01/06/2012 04:19 pm ET Updated Mar 07, 2012

My Post-Academic Year

You may not know it, but this is one of the most important weekends in higher education: The annual conventions for the American Historical Association, the Modern Language Association, and the American Institute for Archaeology are taking place. Sure, there are other conventions, but obviously they're lame.

Actually, they're all kind of lame, and I know because until about a year ago, I was a professor. I'm no longer one and technically that means I'm supposed to call myself a "post-academic," the preferred term for those who possess advanced degrees but are not doing "academic" things. It's an unwieldy and (I think) inaccurate phrase. It's used of non-professors who still work at universities , librarians, and private school teachers, though it's hardly a leap to consider these activities academic. People with law degrees never refer to themselves as "post-academic," even when they use their advanced degrees to go into fields like television writing and standup comedy. That's probably because they never considered investing their entire identity into a single adjective.

If being "post-academic" means doing things not printed on your transcript, we're all post-academics. Applying knowledge to new situations is the point of an education, or at least it used to be. Colleges are now trying to disguise this fact with degree programs named after Craigslist items -- I can't wait to see what "Missed Connections" majors will look like. But you have to admit, putting "business" right there on the degree, in fancy letters, means you don't have to think too hard about it, let alone reflect on your conflicted feelings about education. As Americans we have an absolute right to be educated, and to despise educators, preferably at the same time.

I'd tell you that a good philosophy class could help with that, but philosophy makes your brain hurt and the kids just aren't into brain pain these days. They want degrees that will get them jobs -- and who can blame them? Unfortunately it turns out a degree won't get you a job. What will get you a job are people you know. I found this out the hard way; despite genuinely supportive attitudes, my still-academic friends are no help at all because they don't know anyone outside of academia. Now that I'm no longer an official spokesperson for college education, I'll admit it: The people who do best in life, overall, are likable, extroverted B students.

The idea that college has any connection to the real word is hard to defend when the job market demands that educators live like monks -- poverty-ridden, itinerant, and isolated from the real world. That's the Jekyll. On the Hyde side, colleges bring in business moguls, throw honorary "Professor" titles on them, and let them teach impressionable young iPod owners. Clearly these high-flyers have contacts, but calling them educators basically does away with "education" part altogether, turning college into a form of advertising: this person found massive success and YOU CAN TOO! Because you're worth it, and worldly success is directly proportional to merit. Right?!

Wrong, as anyone in a real discipline -- like history or poly sci or even the much-maligned sociology -- can tell you. They'll probably engage in some suspiciously negative thinking (they'll call it "critical" but that's just doublespeak) and point out that success often relies on pre-existing advantages, or even on Luck being, in the words of someone old enough to be a philosopher, a Lady. Reminding people of unpleasant socio-historical facts is why these disciplines exist, and why nobody likes them very much.

Nuanced thinking, and the mixed psychological messages that history, philosophy, and real life bring, are a tough sell these days -- another hard-learned lesson. My defection from academia to marketing is often taken as a wholesale endorsement for business being The Way To Go. My criticism of academia somehow translates into a blunt admonition that people shouldn't go to college at all. I have never said either of those things. I have a Ph.D. in rigorously highlighting gray areas, seeing both sides of the issue, and being a critical consumer of information -- not that these things are written on any of my degrees, or that they're any fun. The truth, as Aristotle already knew, lies in the middle ground, and it's this terrain I find myself fighting to occupy, constantly. Wait, doesn't that make it a No Man's Land? Historically, yes, and the metaphor remains apt: in essence, holding your middle ground means saying, "You're both wrong!" and ducking the resulting fire.

Higher ed cannot continue a schizophrenic culture that cuts off its educators from real life while simultaneously letting whiny students, entitled parents, and Kaplan run things. On the flip side, the world at large needs to realize that business models should be limited to actual businesses, rather than governments or other non-profit institutions -- by definition. Nor should we, as individuals, blithely assume the past just plain doesn't matter just because we think we're at the pinnacle of human existence right now.

(Look, I can't stress this enough: actual learning is usually a drag insasmuch as it does not exist to make you feel better about yourself - unlike Adver-lobby-biz-nication© Studies.)

More constructively, I'd like to think the middle ground is a good vantage point for what people used to call lateral thinking: the idea that, when faced with multiple-choice options "A", "B" and "C," you can get crazy really and make up your own "D." Or X , or banana. Whatever! Just don't tell ETS.

In the past year I've met plenty of educated people (and yes, some other post-academics) in the private sector. Unlike lifelong academics, they let their learning inform their real-world endeavors. It would never strike them, or most people until very recently, to accept their college degree as its own, unchanging job description. And I think that's something we need to remember as we try to figure out how to fix education. In the coming year, I'll be writing about what's it's like to inhabit both worlds -- because as much as I don't miss my job, or the conferences, or any of that, my education continues to serve me in the real world and of course I have many friends who are still in the education biz.

In the meantime, I still won't consider myself post-academic. I'll just call myself a web developer with an unusually broad background, and hope people don't ask too many questions.