their wares as they grow up to offer a healthy diet. Peddlers of knowledge are trying to persuade young people that they are teaching the truth. They mislead young minds on paths of conduct to intellectual flourishing.

Knowledge is the food of the soul; and we must take care, my friend, that the Sophist does not deceive us when he praised what he sells, like the dealers or retailers who sell the food of the body; for they indiscriminately praised all their goods, without knowing what are really beneficial or hurtful. [2]

Schopenhauer’s criticism of university philosophy

Nineteenth-century German philosophers Arthur Schopenhauer contrasts the genuine philosopher, who earnestly pursues truth and offers its fruits to all who will listen, to the “businessmen of the flesh”, the academics of his day who have debased the pursuit of knowledge into a means of the law of business or law. The motto of the academic opportunists is ” primum vivere, deinde philosophari“-first live, afterwards philosophize.” The bourgeois feeling that someone who earns his living by a profession must know something about it makes them who have the academic chairs immune from criticism. The philosophy taught in the universities, Schopenhauer claims, is really no more than a superficial rationalization for the institutionalized religion, the intentions of the government, and the prevailing views of the times.

We should judge university philosophy … by its true and proper aim: … that the junior barristers, solicitors, doctors, probationers, and pedagogues of the future should maintain, even in their innermost conviction, the same line of thought in keeping with the aims and intentions that the State. [3]

Julien Benda’s Treason of the Intellectuals 

French scholar Julien Benda (1867-1956) observes that in the past intellectuals have adopted two poses towards politics. The first was Plato’s doctrine that morality must decide politics. The second was Machiavelli’s , which said that politics has nothing to do with morality. Benda accuses the generation of influential intellectuals in France in the 1920s of adopting a third, far more pernicious, pose: that politics must be allowed to decide morality. The cause of this “divinizing of politics” is that the intellectuals (” clerics” ) of the same type of disinterestedness, and also consider themselves to be ordinary citizens, subject to the same incentives as ordinary citizens.

The true clerc is Vauvenargues , Lamarck , Fresnel , Spinoza , Schiller , Baudelaire , Franck Caesar , who were never diverted from single-hearted adoration of the beautiful and the divine by the necessity of their daily bread. But such clerks are inevitably rare. The rule is that the living creature condemned to struggle for life turns to practical passions, and thence to the sanctification of those passions. [4]

The pursuit of personal advantage by purveying knowledge, Benda explains, has been held in disrepute since antiquity. But in his generation, this view of intellectual work has become obsolete, replaced by a kind of institutionalized careerism in which intellectuals have been driven by the same petty desires for personal advantage as businessmen and lawyers.

Since the Greeks the predominant attitude of thinkers towards intellectual activity is as much as it is insofar as it is satisfied, it finds its satisfaction in itself. Most thinkers would have agreed with … Renan’s verdict that the man who loves science for its fruits commits the worst of blasphemies against that divinity. … The modern clerics have violently torn up this charter. They are only as good as they are bound to be. [5]

Russell Jacoby’s criticisms of contemporary academia

Historian Russell Jacoby , writing in the 1970s, observes that intellectual production has succumbed to the same pattern of obsolescence used by manufacturing enterprises.

The application of planned obsolescence to be self-employed; the new is not only an obsolete, it is obsolete social system that staves off its replacement by manufacturing the illusion that it is perpetually new. [6]

Jacoby laments the demise of the radical critical theory of the previous generation, which seeks to understand and articulate the contradictions inherent in bourgeois and liberal democratic ideologies. The new generation of theories, in contrast, seeking to allow the contradictory elements of the ideology to coexist by isolating them, assigning them to separate departments in the university. This division of intellectual labor in the service of the prevailing ideology, Jacoby says, “severs the life nerve of dialectical thought.” [7]

Jacoby ends his 1987 book The Last Intellectuals is a noteworthy, observing that even radical Marxist intellectuals are not immune to the pressure to achieve tenure, and have begun to alter their research methods in accordance with the rules of the university. [8]

Edward Said’s description of the career of critical theory in the 1980s

Literature professor Edward Said , in his 1983 book The World, the Text, and the Critic , accuses the literary theorists of his generation of succumbing to the free-market ideology of the Reagan era. The previous generation of critical theorists, Said explains, did not allow itself to be constrained by the conventional separation of academic fiefdoms. It maintained an insurrectionary relationship with the society in which it lived. The generation of critical influential theorists in the 1980s, however, has begun to betray these ideals, and is timorously succumbed to the prevailing societal ethic of specialization and professionalism.

The intellectual origins of literary theory in Europe were, I think it is accurate to say, insurrectionary. The traditional university, the hegemony of determinism and positivism, the reification of ideological bourgeois “humanism,” the rigid barriers between academic specialties: it was powerful responses to all these linked together such influential progenitors of today’s Saussure literary theorist , Lukács , Battle , Levi-Strauss , Freud , Nietzsche , and Marx. Theory proposed itself as a synthesis overriding the petty fiefdoms within the world of intellectual production, and it was manifestly to be expected as a result of all the areas of human activity could be seen, and lived, as a unity. … Literary theory, whether of the Left or the Right, has turned its back on these things. This can be considered, I think, the triumph of the ethic of professionalism. But it is no accident that the emergence of a narrowly defined philosophy of pure textuality and critical noninterference has coincided with the ascendancy of Reaganism . [9]

Camille Paglia’s characterization of the “junk bond” era in academia

Writing in 1991, “dissident feminist” scholar Camille Paglia finds in David Halperin’s work on a prototypical example of rampant careerism in the humanities. Paglia observes that Halperin’s generation of academics is prone to a “contemporary parochialism” that eagerly quotes hot-off-the-press articles without attempting to critically assess their objective merit in light of the intellectual tradition. Paglia accuses Halperin of assembling a pastiche of the latest faddish opinions and marketing it has a book, not for the sake of advancing the cause of truth, but with no other aim than career advancement. She compares such scholarship to junk bonds , a highly volatile investment.

Never in my career have I seen a scholarly book of such naked worldly ambition, such lack of scruples about its methods or its claims to knowledge. It is exquisitely emblematic of its time. [10]

Paglia characterizes contemporary academic discourse Influenced by French theorists Such As Jacques Lacan , Jacques Derrida , and Michel Foucault as the academic equivalent of name brand consumerism. “Lacan, Derrida, and Foucault,” she says, “are the academic equivalents of BMW, Rolex, and Cuisinart.” [11]Under the inspiration of the latest academic fashions, academics manufactures insipid prose with no objective merit for the same reason fashion designers come out with new fashions each season. Academics peddle the latest fashionable theories to be replaced perfectly good older theories, made obsolete not by genuine progress, but only by incessant changes in fashion, The self-seeking of the latest generation of scholars is, for Paglia, symptomatic of an era iconically represented by junk bond traders on Wall Street, concerned with creating a quality product, but only with making a quick buck. She takes Halperin’s essay “Why is Diatoma a Woman?” as an example, calling it “one of the great junk bonds of the fast-track academic era,[12]

As a remedy for rampant careerism in academia, Paglia prescribes a return to the ancient ascetic roots of the academic tradition.

Academe needs deprofessionalization and deyuppification. It has to recover its clerical or spiritual roots. Scholarship is an ideal and a calling, not just a trade or living. Every year at beginning, we put on medieval dresses that connect us to a great monastic past. [13]

Paglia advises the graduate students of the next generation to return to the gentlemanly and ascetic traditions of past academics, avoiding faddish subjects or methods of interpretation, refusing to seek material reward of their work, and pursuing instead a lofty ideal of scholarship in which work follows “its own organic rhythm” rather than chasing the latest trends to win approval from contemporaries.

See also

  • Forced ranking
  • Extreme careerism
  • Least publishable unit
  • Publish or perish


  1. Jump up^ Xenophon,Memorabilia, 1.6.11, T. Stanley, trans., P. 535
  2. Jump up^ Plato, Protagoras 313c, Benjamin Jowett, trans.
  3. Jump up^ Schopenhauer, “On Philosophy in the Universities,”Parerga and Paralipomena, E. Payne, trans. (1974) Vol. 1, p. 146.
  4. Jump up^ Julien Benda,Treason of the Intellectuals(1927), R. Aldington, trans. (2007) p. 159.
  5. Jump up^ Benda 1927, pp. 151-152.
  6. Jump up^ Russell Jacoby,Social Amnesia(1975), p. xvii.
  7. Jump up^ Jacoby 1975, p. 74.
  8. Jump up^ Russell Jacoby,The Last Intellectuals(1987), pp. 158-159.
  9. Jump up^ Said Edward,The World, the Text, and the Critic(1983), pp. 3-4.
  10. Jump up^ Camille Paglia, “Junk Bonds and Corporate Raiders: Academe in the Hour of the Wolf,”Arion, Third Series, Vol. 1, No. 2 (Spring, 1991), p. 160.
  11. Jump up^ Paglia 1991, p. 186.
  12. Jump up^ Paglia 1991, p. 158.
  13. Jump up^ Paglia 1991, p. 200.

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