Ivy-Covered Envy, Or What's Really Wrong With the Humanities These Days

In case you were wondering why it is so hard to have an encouraging conversation on campus:

"My own candidate for a large group existing in a state of ressentiment [a persisting state of grudgingness against one's circumstances of life, particularly in comparison with others--FB] would be American academics, especially those in the humanities.  They feel themselves, simultaneously, greatly superior and vastly undervalued, above their countrymen yet isolated from them and insufficiently rewarded and revered by them.  They have about them a perpetually disappointed air: one senses they feel that the world has, somehow, let them down.  Sometimes this will reveal itself in a general sourness; sometimes it takes the form of hopelessly radical political views.  These political views, it does not take long to recognize, usually feature a complex shifting and reorientation of society so that people like themselves will be allowed a justly deserved role of power.

"The best account for the ressentiment of American academics that I've seen is one presented by the philosopher Robert Nozick.  His view was that university teachers were almost invariably people who, because of their superior performance in school, were told over and over again how bright and extraordinary they are.  This continued for 20 years--from grade through graduate school--with sufficient reinforcement, that is, for them to be convinced of its truth.  They remain in the environment, that of the classroom, that has long been the scene of all their rewards, by becoming teachers.

"It all seems like a good life, but soon it is spoiled by the realization that people who did less well than they in school seem to be fairing rather better in the world.  Not quite first-class lawyers are making hundreds of thousands of dollars a year; dullish boys and girls, now practicing medicine, have large summer homes near gentle lakes.  Coarse creeps are scoring heavily in the stock and commodities markets.  While they, once the darlings of their teachers--who bestowed all those lovely A's upon them--are struggling along, not only financially but spiritually.  No, it's not working out at all, and it's damn unfair.

"Originally, an unwritten contract of a sort was made.  Through teaching and the university life, it was understood, one would be allowed to indulge one's intellectual and artistic passions in exchange for denying oneself the heavy luxuries of life available to others out battling in the marketplace.  But it hasn't quite played out as planned.  Teaching turns out to be less exhilarating than promised [Happily, untrue--FB]  Those brilliant books one had hoped to write haven't got done [This one hits truer to home].  One's students refuse to demonstrate a passion for the life of the mind worthy of one's own [NB--not mine!]  The leisure that teaching allows is as advertised, but the pay really isn't quite adequate; certainly it doesn't allow one to live up to one's own high state of cultivation.  Why does some ignorant lawyer have enough money to buy a villa in Tuscany when one knows so much much more about the art of the Italian Renaissance?  What kind of society permits this state of things to exist?  A seriously unjust one, that's what kind.

"And so envy mixes with snobbery, with impotence added, all mounted against a background of cosmic injustice, to put a large class of persons into a permanent condition of ressentiment."

--Joseph Epstein (B.A. University of Chicago; Emeritus Lecturer, Department of English, Northwestern University), Envy: The Seven Deadly Sins (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), chapter 11.


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