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Wasn’t that an old Homer Simpson line or something, “it’s funny because it’s true?” Anyway–here’s something I found pretty funny, although some of the commenters don’t seem to get the joke. Actually, I think the author, Daniel J. Ennis, gets it right: the oversupply of Ph.D.s is due to the satisfactions of smugness:
I don’t spend much time on The Outside, but I meet nondocs in the grocery, and at church, and at unavoidable family gatherings, and I see them struggle to achieve the smug. So much alcohol, so much philandering, so much striving for promotion to V.P., attachment to sports teams and political parties, time lavished on soup kitchens and animal shelters, on raising kids and caring for the aged, so much windsurfing and cross-training … so many airy castles designed to prove that there are good lives to be lived without that ne plus ultra of credentials. We were acquainted with those people before we went to graduate school. As Bob Dylan (honorary doctorate, Princeton) put it, “All those people we used to know /they’re an illusion to me now.” The nondoc trades thousands of dollars and hours for an uncertain shot at self-satisfaction. The person with a Ph.D. has a lifetime supply.
. . . . . .
While there is nothing more miserable and annoying than a doctorate-in-training, once that little sucker breaks out of the cocoon she can beat her wings like the butterfly she was meant to be. In mixed company (i.e. groups of doctorates and nondocs) she can let slip “when I was working on my doctorate” and the room becomes hers. In mixed marriages (distasteful, perhaps, but sometimes useful to pay for life’s little necessities, like health insurance), the Ph.D. can be the ultimate weapon in a decades-long struggle for emotional dominance. Nobody argued with The Professor (Ph.D., Botany, UCLA) on Gilligan’s Island. All those marooned nondocs depended on his serene intelligence when the chips were down.
I’ll admit it–this partially explains my attraction to graduate school. I don’t come from a wealthy or prominent family, and I was the first person in my family to earn an advanced degree. I was just lucky to finish my Ph.D. 14 years ago, when there was a brief break in the clouds through which many of us of that generation ascended into tenure-track jobs.
Another reason Ennis’s article makes sense to me is that recently, I’ve been mulling over the problem of self-mortification among religious women in the early modern era. All of the literature suggests that the new, Reformation-era orders like the Ursulines, with their apostolic missions, were encouraged to leave behind the tradition of self-mortification that contemplative orders engaged in. And yet, there is evidence that it continued in European as well as New World convents from Mexico to Canada, and that Indian convert women adopt the same practices. (They weren’t just improvising with cedar branches–someone, after all, was supplying appliances like “iron girdles.”) I think Ennis’s approach to this problem is correct in that he asks what are people still getting out of a Ph.D. given that they can’t count on a job at the end of the line. So in exploring what mortification practices did for religious women, it’s useful to ask what value was there in inflicting pain and irritating open sores on their bodies? What did they get out of it?, not Why did they sacrifice their comfort and health? When we ask the first question, we open up the possibility for new answers.