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    The Gods of Academia

    Child Sacrifice in the Ivory Tower

    By Andrew Skabelund

    June 16, 2021
    4 Comments
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    • Dale Smith

      It is important to recognize it does not have to be this way. I have had a reasonably successful, tenured academic career in history. I was not alone in our institution in bringing my son to lectures occasionally. To participating fully in a child care parent cooperative. My wife was a rotating shift nurse, no more or less amenable to child-rearing than academics. with a supportive department and dean, everything got done and no child therapy needed. The institutions must be changed from the inside, as a chair and administrator I maintained the environment I benefited from and it is now, witness the last year of child care and school chaos, institutionalized.

    • Jeff King

      This was an extremely powerful essay. As someone who completed my PhD with an aim to enter the academy, but also discovered a competing vocation of parenthood along the way, I resonated with so much of what you have written here. (I may have also shouted "preach" several times during the course of reading the article.) Your wise phrase, "You don’t make the world a better place by neglecting its most vulnerable members," was ultimately part of what led my family and I out of academia as well. At first, I missed it in a lot of ways, but what I've seen in the experiences of my friends who stayed confirms that it was the right decision. (And your observation of the deep problems inhering in the idea of a life entirely devoted to the mind was incisively phrased.) I found that your closing sentence in particular ("A world that fully honors and integrates the needs of these little ones will be a world that reflects heaven at every turn") gave me great hope and put in mind many of the themes Wess Stafford (President-Emeritus of Compassion International) explores in Too Small to Ignore: Why the Least of These Matters the Most. It's the basis of a counter-cultural imagination.

    • Norman Weinstein

      I very much admire the courage that led you to leave the academic world for the sake of your family and find a more fulfilling way of life. As someone who spent a career in academia as an adjunct, I can confirm how academia promotes distortions that are often disguised as noble features of the life of the mind. In the last course in the last of several departments and institutions I worked in, I taught in a College of Education. And emphasized the importance of maintaining fidelity to your deepest intellectual and spiritual values as you moved through jobs. This essay movingly describes how you kept fidelity to your core values. Thank you for your writing.

    • GM

      I can concur with all you said here. I am the ex-wife of a very successful academic and spent over 25 years living in that world. Before I had children I thought it odd how many academic kids were in therapy and on medication. After I had children I managed for a number of years but could not protect them from the demands of their father for academic success. With therapy and medication on my own doorstep, I took the step of moving them on. I took them out of that environment and never looked back. Neither did they. You did the right thing. Well done and good luck.

    The men stood chatting during a break in their racquetball game. The conversation turned to that rarefied boon called academic tenure. The flexible schedule and job security that tenure provided, self-evident by the fact that these middle-aged men had the freedom to chase a ball around at their leisure, was a luxury that none could deny.

    The discussion took a more serious turn when one joked wryly, “The problem with tenure is that you have to sacrifice your firstborn to get it.”

    “It’s true,” said another. “There’s just something off with my oldest.”

    I heard this story secondhand as I was finishing my PhD in history. In a way, it was comforting. These men were acknowledging the cost of tenure. Not just anyone who enters the temple of academia is accepted into its priesthood. The gods of academia are grudging with their honors and blessings; they require acolytes to prove their devotion by offering up their own flesh and blood. While the gods of academia don’t literally require the passing of infants through the fire, as did Moloch in the time of the ancient Israelites, they demand the sacrifice of familial devotion and care, with devastating results.

    I came face to face with these gods on my own journey through graduate school. Just a few weeks into my PhD program, my wife gave birth to our first child. Thanks to heartless treatment by hospital staff, the birth was a nightmare, and I remained in a state of extreme hypervigilance for a long time after everything had calmed down.

    Moments of terror provide unparalleled clarity, and this nightmare bound me to my son, my loyalty solemnly pledged to him forever. His sadly misshapen head and distinctive pitiful cry aroused in me a profound sense of duty. Over and over, I realized: “Every moment matters.” It was only years later, after much observation, study, and experience that I came to understand just how true that was.

    Babies are born for love.1 It is their birthright. When they first enter the world, babies expect that their basic needs (hunger, sleep, comfort) will be met without delay. Depending on how prompt and attentive their care, babies develop a sense of the world as a safe, welcoming place or as a harsh, unforgiving one. Some children are better able to handle situations where the care they are given falls short of their inborn expectations; others have very little ability to tolerate disconnects between what they need and what they’re given. These children are far more likely to suffer neurological, emotional, or physical challenges because their basic needs are not met.2

    We are born for love, but ways of living that would create the structure needed to provide that love run deeply counter to our contemporary way of life. The result is that we offer our children a hostile environment from the very start,3 guaranteeing that some of our children are set up to fail.

    In my son’s early days, I had no idea that he was one of those children who cannot tolerate much deviation from his birthright expectations. But I did understand that he was a little guy who had just survived a nightmare, so of course we gave him “extra” love and attention. As we cared for him, it became increasingly clear that modern childcare norms were often fundamentally at odds with the needs of babies – and babies like my son in particular. I began to wonder how I could possibly give him what he needed while meeting the demands of my career. I did not understand it yet, but I would have to choose – to sacrifice my son or my career.

    boy in an orange hoodie standing in a white hallway

    Photograph by Guillaume De Germain

    Babies Not Welcome

    There is something mind-exploding about trying to succeed in academia. For me, graduate school was like juggling eight flaming torches: research, publishing, teaching, departmental engagement, my personal health, job applications, church, and family life. For all the torches I managed to keep in the air, there were several on the ground starting fires. The impossibility of balancing the academic grind and my child’s needs was inescapable.

    This problem is not unique to academia. Sensitivity to children’s needs is a supreme liability for any careerist endeavor. As legal scholar Mary Ann Glendon put it in 1991:

    To members of the knowledge class that now predominates in government, political parties, corporations, universities, and the mass media, strong ties to persons and places, religious beliefs, or attachment to traditions are frequently relatively unimportant, or even counterproductive.4

    If strong ties to people and place hampered academic career success thirty years ago, such loyalties are complete anathema today. At one school I was considering attending, when I told my prospective adviser that my wife was expecting, he shot me a look of horror, like I’d confessed to something atrocious, like eating babies instead of having them. That exchange helped me see that I should choose a different school, but he understood what I did not: babies have no place in academia. There are stories of scholars hiding pregnancies, children, even marital status from hiring committees because they were terrified that these family relationships would jeopardize their academic success.5 One search-committee chair expressed his disappointment that the man the department had hired was soon to be a father, “We would have never hired him if we knew that. We needed somebody young, with a lot of energy. You don’t have energy when you have a baby.”6 I personally knew of a student couple who had a baby, traveled home halfway across the world for a visit, and left the baby there with its grandparents so they could focus on their studies. I don’t know whether sending the baby back was on the counsel of their advisers or on their own initiative, but it is true that some students’ advisers have suggested they ditch the kid.

    Thanks to the adjunctification of university teaching and the massive overproduction of elite degrees, tenure-track professorships have become almost as elusive as the pot of gold at the end of the rainbow. It used to be that you could get a tenure-track job even before your dissertation was finished. Now you must be willing to move multiple times for postdocs and temporary teaching positions, to burnish your CV and buy yourself more time to publish. This constant uprooting is hard enough on adults; it can be incredibly disorienting for the children in tow.

    The Tidal Wave

    The gods of academia are jealous gods; they require unwavering devotion. Unlike the God of Abraham, who will stay your hand at the moment of sacrifice, the gods of academia will not stop the knife. They will not miraculously provide a substitute offering. And even if you offer up your firstborn (or second or third), that sacrifice is no guarantee of entrance into academic paradise.

    Shortly after my son’s birth, I realized that my expectations for what I could accomplish in a semester were going to need some adjusting. I could not possibly maintain what had previously been my regular workload, not with the sleep deprivation caused by an infant struggling with sensory overload (which we were clueless about at the time) and the needs of a wife adjusting to motherhood without the support of a sisterhood. I dropped the Arabic class I had enrolled in on top of my graduate courses, and then I held on for dear life. I was lucky to have supportive professors, but there is only so much a professor can do to alleviate the demands of a PhD program.

    The impossibility of balancing the academic grind and my child’s needs was inescapable.

    In an effort to balance family and career, I even switched fields of study. I realized that the research I had done for my master’s thesis could easily serve as the foundation for a solid dissertation, and I knew that thousands of relevant documents had been digitized, which would minimize the amount of travel required for my research. But even with these changes, we were barely holding on. Our son was still not sleeping well, often waking up for the day at 5 a.m. after a fitful night, and the marathon sleep deprivation was grinding us to the bone. We were too tired to understand it then, but our son was teaching us. Because of his inability to tolerate much deviation from his birthright expectations, he was showing us the enormous gulf between what kids need and what we in the modern world give them.

    Family as Liability

    Earlier generations of academic households featured the man as the primary breadwinner with a stay-at-home wife.7 The man lived the life of the mind, while the wife took care of the home front. As many have observed, academia’s culture retains the expectations of the old guard even as there is increasingly no domestic partner to take care of the life outside of the mind.8 You are still expected to be fully dedicated to your studies, and any deviation could arouse suspicion. Such expectations have taken an especially large toll on women’s advancement in academia. Women make up the majority of PhD recipients9 but lag behind in the upper echelons of academia. Those women who do make it to higher positions are much less likely to have children than their male counterparts.10 Forgoing children altogether for a career is a common form of child sacrifice expected especially of women. So is delaying childbearing.

    Women are more likely to find that graduate studies and child-rearing are fundamentally incompatible, which leads many to quit academia at an early stage or flounder in the more precarious temporary positions – hardly surprising given the physiological realities of conceiving, gestating, and birthing a child, as well as the greater responsibility of raising children that often falls to women. It doesn’t help that women are more likely to face questions about their commitment to their studies if they have children, nor that the prime years for advancement in academia are also the window in which many women are hoping to have children.11 But women are not alone in their frustration. In the words of a male graduate student who was interviewed about the assumptions of academic life, “[I’m] fed up with the narrow-mindedness of supposedly intelligent people who are largely workaholic and expect others to be so as well.”12

    There is a certain irony that academics, who pride themselves on seeing things not visible to the unwashed masses, cannot see (or choose to ignore) the wreckage wrought by their hyperfocus on the academy. The very medium of academia requires a baseline state of ignorance: to fully master the academic parlance and ideas of your chosen field, you must blind yourself to the world outside your mind, blind yourself even to the needs of your own body.

    We are not just brains sitting in vats, debating about whether we actually exist.

    Those who have been successful in academia are generally not open to discussions about costs to family life. I once casually remarked to a tenure-track professor that I had significantly less time to get things done now that I had a baby, and he immediately bristled. He was single, and he made sure to let me know that he had demanding family commitments too, like visiting his mother several times a year. He thought I was insinuating that he had it easy. Conversations like this made it clear that many academics don’t want to understand the sacrifices their chosen world demands.

    The few conversations I did have on this topic were usually with fellow graduate students who were mothers. I remember one particularly heartbreaking day; a colleague was close to tears when I asked her how she was doing. She said she was so tired trying to finish up her graduate work while also working part-time to pay the bills. Her kids came in at night to snuggle, which meant her sleep got interrupted. “I can’t deny them that,” she said. “They don’t see me any other time.” But it meant she was completely exhausted.

    Darwinian Academics

    Every institution has to demarcate rules for belonging. I don’t resent that academia requires certain standards of excellence and commitment; there has to be some selection process in order to find those who are both dedicated and possess some measure of intellectual aptitude. Scholars who make it through the winnowing process are more likely to bring honor to their institutions, and at the end of the day, that is what universities care about. But the oversupply of PhDs and the dwindling number of tenure-track positions have created a deeply toxic environment where the stress never lets up, leaving those most willing to sacrifice attachment to people, place, and tradition as the survivors. Universities then become vehicles for transferring these attitudes to the students, with hardly a dissenting peep.

    These selection forces – academic survival of the most neurotically committed – were following closely at my heels, but I was somehow still eluding them. I passed my comprehensive exams and received generous funding from my department to go research in France for six weeks. There was enough money to bring my wife and son along with me. The research went well, but the trip was very difficult for our son, whose life was completely upended by the abrupt change in time, in rhythm, in language, in culture, in everything. We were not expecting a twenty-month-old to have culture shock, but the contrast of his behavior during our trip and immediately upon returning home made it clear that he had been completely overwhelmed by what we thought would be a lovely trip.

    Our time in France helped me see more clearly that I would have to choose between my career and my child. We had previously entertained thoughts of applying for scholarships for more extended research abroad, but after our experience, we could not imagine surviving a longer trip, either together or apart. I understood that this decision would count against me in the long run. For academic historians, one of the strongest measures for assessing the value of historical research is the number of countries visited and archives consulted. It doesn’t matter if the archives have much documentation related to your research; you visit them to prove your bona fides. By not seeking out additional archives, and by not applying for more prestigious funding to visit them, I was jeopardizing my chances of academic success.

    When work becomes all-consuming, our children suffer.

    Besides, the hard-won knowledge I had gained because of my son meant I no longer believed in academia. I couldn’t unsee what I had seen. The veil of the temple had been rent, the walls had cracked, and with the sunlight now streaming in, I could see that the marble walls and wood paneling were just wallpaper. It was all vanity: the careerist endeavors, the titles, the “wanting to make a difference,” the disembodied NPR voices offering sophisticated opinions, the “life of the mind.” Almost everything I had been taught to believe in had turned out to be a lie. You don’t make the world a better place by neglecting its most vulnerable members.

    I was not going to sacrifice my son to become a professor, so we needed a different approach to life. Things I would previously have dismissed as hippie-dippie were now extraordinarily fascinating as we tried to come up with a way of life that would allow us to live and work together as a family: tiny houses, alternative and traditional building techniques, subsistence farming, and permaculture. Learning about Sepp Holzer’s absolutely stunning farm in the Austrian Alps – dotted with fish ponds, pigs working as plows, hügelkultur beds bursting with produce, and lemons (yes, lemons) growing in the snow13 – was a paradigm shifter. We could take care of the land, we could take care of our family, and hopefully, as we gained the necessary skills, we could take care of other people too. We had found a new future, but the path to it remained obscured. We kept learning, and we kept bailing water, hoping that someday we’d reach more promising land. And somehow, just barely, we kept afloat.

    Leaving the Ivory Basement

    I will be the first to say that I was extremely lucky with my graduate studies. I went to a good school with excellent professors, and I was somehow able to scrounge up material for an original dissertation in West African history. I successfully defended that dissertation the next year and applied for teaching positions. Throughout this busy time, I would plead on my knees for guidance about what to do, and the answer always seemed to be that when the time was right, the door would open. It was hard to have patience.

    As the academic interview process is an opaque, capricious, and drawn-out affair, I lined up some adjunct work in the meantime. A month or so before the semester started, I had an interaction on campus that made it blazingly obvious that what I had learned about children’s physiological needs put me on a collision course with the prevailing cultural and intellectual assumptions of academia. Not only was my knowledge unwelcome, it was considered threatening. I didn’t fit, and the stress of trying to fit was going to be the end of me. So with the full support of my wife, I withdrew from my adjunct position. Despite watching the money drain quickly from our bank account, I felt a strange sense of peace as we set off in search of an affordable spot for a farm – a quixotic venture by any rational standards.

    But we did find a place, and very quickly. It would take another essay to detail the serendipitous stepping stones that made it all possible (including missing a freeway exit), but in just two and a half months, we had moved into a little home on an acre of land. We could not have timed it better if we had tried, nor could we have found a better place with another thousand hours of research. God certainly moves in mysterious ways.

    Can We Fix It?

    The recent spate of books addressing the challenges of juggling family and academic success shows that this problem is not going away any time soon. There have been tweaks at some institutions, including leave time for graduate students and parental leave extensions for those on the tenure track, but those policies are unlikely to move the needle. Policies intended to help those committed to family obligations can end up backfiring: there are stories of parents using their extra year not to care more for their children but to burnish their tenure portfolio, giving them an extra edge against those who actually used that time to take care of their families.

    And in the end, policy tweaks won’t work because the underlying premise of academia – that it is noble and worthy to dedicate one’s entire existence to the life of the mind – runs completely counter to a life that integrates the needs of children. We are not just brains sitting in vats, debating about whether we actually exist. We are not just spirits. We are bodies too, bounded by physical limits that we must learn to honor. The life of the mind cannot by itself sustain life; it must be placed in harmony with the life of the body, the family, the community, and with Creation herself. Intellectual endeavor must be coupled with the business of living if it wants to be a source of renewal and wisdom. That means none of us should spend all our days sitting at a desk, exclusively reading, coding, writing, creating. There can be time for that, but there must first be time for cooking, for growing food, for making clothes, for building, and all this must be done with our children working alongside us. If our work does not easily allow for the inclusion of little ones, perhaps it is the work that should be set aside, not the child. Perhaps we should question the lasting worth of our work.

    Some work, of course, is necessary and does not accommodate children. But when work becomes all-consuming, our children suffer. Careerist endeavors are filled with arbitrary and often meaningless deadlines, which end up taking precedence over our most vulnerable family members – not just children, but the elderly and the incapacitated. We must become much more creative about working with the rhythms of our children and other vulnerable family members instead of forcing them into the straitjacket required by the cult of careerism.

    Many academics seem to believe that they are the ones who will lead us to the heavenly city, but in their zeal, they require little children to suffer. Far better the words of the Master Teacher, “Suffer the little children to come unto me.” A world that fully honors and integrates the needs of these little ones will be a world that reflects heaven at every turn.

    Footnotes

    1. Bruce D. Perry and Maia Szalavitz, Born for Love: Why Empathy Is Essential – and Endangered (New York: Harper, 2011).
    2. W. Thomas Boyce, The Orchid and the Dandelion (New York: Penguin Random House, 2019).
    3. Jean Liedloff, The Continuum Concept: In Search of Happiness Lost (Cambridge: Perseus Books, 1986), xiii.
    4. Mary Ann Glendon, Rights Talk: The Impoverishment of Political Discourse (New York: The Free Press, 1991), 177–178.
    5. Gale Walden, “Hiding the Baby,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, January 31, 2002. Mary Ann Mason, Nicholas H. Wolfinger, Marc Goulden, Do Babies Matter: Gender and Family in the Ivory Tower (New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press, 2013), 33-34.
    6. Walden, “Hiding the Baby.”
    7. Mason et al., Do Babies Matter, 8.
    8. Mason et al., Do Babies Matter, 8–9.
    9. Mark J. Perry, "Women Earned Majority of Doctoral Degrees in 2019 for 11th Straight Year and Outnumber Men in Grad School 141 to 100," American Enterprise Institute, October 15, 2020.
    10. Mason et al., Do Babies Matter, 8–10.
    11. Mason et al., Do Babies Matter, 11. Mary Ann Mason, “Is Tenure a Trap for Women,” The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 22, 2009.
    12. Mason et al., Do Babies Matter, 10.
    13. Sepp Holzer, Desert or Paradise: Restoring Endangered Landscapes Using Water Management, including Lake and Pond Construction (White River Junction, VT: Chelsea Green, 2011), 165.
    Contributed By

    Andrew Skabelund and his family are aspiring subsistence farmers in central Utah. He holds a PhD in African history from Ohio State University.

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