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    Our Children and Our Citations: Each One, Both Together

    If you have a child too soon, have you destroyed your life as an academic?

    By Mary Townsend

    August 4, 2021
    • Andrew White

      I enjoyed Mary Townsend's delightfully written article and I do agree with her argument. Forgive me for not having read Andrew Skabelund's article but the subject somehow begs the question 'do we need children to ensure the survival of our species.'

    Andrew Skabelund’s article, “The Gods of Academia: Child Sacrifice in the Ivory Tower” generated both agreement and dissent. Plough invited Mary Townsend, who is both a parent and a professor, to write a response.

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    Among the many professions that revel in the goriness of their own misdeeds, academia stands out for the common interest we have in reliving its highs and lows. Possibly this is because many of us have had a first-hand, partly-adult experience of the profession, where temporarily it seemed as though our fate was hanging in its practitioners’ hands. The same is perhaps true of plumbers, but we are not angry at them: one remembers the good professors with love and the bad ones with an astonishingly retentive hatred.

    But there’s a touchiness to the way we think about professors and academics that goes beyond even our oedipal feelings about them. It seems related to the idea that these professionals are in some way living the “life of the mind,” even if this connection is most often made in the service of pointing out that they are not, as so many obviously are not. Every problem of the field (and there are many) takes on a special anxiety when regarded with the strange blend of green jealousy and blue hostility against these petit-bourgeois tyrants, whose sophistical inadequacies the Marx Brothers quite accurately dub to be horse feathers.

    Andrew Skabelund has described in these pages the extra layer of problems that arise in the university if, when you can imagine yourself doing otherwise well in horse-feather-land, you get caught holding the baby. The special animus against childbearing he describes in modern university life is real, even if the anxiety over babies and the people who hold them is very much reflective of the larger culture’s bad conscience in general. It’s possible that academics are merely vocalizing what others only wish they could they could say. Coffee shop people will give you the stink-eye if you walk in with an infant; the senior academic will tell you to your face you’ve ruined your life.

    The problem is, what he or she tells you is not true, and is often most reflective of the individual’s private creeping horrors. One hopes Skabelund and his family have found their way to a better spot. But the problem remains that his critique of academic life buys too much into the distorted myths academics tell about their lives to be really diagnostic of the university’s most thoroughgoing failings, not to mention reflective of better hopes for understanding beyond its strictures.

    little girl getting a hug from her work at home mom

    Photograph by Charles Deluvio

    How difficult it is to raise children is unknowable, really, from the outside, just as unknowable as the precise feeling of falling in love until it’s happened to you. Suffice it to say, children are difficult enough as difficult things go, and so is academia; trying to do two difficult things at once is enough to risk much going awry. But those filing the charge against children in the academy usually stake a much stronger claim than this. There’s a not-at-all hidden sense that children and this oddly-named “life” of the “mind” fundamentally don’t mix, as Skabelund’s anecdotes certainly record, and as he himself concludes.

    But this is the moment to start asking exactly what sort of life we’re talking about here, while also taking note of the odd sort of geometrical or even chemical thrust of the claim, that children exert a kind of radioactive action at a distance, even while asleep or at school or in the backyard, that distorts – what? Our time, our attention, our midnight oil, our very thought? This would be a failing indeed. If it were true. But it is not.

    Part of the distortion present in these arguments comes from the very strange work ethic of the most visibly successful academics. Again, plenty of (American) professionals love to brag about how hard they work – it’s what a sense of self centered in professional wage-labor does to you – but professors losing their sleep, their health, their romantic relations, while bragging about the articles they’ve written, for free, are their own sort of beast in the zoo. This so-called ethic supplies the idea that unless you’re draining your life force in service of research, you’re not doing it right.

    It would be a pity if the coin of such work really were one’s physical life, since no one would survive to write even a second journal article. Yet even if not murderous or literally demonic, this ideal remains an idol that returns nothing solid to its idolators. For if this were simply a bad but necessary trade-off, one would expect that the work so obtained would be at the least good intellectual work of lasting humanistic value. And although one wishes there were enough such work to go around, there is not. Being constantly at a high state of intellectual alert is not good for the intellect, which requires time spent noodling about in perception and imagination, not only to gather material for thought but to digest the substance of existence.

    Far more than the occasional insult such humans might offer, the young academic should fear the vortex of the midlife crisis of the one who, instead of a contemplative life, a life dedicated to becoming, as Iris Murdoch puts it among the genuinely learned – realizes at fifty or so that he or she is simply another careerist, who hasn’t wasted a breath on mulling something over in years, and lacks a pathway back to even an hour-long honest daydream. (This is the reason, incidentally, why so many academic novels bore one to tears; there’s nothing special about watching someone have a realization he is nothing special.) If children take time away from a habit of intellectual activity that is bad in itself, it’s hardly a real accusation against them.

    But what then for the one who wishes to contemplate not out of vanity or as a careerist but for real? Usually the argument at this point falls back on that theoretic, “fundamental” contradiction between babies and thoughts, but the examples attached are, nine times out of ten, not theoretic but practical. Babies require attention, and this is a practical problem. They are like the squeaking door at Jane Austen’s study that alerted her when company was on the way, except babies squeak more, and are indeed one of the most pressing and visible manifestations of human responsibility going. Virginia Woolf talks about the thought escaping one like a fish downstream; the truth of attention and memory is that any interruption risks pushing the rest of the dream of Kubla Khan straight out of the forefront of our mind and out the back of it too, forever.

    Example: In order to write the last paragraph, and the paragraphs before, I have had to find my way back to the line of my argument at least seventy times, and that’s an under-representation at best. One of my sons is home with me for the day, and he has as many thoughts as I do, and rightly claims some recognition from me for at least seventy percent of the ones he wishes to share. Recognition of one’s thoughts is one of the best sorts of love. It is why I write things down.

    But the ability to find my way back to mine, to my thoughts, from his, is the same sort of ability I used to call on when, childless, I wrote in coffee shops and tried to keep my mind on my Greek translation, when this activity more than any other seemed to give strangers the idea that I’d like nothing better than to talk with them about it, and not in fact translate instead. But in truth, one’s own self is perfectly capable of distracting one’s thoughts without any person from Porlock to interrupt. I am much, much better now than I used to be, before children, at finding my way back to the thought at hand; memory for my thoughts has been athletically trained, which for me came about while writing a dissertation with a two-year-old and a four-year-old home for the summer, and me the best childcare going, after their three and a half hours of gymnastics camp was done for the day.

    There’s a genre of academic advice that deals with such catastrophes as student debt and the adjunct crisis by advising us all to man up, be smarter, work harder, which is as useful as the placement of deck chairs on a sinking ocean liner. But finding the thread of thought again is a skill everyone has to become good at, if they intend to hold onto threads. It’s not a question of manliness but of the kind of memory-thing the Pythagoreans used to recommend for the person who would become, as they put it, wise. And there is a kind of roundness to the thought that the memory has shaped and reshaped in this way, done to inimitable perfection in Austen’s prose, which is more than a makeshift, and is properly an aspiration. Fortunately for all humans concerned, children are one (but not, of course, the only) way to do this.

    Practically speaking, therefore, finding time away from children to read, to work, to mull, is a practical problem like any other, like finding a way to eat lunch when the library is no-food-allowed, or when through no fault of your own, you get on the bad side of the interlibrary loan librarian. It’s a larger problem than these are, but like any practical problem, ingenuity is on your side. Friends and family and partners who help in good faith are necessary even if not always actually available. I’ve spent many academic years as a quasi- and now officially single mother, and one’s reliance on other people, as well as the fundamental inability to control whether there are people around with the time, affection, and generosity to help, are things very sharply felt.

    This is why I think family abolition arguments don’t work, quite – yes it takes a village, but a child needs some one person, at bare minimum, who has and feels and understands the child as their personal responsibility, period. No friend or even grandparent has this, since they always get to walk away, to love from a distance; and while love from a distance may often be our preferred form of love to receive, we can’t survive without the more immediate and messy kind as well.

    Of course, many professionals feel this way about their job, that it is the task they owe the world. But aside from the fact that the feeling sits more easily with respect to another human being (since unlike the world they tend to love you back), this wrinkle remains the sort of problem humans have with regard to many human situations. The responsibility of dealing with responsibility is the province of the adult qua adult, not the parent alone. And the argument that parents ought not to think of other things even if they can dissolves in a moment; one does not need the advice of professional psychoanalysts to observe that children need time away from their parents’ attention, in balanced measures with the times when they don’t.

    Of course, to parents of the under-fives, the ideal of this kind of balance, even with the help of a family jumble made comfortably non-nuclear by several other stray adults, seems very far away, if not an outright lie. That children would grow beyond the incessantness of their earliest years feels like wishful fabrication – right up until the moment when they suddenly pop into being as more fully themselves, with a dignified sense of their own self-reflecting private lives.

    The sheer becoming-ness of children, the fact that they, impossibly, continue to get larger, is incomprehensible, and yet for all that, it does take place; and with it, as distant as it might seem, arrives the possibility for mutual respect for thought. My before-children image for this was always the relation between the writing mother and the children in E. Nesbit’s The Railway Children, which at first seemed to me ideal; then with small children, despairingly impossible; then this past year, almost too close to home.

    In The Railway Children, three suddenly fatherless children have to put up with their mother’s demand for time alone to write short stories, which have just as suddenly become the family’s main means of support. With the help of a part-time cook for a buffer, the children manage to leave the mother alone, even feeling a certain kind of awe for the doorknob of her closed study door; they turn their imaginative attention to the railway, which eventually becomes the means by which their father is saved.

    At first I had assumed this sort of desperate respect for writing on the part of children on whose behalf the writing is being done was easily transferable into an ordinary family scene, which it is not. But in the same way children naturally leave you alone when you’re cleaning the house, children can learn to respect writing and thinking work when they come to recognize it as labor, and labor they live on. For my children at least, the pandemic finally made this distinction clear, though perhaps the desperation of the time was the most necessary part of the trick.

    This March, we sat down together to watch a children’s film I’d been commissioned to review, and they took seriously their task to report their honest observations, motivated in no small way by the idea that when a check came, they’d participate in the treats it purchased. When the review was published, my older son read it aloud to the younger one and me, and they agreed that the way I’d phrased my critiques was fair, noting judiciously, “That was good, Mama.” It was, as E. Nesbit might put it, a glorious afternoon; a long time coming, but not fiction, either.

    But then after all, aside from practice, what of theory? If we can put aside the practical (non-demonic) demons for a moment, does there remain some fundamental contradiction between the two activities? (What would that even mean, incidentally – can there really be a human contradiction between human activities that can actually be theoretic and not practical? Say we are rational creatures at best – are our irrationalities impossible on theoretic grounds? Fundamentally speaking, we contain multitudes.) What after all do we wish to preserve of our selves, our privacy, and our days, such that we defend it so sharply as the life of this far away thought, the life of the so-called mind itself? We wish to think, certainly. Of what should we be thinking?

    In Plato’s Republic, Socrates imagines one big communal family of warrior-philosophy-students and their offspring, where so much togetherness is planned that parents take their children along with them to the current battle site, sensibly mounted on horseback, the better to give them a sense of what’s in store for their future lives. This tender family scene is a little precious, since the way Plato tells the story, Socrates spent little to no time with his children at all, and most certainly did not take them to the agora with him the next time he attempted to chat someone up, let alone to Potidaea. This contrast between Socrates’ word and his deeds is sometimes appended as evidence that the family of the Republic is meant to be ironic, that children and philosophy somehow can’t abide together – again in this nebulous, almost Jungian way, a clash of poetic opposites, where anxiety over our ability to sustain a thought is poet-in-chief. I think Socrates presents it more lovingly than this; he loved children, if not his own.

    What Socrates is thinking here is that nothing is more important, more central to life, to philosophy, to thought, than the education of youth. The scheme of the Republic is the hyperbolic imagining of this recognition put into practice; it seems absurd to us at first because who would wish to childishly give over their lives to the education of mere children? As another Platonic character puts it elsewhere, since philosophy involves talking to children, how can it be other than childish itself?

    Socrates’ practices remind us that a return to origins in both word and deed looks childish but is the true human task, the place where all other intellectual tasks point. His life is a very good if imperfect example of someone who went partway toward this, in the messy way that he did. Rather than imitate him, Plato asks us to complete the thought that Socrates began. What would it mean to take our relation to children seriously? And how can we love our children as much as they deserve unless we stop considering them as something other than our thoughts?

    The intellect as we often try to conceive it imagines itself as an isolated thing, cold and pure and lonely as hell. This is a Cartesian fantasy, and not an appealing one for long.footnote Practically speaking, yes, the organism needs time alone: time conceiving of the world around it, giving inward birth to the sort of thinking that is or ought to be more and more like being itself. Asking whether universities and children mix, or life and children mix, is an irresponsibly narrow response to the question of being. Children, as an outpost of one’s flesh in the world, uncannily full of their own private thoughts, are like half an answer to a question of existence, part of the response to our unspoken call of, What is it?, and a physical manifestation of the shape of being, the being that is not one but two.

    To complete the thought of being, to find a human thought that isn’t vanity, it doesn’t seem unreasonable to keep thinking about this, the puzzle that each is one, yet two together, as Socrates puts it, ἓν ἑκάτερον, ἀμφότερα δὲ δύο – thinking in and out of whatever human situation, university included, or not, in which we find ourselves able to be.

    Related Article The Gods of Academia – by Andrew Skabelund Read


    1. Mary Midgley’s unpublished essay “Rings and Books” is a beautiful touchstone for this argument: Iris Murdoch’s identification of the brave but lonesome thinker as Miltonian Lucifer in the third part of Sovereignty of Good is useful here as well. The Greek quotation comes from Plato’s Republic 524b.
    Contributed By MaryTownsend Mary Townsend

    Mary Townsend is an assistant professor at St. John’s University, Department of Philosophy. She is the author of The Woman Question in Plato’s Republic.

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