Why I left academia

Photo by Leon Seibert on Unsplash

After sixteen years of working in the Music Department at Royal Holloway, University of London, I decided in summer 2021 to leave academia and begin a second career. I do not leave the profession with any sense of loss, or failure, or frustration that I could not do more of the things I have done in my career. It feels like a completed work, and I am hugely grateful to the very many people – colleagues, friends around the world, students, publishers, and administrators – who have made this such an enjoyable career. In the Music Department at Royal Holloway, I could not have been blessed with a more friendly, stimulating, or supportive environment in which to work, and the many students I have taught, particularly those whose PhDs I supervised, made me feel that my work was worth something in human terms, and I cherish the memory. But despite all of this, I am content to leave it all behind.

My decision has stunned quite a few people, and this note is an attempt to clarify my reasoning. I also hope that, like the biographical note that I wrote for my website in 2010, it might offer some comfort to PhD students or recent graduates who despair of securing an academic job and feel that they will in some tangible sense be a ‘failure’ if they do not land one.

My plan to leave academia was a long time in the making, and the reasons for it were almost entirely intellectual ones. I entered the profession as an outsider, from a social class that put me distinctly at odds with the sensibility, taste, and attitude to work that characterize the discipline of musicology perhaps even more than other scholarly disciplines. At the time, I still clung to the vestiges of the completely uninformed romantic view of the scholarly life that I held as a teenager. Without direct experience of academics until I went (as the first of my family) to university, I naively imagined them to be how they were presented in novels and TV programmes: sometimes quite bumbling and unworldly, but always committed to the pursuit of truth, never trusting in a commonplace ‘fact’ without subjecting it to the most serious sceptical scrutiny. This did not turn out to be true.

The short explanation for why I left academia is that I became profoundly disillusioned by it. It is a place filled with generally quite well-meaning people, but on the whole not with brave people, not people who are willing to follow the truth wherever it leads. There are, of course, many musicologists who are everything I could have dreamt they would be, and many of them will, I hope, continue to be my friends. But they know as well as I do that there is something rotten in the state of Denmark. Nothing I am saying here will surprise them: we have discussed it together many times over the years. They will continue to strive towards the highest ideals of intellectual honesty from within musicology, and I admire their fortitude enormously. But I no longer can.

I would put the problem in this (Kantian) way: I wrongly supposed that universities would be critical places, but they are becoming increasingly dogmatic. Consider the following statement, which fairly well articulates an increasingly common view in musicology.

Nineteenth-century musical works were the product of an imperial society. The classical musical canon must be decolonised.

The statement, and the attitude that goes with it, are dogmatic by virtue of form, not content. It does not matter that the statement in the first sentence is one that I can assent to. It becomes dogmatic by virtue of the second sentence, which admits of no doubt, no criticism, no challenge. A critical statement – one that better represents the ideal of scholarship, and of undergraduate and postgraduate education, in my view – would read something more like the following.

Nineteenth-century musical works were written during the period of empire, and they carry that history within them. But as well as being part of the imperial world in which they appeared, they are also musical works. As with a protest song written at the time of the Vietnam war (which fell during the US’s imperial epoch), a piece of classical music is simultaneously imbued with the history of its own time and also minimally separated from it as a partially autonomous object. As with a protest song, there therefore exists the possibility that it could offer a form of critique of existing social conditions. There is also the possibility that works of this kind will affirm the existing social conditions. What actually transpires in the music itself is therefore determinative of the question whether we can judge it to be for or against anything in particular.

An outcome of the first, dogmatic statement could be that music departments stop teaching music by Beethoven, Wagner, and co., in the (frankly insane) belief that doing so will somehow materially improve current living conditions for the economically, socially, sexually, religiously, or racially underprivileged.

An outcome of the second, critical statement could be that music departments continue to teach music by Beethoven, Wagner, and co., and use that music – whose quiddity as music is analysed in order to allow it to feed into the general framework – to offer intellectually critical insights into the social, political, economic, legal, and other structures of the world in which it was written, and later canonized, and now consumed by the musical public. This music is sometimes of relatively little interest on its own (a lot of grand opera springs to mind), but of great importance as social history. But this music is also, very often, an almost incomprehensibly brilliant expression of human creativity and ingenuity. When it entered into my life in a community that was centred on coal mining (by then, thanks to Thatcher, only as an absence that explained the appalling unemployment and poverty of the time) and manufacturing industry, into a world where novels, poetry, art, theatre, good food, broadsheet newspapers, political awareness, higher education, or classical music had absolutely no purchase, and were in fact broadly considered the luxurious excesses of a monolithic, Thatcherite, uncomprehending South, it opened up stunning new vistas. I discovered, largely through this music, that the world was far bigger than I thought, fuller of beauty and majesty and possibilities for fulfilment. It transported me, to oversimplify things a little, from starting school on free school meals to being a full professor in my late 30s.

Why would I not want to share that music with everyone who came into my classroom? More to the point, why would not all musicologists? There are many other ways in which musicology is currently committed, in an intellectually irresponsible (or plain unintellectual) way, to dogmatic thinking, but this attitude towards the classical musical canon is perhaps the most significant. That alone did not lead me to want to leave academia: there is nothing new about it, and I have been quite cheerfully arguing, in a scholarly way, against that attitude for the whole of my career. It would have been a worthwhile endeavour to have remained in academia, but it was my decision not to.

As I have said, there are still plenty of critical scholars in musicology. All of my academic friends are, as are my PhD students and the scholars I have collaborated with on various projects, and there are also very many critical thinkers I have never had the good fortune to meet. But in recent years the dogmatic mode of thinking, in which uncritical commitments are enforced by mechanisms involving public humiliation, no-platforming, and attempts to have scholars fired, has become to seem like it has become endemic. Now, too many humanities scholars move in lock step with the general ideology of our time, dogmatically echoing the opinions of politicians, the media, and business. Universities should be places where the commonplace ideas of a particular time and place are subjected to remorseless critical interrogation. That does not necessarily mean that scholars should disagree with everything about the way their contemporary world makes sense of its reality. Scholars might often agree with large parts of everybody else’s opinions. But if universities become a place where that basic commitment to scepticism and a critical mode of thinking is increasingly impossible, they will have ceased to serve a useful function. I am not optimistic.

The current rot might produce some good outcomes that I cannot foresee. Or it might not. Either way, by 2021 I felt that I did not want to spend the second half of my career struggling in an increasingly uncritical environment. As Coriolanus says (in a brave moment, before his bad end), there is a world elsewhere.