Swigging at the Teats

I once read—probably in some Jungian book—that for professors the university is a substitute for mother. We think we are breaking away from mom by getting an independent career, thinking daring thoughts and doing things she never taught us to do. But we are just slipping right back into the bosom, into an enveloping presence that takes care of us, plans our lives, and follows gives us that same familiar structure we have lived since we started school at 5, if not earlier. For other students, the university was a rite of passage. But we never passed.

Fair enough. Even if we disregard the psychoanalysis, the phrase “incestuous insularity” seems to fit the academy just right. And family is even a better metaphor than mother. A totalizing institution that has the sanction of time and tradition, with an ideology that claims to connect us to the basic truths and structure of human life. “Education” is the only thing that comes close to “family” in its claims to be a core necessity of modern life.

The internal dynamics are certainly similar. For people immersed in the academy, everything seems vibrant and meaningful. We treasure our genealogies, curate our legacies, speak of our trivial competitions as if we were conquering the world. It is an intense love-hate relationship, an attachment that both drains and sustains us emotionally. Petty arguments prevail, and chance comments generate excessive, over-emotional reactions. And the substance of the arguments just repeats, over and over and over again.

One big difference it that academia and families have different entrance requirements. We are not born into academia nor do we get swept in on a romantic wave leading to marriage. Instead, we undergo a long, painful & selective ritual of PhD, job search and tenure. And once we are in, nothing engages or time and interest than more than the selection of new initiates. It is a long and interminable process of continual self-reproduction. It generates enormous anxiety, bitterness and fear of rejection. With relatively easy barriers against exit (as compared to the family), one would think that defection would be common. But academics rarely cut ties of their own volition. As with family, such a break is almost inconceivable. It would mean failure, emotional castration, rootlessness, the pointless rejection of all that is valuable, the void.

Like family, academia carves out a tiny section of society and makes it seem like a universe, imprints itself on our personalities, provides material security and familiarity, shapes our social ambitions and fundamental sense of reward and failure. Most institutions probably do much the same–and some, like the army, a monastery, Google or a sports team are probably even more effective than the academy. But unlike them, we academics claim to be individualists, following truth (or our hearts, or love of the subject, or whatever), hostile to group-think, hierarchy and exploited conformity. But every time we insist on our intellectual freedom or speak truth to power, we’re just looking for approval from mom, jockeying for another big swig from the teat.

From the outside, on the other hand, the academy looks, well . . . . well, we don’t really know much about that. Everybody out there seems just a little bit wrong. We’re here to teach them. Anyways, we’re really busy. . . .


Posted on July 22, 2012, in Academic History and tagged , . Bookmark the permalink. 2 Comments.

  1. It was a very interesting moment during my freshman year when I realized how not independent I was in college. It was an even more interesting moment when I realized how excited I was that I was becoming intellectually similar to one of my academic idols, my English major advisor, and how happy I was to hear that she was so hard on me out of love. Almost like an intellectual mother…

  1. Pingback: Swigging the Koolaid « the unhistoricist


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