the economics of academia: an open question

This post is about language and about travel. And this is a post directed more toward my readers who have served time, as it were, in academia, either professionally or as a student.1 But, of course, it is certainly not limited to those folks. Whatever your background, feel free to chime in!

In the days of yore, when Buddhist Studies was just emerging as a distinct discipline in European and American higher education, it was more or less expected that if you wanted to do Buddhist studies work, you were going to have to learn the traditional Buddhist languages: Pali and Sanskrit. Probably some classical Chinese and maybe even Tibetan. Serious east-Asian scholars would need to learn Japanese as well and to the extent that 99.9% of academics back in the day were well-educated white men with a classical education, they were no doubt coming to their fields having learned Latin and French and/or German in secondary school or college. Polyglots ruled the school.

To this day, there remains a certain breed of scholar who believes that real Buddhist Studies work requires language study. Real Buddhism is to be found in the texts, in the words of the Buddha, and to read those texts you need to know the language. And these folks will be quick to tell you what a travesty it is that the number of mono-linguists seems to be outpacing the number of polyglots.

I’ll leave aside the question of whether or not having this sort of classical, multi-lingual education is a good thing or a bad thing; I’ll also leave aside the question of whether or not “real” Buddhist Studies should be based on textual studies. I’ll leave those issues aside and point out that as prevalent as the notion that one should know all the classical languages is, so too is the notion that one must go to Asia in order to study “real” Buddhism. The question, “Have you been to Asia?” has been posed to me more times than I can count, and the assumption seems to be that traveling to the places where Buddhist was historically practiced is more valid, a better use of one’s time, than studying the various forms of Buddhism outside Asia.

I’ll leave the question of whether or not travel is necessary aside, too, because I want to get to my real point. My real point is this: the Buddhist in me knows that things don’t just happen, that events have causes and conditions and that the declining number of American-born Buddhist scholars2 who can speak six languages and have spent more time abroad than at home has to have a reason. And I wonder if it isn’t at all related to economics.

This post is an open question. The fact of the matter is that I did not get my doctorate from a traditional, secular American university, nor do I currently work for a traditional, secular American university.3 So my knowledge of the inner workings of university Religious and Buddhist Studies departments is, necessarily, hearsay. It is culled from conversations with friends and colleagues at conferences and over coffee (or sometimes stronger drinks than coffee!) but not from any first-hand experience.

Nevertheless, it seems to me that the ability to become a polyglot, that the means to fly off to Asia at the drop of a hat, are not things that we are just born with. Unless of course your parents happen to be polyglots or happen to be, as the saying goes, of considerable means.

Earlier I mentioned that in the days of yore, Buddhist Studies scholars came to their field with a “classical education.” This points squarely at the elephant the room of America’s cultural discourse: socio-economic class. Now, I am using the term socio-economic class much in the same way that I would use the term “ethnicity,” that is, as a marker of one’s cultural background, the reality of one’s cultural experience, and how that experience effects one’s growth and development as a child, one’s set of choices in that murky transition from childhood to adulthood, that complex of identity markers that help one negotiate the world around us.

Those of a higher socio-economic class are more likely to come to Buddhist Studies armed with a “classical education.” At the very least, they are more likely to have gone to good schools, gotten a good education, and are therefore more likely to have learned some of the skills necessary to succeed in graduate school, language skills being the least of them. Having come from a family of wealth means that they are more likely to have parents who own their home which will serve as a convenient base to which they can return when they are done spending a year in Nepal or are transitioning onto the job market. Someone from a lower socio-economic class, on the other hand, may not have gotten the same level of education and is more likely to have to work their way through school, may need to desperately cling to a rent-contolled apartment, may be an older student returning to the field after a time in the working world, and unfamiliar with the subtle and implied cultural rules of the current academic culture.

Taking a cue from my own experience — and acknowledging that my own experience is not proof of anything, that it is merely anecdotal — I fumbled my way through a State school before graduate work. Going to a state school with a student population of 30,000 means that you can slip through the cracks pretty easily and remain rudderless. Don’t get me wrong. I got a fine education. But it certainly wasn’t an education that prepared me for graduate school. For example, all the Japanese I learned in college I promptly forgot upon graduation and had to struggle my first four years of graduate school to make up language skills many of my peers came into the program with from day one.

Similar things could be said of travel. Now, I wasn’t particularly interested in traveling to Asia in the first place because I was more interested in American Buddhisms (and sociology, for that matter, which required doing fieldwork here, not there). I could have justified, easily, a year in Japan to do cross-cultural, comparative fieldwork. But even if I had been able to secure a scholarship or other funding to do that traveling, there still would have been financial costs involved, not the least of which would have been loosing the part time job that was helping me to pay for school in the first place.

There is an open question in all of this. I am not writing this as a way to simply jump on my soap box and scream plaintively at my colleagues — rise up and smash the systems of economic imperialism! (And I am also certainly note suggesting that we should condemn or judge harshly the privileges some folks have as an accident of birth and then exact our revenge.) I am asking an open question in all sincerity. In your experiences, in your departments, have you witnessed similar trends? Have you seen departments, faced with difficult economic decisions, cut back on funding for languages or travel grants that would have a negative effect on students? Do you believe there is a connection here between the politics of socio-economic class difference and the way Buddhist Studies, as a discipline, goes about its business?

Now, I’ll tell you one argument that I will flat-out reject from the outset. That is, if people want to travel, if people want to become polyglots, there’s money out there, there’s scholarships available, and all you need to do is work hard to get them. I reject that argument. The Horatio Alger mentality of expecting people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps with a little pluck and vinegar is outdated and downright condescending. It looks into the face of actual systems of discrimination, actual and sometimes insurmountable obstacles in the real world, and blithely says, “That’s not my problem.” And, quite frankly, it is our problem.

If we decide to be a discipline that expects its students to learn four dead languages and travel to four Buddhist countries before handing over that Ph.D., then certain economic realities and the class disparities they create — even and especially the ones they create well before anyone even applies to the program — are very much our problem. The incoming crop of graduate students are not coming in culturally neutral; they are coming into our programs embedded in larger economic systems replete with educational disparities based on a host of issues, socio-economic class being one among many.

But, like I said, this is an open question. I am willing to be wrong about the effects of socio-economic class on the academic study of Buddhism. Right now, I’m simply raising the question, opening the door for conversation.


  1. I mentioned a couple of days ago that I wanted to make sure my communities are open and respectful of dissident and historically marginalized voices. And that I consider academia to be one community to which I belong. You were warned. [ back ]
  2. I’ll leave aside the question of European scholars for the moment; my knowledge of what’s happening on the ground across the pond is not sufficient to draw any conclusions. [ back ]
  3. By now it should be clear, more or less, what community I’m talking about. I am talking about secular Buddhist studies. Like I said, I got my degree from a less-than-traditional school, a place that emphasized the practice as well as the study of religion. This is a very different educational model than one would find at a Stanford or a Harvard where the objective is to study religion the way one would study anything, really; with detachment. One’s individual, personal or private practice of the religion is an afterthought, if it’s a thought at all. So, many of these comments may be irrelevant to newer institutions or programs that are self-consciously academic and Buddhist. [ back ]

7 thoughts on “the economics of academia: an open question

  1. I’m a refugee from academia, though my field wasn’t any sort of religious study.

    My own academic background was a mix of struggle and privilege. My family was squarely middle-class… until the recession of the early 90s, when things went downhill rapidly. My undergrad tuition was paid for, but I had to work for a living almost full-time to support myself throughout. Then to get into grad school I had to learn a second language. I worked 9-5, then put on a wig and went to my second, night job (cocktail waitressing in a strip club) and after a season of nonstop work, I saved up enough money to go to a foreign country and do an intensive 8-hours a day language study program, and that got me into grad school. I did well during the first part of grad school, but left at the ABD stage due to financial and emotional pressure.

    Ultimately, I think that language requirements are important, and are necessary. But these requirements happen to be enforced in such a way that they do encourage a sort of unattached “gentleman scholar” type at the expense of all others. One depressing aspect is the amount of women who are in PHd programs delaying childbirth. I knew many women in grad school who wanted to have kids, and were nervous about postponing it so much and risking fertility issues as they got older… but we just could not afford to have children, either financially or academically.

    When you force academics into such a nun/monk-like existence, it increases the bonding they have with each other, creating fierce loyalties, but it decreases their bonds with the communities they come from. For actual monks/nuns, there are mechanisms in place to maintain community links. With academia, there aren’t any such traditions. I think that’s one thing that needs to change drastically.

  2. I will freely admit that much of the reason that I dropped out was economic. Part of my decision making process was to realize that I currently have a Silicon Valley engineering job that is extremely lucrative and that I was going to mostly bankrupt myself to *maybe* get an academic job (but probably not within Buddhist Studies as such since I don’t have four languages) that paid half or less of my current wage and might very well require me to move to the middle of Iowa or whatnot.

    My desire to be a Buddhist and to write or work on what I wanted but to not bankrupt myself outweighed my desire to get the letters ‘PhD’ after my name (and the wonderful classes associated with it).

    I think that the way things are set up is definitely geared towards single and younger individuals with no family who can drop their entire lives to work on the PhD for seven years and travel the world on a shoestring. This is obviously even easier if one is upper class or has a lot of money to throw around without a lot of responsibilities. If I would have started my work when 22 and single, with at least one language already learned, it would have been very different than doing it at 38 with a wife, a child, a mortgage, and an unwillingness to turn my life upside down (and those of the people dependent on me) in order to do the work.

    It certainly can be done at any age but I decided, economically and otherwise, that it wasn’t worth it to me so I’ve gone back to engineering.

  3. Really good questions, really good post. I am not an academician, but I have known a few people who for a variety of reasons abruptly ended their efforts, one in particular in totality.

    In his case, he was a brilliant classical musician with a Phd, but who was seeking tenure at a state university. He also had a significant underlying emotional problem and struggled with depression because of a destructive relationship with his father, who never accepted this man’s homosexuality. He failed to get tenure in part because he wasn’t publishing enough. He took it quite hard. He quit the university, told all of us he was moving to another state, when in fact he went to an abandoned warehouse where he poured gasoline all over himself and self-immolated.

    Maybe I’m stating the obvious, but as an outsider, I don’t consider academia as an educational system or construct; rather, it’s a political system. And as such, when certain individuals find themselves in positions of authority, they can guide a university’s or a department’s direction to serve his or her own delusive appetite for control.

    Also, there is the issue of inertia. The world of academia was constructed by wealthy, privileged white men, and whether consciously or not, it was built to preserve their authority. While deliberate at first, this mentality, I believe, has been built unconsciously into the system so that it functions this way on its own. Changing such a hegemony and institutionalized ethic is, perhaps, nigh impossible. And this may have been the reason why my brother-in-law abandoned his efforts to attain his Phd back in the 1970s.

    For what it’s worth, and granted, I realize that it probably isn’t worth much.

  4. Holy cow! It’s a PhD dropout convention! I am also a refugee from the doctoral track, and I left for many of the reasons that atlasien and Al Billings already mentioned. (Thank you for sharing!) I arrived at academia with several languages already on my CV, so it wasn’t an issue for me even though it wasn’t required for my line of research. In the context of a country that treats multilingualism as an option rather than an obligation or even a necessity, the requirement for learning “Asian” for Buddhist studies certainly does put many students at a disadvantage. But I certainly believe, especially from my personal experience, that monolingualism can be particularly problematic in the study of a cross-cultural (and epoch-spanning) tradition, such as Buddhism. It requires the researcher to put a great deal of faith in others’ interpretations of what goes on behind the linguistic wall (or, heavens forbid, ignore the wall altogether!). It’s an interesting dilemma. One thing I must note: I have always viewed monolingualism as a sort of privilege; it’s the privilege to not have to not have to learn another language, but where other people are obliged to learn your language. I still like the point you’re making here. I think you’re onto something.

  5. PhD dropouts are all over! I read recently that the average time to completion for a PhD in the humanities is ELEVEN YEARS. I dropped out around year five/six. I don’t regret what I learned, but it was still a grueling experience.

    The story Richard told has got to be one of the worst. But my old roommate, who was in a related program, also had a complete mental breakdown. His other roommate and I had to take him to the psychiatric clinic in the middle of the night because he couldn’t remember his own name, couldn’t eat, and kept talking about the assassins that were coming to kill him. I lived with him for almost a year before that. He had no underlying problems we were aware of. He was a well-balanced, good-humored friendly guy who seemed to have a decent support network, including us, his roommates. He was just under insane pressure and had a difficult relationship with his advisor. After he stabilized under heavy medication, his family came to collect him from their country of origin in Latin America, and took him home.

    That experience affected me deeply, and contributed to my increasing lack of desire to keep living the academic lifestyle.

  6. Thank you all for your comments. I had no idea I had some disaffected academics reading this blog!

    It probably goes without saying, but I’ll say it anyway. I firmly believe that language study is important, both in a general way and especially for Buddhism, even for folks like me whose primary area of interest is in a predominately English-speaking milieu. You’re probably right, @ arunlikhati, that monologuism is a sort of privilege; at the very least, language skills are a privilege if you’re not a native speaker of the dominate culture’s language.

    On the other hand, I think you could argue the case that being multi-lingual is a sort of privilege, too, because acquiring those skills necessitates education and access to education is a privilege — unless of course you happen to grow up in a multi-lingual culture. But that’s another story.

    @ atlasien: thanks for your comments, too, about women postponing childbirth to finish a professional degree. I definitely know of women who have done just that in my own department, and I’ve heard horror stories of women being on the job market and told that they should really plan to have children during the summer. Ugh.

Comments are closed.