A “Tragic Question” of Academic Life
by John Schwenkler
In her splendid essay “The Costs of Tragedy”, Martha Nussbaum relates a story from her days as a young professor at Harvard:
When I began teaching as an assistant professor at Harvard, philosophy department colloquia always began at 5 P.M., exactly when child care centers closed. Those of us who had child care obligations, consequently, faced many difficult choices. One problem we had was deciding what to do on each occasion. But I felt that we had another problem as well: for, often, neither of the alternatives looked morally acceptable. Either we would be deserting our duty to our colleagues or we would be deserting our duty to and love of our young children. …
Obviously enough, this string of minitragedies was the result of obtuseness. The arrangements my colleagues had made about colloquia were no more sensible than the arrangements made by the Pandava brothers about visiting the king. Because it had never dawned on most men of that generation to think that a person ought to be able to be both a good primary caretaking parent and a good colleague, they had never bothered to think what very simple changes in the daily arrangements might be made to remove the problem. Nobody could talk about this; nobody could draw attention to it.
This situation changed, Nussbaum recalls, when one day during a lecture that had by then run until after 6 P.M. Robert Nozick stood up (“with the carefree subversiveness of which only the tenured are capable”, Nussbaum adds), to say that it was time for him to go and pick up his son from hockey practice.
Today I was mindful of this anecdote, partly because I’m teaching Nussbaum’s paper in my Intro to Philosophy class this week, but also thanks to reading Josh Parsons’s guest post on his decision to give up his faculty position and seek to do his teaching and research under more flexible and family-friendly conditions. Reading that post it struck me that while Josh’s decision seems clearly wise, and his choice to make it public in this way unquestionably courageous, the circumstances behind that choice are really sad—indeed, the situation Josh describes is tragic in just the same way as those that Nussbaum recalls from her early years at Harvard.
Talk of tragedy might seem overwrought in these cases, but in fact they share the same structure as classic cases of tragic choice like that of Sophocles’ Antigone. As Nussbaum writes, what makes these circumstances tragic is the way they force upon us, usually not out of necessity but rather from sheer insensitivity and an unthinking adherence to “habit and tradition, treated as natural and inevitable”, a tension between two genuine spheres of value—in Parsons’s and Nussbaum’s cases those of the family and the university, in that of Antigone those of civic duty and familial obligation—that in themselves don’t have to compete for our allegiance. A proper understanding of how we should approach these tragic situations will also require an accounting of how they came to be, and how we can keep this from happening again in the future.
This means that while it’s important to ask, as many have in the comments to Josh’s post, about the wisdom of his choice and whether it would be wise for others to choose the same, it’s no less important to ask about his case what Nussbaum calls the “tragic question”: What are the circumstances that make philosophers feel that they have to choose between their academic careers and their personal and family lives? And how can these circumstances be changed, so that the choice between these spheres of value isn’t so often forced upon us?
In the simple case that Nussbaum describes, the answer to these questions was relatively straightforward: The source of the problem was having colloquia and visiting lectures always starting at 5 P.M. (and Burton Dreben’s faculty seminar from 6 P.M. to 10 P.M., she says!); and the solution was some combination of rescheduling those events, holding them less often, offering better support for childcare, and genuinely excusing faculty who needed to skip or leave early sometimes in order to tend to their personal lives. In Josh’s case the situation is more difficult, since part of the problem is the sheer cost of raising a family in Oxford—but still there is no good reason for an academic job to be, as Josh puts it, “high-pressure”, or for young academics in his position to have to work long hours. Perhaps it’s true that the behavior that gave rise to this circumstance wasn’t scandalous or unfair, but at the very least it was worrying and its outcome non-ideal, and there clearly room to make things better.
This may seem dreamy or unreasonable, but my own experience as an academic suggests that it’s not. I myself have four young children and a research agenda that’s understatedly described as hyperactive, but a main factor in my balancing this without a lot of stress or pressure is that I work in a department where the official policy and operating culture keep interference with faculty’s lives to a minimum. We have a few colloquium talks per semester and meet as a department once or twice a year. When we do meet, we keep it short and collegial, rejecting any demand to find total consensus or make the “perfect” decision (it’s in scare quotes because usually there isn’t one) each time. This allows us to apportion our time between research, teaching, and personal and family life in a way we simply couldn’t if we also had to navigate the gauntlet of regular meetings, talks, and so on that so many academics complain about.
Is something lost in this? Surely. And it doesn’t fit the image of the monkish scholar or the high-pressure, high-prestige researcher. But we’re professional philosophers, not monks or bankers or lawyers. And whatever we lose in prestige or productivity by taking this approach is nothing in comparison to the benefits of having a department full of happy and healthy people, each able to pursue his or her respective vision of the good life—a vision that includes, but is not limited to, being a good professional philosopher.
In her essay, Nussbaum writes admiringly of the way that Nozick’s speaking up “drew attention to the predicament of others who were more vulnerable and who had similar family obligations”. It is important, she explains, to use moments like this as a way to imagine alternatives to the ones that force these tragic choices on us—if not to make those alternatives real, then at least “to inform ourselves about the real structure of our situation”, revealing what is often the “stupidity, or selfishness, or laziness, or malice” that’s behind the clashes of value that we frequently take to be natural or inescapable. This seems like another good case for such a reckoning.