Kelly Baker on Academia as a “Cult.”

One of the principles of this site is that language has power. Language and the world exist in close, multi-vectored, relationships, and the words we use to define the world shape some of the ways in which we act.

I use the word “cult” in the context of the “cult of compliance.” I chose the word deliberately because it has a certain kind of pejorative power (as opposed to “culture of compliance” which would be weaker, but less contested). I thought hard about my studies as an historian of medieval religious movements, the “cult of saints,” and similar phenomena before coining that phrase. At any rate, the complexities of the word “cult” have long been on my mind.

At Chronicle Review, Kelly Baker has a new piece – “Is Academia a Cult.” It may be paywalled eventually (CHR is paywalled but pays authors pretty well, so I’ve no problem there). Here are a few highlights and comments:

Baker cites lots of examples of people using “cult” to describe academia in her piece, and I won’t rehearse them here. The crux of her argument is:

Many but not all of these comparisons are made at least partly in provocative jest by writers I read and admire. But the cult label puts me off because it understates academe’s allures and mistakenly casts academics as passive victims.

Baker is one of my favorite writers on gender in the academy, but I’ve always known her academic expertise was in “new religious movements,” which she informs us is the correct phrase for what we once called cults. “Cult” is pejorative, and while some “new religious movements” might deserve a pejorative nomenclature, not all do. Moreover, cult implies, “indoctrination, brainwashing, charismatic leaders, obedient followers, special clothing, mental and emotional harm, separation from the larger world, and the inability to break free from the system.”

That’s not accurate for academia.

For all the analogy’s rhetorical cheap thrills, it’s misleading. It also shuts down conversation before it’s even started. It’s a cult, and that’s all we need to know, right? Explaining away the plight of adjuncts as brainwashed dupes ignores the structural realities of the disastrous academic job market. Sometimes, if we love an intellectual arena, all we have are bad choices; brainwashing has nothing to do with it.

Finally, she suggests a better frame – the “total institution.”

In seeking a better metaphor, I find myself drawn to Erving Goffman’s vision of the total institution, “a place of residence and work where a large number of like-situated individuals, cut off from the wider society … together lead an enclosed, formally administered form of life.” …Total institutions are in our worlds, but separate from them. They are “training stations” consumed by bureaucracy and chains of command, with a “work-payment structure” different from the rest of society. They untrain us in what we know, so that we can learn their system of being.. Other roles are lost to us because the particularity of what the total institution wants us to be. They treat us as less than adults by wearing down autonomy and freedom of action. There are rewards and privileges for obedience, yet little loyalty from the institution… 

Academe is an all-encompassing institution that comes to define our lives. It is high time to think about what we give up to be a part of it, what we expect from others who do so, and what we might do to reform it. What are we perpetuating by our participation?

When I encounter the “cult” language for academia, I’ve wanted to argue against it, but as an insider have been reluctant to do so. Mostly, I feel that academia has been filled with choices, often bad choices, since day one. Academia is also often solitary, devoid of the charismatic leadership and clarity of purposes that I associate with religious movements. How can one be in a “cult” if one spends all the time wondering – what am I supposed to be doing? Isn’t the whole point of joining a religious movement to be given clarity of purpose?

The total institution, though, makes a lot more sense.

The ways academia totalizes and turns our “jobs” into a “life” has long seemed destructive to me, at least for those who don’t in some way achieve the pinnacles of their careers. I am trying to be a full-time non-totalized academic, and to do it publicly. To be both “ac” and “alt-ac” at once (and a dad and musician), a position of privilege to be sure, but also one with both risks and rewards (there are grants and jobs for which, having gone public, I will never be able to compete. And then there’s the trolls).

At any rate, I appreciate Baker’s thoughtful critique of academic culture here, one not relying on the easy “cult” language, but also not letting academia off the hook.

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