This fall Valparaiso University decided (not unreasonably) that five-and-a-half years of leave of absence is enough, and so I find myself for the first time since 1964 unattached to a university faculty. I am no longer Professor of American Studies and Political Thought, and the adjustment will take some getting used to. Yet while I put off as long as possible making the final break (no one in his right mind lightly gives up tenure), the decision, when it had to be made, was not all that difficult. I wish that it were harder than it is to say farewell to the academy.

Not that I leave with bitterness or resentment. Ever since I went off to college in the fall of 1956, I have been either a student or professor, and it has been, all in all, a wonderful life. To those of us too weak to dig and too proud to beg, the university provides a splendid refuge. We spend our time reveling in ideas and indulging in intellectual fancies, and-wonder of wonders-we get paid for it. There are, for those who have known it at its best, few joys that can exceed the joy of teaching. You lecture, and you see students’ eyes light up; you lead a seminar, and you guide eager young men and women into the complexities of ideas that seem to you at that moment as important as anything can be. It is a grace for which one will forever be grateful.

Why, then, is it so easy to walk away? In large part, it’s time. When I first started teaching, I was determined above all else that I would not become one of those burnt-out cases that had been the bane of my undergraduate experience: professors who had not had a new idea in years, whose yellowed lecture notes testified to an ossification of thought that had occurred a long time earlier. There are few things more depressing than watching a professor, long-since devoid of inspiration or enthusiasm, marking time toward the day of retirement.

It hadn’t happened to me yet, but I saw the signs. You’ve anticipated all their questions. You have to work harder every class period to generate the enthusiasm within yourself that once came naturally and that is the necessary engine of successful teaching. The students are strangers to you now, and not all that interesting strangers at that. Their attitude of I dare you to interest me-once a source of challenge-is now a cause of resentment, and that is death to teaching. Their ignorance grows worse year by year, and you despair at filling in the unfathomable gaps of their knowledge. How can they understand, if there is so little substance on which understanding can be based?

And the grading: that’s where real despair takes hold. The essays, on the average, are now borderline literate: you’re engaged in remedial education. This is not a sentence; the subject does not agree with the verb; this point does not follow from what preceded it; your pronoun has no reference; your argument has no sense. All this preparatory to getting to the presumed topic of the essay or exam. Once you took it all in stride, now you wonder if there is not a more honest way to make a living.

At elite schools, or even in the honors programs of nonelite schools, it’s not that bad. It can, in fact, be quite stimulating, still a marvelous grace. But even so, it’s a grace best left, by and large, to young instructors. They nourish it best, and they benefit most from it. Seasoned scholars should, if they can, turn their primary energies to other things.

And many do. They do research. A few accomplish admirable things: they genuinely expand knowledge and understanding. Many others do no harm, and even some good. Others do what is necessary to obtain credentials. Still others perpetrate nonsense, pernicious or merely frivolous.

I was never, I must confess, a good researcher. I hadn’t the disposition for it. More than that, it was not what I most wanted intellectually to do. I wanted to write, but not what the university wanted me to write. It mattered infinitely more to me to place an article in Commentary or American Scholar than in Prologue: The Journal of the National Archives . The problem was that the latter was a “refereed journal” and so suitable for mention on my report to the Dean on academic endeavor; the former were not “refereed” and thus beyond academic ken. The evidence accumulated that my generalist intellectual interests did not accord with the norms of the academy.

And then there was, of course, the mounting problem of political correctness. To talk of PC by now is to induce MEGO. Truth be told, the situation is not as desperate as the most lurid accounts would suggest. The lunatics have not fully-or at least not everywhere-taken control of the asylum. Good and sensible teaching continues; useful and non-ideologically-driven research takes place. But things are quite bad enough (see, for example, the articles elsewhere in this issue by Mona Scheuermann and Gilbert Meilaender). It truly is the case that the best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity. Moderates “do their own work,” while studiously ignoring-and most carefully not opposing-the intellectual depredations of the cultural thought police.

My own situation in the academy, as someone roughly categorized as a neoconservative, was more dispiriting than intimidating. My superiors protected me (with varying degrees of enthusiasm) and my colleagues tolerated me (with some quite vigorous exceptions), but never did the need to explain myself cease. (“He doesn’t drool or twitch, and we haven’t yet caught him pulling wings off flies, so why does he have such impossible ideas?”) After a while you get tired.

In the end, though, I am leaving the academy not because it is a bad place but because I have found a better place. First Things and the Institute on Religion and Public Life have provided an intellectual home more congenial than any I have known. The work is more consistently stimulating-and demanding; you can’t mentally relax in the way you are tempted to when dealing with nineteen-year-olds. And the percentage of parsed sentences among FT contributors is markedly higher than among college sophomores. Not to mention that no one around here finds my ideas strange.

So it’s farewell to the academy. No regrets over the years spent there, but-tenure aside-no tears on leaving, either.

Articles by James Nuechterlein

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