Privilege and Peril: a Warrior’s Tale

Looking more closely at this tale we can see how it turns on the interactions among people at various phases of their careers. Let’s start with the prince, who’s clearly at the warrior stage. He’s the protagonist as well; he initiates and drives the action. Of course he’s young, ambitious, brave, strong, and full of hormones; he just doesn’t know much about how the world works, and especially about magic and ogres. He’s full of good intentions and high aspirations; he’s willing to take a risk. But he’s not up to speed on the technical details.

 On the positive side, he has inner nobility. He’s a prince, after all; he’s been trained and educated. He enjoyed a life of privilege before he was exiled, but lately he’s had to learn how to fend for himself and live by his wits, both of which build character. He now knows that he can’t take anything for granted. But he also possesses innate qualities of generosity, mercy, humility, and compassion, as we see when he helps the old woman.

The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)
The Prince on his Quest (by Arthur Rackham)

In fairy tales we tend to focus on what the characters do and say, but what they don’t say or do can be just as important. The prince has had a run of really bad luck, but we don’t hear him whine or complain. He doesn’t kvetch about losing his privilege; he doesn’t brood about injured merit. He’s not a snob; he doesn’t think it beneath him to help a distressed old woman. After all, he’s been working in kitchens and stables; he knows what it’s like to be poor. The stripping away of his royal privilege has allowed his true character to emerge.

 Notice, too, that the prince doesn’t try to second guess the old woman. He doesn’t ask what’s in it for her, or who else she might have told, or what she wants in return for her knowledge. Nor does he suspect her of being in league with the ogre or leading him into a trap. He’s not a calculating person. Now, some might call this naïve, and indeed the prince does put himself in danger by trusting her. After all, her information could be wrong. But once he gets to the castle and begins facing the perils, her intelligence checks out. He proceeds with greater and greater confidence toward victory. Any doubts he may have had at the outset he wisely keeps to himself. All told, it’s his kindness, respect, and trust that persuade the old woman to impart her secret knowledge

 By this point, then, the tale has already begun to redefine what it means to be a warrior. It takes more than a strong arm and royal blood to prevail. Character proves decisive. Strength must be combined with compassion, courage, and humility. You have to be willing to listen and learn. One lesson here for academic people is not to put too much faith in your pedigree; degree, position, indeed all past expertise may not help much in desperate situations. It’s wise to be able to think outside the box and, above all, to listen to elders and outliers, who may know a thing or two.

 In the next post we’ll take a look at the king and the ogre, both of whom represent failures of citizenship.

Tenure and the Profession at Large

How does tenure look from the viewpoint of the profession as a whole?  Some common features extend across disciplines, departments, and institutions.  Because merit is a necessary but not a sufficient condition for approval, the tenured ranks resemble a guild or a club whose members cherish a sense of eliteness, exclusiveness, and privilege while, at the same time, believing that these are all natural, logical consequences of ability and performance.  No one who has received tenure feels it was undeserved.

To the profession at large, the tenure review performs a vital gate-keeping function.  It’s the final barrier to mediocrity, the last chance to weed out slackers and underachievers who have somehow managed to slip through.  It protects the profession by enforcing standards of rigor, brilliance, and hard work.  Call it a quality-control mechanism if you like.  But notice that the principle of peer review, which is commonly invoked in justification, embodies a fundamental contradiction.  For a peer is an equal, but here those doing the review are already tenured.  They may consider themselves peers to one another, but certainly not to the candidate.  In practice, the designation of peer simply means holding a Ph.D. in the same field; it obscures the power relations that really govern the situation.

The main justification for tenure given by the profession, via the AAUP first and foremost, is that it protects academic freedom.  No doubt this is true to an extent, as anyone who has worked at an institution without tenure (including myself) can attest.  But it is not only reason that tenure endures, nor, in my view, even the primary reason.  Academic freedom has the same oxymoronic, obscuring quality as peer review.  If your ideas threaten or contest those of a senior colleague, you had better keep them to yourself, or else they may put you at risk for tenure.  If your research challenges existing paradigms, you will find it hard to get a fellowship or a grant; just think for a moment about who gets to sit on the committees that review proposals and applications.  In short, academic freedom does not apply equally.  In practice, it’s a privilege largely reserved for the tenured.

From inside the club, tenure is also justified as a form of compensation.  We all know how fond academics are of complaining about their low salaries in comparison to those of other learned professions.  But in fact academic people seem to prefer privilege, status, and security to income.  If they wanted real money, they’d go into administration or business.  As one senior colleague admitted, “They pay me with tenure.”

Tenure, it seems, is both a meal ticket and an admission ticket.  Without it, you not only don’t eat, you don’t get to stay at the table.  From the inside, denial of tenure is viewed as  a terminal diagnosis, a death sentence.  Anyone who has looked for a job after tenure denial — or, for that matter, considered hiring such a one — knows how hard it is to overcome the stigma of damaged goods.  Some, it’s true, do manage to find other teaching jobs, but most will take a lateral arabesque into administration or leave academia altogether, becoming part of the gray, exiled, undocumented mass of the Disappeared.