The Truth About the Life of the Mind

[This piece is a followup to The Big Lie About the Life of the Mind.]

Being a professor, like any other job, has its pros and cons. You’d hope that one of the advantages would be that the job encourages a person to live a life of the mind. Otherwise what’s the point, right?  I was thinking about this and realized I didn’t know quite what “life of the mind” means. There’s no accepted definition that I’m aware of. Should I be reading a book every day? Writing a book every six months? Spending my evenings debating philosophy in coffee houses? Meditating?

Eventually I decided that while I’ve never written a book and don’t debate philosophy much, I live a fairly mindful life:

  • I spend a good number of hours per week just thinking. Probably not 10 hours, but definitely at least five, mostly while hiking on easy trails near my house. (Coherent thought at home, where the three and five year olds live, is challenging. I’ve long since given up trying to think at the office.)
  • I spend a good amount of time, again probably five hours in a typical week, reading things that I want to read. Here I’m talking about reading material that relates to being a researcher, but that I’m not forced to read in order to do my job. Generally I’m in the middle or one or two books and three or four papers.
  • My main job is doing research and most parts of the research process including planning it, doing it, and writing about it, require hard thinking.
  • My other main job is teaching. Some teaching time, maybe 5-10%, counts as good thinking time: How to make this concept clear? What kind of example best suits this audience?

On the other hand, let’s be realistic: I spend a ton of time in meetings, managing people, dealing with department politics, writing boring parts of grant proposals and papers, writing reports for funding agencies, solving (and ducking) budget problems, helping students learn to present and write, reviewing papers and proposals that are of marginal interest to me, grading exams, giving lectures I’ve given many times before, and traveling. There is no doubt that in terms of hours, these kinds of activities dominate my work life. I don’t despise any of them, but it would be hard to say they are indicative of a life of the mind.

My view has been that in the long run, being a professor makes no sense unless the job supports, to a substantial extent, a life of the mind. Clearly one can succeed perfectly well without this life, for example by mechanically cranking out papers and proposals, being a good administrator, teaching by rote, etc. Certainly there exist professors who operate this way. I’m not trying to be nasty — just observing that if they do live a life of the mind, this fact is not externally apparent.

An important thing I learned during my years as an assistant professor is that the job is not really structured to provide a life of the mind. Rather, it is structured — in the ideal case — to give a fledgling academic a reasonable chance to learn how to teach and to develop a full-blown research program including students, grants, and lots of papers.

To live a life of the mind, one has to carve out time. I’m sure that some people accomplish this through good time management. On the other hand, one can — as I do — simply carve out the time regardless of the consequences. For an assistant professor this would increase the risk of not getting tenure. This is unavoidable, unless you instead carve the time out of family life or sleep. For a tenured professor, the consequence is doing a slightly worse job at service, teaching, and short-term research.  In both cases, it’s a tradeoff, you have to just go ahead and make it under the assumption that the long-run payoff in terms of career happiness and productivity will be worth it.

But why would a person want to live a life of the mind in the first place? It’s not obviously an inherently desirable thing. Rather, I feel like most of my role models have been hard thinkers: they either wrote books that expanded my mind or told me things that I didn’t know and wouldn’t have ever thought of. I came to admire the kind of person who produced these thoughts, and somehow this feeling led me down the academic track. This is actually the best explanation I can give of why I’m a professor. Even three years before I took the job, I had no intention whatsoever of becoming an academic.

It should go without saying that there are probably much easier and less stressful ways to have a life of the mind than becoming a professor. For example, a person could get a degree in a practical, high-demand field such as nursing or plumbing or programming, become very good at it in order to be mobile and command a good salary, but work no more than 40 hours per week. There are 80 remaining non-sleep hours per week for reading and writing books, producing art, discussing philosophy, or anything else that seems appropriate.