Academia good, industry bad

Updated: Nov 29

Still image from the tv show Breaking Bad. Jesse Pinkman, a young white man with a black beanie and multi-colored hoodie is sitting at the dining room table of a friend's house. He is singing a line from a song from his band: "Fallacies, fallacies" which is shown in yellow text at the bottom of the image.

For decades, professors in the social sciences and humanities have chastised graduates for working in the private sector, specifically in large, wealthy corporations. They basically view it as a binary choice between academia vs. corporate, good and bad, virtuous and evil, pure and impure, human and anti-human, good for the world and not.

It's 2022, and for a long time now, the majority of people with advanced degrees work outside of academia, and very few go on to be tenured scholars. And yet, there are still some professors, who play multiple roles of teacher, advisor, greater deity, and aspirational figure, who truly believe and preach that if you stay in academia to build disciplinary knowledge and educate others, you are a good person and steward of humanity. But if you go work at Facebook, you're a sellout whose virtue can be bought with money, a traitor to your discipline, and part of the capitalist machine that's destroying society and the environment.

These professors, with their heads in the ivory sand, believe that academia is somehow separate from capitalism, and better than purely capitalist institutions. And yes, theoretically I think it's better to have institutions that are learning-oriented rather than fundamentally centered on making money. Yet academia runs like a business, and has the same exploitative capitalist practices, with its high-paid administrators, underpaid educators, severely exploited adjuncts (i.e., wage slaves), requirements for tenure, do-more-with-less budgets, bureaucracy, hierarchies, racism, sexism, reliance on rich funders and sports brands, poverty vows, goals and success metrics, debt, etc.

It's common for students to internalize this unrealistic, unfair, and presumptuous dogma, which leads them to carry a burden of shame, guilt, and individualized responsibility. I know I did! I used to think about this all the time, from a place of intense self-critique and defense posture that I developed in grad school, as illustrated in this blog post from 10 years ago when a reader of my old blog called my decision to work in a corporation "contradictory" to my anti-capitalist, anthropological values.

But no, dear graduate, it is not your personal fault that Facebook is destroying democracy, or that Amazon makes its warehouse workers and delivery drivers piss in water bottles because they don't get enough breaks. I mean, if you're the one making these decisions directly, then yes, you're a garbage human and you can go eat a bag of dicks.

It wasn't until several years into my career, after coming out of anthropology training, that I truly realized that I was trying to live up to these fallacious expectations, and that as a single individual I am not responsible for capitalism, and I have to exist in it. This psychic burden caused me a lot of strife, but I eventually moved past it it after various lightbulb moments about how these systems function, and the intertwined role of individuals, communities, institutions, and policy. Even though my training in critical theory was wonderful, I wish I had been taught to think in a more nuanced way. The more I have accepted this over time, the more I have let go and reframed how I think about impact, the easier my life has been. And I can still be critical about unacceptable things, but accept that I alone cannot do much about it.

Now I try to focus on what I can control, and have found the most power in two things: being a coach who works with individuals on making their own changes, which radiates out into the world, and using my online platform to spread ideas and change things on the inside, from the outside. This is possible because I am not beholden to any employer for a job or money. There are also many ways to have an impact that have nothing to do with our jobs.

And I am appreciative of folks in the more practice-oriented wing of anthropology and other disciplines, who have been doing the very hard work of trying to shift perspectives and practices, so that more students are job-ready after they graduate and have a more realistic view of what is possible with the tools and training they bring with them.

Academics are really good at critiquing the system, and we need this. But they forget that people have to live inside of it, and hopefully somewhat thrive in it. Most people are not responsible for the world's ills. And it's not selfish to want a good life, or to make six figures, even though the world is sick and dying all around us. Also, it's hard to get good paying academic jobs in non-toxic environments, otherwise more people would stay there. Just ask my numerous PhD clients about their experiences and it's clear why they've abandoned ship.

I hate that capitalism and neoliberalism have wrecked academia as a learning institution. But we have to be real with ourselves with what's possible, and limit our judgement of other people's innocuous choices. If we find ourselves judging, we must turn the lens inward and ask whether our idealized view of the world makes us less open-minded.


This idea was originally posted on LinkedIn in early 2022. Click through to see the conversation!