Is Academia a Cult?


By Johann Stanislaus Schaffroth (1766-1851) [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

There’s an article in The Washington Post from earlier this week that all of us within academia today might want to pay attention to. By Andrew Marzoni, an English PhD, it is called “The Cult of Academia.” For quite personal reasons, as I will explain, it speaks to me. It contains a message, however, for all of us happily tenured, on the tenure track, or hoping to get there.

Unlike Marzoni, I was raised within the cult of academia. College campuses were as much my home as the streets and schools I also inhabited, for my father was a professor. In high school, I tried to rebel, wishing to do anything after graduation but go to college. I hadn’t the guts, though, to break the ties–but I did try again after earning my bachelor’s degree, drifting and working odd jobs over the next five years, six states, and a dozen employers until landing in graduate school. I still like to claim that I enrolled not for job prospects but because I wanted to better read Faulkner–but there was another reason: It was a homecoming.

For the next decade, I reveled in belonging but, on receiving my PhD, I tried to break free again. I fled into Peace Corps, where I worked in agriculture and reforestation, and then co-founded and ran a store/cafe. But the draw of a cult is strong: Sixteen years after earning my doctorate, I was back in academia again, and there I have stayed. Since then, I have worked my way up the ladder. Now, I’m a full professor and, for two terms (just completed), I was Faculty Editor of a national magazine for faculty. I have achieved, for better or worse, insider status.

Once over my rebellion, I learned to love my cult–but that does not mean I am unaware of its flaws or comfortable with its rites and hazings. The RPT (Reappointment/Promotion/Tenure) process in place in most American universities continues to appall me even as I participate in it, as does the division between us “blessed” ones and the mass of contingent hires and adjuncts. I hate the uses of secrecy to cement the power of the insiders (for all that it claims to protect the rights of the accused and the supplicating) and I loath the snobbishness that has already, I am sure, dismissed Marzoni’s article as merely the sour grapes of someone who hasn’t made the grade (though he was offered a tenure-track position, he turned it down–an act of betrayal, as seen from within).

I was extremely lucky when I returned to academia: My second book did quite well and that protected me when I transgressed, which was often. Because I was older than most  other assistant professors and had more experience of the world outside of the cult than any of them (or any of my elders within, for that matter), I was quite pushy and was willing to trample on their protocols. At the same time, though I styled myself as an outsider, I was really nothing more than a returned prodigal taking advantage of the welcome home.

One of the ways we insiders of the cult of academia justify our participation in it is by saying that, once we have been tenured and promoted to full, we will work to change the system, to dismantle the cult, in effect. We rarely try to do so.  I’m hoping I will be one who does (and I have been making the attempt) but I may be finding that I am as bad as the rest, reaping the benefits of high cult status while ensuring that others do the work that supports me.

Marzoni writes:

Academics may cast themselves as hardened opponents of dominant norms and constituted power, but their rituals of entitlement and fiendish loyalty to established networks of caste and privilege undermine that critical pose. No one says it aloud, but every graduate student knows: This is the price you pay for a chance to enter the sanctum of the tenure track.

And there are rewards (ones I have reaped) for some of those who have paid that price and then have been chosen. Rewards from a hierarchical system attained by many who would loudly protest other top-down entities.  This is hypocrisy I understood full well when I decided to return to academia, to the cult. That I have not fought harder to undermine its corruption is my own failing (though I can always, like anyone, blame other forces).

Personally, I don’t think I needed Marzoni’s wake-up call, though I certainly appreciate it and applaud it. For the past few months, I have been networking with people seeking to topple the current RPT process, have been advocating against the disciple principle of graduate education since long before the Avital Ronell scandal Marzoni mentions (though I do not teach graduate students and don’t particularly want to), and have been trying to turn the focus of my own academic department from itself to its students, making our tasks, not our careers, central. What I do need is a bit of success instead of continuing frustration, and I need recognition that there are others inside the cult who agree that we ought to be fighting to overturn it (and not simply to replace the people running it). That, I have not had.

Perhaps Marzoni’s truths about us will be enough to bring enough people within the cult together in a forceful new movement that can break the hold of the our own cult-like procedures and turn academia into an open and welcoming participant in the broader community–my own real goal since my return to it a decade and a half ago (though I have sometimes lost sight of it).

I hope there are other professors who want to join me.