Academic Monoculture: Kant, Freedom, and the Challenge of Careerism

By Justin Humphreys

Enlightenment is man’s release from his self-incurred tutelage. Tutelage is man’s inability to make use of his understanding without direction from another. Self-incurred is this tutelage when its cause lies not in lack of reason but in lack of resolution and courage to use it without direction from another. Sapere aude! “Have courage to use your own reason!” – that is the motto of enlightenment.1

So begins Kant’s famous essay from 1784, “What is Enlightenment.”  Largely a commentary on the relation of the individual to the church, Kant argues that the enlightenment of an individual and of society is possible through the achievement of intellectual freedom.2   Intellectual enlightenment and freedom allow for political enlightenment and freedom since, when individuals are free to critique social institutions, those institutions can be improved.  Under the tutelage of church or state, however, it is very difficult for the individual to achieve enlightenment.  Kant writes,

For any single individual to work himself out of the life under tutelage which has become almost his nature is very difficult. He has come to be fond of this state, and he is for the present really incapable of making use of his reason, for no one has ever let him try it out. Statutes and formulas, those mechanical tools of the rational employment or rather misemployment of his natural gifts, are the fetters of an everlasting tutelage.3

The tutelage Kant considers is rather different in form than the tutelage we encounter in the American university.  Concerns about authoritarian governance, about the subjugation of science by the political, about the absorption of the political by the theological, are not relevant to us in the same sense that they were to Kant.  However, the underlying concern is the same.  The individual, without the benefit of resources, access to the intellectual tradition, or a place in an active intellectual community, encounters great difficulty in thinking freely.  Because of the difficulty of inquiry in isolation, Kant places emphasis on the community.  He continues,

But that the public should enlighten itself is more possible; indeed, if only freedom is granted, enlightenment is almost sure to follow. For there will always be some independent thinkers, even among the established guardians of the great masses, who, after throwing off the yoke of tutelage from their own shoulders, will disseminate the spirit of the rational appreciation of both their own worth and every man’s vocation of thinking for himself.4

Here, we are faced with two ideas.  The first is that potentially enlightened thinkers exist both in the elite – those among the established guardians – as well as in the broader society, the great masses.  Indeed, every person has a worth (intellectual and social) and has the possibility of thinking for oneself.  The challenge to this enlightened state can be overcome through freedom.  Under a rudimentary interpretation, the Kantian question of academic freedom is considered in terms of authority.  If an authority determines what questions can and cannot be asked, then academic freedom is said not to exist.  If there are no rules about what can and cannot be studied or concluded, then academic freedom can be exercised.  This simple construction does not fit our present situation.  What is in question today are the methods and resources available to academics, particularly in regards to their research.

The contemporary thinker will not be jailed for publishing the “wrong” ideas.  Rather, the wrong ideas will represent lost time in advancing a career and possibly result in general academic opprobrium and dismissal from a paying position.  In extreme cases, the scholar will be characterized by the larger community as misguided and morally repugnant for several generations without the work being considered on its own terms (and here Edward Said and Leo Strauss come to mind).  Hence, what we want to achieve in the university are pragmatic principles of inquiry.  Pragmatic values in American universities should not mean the limitation of inquiry.  Rather, pragmatism in this context refers to the ability of an individual academic to begin any reasonable investigation without being hindered by arbitrary standards for funding or pressure to stay in the narrow main stream of one branch of specialized research.  Pragmatic academic freedom is, in short, the ability to form any hypothesis in the context of the community and to test that hypothesis in the context of known methods of inquiry.  The freedom in scientific terms must be in hypothesis.  The experimental method is fixed in terms of the academic community.  In certain matters, what the community accepts the individual academic also accepts.  In other words, academic freedom should exist in terms of the tradition of what is done within the academy.

This translates to the social sciences and humanities in an interesting way.  We do not necessarily consider our research to be hypothesis-based because we do not use the same methods as the natural sciences.  That is, our method is not based on starting with hypotheses, testing them experimentally, and then interpreting the results in terms of theories already in place.  But we do hypothesize by choosing certain topics for research.  A historian chooses a certain topic, an anthropologist formulates a thesis, a philosopher poses a question or develops a problematic – in every case, the hypothesis is formed.  By ‘forming a hypothesis’ we mean starting an inquiry in the broad sense.  Academic freedom does not mean allowing all hypotheses to receive equal support in the academy (this would be disastrous), but rather for the academy to encourage the living diversity of hypotheses, of modes of investigation, and of work within and between disciplines.  Indeed, the most fruitful research is that which denies borders of disciplines and is innovative in the sense that it uses methods across boundaries and on new subjects.

One way to misapprehend this idea is to interpret it so as to say that I am advocating the singular application of methods from one discipline to others.  I do not, however, intend to say that, for example, every question in the social sciences can be answered through economic methods.  Rather, I am claiming that complex phenomena, i.e. the place of the nation-state in a global economy, is best understood through a variety of modes of investigation.  Such a phenomenon is not the product of a single force but rather needs to be understood in economic, sociological, anthropological, political and philosophical terms.  We now have a wide variety of methods at our disposal.  We should make use of the diversity of these methods by using each where it is needed and not being single-minded in our interpretation of complex phenomena.

One major challenge to such interdisciplinary work at present is over-specialization.  And such specialization is the result of academic monoculture and careerism.  When we speak of corporatization, we generally do not complain that the university is no longer constituted along the lines of a school of theology, as universities once were.  The structure of those universities was built around the comprehension of an absolute truth.  Life in a university under such a system would not be one of academic freedom in the contemporary sense but would involve a more or less strict classicism.  And while such classicism persisted through more secular epochs of university life, the return to it is impossible.  Lack of academic freedom in the university today is, then, not a product of arbitrary authority in the service of absolute truth as it was in the past.  Rather, it is the result of the entire culture of the university as is motivated by certain factors.  I call the aspect of this culture I seek to criticize, “Academic Monoculture” – an ugly term for an ugly thing.

What is academic monoculture?  Over-specialization has been mentioned but that is only one of a network of related problems of specialization, careerism, pressure to publish, and external and internal anti-intellectualism.  Academic monoculture means that state in which members of a university community feel themselves so pressured to achieve on the career path that they do not choose to enter into more innovative or experimental studies, which are often interdisciplinary in nature.  This reluctance to explore new courses of study or to combine a variety of methods constitutes a kind of academic anti-intellectualism.  And such anti-intellectualism is not to be underestimated.  Academic monoculture arises from real social, economic, and cultural factors.

Academics today must think of themselves as (among other things, of course) marketable commodities.  As such, pursuing some path of inquiry “because it looks interesting” is a dangerous thing to do.  What if nothing comes of it?  What if it strays far from one’s area of specialization?  No publications will come of it or if they do, they might not appear on a CV as broad-minded intellectual achievement but as the musing of an unfocused mind.  The search for the grail is now called the wild goose chase.  In many cases, it seems better to stick to one’s area of expertise, to crank out publications, to look for tenure-track in Iowa.  Despite the ascetic-monastic origins of the university, we all have to eat.

Academic monoculture is not the fault of the faculty nor of the students.  Students face a 50k/year tuition which guarantees a 4.0 GPA and hence job prospects.  And as such, they are motivated to consider their time at university a business venture.  Indeed, what could be more of an investment than taking on heavy debt or pulling teeth from relatives in exchange for the diploma?  In place of the abstract spaces of the liberal arts, students have to talk of GPAs, graduation requirements, and career opportunities.  Undergraduate and graduate students face hard economic realities that motivate a certain attitude also recognizable as a kind of careerism.

We could try to blame the administrators.  They seem the most like corporate employees.  But most of them provide support for the academic activities of the students and faculty.  They hardly have the ability to change the course of an institution.  The higher-up administrators, of course, do have the ability to make decisions, but they function in a community, too.  Universities in the U.S. have almost made the transformation into for-profit institutions.  The top schools (and here I use the term “top schools” in the manner of common university rankings – not in an absolute sense) have astronomical endowments and hence can provide resources and services previously available only to a few government agencies.  If an institution is to remain competitive, the job of the higher administrators becomes one of securing the most recognized faculty and students and amassing as many resources as possible.  Of course, this is hardly an intellectual project, but ivory towers do not build themselves.  If a university is not to fall into the oblivion of the third or fourth tier, its administrators must exert themselves in keeping their numbers favorable and their publications steady.  It is obvious how such a focus plays into the aforementioned attitudes of students and faculty.

With these real challenges in mind, we might approach the subject of academic freedom again.  The definition of academic monoculture is an attempt to avoid the temptation to engage in political vituperation. There are real solutions to real problems, if we agree what the problems are.  The question is how to provide the resources expected without forcing inquiry down the narrow path of careerism.  Lowering costs for students helps reduce the trade school atmosphere.  Similarly, it allows students to graduate and to pursue their interests (some of which will no doubt make money) without being weighed down by debt.  For faculty, the goal would be to make time and allocate resources for interdisciplinary work without constant pressure to perform within one discipline.  The gospel of publication does little to advance us intellectually.  What it does is create an atmosphere in which the market takes precedence over the mind.

The real battle is not to make funding available for every conceivable project but rather to change the overall attitude of the community.  Academic freedom must not simply be theoretically possible but must be actively practiced.  The challenge to administrators is to walk that fine line between financial achievement and intellectual openness.  This difficulty will often come in the form of a decision between providing funds for projects that make the university more competitive and providing a physical or intellectual space for the exchange of ideas.  In almost every instance, I would say that the better choice would be to provide the space for thought.  It is an ethical imperative for a progressive institution to teach academic freedom by example.


Works Cited

1. Kant, “What is Enlightenment?” 3.In Kant, On History. (Beck, L.I. ed. and trans.) Indianapolis, 1963.

2. I give my apologies in advance to all Kant scholars who will view the current reading as undisciplined, partial, and (I regret to say) unenlightened. I do not have the space to explore any deep currents of Kant’s thought or to place these ideas in the broad context of his systematic work. I ask only for the good will of those more knowledgeable than I and that they appreciate that here I approach Kant’s essay the beginning of a conversation about Academic Freedom rather than as a text to be studied or explicated in a scholarly manner.

3. Kant, 4.

4. Ibid.

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Justin Humphreys is a graduate student in Philosophy at the New School for Social Research in New York. His academic interests include ancient ethics and political philosophy, the philosophy of science and mathematics, and the theoretical grounds of the social sciences. As an undergraduate, he studied science and mathematics but ultimately earned a bachelors degree in the Classics from Reed College. He worked in finance before enrolling at the New School. He enjoys traveling, writing, and playing chess.