Complaining is a treasured part of academic life. There’s the serious complaining, like Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind (sample quotation: “There is one thing a professor can be absolutely certain of: almost every student entering the university believes, or says he believes, that truth is relative… [this] relativism has extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life.”), and lighthearted complaining, as in just about every academic novel ever written. The bitching at a faculty cookout hasn’t changed much in 1000 years. Take Egbert of Liège, moaning in the eleventh century: “Scholarly effort is in decline everywhere as never before. Indeed, cleverness is shunned at home and abroad. What does reading offer to pupils except tears? It is rare, worthless when it is offered for sale, and devoid of wit.”
Certainly not every complaint has merit, and honest disagreements about how best to advance our collective interests are an ineliminable part of cooperative life. At the other end, everyone knows chronic malcontents who would give a wheelbarrow full of gold bullion a one-star rating because it is too hard to push. That’s not what I’m talking about here. It may be counterintuitive, but if you want to know what people truly care about, look at the topics of their complaints.
We complain about student preparedness (and the scarcity thereof); their lack of attention; their miniscule reserves of resilience; their ignorance of any human accomplishment prior to their birth; their needing endless forms of support, scaffolding, and handholding; and of course their chronic inability to consult the syllabus. We all struggle to grasp why the students do not adequately appreciate our own very important subject, and how it could possibly be less fascinating than TikTok or YouTube.
The knee-jerk reaction is to write all this off as geezers griping about the youth of today, and point out that every generation eventually sits on their front porch quaffing nostalgia and telling the kids to get off their lawns. The truth, though, is that we grumble about our students because we care about them, about their successful learning, and about our subjects. We’re frustrated and dismayed when we’ve done everything we know how to do to get them fired up and hitting the books and it has no discernible effect. We offer to meet the students halfway on their path to understanding and they counteroffer to meet us 5% of the way. We wait in lonely office hours to provide help to those that never seek it.
We complain about our puny travel and research budgets; about incompetent journal referees; about delinquent contributors to our edited collections; and about academic presses that flirt and tease only to then ghost us. Nothing in the academy is easier than feeling imposter syndrome, and secretly harboring the fear that perhaps we did deserve those negative referee reports or maybe other grant proposals really were more worthy. Still, we have those feelings and make those complaints precisely because we care about our research. We’re trying our best to push back the frontiers of knowledge or bring new art into the world. We may do so in small, incremental ways, but we devoted long years of training and even decades of our lives to this ambition, and it matters. In the knowledge mines we all want a bigger pickaxe.
We complain when faculty lines are cut in our fields and fear the hatchet men and women slavering to wipe us out in favor of more vocational-training programs. We protest when art history, philosophy, physics, anthropology, and languages are heaved on a pyre of the dead while the Provost declares, “looks like meat’s back on the menu, boys!” We despair when Dr. Moreau becomes chair of the new chimeric department of English-History-Social Science. We head directly for the bar when the university’s new mission statement “we exist for workforce development” is announced. Why? Because we cannot bear to watch the things we love being destroyed. Honestly, the library faculty are still salty about the Library at Alexandria.
Administrators shouldn’t worry when their faculty complain. They should worry when we stop. Tennis was very popular when I was an undergraduate, and it is much less popular now. Even though I like playing tennis, I don’t whine about its decline. Sports come and go and enthusiasms wax and wane; it doesn’t matter to me one way or another. If the day comes when the faculty no longer carp about students, publishers, research funding, or departmental support, then one of two things has happened. Either we have ascended into academic paradise, where the wine at high table is always the perfect vintage, or we no longer give a damn. The second option is far likelier. When faculty salaries are the last and only thing about which we complain, then we have fully absorbed the ethos that money is the sole value of the university and that is the only thing worth fighting for.
Pindar wrote, “O my soul, do not aspire to immortal life, but exhaust the limits of the possible.” It is foolish to complain that our students aren’t as smart as the love children of Marie Curie and John von Neumann or that we lack Elon Musk’s research budget. We will be perpetually disappointed if we aspire to such academic immortality, and we should be. Who among us is a god and deserves such things? Still, we want to exhaust the limits of what we can possibly accomplish, and find out what new truths we can discover or what knowledge we can impart. When we bump up against indifference and hindrance, here’s what we’ll do until our spirits are finally crushed: complain about it fervently, eloquently, and passionately. What’s more, it is right and salutary that we do so, precisely because we care.
Steven Hales is Professor of Philosophy at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania. He works mostly in metaphysics and epistemology, and his last book was The Myth of Luck. He can be found at stevenhales.org.