Friday, November 16, 2012

Some Peculiar Temptations of Academia

An obvious temptation for a good student is the temptation to define oneself by academic success. Especially for a graduate student, life is a series of checkpoints and comparisons—which programs did you get into? Have you passed comps yet? How many conference presentations are listed on your c.v.? Long before reaching this level, the pursuit of a certain grade point average and class rank can become all-consuming. I remember the sheer weariness of trying to excel and distinguish myself in high school. I believed my academic standing was the only thing I had going for me; if that were taken away, I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything valuable left. Certainly many people in higher education are motivated by those same fears; the stakes only get higher, and the competition more cutthroat, as one advances.

This isn’t the only temptation, however; indeed, it sounds perverse, but I almost wish this were the one I struggled with the most. (Then, at least, I'd be getting more work done!) As I’ve progressed through college, a master’s degree, and now a doctoral program, I’ve observed a shift almost to the opposite extreme. I’m not sure quite when it started. At some point, I recognized that the higher you go in academia, the more you will encounter people who are smarter, more accomplished, and more driven than you. These are people who have been motivated by the same desires to impact the academy, the church, or the world that first prompted you to gamble on grad school—and they will probably do that work better than you ever could.

This can be a freeing realization. It can allow you to loosen your grip on the idol of success and no longer be mastered by the constant fight to prove yourself. It lessens the guilt of having a life outside of study. For example, I have often prioritized home, church, and friends over academic work, because I’ve felt that ultimately, these are the important and lasting things in my life. Even if grad school proves to have been a big mistake, or I never secure a dream job or publish a book, those people and values will still be there. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the world would miss my contributions that much.  (If you want to get a better sense of what I mean, I recommend this essay by Carl Trueman, which has had a big influence on me over the past couple of years. Yes, I recognize that Trueman’s comments are directed to middle-aged men. I still think the piece has much to say to my generation.)

I’ve worried, though, that this attitude shift—and the shrinking of my goals that has accompanied it—has opened me up to a different set of temptations. From believing that academic ability was the only thing I had going for me, I’ve gone to doubting that I have much worth contributing to academia. Is it just a different form of hubris? It’s sinful to make too much of oneself, but is it any better to make too little of what the Lord is doing? Maybe, deep down, I think that if I'm probably not going to be one of the elite scholars known for their impact on the field, then it isn't worth this much effort to attain a middling sort of career. At any rate, perhaps I don't trust God to do anything worthwhile (by whose measure?) with the likes of me.

In other words, as I’ve moved towards fitting academia into unobtrusive crannies of my life, of downplaying its importance, am I disdaining the gift God has given me through the rare privilege of getting to pursue this work? It’s one thing to refuse to define myself by academic achievement. My fear is that I’m using that attitude—which, at heart, may be good—as a pious cover for my unwillingness to work hard. I’m burnt out, and I’m tired of putting everything on the line for a career that may have little payoff (something I glossed over as an idealistic 24-year-old).

I’m not sure what words to give to this temptation. (Maybe “laziness” or “entitlement,” for starters?) Or how to address it. I sense this is the place where I’m supposed to describe a God-honoring balance that the realistic grad student should observe. But I’m not sure what that is, or how attainable it might be.

I know that God’s grace gives me the freedom to be defined neither by my successes nor my failures. But here’s how I tend to interpret that truth on a daily basis: if I loved God enough, then I would work harder. If I really “got” grace, if I were grateful enough, then all of this would click, and I’d be cheerfully persevering through the latter stages of my degree.

Obviously, there’s a disconnect here.

Maybe it’s not a question of whether I love God enough, but the fact that He loves me and is pleased with me regardless of the practical outcome of this program. That won’t change whether I succeed or fail. Even if I proceed through all the academic hoops for mistaken reasons or ungodly motivations, He’s given me this opportunity for a reason, for the sake of His plan and purpose that are larger than me. If I mess up, or I earn a Ph.D. that never yields material success or fulfillment, or I do become one of those blessed few who “live the dream” within academia, what’s important is that my actions are transparently full of Christ for everyone else to see.

I’m not sure I do believe this. I know I am not yet at a point where it's changing my heart attitude and the way I work. My fear is that it’s another set of pious justifications for having made a poor life decision. But it’s what I have to go on, and these are the temptations I’m learning to pray through.