I typically don’t like William Pannapacker’s writing on the subject of grad school and academic labor, because I find him excessively smug and pessimistic, even if all his points are technically true. However, I think his recent article “On Graduate School and Love” was a well-written and nuanced piece which effectively presents both the positive and negative aspects of academics’ love for learning. I was particularly struck, however, by one point that came up in the comments. A commenter named “Gene” wrote:
“One point to add to the discussion, which I see rarely made, is that some young people pursue a PhD in part because the working world just doesn’t offer anything better. Being worked long hours for little pay while a large, profitable enterprise exploits you is hardly a condition unique to academe. Might as well make some great friends, read some great literature, possibly enter your voice in the conversation of ideas for a while before selling your time, and possibly your mind, for not much in return.
Spending your 20s getting a PhD in a humanities discipline is not the worst way to spend your time, given the alternatives most of us face.”
I find this particularly resonant with my own experience, because I’ve believed for a long time that learning is intrinsically valuable. Even if a Ph.D. does not lead to a job, the knowledge that one acquires from doing a Ph.D. is worthwhile.
My ancestors came from a culture (Ashkenazi Judaism) where the study of Torah was considered to be the highest calling in life. In traditional Orthodox Judaism, studying Torah is considered more valuable than any sort of practical learning, to the point that the community is willing to subsidize people who did nothing but study in yeshiva — this is still true in some Orthodox communities. “Bitul Torah,” or wasting time that could be spent studying Torah, is considered a sin. Indeed, certain Haredi (ultra-Orthodox) communities have high rates of unemployment among men for precisely this reason; see here. It is even considered praiseworthy to study parts of the Torah that have no practical relevance in modern times, such as the laws of Temple sacrifices. The study of such things is considered spiritually enriching, even though it has no practical value.
Of course, from a modern secular perspective there are obvious problems with Judaism’s emphasis on learning. Among ultra-Orthodox Jews, learning is reserved exclusively for men; there is a belief that it is improper for women to study Torah at a deep level (see this). Moreover, the high rate of unemployment among these people creates a burden on the rest of society; Kiryas Joel, a Hasidic enclave in New York, is technically the poorest place in America.
However, I have always thought that the emphasis on learning in Orthodox Jewish culture is admirable, especially compared to the anti-intellectualism that pervades much of mainstream American culture. And despite being a completely secular Jew with no involvement in organized religion, I feel a lot of sympathy for the notion that learning is spiritually valuable. The subjects I study — media theory, comics, games, book history — have no religious significance and are often even considered to be devoid of redeeming artistic value. Still, when I study these things, I feel that I’m enriching myself. And when I teach or circulate my research in public, I feel that I’m passing on that spiritual richness to other people.
I don’t think that this argument is a practical way of justifying the importance of humanities scholarship, or pure mathematics or basic scientific research, because it’s only convincing if you accept the premise that learning can have intrinsic value. Clearly we do need to advocate for the importance of humanities research on a practical level. I’m just saying, going to graduate school in the humanities may be a poor decision from a financial standpoint, but it does have a type of value that is not economic in nature.