The Ivory Tower is unquestionably the most pleasant microcosm in American society. Fortunately for its academic fauna, few of the other subspecies of Homo sapiens know it. And the reason for this widespread ignorance is not accidental. Like all privileged guilds, academics restrict entry into their group and wrap themselves in shrouds of protective secrecy. The first and the most important line of defense against the massive intrusion of outsiders is a set of elaborate and highly successful myths about the nature of academic life. Briefly, there are three principal myths:
1) An academic career requires superior ability.
2) The rewards, especially the material rewards, of academic life are meager.
3) Academic life is dull.
The first myth does not stand scrutiny. The distribution of academic talent, as in all professions, follows a normal curve—i.e., most professors are mediocre, a few are incompetent, and a few are intellectually superior. It is highly questionable that college professors have greater average ability than physicians, lawyers, watchmakers, plumbers, secretaries, or perhaps even army officers. Mediocrity should be no deterrent to a university career because, combined with lengthy and semi-esoteric training, it ensures a sufficient level of competence to pass for erudition and profundity of thought.
Since college professors are scrutinized mostly by undergraduates (themselves a mediocre group and one which does not have the additional benefit of esoteric training), they have little to fear, except perhaps at a few selective places like Harvard or Princeton where students are often brighter than the staff. Generally, however, students cannot tell the difference between pedantry and scholarship, between glib facility and profound insight. Indeed, neither can most academics. Consequently, the myth of college professors as a formidable brain trust of eggheads is secure. The great mass of college graduates, who, more than anything else, fear being made fools of, shrink from the audacity of even contemplating an incursion into the august groves of academe after getting their sheepskins and having their photographs taken in silly flat-topped hats.
It may be argued that professors are recruited from the best students, and hence that professors are a select group. However, since professors themselves do the selection, and since school grades at any level show a perverse lack of correlation with anything else except other school grades, the validity of this argument is highly questionable. At best, it can be argued that those students with a gift for mental mimicry become professors.
The second myth—that an academic career condemns one to a life of quasi-monastic material penury—is the most ingenious of the three. In American society, where the pecuniary criterion of excellence is so important, this myth is a powerful deterrent. As many myths, this one originated in fact. In Medieval Europe, in Imperial China, and in other preindustrial societies, scholars were often reduced to the status of respectably indolent mendicants. Even in 19th century Europe and America, scholarship was not a self-supporting way of life. It was still a luxury for gentlemen with both leisure and means to invest in the pursuit of a seat in the academy, a chair at a top university, or some other mark of prestige, all the more valuable for not being directly purchasable like a title of nobility, a commission in the army, or a diplomatic post.
Today, however, professors need not have inherited wealth or live in garrets. They earn as good a living as other professionals with similar amounts of training, if one considers the numerous fringe benefits and the four months of annual vacation. The president of Harvard earns only a fraction of what his counterpart at General Motors does, but at that level, differences in income are almost purely symbolic. The successful professor at a major university can easily earn $25,000 to $30,000 [Editor’s Note: $150,000 to $184,000, in 2015]—some three times the national average. His professional income includes, besides his regular salary, consulting and lecturing fees, book and article royalties, extra salary for summer teaching or research, not to mention opportunities for free trips to exotic places, scholarships for his children, and numerous tax deductions for professional expenses. Even the young assistant professor is hardly impecunious with a starting salary of $10,000 to $12,000 [Editor’s Note: $61,000 to $74,000, in 2015]. In fact, he roughly begins life at the national average, with good prospects of doubling his income in a decade or less.
University professors earn less than physicians, but then they do not have to work as hard or as long for their money. No other profession gives one so much security and material comfort to do what one likes at one’s own pace and in nearly complete independence. As to security of tenure, it is nearly unparalleled in any other job. Academia combines the security of a large and affluent bureaucracy with the independence of “free” entrepreneurship. It is the surest road to a life of comfortable indolence if one feels so inclined, and of serene dedication to one’s harmless manias if one chooses to “work.”
How then, one may ask, does the myth of the indigent professor survive? The answer lies largely in the behavior of professors who, unlike most of their fellow citizens, compete with each other in inconspicuous consumption. Through a peculiar kind of reverse snobbery, the display of wealth is held by most professors to be a vulgar expression of material mass culture, a trap of the advertising industry and the “consumer society.” They leave the flashy Chryslers and Cadillacs to low-brow prizefighters and real estate agents, and sport dusty Volkswagens or Volvos, or at least motorcars which do not look flashy and expensive. They would not dream of buying their wives mink stoles; they sneer at television (the “idiot box”), and if they have color sets they hide them in their bedrooms; they dress in drab, baggy clothes, cherish shoes with holes in the soles, and visit the barber at most once a month. Thus the careful affectation of a seedy look gets mistaken by the layman for financial need.
The luxuries of professors have relatively low visibility: private schools for their children, cultural trips to Europe (staying at inconspicuous hotels), theater and concert tickets, French wines, art books, record collections, recorder lessons, and other paraphernalia of the “high culture” of which academics regard themselves as the custodians. The affectation of poverty protects professors from the envy and competition of laymen, flatters their self-perception of superiority over the mass of uncouth philistines, and allows the more politically conscious among them the thrill of vicarious identification with the oppressed. They can have their cake, eat it, and yet pretend not to eat it.
The third protective myth concerns the alleged dullness of university life. Unlike the first two myths, the third one is perpetuated by laymen rather than academics. The stereotype of the professor as a dull, pedantic bookworm spending his life ruining his eyes in a dingy library or over a microscope, or boring his students in the classroom, is, of course, a caricature of reality. The professor is held to be a paragon of impracticality, removed from the “real” world of action. “Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach.” Although this stereotype is difficult to reconcile with the picture of the academic as a person of staggering intellect, the two views are often simultaneously held by the same laymen. Academics are disliked for their aloofness, ridiculed for their absent-mindedness, feared for their radicalism. The important thing is that to most red blooded American boys and girls, the red-minded professor is a fairly repulsive figure. Consequently, competition for the few born into the academic caste is not very keen.
The degree to which professors succeed in shielding the mass of their compatriots from knowledge about their way of life is little short of amazing. One might suppose that undergraduates after spending four years on a campus might catch a few glimpses of what kind of animals their teachers are, but in fact very few students see through the protective myths. Professors know a good deal about student culture, but the reciprocal is not true. Teachers and students live side by side in two groups separated by a symbolic one-way window such as sociologists and social psychologists devise for their small-group experiments. Professors can observe the students, but the students see only the faintest shadows behind the metallic glare of the glass. The two groups live in different worlds, have different interests and values, and interact only in the most ritualized circumstances. How teachers maintain these protective screens on the campus will be discussed in Chapter Six.
A few students, through the intimacy of the laboratory, the office, or the bedroom penetrate the screens and get to know their teachers as persons. By emulating the behavior, tastes, and idiosyncracies of their mentors, they catch their attention, and soon get recognized as “good” students and potential recruits to academia. However, they will still have to undergo a lengthy and tedious noviciate before they are finally admitted into the priesthood. They will have to undergo the hazing and rites of passage of graduate school, the second line of defense against lay intruders. How these lean years of apprenticeship can best be survived will be the subject of Chapter Three, but before turning to that important topic, an understanding of the prestige system of academia is essential.