The Art of Dropping Out

Bill Vallicella has posted a short, humorous, fictional obituary of a failed academic (here), and this got me thinking–not for the first time–about academic failures, and about failure in general. Many years ago, I was listening to a president of this university as he made expansive remarks about the innumerable ways in which the institution “prepares our students for success.”  Even in that stage of my sunny youth, when the road of life gave no indication of descending into the bog of failure, his words struck me as shallow.  Success is certainly hard, and most often comes to those who are prepared; but failure is also hard, although in an entirely different way.  And because failure is hard, it is also something for which the wise prepare.

This is because every one of them will fail, sooner or later.  They will succeed, until they don’t, and then that will be hard.

The fictitious academic failure of Vallicella’s post was, obviously, academically successful, until he wasn’t.  As he was making his merry way through his schools and universities, collecting laurels and accolades, other students were failing on every side.  Those whose failure was out of sync with the academic schedule were branded as “dropouts,” and those who managed to fail at one of the designated dropout points were called “graduates.”  Of course, some small portion of these graduates moved to the next heat of the academic race by advancing to college, or graduate school, or an academic post—but most graduates “threw in the towel” and “closed their books” at one of the approved dropout points, and turn their mind to other things.

Vallicella’s failed academic is simply a late-stage dropout who has “thrown in the towel” and “closed his books” after advancing to the semi-finals of the academic race, which is to say to the rank of a tenured professor.  And like all dropouts, once he was eliminated, he turned his mind to other things (woodworking in Vallicella’s example).

Every one of us has dropped out of any number of races, and in most cases I believe this is entirely rational.   Men very seldom fail because they drop out of a race; they most often drop out because they correctly perceive that they are failing.  They see that they have almost no chance of further success, so that further time or effort will simply swirl “down the drain” to no purpose.  They therefore turn to other things.

Vallicella’s failed academic failed in the struggle to possess the prizes at the very top of the academic system.  These are pages in top-ranked journals, book contracts, grants, and the very best honors, titles, and positions.  I’d venture to say that he did not fail because he spent too much time on his woodworking, or with his family, or even on his teaching.  He decided to spend more time on woodworking, family matters, and teaching because he failed, which is to say because he had reached the limits of his ability.

That’s what failure is, after all.  Failure is what happens to a man when he reaches the limits of his ability, and since every man’s ability is limited, every man fails.

And when he does, it is best if he is prepared, since failing is hard.  Not hard to do, but hard to accept.  Why is this so?  Well, I suppose it is hard because every failure is a little death, and therefore has to it some of the odor of death itself.  Failure marks the terminus of some line of growth, some shoot of life, just as death marks the terminus of all natural growth and life.  This is why we should come to failure (as we must), as we should come to death (as we must), prepared by some sustaining philosophy.

We recognize that there is such a thing as a “good death,” which I take to mean death accepted graciously—without terror, rage, or bleak despair.  Shouldn’t there also be some notion of a “good failure”?  By “good failure” I mean the failure of a man who is good at failing.  I don’t, of course, mean that he is a “screw-up” or a bungler, but that he is a man who has mastered the art of dropping out.

The art of dropping out is, I’d suggest, a matter of dropping out without envy or despair.  The academic dropout who has succumbed to envy will spend his time tearing down the academics who are still in the race.  He will stand on the sidelines jeering that the race is rigged, or stupid.  Some of what he says may be true, but his saying so won’t change matters because no one listens to what he has to say (which is both the cause and consequence of his being a failure).  The academic dropout who has succumbed to despair allows his academic failure to overshadow his entire life, so that he seems in his own mind to be a failure at life.

Envy and despair are, of course, related; and both are common among academic failures.  They are related because envy is a desperate defense of the ego, and despair is an abject surrender of the ego.  They are common among academic failures because the ego of most academics has grown up in a long string of academic successes, and failure after a long string of successes is always hard.

You might say that the problem is not dropping out badly, but dropping out in the first place.  You might say that the failed academic should simply continue to write papers, and not be discouraged when these papers are rejected, obscurely published, or never cited.  For this is what happens to the output of academic failures who beaver away doggedly, perhaps sustaining themselves the fantasy that they are “ahead of their times” and will one day “be discovered.”

The academic dropout making bookshelves in his garage begins to look a lot better when we set him beside these other varieties of academic failures.  He is happy because he is enjoying success (growth, life) in some other line of activity, and he is honest because he knows that, so far as academics is concerned, he has reached his limit.  He is not consumed by envy of the academics who are still in the race, and he is not crippled by despair that his entire life has come to an end.  And he is not engaged in sustaining elaborate (and morbid) fantasies of his own intellectual importance.

None of this should be taken to justify an academic dropping out entirely, or as arguing that universities should continue to employ professors who have failed on every front.  But  absolute deadwood professors are, in fact, rather rare.

To close, I’d like to say a word in favor of discouragement.  Discouragement means, of course, loss of “heart” or failure of will.  It is true that I should not allow myself to be discouraged by minor setbacks, particularly when I am young; but discouragement is also part of what Freud called the “reality principle.”  More often than not, I grow discouraged when I perceive that I am approaching my limit, and that no amount of positive thinking or extra effort is going to carry me past that limit.  In fact, we all routinely “discourage” others from pursuing lines of activity in which we believe they are bound to fail.  What I have called the art of dropping out may be largely a matter of facing up to discouragement, of accepting its meaning without self-deception or despair.

28 thoughts on “The Art of Dropping Out

  1. Hmmm – There are successes by professional standards, and there are real successes; Nowadays (so far as I can tell, knowing plenty of the first – often from their early careers; and one or two of the latter – there aren’t many) there is no overlap between the two – except *maybe* in mathematics.

    • Obviously I agree. A large part of real success is directing ones efforts into worthwhile activities at which one actually succeeds. Persistence in pointless and fruitless activity must lead to deep alienation.

      Speaking of bizarre professional standards, an academic friend recently showed me a job application from his department in which the applicant claimed to have published more than 1,100 papers. And this on a topic I had not known existed. I recently ran into a former colleague who had moved to another university. While here, he was the most productive member of my department, but he was still keen to let me know that, since moving to the new institution, his productivity had really “taken off.” It’s very hard for a dropout like me to comment on these high achievers without it sounding like envy or “sour grapes,” but this does not seem sane.

      • In medical research I have come across a few who have their names on 100 papers a year – 2 a week. It is not easy, but is done by leading large teams, doing what is perceived to be higher than average quality research in fashionable fields, often heavily funded and using the latest equipment/ machines/ techniques – and many authors per paper.

        (Average rate of publications per author has not significantly changed in science – staying at about one paper per year – but the author list/ shared authorship has increased several-fold in some fields. So instead of publishing one solo paper per year, the average scientist might publish six X six-author papers per year.)

        Of course, scientific mega-productivity as such has nothing to do with science – more like project management!

        That’s the thing – most of the high status failures I know in science have long since given up trying to find out the truth about reality – they are ‘not even trying’ to do science (to use the title of my book on the subject) – yet of course such people utterly dominate and control research and crowd-out/ ignore/ exclude the (not very much) real science.

        High productivity does *often* (not always) go with genuine high ability – not as a goal but as a by-product of intense interest and hard work.

        But even in the case of excellent work, whether or not high productivity leads to prestigious publications, big funding, promotions, powerful positions and high status prizes depend on whether the field is corrupt.

        At present extreme corruption is the norm – so even being very productive of excellent work may lead nowhere, career wise.

      • In my department there has been an endless battle over how to weigh multi-author papers against single-author papers. As the multi-authors are now a substantial majority, the discount rate is dropped to nearly nothing. I’ve come to hate the whole business of rating and ranking.

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  3. “Never, ever ever ever ever give up.” — Winston Churchill (my high school printed this quote on all report cards one semester)

    “The juvenile sea squirt wanders through the sea searching for a suitable rock or hunk of coral to cling to and make its home for life. For this task, it has a rudimentary nervous system. When it finds its spot and takes root, it doesn’t need its brain anymore, so it eats it! It’s rather like getting tenure.” — Daniel C. Dennett

    • Never give up entirely. That is despair. But wise heads know when to stop beating themselves against brick walls. That’s a funny quote, coming from Dennett.

  4. Failure impacts people to different degrees. It seems to me how they were brought up has a lot to do with this. For some people failure can touch an emotional raw nerve which is so psychologically painful that they avoid situations where they can be potentially exposed to this type of pain. This is of course a dangerous place to be because it severely limits the opportunities for success in life.

  5. There’s another way of looking at failure, which is that failure is, itself, productive. What does failure produce? Knowledge. I have learned a great deal from my failures, which are numerous and humiliating. On the other hand, I have the strong intuition that there’s something inherently disappointing about success, not that I’ve ever enjoyed any success.

    P.S. I never “dropped out” of my undergraduate studies. The university administration kicked me out for academic delinquency. It was the best thing that ever happened to me.

    • In my very limited experience of such things, succeeding is quite agreeable, but actual success is disappointing. I suspect that this may be because success, like failure, marks the end of something. Doing is almost always more satisfying than having done.

      • Back in 1996, when my study of Declining Standards at Michigan Public Universities had just been published by the Mackinac Center for Public Policy, I went on a press-tour around the state. My first stop was a news conference in the big auditorium of the student union at Michigan State University — in front of three thousand implacably hostile audience members, some of whom were listening via a loudspeaker hook up in the area outside the building. I pushed back against every attempt to slander me or trip me up… I repeated the accomplishment in other venues… But, of course, my campaign exerted no corrective influence on Michigan Public Universities, none whatsoever. What is a success? What is a failure? I would be hard pressed to tell you.

        In respect of my “academic delinquency” in the mid-1970s: That was active, too. I preferred reading in the library stacks to attending class. Again, was it a success or was it a failure? Honest-to-God, I believe that I am Pro-Failure. I recommend failure.

    • One of my intellectual heroes, Philip Rieff, pretty much “dropped out” of publishing and conference-going after his “Fellow Teachers” appeared in 1973. And that was after a brilliant start, so it certainly wasn’t from lack of ability. One gets the sense from reading “Fellow Teachers” that he was profoundly disillusioned by the direction the academy was headed. But he came back years later with works refreshingly far outside the academic mainstream, works that are perhaps more aphoristic and prophetic than “scholarly,” but that have had far greater influence generally than the vast majority of work in the social science or humanities. I and many others have profited greatly from his having “dropped out.”

      • I came to know Rieff by way of Christopher Lasch. There are good ideas in the posthumous trilogy, but I couldn’t really state its thesis. I think Charisma is well worth reading, and despite being an anti-Freudian learned something from Triumph of the Therapeutic. In today’s academy, Rieff would have been booted out by post-tenure review.

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  7. In an age such as ours, one can only follow the Stoic doctrine of George Herbert: ““Do well and right, and let the world sink.”

  8. TFB wrote, “In respect of my “academic delinquency” in the mid-1970s: That was active, too. I preferred reading in the library stacks to attending class.”

    Allow me to guess. The classes you did not attend were largely discussion classes?

    My favorite teacher, when I was an undergraduate, emphasized discussion, but he was an exceptional teacher and attracted some of the better students. Furthermore, to the extent that student discussions in his classes might have not been of much value, he more than made it up to me by being an invariably friendly host when I dropped by his office to talk about Colin Wilson or whomever and because he also agreed to several independent study courses with just the two of us. Ha! Didn’t I get plenty of value out of him and the school despite the emphasis on student participation! But I did cut some classes and hang out in the library, yes.

    This good professor was Brian Bond, and I have written about him at Fancyclopedia 3.

    • Dear Dale:

      Well, since I never attended my courses much, I’m not too sure whether they were lecture courses or discussion courses. You’re right, however. “Discussion” courses were and are generally a disaster because what does a nineteen-year-old know that he can bring to discussion? (Precious little.) The most memorable courses were lecture courses, but (this is important) not all lecture courses were memorable. Many of them were “skippable,” which Microsoft tells me is not a word, but what does Microsoft know? They were just as boring as the discussion courses. Steven Lattimore gave lecture courses in Classics on topics such as Greek Myth and Greek Sculpture and Painting. I learned a good deal from those courses and attended them regularly, but most of the remainder of my undergraduate experience the first time around is a nebulousness to me today.

      Colin Wilson was one of the writers whom I read during my sieges in the library stacks. For some reason, Wilson’s Religion and the Rebel was shelved adjacent to Voegelin’s Order and History and Spengler’s Decline of the West.

      That was, providentially, my real education.



    • I am a “failed academic” one of the few defenders of the lecture at the public high school where I teach Latin and Classics. When I am told in a smarmy manner to be the “guide on the side” instead of the “sage on the stage,” I like to point out that if the guy on the stage is actually a sage, you would do well to listen to him and take some notes. I am also, in turns, amused and annoyed that lecturing is bad, but showing videos of lecture (TED talks) is innovative and 21st Century Learning.

      Alternative Sermon on the Mount:

      “Okay guys, I’m going to sit over here and I want to to break into small groups and brainstorm a list of Beatitudes…”

    • I remember professors sententiously announcing that they employed the “Socratic method,” which meant that the students B.S.ed while the professor dozed behind his desk. I used to think that that Socrates fellow must have been very well rested.

      Readers not in academia may be amused by the latest fad, known as “flipped classes.” In a “flipped” class the students learn the material at home, by reading the textbook, watching videos, channeling Socrates, what have you. Then they do their homework and studying in the classroom (while the professor checks her Twitter feed).

  9. After writing the essayer needed for my master’s degree I have found I really enjoyed writing. This is in contrast to my earlier attempts at writing, dating all the way back to high school, that seemed always be like a trip to the dentist so teeth could be pulled. Maybe this discouragement had to do with the school district I attended. They just passed me along without remedying my writing issues that were caused by learning disabilities. So the completion of my English master’s is in a way a reconciliation with the past. Now to write in an academic forum I am severely limited by time and other constrains. This has only led me to think of alternative paths that will most likely be more fulfilling and enjoyable. What if my passion for writing was fed at an earlier age. I guess it seems as if all we here about is a passion and emphasis on reading at the expense of a passion for writing, especially for an individual such as myself.

    • For most of us, the trick of writing well is rewriting. And practice. Also, I encourage young writers to emulate the style of a writer they admire. Not forever, but while serving their apprenticeship. The way to your style very often lies through copying the style of another writer.

      • I guess the main observation for me about writing today is it seems too much like Sisyphus rolling the bolder up the hill. Nothing really more than a joyless exercise meant to torment kids again and again. The possible joy of writing seems to be deflated in aspiring writers very early in their lives. In this place it’s read, read , read the without it being balanced with writing. I am fortunate that I have discovered a desire to write in spite of certain unfortunate obstacles I have had to overcome.

      • My advice to aspiring writers is to focus on external reality. It is therapeutic to write down one’s thoughts and feelings, but it won’t make you a better writer. In the same way, one learns to draw or paint by drawing or painting objects, not subjective moods. Expressionism has its place, but the student must keep his eye on the real world.

  10. Hi JMSmith,

    Thank you for this essay. Perhaps for personal reasons, it was one of the most interesting things I’ve read on the Orthosphere. My sense is that most of the senior faculty I know are content with their level of accomplishment. There’s nothing shameful in being a small part of a large effort to increase human knowledge. I don’t feel that way yet, but mostly because I feel like I haven’t really tried yet to do anything fundamentally important, so there’s still the possibility of growth. Up till now, I’ve had to focus on short-term projects (must publish to get tenure) and my young children. It’s so easy to get comfortable in one’s specialty and make a living on minor tweaks in a field already laid out when one joined in during grad school. Realistically, there’s no reason to think I’ve got anything greater in me than I’ve currently displayed, but I do feel an urge to find my limit.

  11. Thanks. I don’t think that one has to win in order to succeed, only to feel that one is “growing.” Of course those at the back of any “pack” will be inclined to drop out of the race, even if they are making marginal improvements, but one doesn’t have to be at the head of the pack to feel that one is “succeeding.” An activity as “rewarding” for persons who have never been honored with awards, so long as they feel that there are things they can do or understand today that they could not do or understand yesterday, and that this will be true for many days to come.

  12. Tom’s lint about Microsoft Word or any other word processing program with a spell checker can drive an aspiring writer insane by its auto correct function. It’s why I have a few words that make no sense. By the time you reali these mistakes the corrections can take some energy out of the urge to write because of technology’s flaws and an overreliance on it. Maybe not enough to make you drop out.

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