Wednesday, October 7, 2015

Kelly Baker: "Is Academe a Cult?"

Over at the Chronicle of Higher Education Kelly Baker, a gifted writer and scholar of American religion who has recently left academia, wonders if academe is a cult.  

She writes:

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. 

Baker adds:

IThe 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 ChronicleMeredith 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.
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.

Baker is not comfortable with the term "cult," but she does describe academia, borrowing a phrase from Erving Goffman, as a "total institution":

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.
Right now Baker's piece is behind The Chronicle of Higher Education paywall, but when it becomes public it is definitely worth reading. Because I resonate with Baker's argument, I want to return to it in a few future posts here at The Way of Improvement Leads Home.  Stay tuned.