“Can I Look Myself in the Eye and Decide to Become an Academic?”

A reader writes in with the following concerns:

The results of this election have substantiated some feelings I’ve been having for a while. For a few years I’ve been planning (not without a lot of consideration and some hesitation) to go to graduate school and play my cards with the hope of entering academic philosophy. Now, however, it is harder for me to see this as the right choice, or even a choice that I feel okay about making.

Though I do what I can to combat and repair the hostile environments that face marginalized or vulnerable people within my college, and the condemnable actions that damage the learning community I’m in, I know that these political actions are small. Important they may be, but were I to enter the academic world, it would always technically be secondary to the work I would be there to do. Given the critical moment we find ourselves in, and the real danger that I see my less privileged friends, neighbors, and fellow citizens (broadly) in, can I look myself in the eye and decide to become an academic? Is it enough to fight injustices I see in the university setting?

What else could I, as someone briefly trained in philosophy, do to take more direct political action against a new and ominous future? What places do philosophers occupy outside the academic world that take direct and effective actions against this hostile new landscape? Law? Public office? Do I still go to grad school, only to do something else later?

I’m not quite looking for advice, so much as a discussion that might help me orient myself. I want to know what other people have done if/when faced with these questions. What do you (philosophy-inclined and -operated) do outside of the university, or how far can you reasonably go within the university to take meaningful political steps?

(I also want to add that I in no way intend to insult or imply that academic work is a problem or an unethical choice—this is MY dilemma, and these are the questions on my conscience.)

Some thoughts on this:
  1. It might be useful to think of this type of decision without bringing in the white hot excitement of the recent election. Suppose instead that what prompted you to reconsider a career in academia was a concern with extreme poverty in the developing world, and the thoughts that both the efforts of civil society as well as the reform of major political and economic institutions were crucial for alleviating it. Should you go into academic philosophy or some other kind of career?
  2. How you conceive of your choice may affect how you deliberate about it. Is this a question of balancing what you most want for yourself (a career in academic philosophy) with what you think is right (fighting injustice)? Or is it just a matter of determining the most effective means by which someone like you (someone who has studied philosophy) can make society better or more just?
  3. Given the poor academic job market, and how long graduate school can take, and the important skills one develops in a good undergraduate education in philosophy, and adaptive preference formation, it might be a better strategy to try something besides philosophy graduate school (or even law school) for a few years. A few years off from school will not in itself worsen your chances of later admission.
Your suggestions and thoughts welcome.

R. Luke Dubois - "A More Perfect Union" (detail)

R. Luke Dubois – “A More Perfect Union” (detail)

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