When Bad Things Happen to Good Academics

I wonder sometimes what makes people go bad. There doesn’t seem to be any logic to it. James Gilligan, a forensic psychiatrist who has worked with serial killers, writes that nearly all of them have been abused as children. That makes sense to me. I’m inclined to think that people are like other animals, that if they get what they need when they’re young, they grow up to be well- adjusted members of their species. We know how to make an animal, a dog for example, vicious: simply mistreat it. My understanding is that that works on pretty much any animal. If it gets what it needs when it’s young, it will turn out to be a fine adult. If it doesn’t it won’t, it’s that simple.

I like this view, not simply because it’s humane, but also because it’s optimistic. It gives us a formula for wiping out cruelty and intolerance. We just need to work to ensure that people get what they need. We need to make sure that parents don’t have so many financial worries that they cannot be sufficiently attentive to their children, or worse, that they end up taking out their stress on their children. We need to make sure that every person, every job, is accorded respect, that people are treated with dignity, etc., etc., and eventually cruelty and inhumanity will become things of the past. That’s a tall order, of course, and perhaps it’s idealistic, but it’s something to aim at anyway. There was a time when people said things such as poverty and hunger could never be wiped out. But we’ve made great strides in eliminating them, and have even eliminated them completely in parts of the world. It’s widely believed now to be a question of will, not of practical possibility. If we want to eliminate poverty and hunger, we can.

I like to think that the same thing is true with cravenness and cruelty (meaning that it can be wiped out if we have the will to do so) and generally, I do believe it. But sometimes I’m confronted with examples of what seems to be completely gratuitous and inexplicable viciousness from people whose lives to all outward appearances anyway, would seem to be pretty cushy, people who give no evidence (no other evidence anyway) of having been abused as children. The mystery of why some people go bad gives me a certain sympathy with John Calvin, and others who believe in predestination, or the view that some people are just inherently bad. I don’t really believe that, but in my weaker moments, I wonder if it might not be true.

There are just so many variables. Is it not enough to have loving and attentive parents? Can having been picked last for a team in gym class cause a wound that festers for years leading finally to generalized suspicion and paranoia as an adult? Can one slight on the playground explain a vicious and unprovoked attack on a colleague years later?

My mother once said that in her experience, religion made good people better and bad people worse. (Both her parents were ministers in the Assemblies of God church.) The same thing, sadly, seems to be true of academia. I don’t believe there is a better life than that of a tenured academic. Hardly ever in human experience are the stars aligned so perfectly as they are in the lives of tenured academics. Teaching of any sort is fulfilling but most teaching doesn’t come with the job security and other material benefits routinely accorded to the tenured academic. To be paid to teach, not to mention to read, and write, well, it’s like winning the lottery.

I had some wonderful teachers when I was in college. This led me to believe that teachers were, in general, not simply wiser and more learned than the average person, but also kinder, more considerate, more understanding and tolerant. This made sense to me because they had what appeared to be wonderful jobs. How could anyone not be happy with such a life, I asked myself, and how could anyone who was happy fail to be anything but nice?

Since then, however, I have learned that two kinds of people enter academia: (1) well adjusted people, people who are basically kind and decent, sympathetic and empathetic, people who love to read and sometimes (though not always) also to write, people who like people in general and like to think that in their own small way they are doing something to better the human condition, and (2) maladjusted people who like to use their learning as a club with which they can intimidate others, people who suffer from varying degrees of paranoia, people possessed of a messianic zeal to single-handedly save humanity from what in their fevered imaginations they believe to be the ravages inflicted on it by the forces of evil they take to be embodied in the form of despised colleagues, people who spend more time plotting to undermine and even publicly humiliate these colleagues than they spend on teaching.

There is almost no way to check the damage the latter sort of academic can cause once he or she becomes tenured. They sit plotting and poisoning the air in their departments until they retire, and they do not generally retire until very late in life because they thrive on conflict, a kind of conflict that it is hard to find outside a professional context. When, as sometimes happens, I’m confronted with the spectacle of the damage such people can do, the havoc they can wreak in an otherwise harmonious community of scholars, the pain they can cause to colleagues for whom they have conceived a pathological dislike, I have a certain sympathy with the anti-academic element in our vociferously anti-intellectual society. Academics are not really the plague that they are increasingly represented as being, but there is, lamentably, a sizable contingent that gives the rest of us a bad name.