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Debt And The Intellectual Life: A Host Of Unintended Consequences

April 13, 2007

An article from last week’s Chronicle of Higher Education, addressing monetary debt and the newest generation of black scholars, has forced me into thinking more deeply about the deleterious effects of debt in the academy.[1] And that piece reached me after already posting here, earlier this week, on the loan burdens of undergraduates. Combined with yesterday’s topic of preferred lender scandals, it seems to be my happy lot this week to explore the always pleasant topic of educational debt!

After pondering over my situation, as well as the circumstances of my indebted colleagues, I realized that the range of debt’s effects on one’s intellectual life is astounding. The consequences of substantial debt are definitely not limited to questions of subsistence. Debt causes both material and immaterial problems, both known and unintended, that move far beyond the factors of food, shelter, and clothing. Debt changes one’s educational experience from the beginning, and continues to color one’s intellectual development long thereafter.

Of course one’s experience with debt varies according to subjective factors such as psychology, amount of indebtedness, experience with debt, family background, spouse’s career, etc. All of these variables can either mitigate or amplify debt’s effects. To that end, I concede that my experiences in academy, with the humanities in graduate school and with the sciences as an undergraduate, certainly animate some of my feelings about funding and debt. Coming from a “family of less means” also factors into my thinking.

But even with those larger and personal variables under control, I believe that debt universally affects a whole host of one’s scholarly decisions. This happens both consciously and unconsciously in areas such as reading, writing, revision, topics studied, restlessness, competitiveness, conference attendance, teaching commitments, job searching, childbearing, field politics, and so on.

How do these effects work in practice? In each of the paragraphs that follow I’ll attempt to elaborate on the areas just listed.

Debt affects the fundamental act of reading, by both the debtor student and scholar, due to efficiency. Because of the need to balance a hectic schedule, the debtor scholar finds him or herself impatiently analyzing a text for defects, its thesis, and strengths, rather than absorbing a work’s full aesthetic effect. In non-fiction reading, you might also neglect a full exploration of a book’s notes (an especially acute problem for historians). If reading quality can be imagined as existing on a 5 point scale, with 5 being the best, most of your pressurized academic reading hovers around a 3. And of course I’ve completely neglected the loss of joy caused by the haste one must employ to keep up – or make up ground. This loss is especially depressing when books comprise a vast majority of one’s intellectual life. The need for speed eats away at what – for many – is the core reason for seeking an academic career.

Writing is affected by debt in two ways. Both ways can apply to either debtor students or scholars. First, there is a great deal – even massive amounts – of pressure to reduce revision stages. Everyone knows that the best writing comes from a text that is rewritten numerous times. The final product might only contain 50 percent of the original text. This clearly doesn’t happen today, either with undergraduates or even graduate students. Poor writing makes for bad grades and unhappy instructors. In the end, the diminishment of effort in writing affects all scholarly activity within the academy.

Debt also changes one’s writing in terms of topics. As a historian, rather than choose a topic because of its intrinsic value, you might default to a topic where the archival papers are easy to reach. Debt might cause you to cut corners, to skip steps to stay within a monetary and time budget. I fought this urge continuously while working on my dissertation. In fact, I think I sacrificed my writing quality (see above) in order to not take research shortcuts. Continued debt after one’s graduate program, however, will extend these pressures far into one’s professional life. And I’m sure these choices extend far beyond the history profession.

While in graduate school, debt affects your confidence in choosing topics, both for class papers or larger projects such as one’s dissertation. You’re less apt to take chances with faculty in terms of the time needed to work things out. The debtor student will excessively tailor his or her topic to fit within the political, social, and religious interests (and lack of interest) of the professors on hand. Of course this happens even with those unconcerned with debt, but the debtor student will intensely seek to make things streamlined. Concern for gaining the credential will turn even the most politically radical student conservative.

Again, these effects will extend into one’s professional life. The debtor scholar may feel inclined to pursue studies that he or she is most sure will be published, no matter the intellectual merit of other topics. Publications, of course, are valued because they are the most valuable cv lines for tenure (or even a tenure-track job). Pressure to publish is already obscene due to the aspirations of higher education institutions, so debt only adds to one’s anguish.

Debt clearly lessens one’s ability and inclination to attend conferences. This applies to both students and professionals. Academic conferences are ultimately leisurely affairs, consisting of a lot of glad-handing and hobnobbing. The quality of papers and their presentations are often poor, in part because few seem to attend panels for serious, in-depth intellectual engagement. That kind of activity happens at the socials and taverns later, not during the conference. Conferences also require travel (often by air), hotel stays, and the aforementioned drink(s) on the town. These are luxuries that debtor students and in-debt professionals can hardly afford. Because of this, debt affects one’s perceived collegiality. An in-debt professional may be great in person, but rarely able to display his or her positive traits at conferences. Monetary concerns hamper one’s ability to network.

A kind of needless busyness or restlessness is fostered by debt. One is forced into what the famous basketball coach John Wooden called (paraphrased here) ‘confusing activity with achievement.’ Debt makes one think about the length of his or her curriculum vitae more than quality of activity. Debt forces one into thinking “How will this add to my cv?” rather than reflecting on “How does this matter intellectually?” This crass kind of calculating affects both the debtor student applying for a new job, and the debtor scholar that’s thinking of relocation.

Debt creates a super sharp competitive edge among debtor students and scholars. The academy becomes a playing field with tinge of petty nastiness rather than a place of learning. The ivory tower is without a doubt a competitive place, as much as any business or sports endeavor. But exhibitions of that competitiveness come off more unseemly in academia than in other venues. And beyond mere unattractiveness, competition undermines collegiality and gentility (still valued in practice if not in theory) in higher education. Debt, in my experience, makes one’s competitiveness palpable, undermining perceptions of a scholar’s intentions and work. Again, having to worry about your fellow student or scholar’s “position,” because of debt and aspirations, subtracts from the intellectual joys of the ivory tower.

There are ethical considerations of which debtor scholars must be more conscientious. Am I doing and saying this for monetary gain, or for the love of the topic? Vanity is an almost necessary part of any writer’s motivation (he or she wants to be read!), and is thus acceptable in small doses. But writing for money is seen in the academy as middlebrow or worse – no matter one’s needs.

In what can be categorized as the most obvious of detractions, debt encourages students and professionals to take on extra subsistence work that cuts into all forms of scholarly production. That work causes debtor students and scholars to take shortcuts (i.e. cheat or plagiarize) on papers to finish assignments or meet deadlines. Debtor graduate students and professionals are more likely to take on adjunct positions, a class of academic work structured such that it undermines academic freedom. That class of intellectual workers are underpaid, cheated of collegiality, have no tenure protection (less academic freedom), and miss the joys of research. In this way debt contributes not just to personal loss, but to an overall professional loss for individual disciplines.

The family life of student and scholar debtors is also structured by debt. Beyond the obvious needs of having children, debt incurred for one’s education forces delays in childbearing. For women this becomes unhealthy (due to pregnancy risks in one’s late thirties), but for men it has consequences as well. If debt delays beginning fatherhood until a man’s late thirties or early forties, that means that each subsequent child may have an increasingly enfeebled father. How well will I be able to keep up with my offspring when I’m in my sixties?

Does all of this seem like sour grapes? I hope not. I concede that I actively chose the life of the mind. I was sold, and eagerly bought, a bill of goods about the power of education, a power that hopefully increased as one moved up the ladder of academia. I wanted to be a scholar, and pursued that end as a predator pursues wild game.

I will admit, however, that I had little warning about this brave new world of debtors that we’ve created in academia. Few senior scholars could’ve warned me about the crippling effects of educational debt because they, the Baby Boom generation, had little or no experience with it. I think the consequences of the current situation were ultimately unanticipated. With that, the lack of upfront information – unintended or otherwise – certainly negates any economic theory about opportunity costs. Who knew the full price, or potential debt, of undergraduate and graduate education when the current generation of scholars began their endeavors in the late 1980s and early 1990s?

What can be done? I don’t know for sure. For me the dye is mostly cast. But for the young, for those who have an interest and aptitude for the life of the mind, we must do all that we can to help with debt reduction.

In the final analysis, I believe that debt contributes to making a mockery of the intellectual life for students and professionals. The current situation amounts to a form of fraud. Debt stultifies the mind, across the board, perhaps more than political correctness.

Debt acts as a stealthy thief of one’s academic freedom, forcing one into a number of intellectually conservative decisions. It hamstrings one’s ability to live as a free agent, either as a student or later as a scholar, in the marketplace of ideas. It also forces intellectual and practical compromises, sometimes unethical, that might not otherwise be necessary.

Debtor students and professionals live in a kind of intellectual, indentured servitude; they must necessarily adhere to a sort of mind numbing, intellectual Taylorism. And the debtor scholar’s focus on efficiency stands in stark contrast to the time, the leisure, that allows for the free play of ideas. In my view, the whole of a nation’s intellectual life suffers as a result.

Feel free to continue to Part II. – TL


[1] John Gravois, “Trapped by Education,” Chronicle of Higher Education 53, No. 31 (April 6, 2007), A10. Thanks to Ralph Luker at Cliopatria for the tip on this.


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  1. Well, I have to say… I am even MORE depressed about my six-figure student loan debt now that I've read your post!! haha. Really, though, I think the key point is not debt itself, but how you choose to deal with it, which has more to do with an individual psychology of money than with a dollar figure. For example, I, personally, have no problem postponing my debt as long as possible (in the name of unemployment or underemployment), and then, once payments do begin, to paying the minimum payment and not stressing out over EVER paying the darn thing off. Now, if one were of the mindset that the goal is to take three jobs and make triple payments so you can pay it off as soon as possible, well, yes, then I might see how that person's intellectual life could be compromised.

    Another thought – I'm thinking that having children has had the more deleterious effect on my reading and writing and scholarship habits (i.e. skimming those books and avoiding those archive-intense projects) than debt has… a post on parenting and intellectual life, perhaps?? 😉


  2. I accept most of what you're saying here. But I wonder if the key point is really in your last paragraph:

    “Debtor students and professionals live in a kind of intellectual, indentured servitude; they must necessarily adhere to a sort of mind numbing, intellectual Taylorism.”

    Debt is just the symptom of this Taylorization. Taylor wrote that the ideal worker for his system was one that had house payments, a family, and other distractions to keep him docile (in addition to preferably being an immigrant and not too smart).

    Instead of owning homes we own our degrees, which we paid for with our debt. We work on our CVs much as a homeowner would trim the hedges and give the house an occasional new coat of paint. The article you're working on: think of it as a new dishwasher.


  3. Tiff: I'm sorry to be depressing. It didn't occur to me how disheartening the debt situation can be until I started thinking about the myriad of ways in can infiltrate our professional lives. . . . And your warning about children is duly noted!

    Toby: I certainly agree with Taylor that my debt, since it's not completely mindnumbing, just makes me docile (and tired) in the meantime. . . . And I just turned in a (hopefully) final draft of my dishwasher to “the” journal yesterday! The editor said this would be the final read. I sometimes just enjoy a ~decision~ in academia: it's a departure from the normal status quo of footdragging and sandbagging.

    – TL


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