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According to the recent Slate article “trending” among academics on Facebook, we should resist the temptation of getting a PhD in literature. This for the reason that the job market for graduates is terrible. As a literature scholar who is quasi on the market myself, I have experienced enough of this, and I will no doubt experience much more. In response to this, another Slate article suggests that there are particular skills one gets from a Ph.D, even if one doesn’t get an academic job. But in my opinion, this response is in places a little one-sided; it kind of makes the lifestyle of the graduate student sound like that of a poor bohemian activist. You may not end up an academic for the rest of your life. But the skills you learn can be applied in a variety of professions. And you might as well enjoy “that brief, blissful time cultivating your Idea.” Or, as the article concludes, “The inefficient path has its joys and largesse.”

The interesting thing about both articles is that both seem to gauge the worth of a Doctorate by what it does for one’s self. They are in many ways self-focused, cost-benefit analyses, one concluding that the price is too steep, and the other concluding that, all things considered, the price is as reasonable as many other life choices. But here’s the question I have. What if you are not one of those students who thinks they are going to change the world? What if you are writing your dissertation knowing that there is a good chance that the most people will care about it is a few months before your defense, and that because it is part of their academic duty? What if what you say won’t change the world, even when all your peers are going around (allegedly) doing life altering things for {insert favorite special minority here}. What if it is fairly clear that you will probably not get a job in your field, and if you do you are lucky? And let’s raise the stakes. What if the work you are doing does not come easily? What if it is painstaking and mind-breaking, hardly the kind of romanticized flight of fancy that people imagine when they think of someone doing a degree in something as “useless” as literature. What if, to make matters worse, you have moderate levels of OCD and depression that complicate these things. The second article defending the PhD begins to look a little too romantic. And the other more pessimistic article begins to look like the only option – the only option, that is, if one factors out love.

By this I do not mean some sentimental attachment to things; and I am certainly not saying we need to study these things to save our country, or our generation, or Western civilization, or oppressed minorities, or whatever else wants saving. Some of these things are beyond saving; some have become not worth saving; and some should be left to the choices they have made, free will being what it is. In some cases, where saving needs to be done, it may not be our discipline or the academy entire that is the solution. I am not even here talking about self-love, unless in terms of the way that a Doctorate disabuses us of our pretensions about how much we matter. No, what I am talking about is that thing that at bottom that cannot be explained, the thing that draws us to care for certain things and people at the cost of great sacrifice over against the jeers and laughs of the rest of the world.

Of course, both of the articles I draw attention to are in some ways grounded in a kind of love. At their worst they may be grounded in selfish ambition, at their best, perhaps a love of humanity and progress, a sense that we can actually contribute something to the world around us, and that a Ph.D. may or may not further this. Neither author seems set against sacrifice – each just wants it to be pointed in the right direction. But neither explains the love. Neither explains why we feel the need to care for modern humanity, or progress, or success, or any of those things. They are cited as categorical goods, but I’m not sure what scale is being used to determine this.

Having said this, I am not in any way claiming that I will replace these unexplained assumptions with anything terribly clear. But knowing that they are unexplained assumptions does level the playing field a little. The modern person will make sacrifices and take pains to succeed in a system he or she does not know how to justify. And the doctoral student studying obscure works does something very similar. The real question, of course, is about the end and purpose of life, something we postmoderns are far too fashionably cynical to engage seriously. And for my money (or lack of it!), whatever the results, I guess that the reason I have done a Ph.D. is for love – not so much the “I feel in love with a poem and got all swoony” kind of love, but the John Donne “Batter my heart” kind of love, the love that costs. If my relationship with literature were a marriage of convenience, I would have walked away long ago.

At bottom it is very hard to explain. Why do I feel the need to love dead Old English people by listening carefully to them, trying to hear what they are saying and not what I want them to say? Why does it bother me when they are misrepresented and caricatured? Why have I been drawn to love a particular tract of the universe carved out by Anglo-Saxon sages and so unfashionable in an age that has lost its appreciation of wisdom? I know and I don’t know. There are myriad reasons, too many to count, in some ways. But there is also the mystery. This is something I have been given to do. No one promised that one would be able to justify the ways of one’s vocation.

Does this mean that I think that what I am doing will have no effect or implication for modern thought? Of course not. But it does give me a reason to keep going whether or not I see effects or implications. Some things that we think important will eventually be shown to be empty. And some things we think empty will eventually be shown to be important. And it is hard to tell at the moment which are which. Part of the problem is that I cannot make promises about how “revolutionary” my work will be. If I am doing proper research, I do not know how it will come out, and so I cannot say how it will affect the world.

Perhaps the best way to sum up how I feel about these things is to turn to J. R. R. Tolkien, a paradoxical figure because he had a degree as useless as mine and has probably done a good deal more for the modern world than most practically minded people. This, though, is not why I appeal to him, but rather because I like his model of love for little things that don’t matter. In his most popular work, Lord of the Rings, this is seen in Gandalf’s interest in Hobbits, the creatures so insignificant that they are generally not mentioned in the broader histories, and are certainly not the interest of those who care about things that matter, like Saruman. But Tolkien also explores such love in one of his lesser known but one of my favorite works, “Leaf by Niggle.” The story is basically about two neighbors who get on each other’s nerves and potter away at their respective interests; Parish like gardening, and Niggle, the main character, is a painter. The story is about how both characters end up in purgatory/heaven and learn to appreciate each other. Both of their earthly interests are seen to have been an anticipation and longing for a heavenly reality. But what I find most interesting is the fate of Niggle’s art at the end of the story. Though the love he shows in his painting is in fact good and perhaps even part of salvation, his painting is only mediocre, and its fate is to be destroyed except for a small piece that ends up as a misunderstood curiosity on a museum wall. His love mattered in a way that could not be gauged on this side of the world – much like the love one might put into the subject of one’s doctorate. I am not of course claiming that doing a Ph.D. is the only way to practice this kind of love, but it is one way, and a way that is simply not being acknowledged in the ongoing debates over the worth of higher education.

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