Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Cynic In Me

"Do not commit the error, common among the young, of assuming that if you cannot save the whole of mankind you have failed." --Jan de Hartog

Blog emperor Jim Chen (no offense, Paul Caron!) has revealed that he regrets his decision to go to law school. Over at Joint Strike Weasel, law student Ivan Ludmer explains why he does not want to become a legal academic, contrasting himself to little ol' me, for whom it is the "dream" job. Dissatisfaction in the ranks? Maybe I should re-evaluate.

So why do I want to become a law professor? Well, just in terms of tangible concerns, it's a pretty sweet gig. Good benefits, solid pay, interesting work, and "time off" in the summer. Yes, I know that this "time off" isn't actually just downtime, but that's just it: I actually enjoy this stuff. It isn't "work" in the sense that pushing papers or filling in data sets is.

But generally, there is another context in which I end a statement with "that's why I want to become a professor." It stems from pure and total disillusionment. One of Ivan's objections to the noble professoriate is that the vast majority of the scholarship is both unread tripe. And even if it is read, it isn't being read by the right people. I think he might be slightly overstating the case, but I'll concede the general point. Insofar as I still hang on to my "save-the-world" mentality, a professor is in a surprisingly bad position to do it. However, I'm sufficiently disenchanted with the world such that I don't think I'll be able to save it (or that it is savable) from any positon I choose to take.

Hence we get our phrase. "That's why I want to a professor. I want to sit back and hurl rocks at the establishment from my Ivory Tower." The ideal, of course, is that one of them might bludgeon a stray politician on the way down, and he, upon waking up, might pull a Paul of Tarsus and see the light. That's the dream. And just in case I hit that lottery, I want to be in a position so that my rocks actually contain good ideas. Put differently, if I became, say, a lobbyist, the odds that I'd have an impact on the world would be significantly higher than the odds as a professor, but the odds that the impact would be good would be quite a bit lower. I'd rather fail at doing good, than succeed at doing evil (or to be more charitable, succeed while remaining acquiescent in the big injustices).

But at the end of the day, my desire to become a professor isn't really dependent on even that tiny beacon of hope that I might not only have the freedom to create The Idea That Saves Humanity, but implement it as well. I don't believe it will happen. I just want to be left alone. You can continue to make dumb arguments, and oppress gay people, and wonder just how excruciating the pain has to be before torture becomes torture. Just let me have my little slice of tenure, and stay off my turf.

One can certainly chide me on this regard. It's a cheap way out to assert that, just because the world doesn't behave exactly as you like it, the solution is to retreat into a few isolated fortresses of intellegensia and barcade yourself from external hate and misery. Hit the trenches, man! Charles Fried once admonished: "As so often happens, the skeptic here is a disappointed absolutist, taking his revenge on the world for depriving him of all the right answers at once." Maybe so. But when the world continually answers wrong on the simple yes/no question, "it's okay to tolerate genocide", I feel some degree of cynicism is justified. I'd turn the question around: If I'm not the only academic-prone person who feels this way (and I know I'm not), what is causing this ailment? What is it that is causing despair to win out over hope?

The cynic, as I once read, is rarely someone who doesn't care but someone who cares too much. And while the post comes on a downswing, I do vacilate between focusing on the possibility that the world could come to its senses on the issue of, say, genocide (yay!) versus the reality that it hasn't (boo!). Even so, and even though I may be a particularly bad case, I do think that this sort of disenchantment is setting in earlier than normal on my generation. And I think we have to ask ourselves why.

1 comment:

Stentor said...

I don't think whether it helps you change the world is the right standard for judging jobs. There are precious few opportunities to get paid to change the world, and they're all brimming over with applicants already. For 99% of the population, changing the world is something you have to do on your own time. So you should pick a job that you love from a purely selfish perspective, so that you won't be drained and depressed when the weekends and evenings roll around.