Over the last ten years or so, I have taught in the graduate program at the University of Notre Dame. Our MA students in theology, for the most part, are involved in direct pastoral ministry in the Church. They are also pursuing a full-time degree in theology taught by professors renowned in their respective fields. Quite naturally, they begin to admire not only the pedagogy of their teachers but their devotion to scholarship. Each year, at least five of these students ask me a question similar to the one posed by Phillip Dolitsky last month at Public Discourse: should I pursue doctoral work?
Teaching versus Researching
The conversation that I have with said students unfolds in the following way. I ask them almost incredulously, “Why?” They’re often shocked. Here I am, a professor cautioning them against pursuing an academic vocation. If they say, “Because I want to teach in college. I don’t see myself as doing just research,” I offer a cautionary tale. Yes, I love teaching. But the academy is just as interested in research. Maybe more interested in research. If you don’t plan on pursuing the highest degree of scholarship, it is very possible that there will be no jobs for you. You will teach a 4-4 load at a school, while serving on six different committees, and still be expected to publish an article or two a year. You will have little time to read or contemplate. I conclude by saying, if the primary reason you want to enter the academy is to teach, think about other options. High school teaching, to be frank, is safer.
Few students say something different. They really want to study. They have a research question in patristics, moral theology, liturgy, or systematic theology that keeps them up at night. They feel lost in wonder in the library, reading ancient tomes and writing essays. They love languages, and they want to learn as many as possible. They get excited when they’re reading Augustine, and they couldn’t imagine doing anything else.
To these students, my answer is different. They have everything that once upon a time would have been needed for a flourishing academic job. But things are changing. And so I equivocate and say, “Maybe.”
My answer is cautious not simply because my students tend to be more traditional than the academy in general, and therefore they might find it difficult to find a place in an increasingly progressive academy. Among my master’s students, many are more progressive than I am. Rather, it’s because the culture of the academy is profoundly unhealthy.
Hyper-Competition and the Scientific Approach to Research
What makes the academy unhealthy? First, we have adopted a scientific account of research for every discipline. Since a chemist needs to discover something new about the natural order to publish her dissertation, so too does the reader of Dante. But guess what? There aren’t that many new readings of Dante left to discover. Novel readings therefore require new theory applied to the text, whatever is in fashion at the time. Doctoral programs chase students away who want to write a dissertation that simply reads a text more deeply, discerning nothing entirely novel but a deeper awareness of what is there in the text to behold.
For this reason, academics are formed with a competitive instinct in which it’s every man or woman for him- or herself. If your idea is the novel one, then I may not get a job. If you’re more innovative, I’ll be left behind. I have colleagues at other institutions who are brilliant pedagogues. They attract students. They’re not in the least ideological, allowing students to read both progressive and conservative sources. But the jealousy among fellow academics is often so strong that a good teacher or fair researcher is despised by colleagues. They’ll use anything to get rid of you. Tenure for such scholars is always in doubt. No matter what they do, they’re not liked.
And if the scholars are at all conservative (either in methodology or in politics) or express some sympathy with those who are conservative, they will be expelled from most departments with greater force. I describe myself as a radical traditionalist, attentive to every dimension of what it means to be Catholic. I’m politically complex. Against abortion. In favor of the expansion of the social support network that enables families to flourish. Methodologically, I see theology as a discipline that requires commitment to the Church. I dialogue with those who are more traditional and more progressive than I am because I think that’s important. I have something to learn. For this reason, I know that colleagues at other institutions (and to be frank, my own) have longed for my downfall. And I’m not even tenure-track! I’m lucky because I have a contract. Not everyone does.
The Looming Downfall
Second, colleges are going to close. Not a few. Lots. The reasons for the coming apocalypse of closing institutions of higher education are complex. As there are fewer children born in the United States, there will be fewer men and women going to college. The cost for college has ballooned.
Private institutions, especially the Catholic ones where my students would want to work, are in an especially precarious position. Many of these institutions have small endowments. The typical wisdom, these days, is that your endowment must be close to a billion if you want to survive. These schools often have thrown off Catholic identity to attract more students. But in the process, they have become expensive versions of state institutions. Get rid of theology and philosophy, throw out a core curriculum, and surely, the students will come. But will they? Or will you be competing with a public institution that costs $12,000 per year—and that is also free from theology or philosophy requirements?
In this context, what’s the hope of getting a job? If you want to work on Latin patristics, will there be enough jobs for the few who are hired each year in the field? What about medieval theology? Liturgical studies? Oh dear, good luck.
The Academy’s Hostility to Imagination
Third, despite its reputation as a bastion of progressive thought, the academy often rewards safe thinking. If you go against the prevailing wisdom of your department on a particular question, then you’re out. If you question the curriculum used by your department, you’re out. If you ask why your institution is slavishly following trends of peer institutions, you’re considered a heretic. There’s a reason entrepreneurs are often college dropouts.
The structure of the academy discourages the kind of entrepreneurial thinking that is otherwise rewarded in society. The desire for creative improvement at most institutions is not discernible. Yes, the core curriculum may be revised now and again. But the goal is mostly to keep things the way they are. We rearrange, but we do not re-imagine.
And that’s the danger right now. It’s why I tell my students, “maybe.” Things are changing, and if you’re going to enter, you need to be an agent of change.
So, I say maybe. Enter the academy if you want to do the work. In the case of theology, enter the academy if you want to learn to read the languages and write the books.
But even this doesn’t guarantee a place at the table. You need to be an intellectual entrepreneur. From the very beginning, recognize that a tenure-track job might not be available. And if it is, it won’t appear until your third post-doc. Develop friendships at the various extra-academic institutions (Lumen Christi, Collegium, and the Witherspoon Institute). Learn to be creative from the beginning. Create the new culture that might come into existence. But you must love what you’re doing so much that you’re willing to deal with the precariousness.
If all of this doesn’t sound attractive, then good news! The intellectual life isn’t over. More than ever before, there will be options available for you. The McGrath Institute for Church Life—where I work—is creating cohorts of intellectual and pastoral leaders who want to study together. They won’t do so in the context of a degree program. But they will continue to read and think together. We need more programs of this kind in the future.
I suspect we’ll see them. The demand is there. And many of the students who are most attracted to the academy today will be brilliant teachers in such programs. They will engage in scholarship in new contexts, even if they can’t get jobs at religious schools or secular institutions.
But if the academy, warts and all, does sound attractive to you, I say to my students, ignore my maybe. Apply now. I’ll write your recommendation.