November 4, 2018

HIGHER EDUCATION BUBBLE UPDATE: Academia Is A Cult:

I “blew out” of the cult — to use its own lingo for leaving — after my senior year to attend a Catholic university 20 miles away. I still read the Apostle Paul, but Jane Austen and James Joyce, too. Then I earned a PhD in English at the University of Minnesota, where I rehearsed Marx’s and Freud’s critiques of religion. Simmering with smug resentment, I was certain that I, an intellectual, was on the right side of history, a sworn opponent of the oppressive ideologies I ascribed to organized religion.

But I had to climb only so far up the ivory tower to recognize patterns of abuse that I thought — in my new, secular life — I had left behind. Because academia, I slowly realized, is also a cult.

Cults are systems of social control. They are insular but often evangelical organizations whose aims (be they money, power, sex or something else) are rooted in submission to a dogma manifested by an authority figure: a charismatic preacher or, say, a tenured professor. The relationship between shepherd and sheep is couched in unwavering commitment to a supposedly noble, transcendent cause. For the Living Word Fellowship, that meant “the Lordship of Jesus Christ”; for academia, “the production of knowledge.” In both cases, though, faith ultimately amounts to mastering the rules of the leaders, whose infallibility — whether by divine right or endowed chair — excuses all else.

Looking back, the evidence was everywhere: I’d seen needless tears in the eyes of classmates, harangued in office hours for having the gall to request a letter of recommendation from an adviser. Others’ lives were put on hold for months or sometimes years by dissertation committee members’ refusal to schedule an exam or respond to an email. I met the wives and girlfriends of senior faculty members, often former and sometimes current advisees, and heard rumors of famed scholars whisked abroad to sister institutions in the wake of grad student affairs gone awry. I’d first come in contact with such unchecked power dynamics as a child, in the context of church. In adulthood, as both a student and an employee of a university, I found myself subject to them once again. . . . The Ronell scandal should alert us to the broader ways in which the 21st-century university is an absolutist institution, a promoter of sycophancy and an enemy of dissent.

Yep.

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