David Graeber comments, in a brief follow-up to this essay,

If you look at the lives and personalities of almost any of the Great Thinkers currently lionized in the American academy, certainly anyone like Deleuze, or Foucault, Wittgenstein, Freud, Einstein, or even Max Weber, none of them would have lasted ten minutes in our current system. These were some seriously odd people. They probably would never have finished grad school, and if they somehow did discipline themselves to appear sufficiently “professional,” “collegial,” conformist and compliant to make it through adjunct hell or pre-tenure, it would be at the expense of leaving them incapable of producing any of the works for which they have become famous.

I really think this is true. In the great majority of American universities every detail of a professor’s work is monitored by a horde — a pride? a school? a murder? — of administrative entities who relentlessly enforce conformity to minutely described standards and practices.

Try to imagine Foucault obediently inserting trigger warnings in a syllabus.

I have a suspicion — and it’s only a suspicion: I cannot think of a way to confirm it — that certain current habits of the undergraduate mind are connected, in a perverse way, to the upbringing of today’s students. Young people who have had very little experience of unsupervised play, whose parents have hovered over them their whole lives, may easily come to believe that the core function of adults is to protect them from dangers. They may not discern the same dangers that their parents do, but the structure of their expectations remains shaped by those parental attitudes. So some of them — by no means all, probably not even most, but enough to create a stir — will lift their voices in outrage when potentially offensive books are assigned, or potentially offensive commencement speakers invited to campus.

And in a litigious society, people who feel offended are more likely to file lawsuits meant to inflict punishment and extract compensation — or so a university’s attorneys will whisper in the ears of trustees and administrators, with the result that more mandates come down to the professors, who find their freedom of pedagogical movement increasingly restricted. And if David Graeber is right, these administrative intrusions may have a cost not just in morale but in substantive intellectual achievement. It’s hard to think freely when you’re constantly being watched over by helicopter administrators.

Curiously, Christian institutions like the ones I have worked for (Wheaton and now Baylor) tend to be less rigorous in policing such details than most secular institutions, I think because they only hire people with explicit ethical and religious commitments. If you take some care to know the kind of person you’re hiring — with the caveat, of course, that every institution can be fooled into making bad hires — you need be less diligent about demanding conformity in the little details of academic life.

As Stanley Fish once pointed out in an essay that I never tire of quoting, we get to choose “not between a closed environment and an open one but between environments that are differently closed.” There may be intellectual, and not just intellectual, rewards to be reaped by institutions that set their boundaries wisely and police them appropriately.

Throughout much of my time at Wheaton College I was regularly asked why I stayed there: It’s so narrowly Christian! So sectarian! I always replied, “I’m here for the academic freedom.” And I meant it. The same is true for me here at Baylor, and I have a story that I’ll tell about that in another post.


  1. True, but it hasn't been that long since "great thinkers" were likely to be "professors" at all. Would Augustine, or Spinoza, or Rousseau have lasted ten minutes in the 19th-20th century academic system where Graeber's giants had a home? I just mean that the social conditions which make room for the serious leisure that big thinking requires are always changing, from the church to patronage to public service to education to who knows what.

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