Tag Archives: tenure

Grumpy Old Men (& Women): When Tenured Academics Lose Their Edge

And a Digression to Sir Winston Churchill

Roland’s latest post on Terry Eagleton (former socialist turned Christian left liberal) expressed some sentiments I have been contemplating lately, especially when it comes to theologians and a-theologians in the academy.  I see a pattern, and one can see it in the work of Karl Barth, for example, that when one is an outsider to the establishment, she tends to make “more noise” so to speak.  The critique of the culture seems so much more fundamental to a scholar struggling to survive than it is for one, who say, perhaps has just earned tenure. For some, it may ring true the words of Winston Churchill, which some Christians may take as gospel, “Show me a young conservative and I will show you someone with no heart.  Show me an old liberal and I will show you someone with no brains.” With all due respect, Churchill is of course wrong on both counts, or at least this quote cannot be taken universally.  In fact to be liberal is literally to be generous in Scripture, so one would think with Christian maturity at least on an individual, personal level, one would grow more liberal with age, sort of like evangelist Billy Graham.

Roland is right, about the tenure, process; that it is inherently conformist and pro-establishment. I know I am risking my words being used against me someday, and it is my hope they are.  Especially when it comes to academic guilds, some establishment professors, seeing the lack of space in a discipline may, for example, have calls for papers for one particular session only for the students to find out the session is really an advertisement, I mean, forum, for a book written by established, tenured scholars.

I think that when scholars are at their best and brightest, just right out of finishing their dissertations, setting the world on fire with a certain hostile, almost Manichean (absolute good/absolute evil) polemic versus the status quo, it is primarily because literally, their livelihoods are at stake. The desire to exist in a terra nova (the scholar’s dream becoming accomplished) may be perhaps the driving force for this early radicalism.  However, once settled in, complacency often sets in.

Like Roland, I can only hope this does not happen to me.