Love Literature? Stay Away From Grad School
Here’s an excerpt from a long, satisfying Quillette interview with Tony Tost, a successful screenwriter and producer who grew up hard, in a working-class family. That background informs his creative work. He sounds like a really interesting guy. This question from interviewer Clay Routledge, and Tost’s lengthy response, is really interesting:
QM: You have a PhD in English and worked in academia before becoming a screenwriter. Do you have any thoughts on the state of academia, particularly the state of the humanities?
TT: I probably have too many thoughts on the state of the humanities. If you deeply love art or books or music, I really believe the last thing you should do is pursue a graduate degree studying that thing you love. Right now, for a creative or artistic or even just a curious person, I think over-exposure to academia is intellectual and spiritual poison.
But I should qualify that disillusionment by saying that academia also saved me. If I hadn’t read Franz Kafka in community college and discovered (to my utter shock) that I had a gift for writing poetry in my first creative writing class, I have no idea what kind of bad roads I would’ve wandered down. So my disillusionment with academia was gradual and fairly late.
I can maybe explain if you’ll indulge a mini-narrative of my academic career. After community college, I went to a very conservative Christian college in the Missouri Ozarks. It was a school for working class kids where you worked on campus to pay for your tuition and room and board. So for most students it was our one realistic chance at a full college education without crushing debt. So, no matter how crazy the school’s politics got in our eyes, we felt like we were stuck there. But when I was a student, the college also had a great English faculty who turned us on to William Butler Yeats, Flannery O’Connor, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Emily Dickinson, Faulkner, Hemingway. There was also a healthy theater department. Little by little, my handful of weirdo artsy friends and I learned how to creatively thrive without institutional sanction or ideological kinship with our hyper-conservative college.
After my undergrad education, I went to the University of Arkansas’s MFA program in creative writing to study poetry. And that was pretty amazing in its own feral way. I connected with this great generation of old school Southern writers in Arkansas, though that generation began phasing out during my four years in the program. They started getting replaced by writers who were more slick, more credentialed, more politically astute, less problematic but also infinitely less interesting than the generation that preceded them. [Emphasis mine — RD]
But more important than the professors were the other MFA students in the program, who came from all over the country with wildly different backgrounds and were by and large as nuts about books and art as I was. I also fell in with the local music scene and played in a couple drunken sloppy rock bands and found that community to be perhaps even more artistically inspiring than the MFA crowd.
But still, at this point, all I wanted to do was be a creative writing professor and write poetry while teaching and discussing great books. But through a couple of life changes, I found myself living in North Carolina after finishing my MFA and I decided to pursue a Ph.D. at Duke in 2005. Here’s where things started turning in a different direction. And it’s hard for me to pin down whether it was a change in the times or a change in the kind of institution I was in.
This is an extreme example, but at my first department function at Duke after being accepted as a doctoral student, a prominent professor asked me where I went to undergrad. I told him Green River Community College and College of the Ozarks. He looked me up and down, then turned away and simply didn’t speak to me again my entire six years in the program. That wasn’t typical. But it did feel a bit symptomatic.
I didn’t interact with everyone in my program and I’m sure I have my own issues and blindspots, but compared to the largely working class artists and musicians and writers I’d been surrounded by up to then, very few Duke grad students seemed to be intoxicated by books or ideas or art. Many, however, seemed to be experts at positioning themselves within the newest intellectual trends. Many seemed like they’d been cultivating their academic careers since middle school and now were armed with impeccable credentials and tons of entitlement and very little imagination, creativity, or curiosity. None struck me as any more gifted than the brighter working class students at my prior schools. They just had better funding and better connections. In fact, I’m pretty sure the two Duke grad students who struck me as the most interesting minds in the department both happened to come from more blue collar, public school backgrounds. As far as I know, neither has yet to land a full-time academic job after getting their PhDs. Last I heard, one of them is an adjunct and the other is running a bar.
At its worst, this level of academia struck me as a bunch of privileged people ensuring their cultural status. I remember the head of the English department giving a talk about his new ambitious post-colonial literary theory, which was elegantly presented and name-checked all of the right theorists and fused cutting edge notions of the subaltern and post-human aesthetics, etc. And then at the end he asked us if we knew any books that would fit his theory. Apparently, he hadn’t found any yet. As someone for whom books and art have been a lifeline, I was astounded. The art itself simply didn’t matter.
But I want to be careful not to paint with a completely totalizing brush. I think there are plenty of adventurous teachers and thinkers housed in the humanities. And I had some great professors at Duke and was generally treated well in that I was largely left alone to pursue my own weird intellectual project. And I had a handful of generous, enthusiastic supporters. So I think my issues are less with Duke or that particular English department and more with this emerging academic generation, which to me seems to double-down on the older generation’s worst trait (ideological certainty) while skimping out on its greatest strengths (genuine erudition and intellectual curiosity). As an academic, I generally felt like as soon as the older professors retired, I was going to be surrounded by people who all read the same ten theorists and who uniformly had pretty banal tastes in literature and who were all frothing to cancel and leap-frog each other into eternity and/or tenure. [Emphasis mine — RD]
I’d gone into academia because when I was 18 I discovered that books and films and art understood me better than my family did and I wanted to maintain that spiritual intoxication for the rest of my life. By the time I was finishing my dissertation, academia had seemed to turn into some kind of perpetual primary to see who could be elected “least problematic” or something.
Ideology — left wing or right wing — is the death of art, of beauty, of wisdom, and of the curiosity that leads to these things. Leszek Kolakowski has this great line: “As Epicharmos said, everything precious is usually found at night.” Ideology turns the klieg lights on everything, so there is nowhere for precious things to cloak themselves in mystery and shadow.
Tost’s story about the interesting old writers being abandoned for lesser PC ones, I was reminded of a conversation I had at Cambridge University this past summer. I met someone there who told me that the entire university is about to undertake an initiative to consider how it can “decolonize the curriculum.” What does this mean in practice? If the decolonizers are successful, they will throw out, say, Descartes, Rousseau, and Kant and replace them with African philosophers of equal stature. Who don’t exist, because Africa has not had a 2,000-year-old formal philosophic tradition, but whatever.
If a great and old university like Cambridge casts aside the giants of Western Civ for the sake of political correctness, where will this knowledge be preserved for saner times? Serious question. You don’t have to be religious to embrace this part of the Benedict Option.