Apr 23, 2008 3:05 pm
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Over at the Atlantic, Megan McArdle writes about why academics seem to be unhappy all the time (further thoughts by VC’s Ilya Somin here). It’s true that we grumble to our colleagues about annoyances particular to our jobs, but I suspect everyone does that. But the deeper philosophical point is that it’s possible to be happy with one’s job and at the same time be unhappy about aspects of one’s job. For example, you might think we’re unhappy about the relatively low pay of academics. But I don’t think most academics are unhappy about being paid poorly relative to hedge-fun managers or thoracic surgeons. We consciously chose a profession generally known to produce a comfortable middle-to-upper-middle-class income, not one generally known for prodigious wealth generation. But we do get unhappy when we find we’re paid poorly relative to other academics. You see this phenomenon among faculty at non-elite institutions w.r.t. elite institutions, and among humanities/soc.sci. faculty w.r.t. those who have non-academic options (chemists, engineers, etc.). But feeling badly about that doesn’t mean one is unhappy with the job. Also, as some of Megan’s commenters noted, even if one loves to teach, one might be unhappy that the only or best available job has a 4/4 or 5/5 teaching load. Thirdly, you might love being an academic, but find that at this particular job, you are generally treated with contempt or indifference by administrators (I hasten to add that this is not a complaint I have about my present institution). Fourth, one might be annoyed by the general lack of respect for academics in the general culture, which, as far as I can tell, dates from the late 60s. Look at how academics are portrayed in popular culture prior to, say, 1967, and compare it to how we are portrayed thereafter. (For more on this, see here and here.) But make no mistake, most of us are, in general, happy about what we do for a living. I know I am. Ilya goes on to mention that there are really three things he’d give up academia for. I’d add beer-taster or wine-taster or the like to that list, but the basic idea is the same. Most academics like what they do, even if they grumble about institutional obstacles to peak performance, or sometimes feel underappreciated by society. I don’t know about you, but I love my work. See also: Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics 1178: the contemplative life is the happy life.
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