If I could tell every first-year graduate student in America one thing, it is this: The campus is not a calling, it is just another career.

If university teaching serves your purposes, come and join us. If not, follow your star in a different firmament. In graduate school, learn in order to sell your knowledge and make a living. And make your living in ways that sustain your interest. The challenge of life to people with intellectual gifts is to avoid boredom, to remain engaged. Others do not need what you do. That is what has drawn you forward to graduate school, that curiosity and a will to know. Then, if it serves your personal purposes to get a Ph.D. and go on to work as a professor, do it.

When I aspired to life as a professor, it was for three reasons: to learn, to teach, to share. The learning went better than I hoped, the teaching much less well, and, with few exceptions, I have known little sharing. If you see the life of teaching and scholarship as a mode of service, as an expression of idealism, your vision discerns what is not there. That calling—a vocation to civil debate and discussion about matters of reason, and that commitment to teach through discovery and to impart knowledge through engagement of mind to mind—those ideals out of a distant, gentle past today do not serve. They are not even wanted. If you do come to the campus with that calling to reasoned inquiry, you will suffer derision and finally destruction.

At this season in graduate schools all over America, tomorrow’s generation of college and university professors take up the tasks of first-year graduate students. Let me tell them how things look from the other end of an academic career. You are in your early 20’s, I am in my middle-50’s. You are starting out, I am nearly finished.

Before me I see young men and women who have completed first-class B.A.’s and have therefore gained a vision of themselves as future scholars and teachers, professors to the coming generation of students. They have chosen to prepare for a life of teaching and research, keeping to the path they chose when they entered college as freshmen. Clearly, the first four years, when they finished their initial education, made them want more. So these young people, in their early 20’s, choose to go forward, toward the Master’s and then the Ph.D. Thirty-seven years ago I entered college, and I never left—or wanted to leave. After nearly four decades of university life and nearly three decades of teaching and publishing research of my own, what have I to offer as advice to the next generation?

The universities and colleges you will inherit are not the ones we came to build, and, it follows, the way we shaped our lives should not be yours. We shaped our careers to serve three causes: scholarship, teaching, collegial citizenship. We deemed success the writing of books, the raising up of a new generation of thoughtful students, and the sharing of common responsibilities in the building of a campus community of intellect and heart. We measured success by our capacity to contribute to knowledge in some specific way, to share knowledge with others, both in writing and in the classroom, and to learn from others and join with others in a common life of intellect. We did not succeed all the time, or even very often. But these formed the royal way, the golden measure: scholarship and learning, teaching and sharing, citizenship and caring. It was a gracious ideal, a nourishing and caring faith of the academy and in the academy. We formed that faith not within our own minds alone but in what we saw in the generation that had brought us up.

Our ideals were right for the time in which we shaped them. They are wrong for your time and will not serve in the universities that you will soon inherit. We—many of us—wanted to continue a life of learning, which meant to pursue a curiosity that led us we knew not where or why. So do you. And if you wish to conduct your own research and scholarship, in our day and society, most of you can do it only in universities or colleges. There is no living to be made outside of the academy in most academic fields. True, in engineering, many of the hard sciences, and mathematics, you can hope to pursue research not supported by teaching—hence as a professor in a college—but supported in research institutes, corporations, government, and the like. In the social sciences, sociology, political science, and economics, for example, there are research institutes in which you can make your way. But unless you have inherited money, on a full-time, lifelong basis, you cannot study Greek and Roman literature or medieval history or English literature or religion or other of the humanities, unless you get a Ph. D. and work as a college professor. And if that is what you want to do, then you should get the Ph. D. and follow that curiosity that draws you forward into the field of your choice.

To state matters bluntly: if you have to teach in a college in order to pursue the research you wish to undertake, then go, teach. Otherwise, pursue learning in some other setting. Universities these days are not led by scholars and educators, and they do not value teaching or scholarship. Writing a book will make you many enemies, but it will not win you much appreciation for your gifts to your field. Teaching through engagement with your students will make your students hate you, and it will not gain for you the respect and appreciation of anyone on the campus or off. Commitment to the life of your department and university, service on committees, devotion to excellence in the conduct of the life of the academy—these supererogatory tasks will win for you the enmity of those with whom you work and the appreciation of no one.

The things we thought mattered when our generation came on the scene—scholarship, publication, an engagement with students’ minds, commitment to excellence in our campus—these no longer find a place on the campus. Universities have become places of privilege and self-indulgence, in which boredom—the cost of easy tenure based on political considerations, not accomplishment—reigns; energy and commitment to learning defy the norm. Tenure marks not achievement but acceptability, and those who go along get along. The road to success is withdrawal and disengagement. As in prison, so in a professorial career you do your own time. But here you locate yourself by choice—because it is where you can do things you think worth doing, and for that reason you accept the restrictions of the place. If it is worth your while, if a career on the campus allows you to pursue interests to which you wish to devote your life, then it is the right place for you. Otherwise, it is not.

If you want mainly to teach, and if to you teaching means engaging with other people, not merely telling them things but offering them the challenge of discovery and exploration, the campus is not your home. The better high schools and prep schools want your kind of teaching. University students want to be told things; these they will tell back to you, in exchange for the grade, leading to the document. They come to gain credentials and, by the way, possibly to learn this and that. They do not come for challenge, and do not challenge them. If you want to teach, go where teachers are wanted. If you wish to join a community of learning women and men, people who talk together in a common conversation, the university has nothing for you. The received conception of faculty congeniality, the notion of the courtesies of the academy, the limits of civil discourse and the requirements and prerequisites of serious, engaged argument—these today turn out to be fictions. Presidents, provosts, deans dismiss the faculty’s knowledge as trivial and determine without consulting professors what universities should teach. When people undertake argument, it is now to humiliate and destroy, not to learn and to teach. Disagreement with civility is a fantasy. Scholarly interchange provokes total war, with no taking of prisoners. Treat a subject someone else has covered and reach parallel conclusions? You will find yourself accused of plagiarism. Propose a new idea? You will be told that no one has to read your book, you are not on the scholarly canon. Take a risk, make a mistake? Your career has ended. Defend with your life the right of the other to speak? Not on the campus, where civil disorder has replaced civil discourse and where the student censorship of free expression merely apes the incivility of professors accorded to anyone who happens to annoy them for any reason whatsoever. I do not know where you will find that academic community of learners, that world in which rules of civility and reasoned exchange formed the requirements of citizenship. But you will not find it on any college and university campus you are likely to find a job.

On campuses today, the gentle virtues of learning give way to more robust values of politics and management. If you want to teach, there are better places in which to do it than colleges. If you want to pursue scholarship as an exercise in ongoing curiosity, in many fields there are better opportunities, and more agreeable situations, than universities. It comes down to this: If you have to use universities in order to conduct a career of learning, then use them.

Use them, do not serve them, do not believe in them, do not try to build them or improve them or commit yourself to them. Do what you have to do to earn your living, which is a minimal classroom performance, and, for the rest, pursue your interests essentially on your own. Then the university as it is today is the right place for you to achieve your purposes—but only then. The university that we served no longer requires the kind of service that we gave. The one to which you come does not want the sort of service that our generation, for its part, imagined was demanded.

Do not give yourself to your students. They do not want you for your learning, and, if they want you for anything at all, it will prove demeaning.

Do not serve your college community through sustained committee service, contribution to the life of your department. That brings only contention and conflict and in the end—if you do the work honestly and seriously—will make you enemies.

Do not take seriously serious discourse with your colleagues. They have their own agenda, their personal program, and will not appreciate your meddling in their minds.

If you want to find acceptance, do not write too much, do not disagree with other people, do not say anything new, and do not criticize anything anyone else says or does. Go along, and you will get along.

Today, for people of intelligence and sensibility, there is only one reason to pursue a career as a college or university professor, and that is to pursue one’s own research and publication. To do that, you will survive on your own campus if you engage with others in your field in other colleges and universities, publish only for specialists in your narrow area, and isolate yourself from your own campus. Then you may survive. And, if you do, you will enjoy that opportunity, available in no other way I know, to work full-time and all the time in those areas to which your curiosity draws you, to learn and grow and mature: within, on your own, and by yourself Today, for those who wish to sustain scholarship, universities offer one opportunity—and perhaps the only one. Universities two generations ago were not the main or the only medium for scholarship, and many of the great discoveries in the humanities and sciences from the Enlightenment to our own century did not come from people who held professorships. People drawn by curiosity found ways to make a living—or lived on inherited wealth—and pursued their scholarship. Darwin and Freud pursued their research without university support. And many of the most important ideas that shape minds now came from people who made their living other than through university teaching—and some of them did not even have doctorates. Yet they made their discoveries and gained a hearing for their ideas. Today, much research, even when conducted in universities, finds support other than through students’ tuition. That is the reason, the only reason, for seeking employment in colleges and universities as we now know them. For they have ceased to be communities, and they are in the main not very academic.

If I had to do it all over again, would I give my life to learning and teaching, sharing and building? Yes, I would do precisely what I did with my life: get learning, pursue learning. But I would do it for different reasons, and I would do it in a different way.

I would do it for one reason only, which is, as I said, because if you want to be a scholar, you have to make a living, and for many subjects you can make a living as a scholar only in a university. And I would do it not as I have done, giving half my energy and commitment to students and half to scholarship. I would give all of my energy and commitment to scholarship and leave over only what I absolutely had to reserve for a minimal accomplishment of such tasks as teaching as I could not decently avoid.

In sum, here is my best wisdom for the next generation, as just now it begins work for the Ph.D. and a life of learning:

(1) Scholarship, in published form, is all that matters in graduate school and in your career beyond. Pay no attention, now or later on, to issues of higher education and the larger setting of the university. These should not concern you.

(2) Do not think of yourself as an educator, let alone as a teacher, but only as a scholar. If you have to make a living in the academy, teach as little as you can, to as few students as you can, and avoid all engagement with students. And, for the rest, no committees, no politics, no involvements; just read and write.

(3) Take from the university what it has to give you, but give nothing more than your scholarship, which is to say, nothing the university wants or values. Leave the university to those who wish, today, to make of it what they will: the presidents, provosts, and deans, on the one side, and the students who come and go, on the other. They will do as they like, anyhow, so keep out of their way and do your work. Use them, as they use you, and you will have a useful career—for yourself and for your field of learning, and these are all that matter.

Let me explain how things were the way they were—and why they changed. We who began in the 1950’s and saw the 1960’s as assistant professors and the 1970’s and 1980’s as the senior faculty and now move toward our final decades of teaching and publishing research, took over the dream of an earlier generation and lived through the nightmare of our own times. Our model of the university came to us as the gift of the generation of the Second World War, which brought America to a position of responsibility within the larger world. Universities took on the work of educating young Americans to address that great world beyond. Professors became scholars, not only teachers, responsible for learning more and more about many more things. To do our work, professors had both to learn new things and also to teach worthwhile ones, and students for their part had actually to study. Demanding, serious times awaited. No longer Mr. Chipps, benign but boring, saying over and over again the lessons he had learned from the Mr. Chipps who came before. And no more place for the cheering and singing and the gentleman’s C.

What changed? It was the entire configuration of higher education. Colleges became universities, and universities turned themselves into centers of research. Publication mattered. Tenure came to those who produced. Students studied, scholars taught, knowledge expanded and exploded, higher education in America set the standard for the world, as much as German universities had defined the golden measure a century earlier—and with good reason. From our universities came the sciences and the scientists, the social sciences, the humanities revived by fresh questions, the spirit of discovery, the compelling call of vivid curiosity.

In 1950, at the age of 18, I went to Harvard because, so far as I then knew, it was the only university in which research went on. (Of course, I was wrong, but, for an adolescent intellectual in West Hartford, Connecticut, the choices were Harvard, Yale, and Brown, and, among them, only Harvard seemed a place where people read books.) But 10 years later, a dozen New England universities and many score throughout the country had gained that ambition to transform and transcend what in the aggregate formed the great leap forward of America’s universities. A new definition of the calling of higher education took hold. We were partners, all of us on the campus, in an adventure of learning. That meant that students would study, not merely gain credentials. Scholars would publish, not merely speculate. Teachers would conduct the classroom as a realm of discovery, not merely as a stage for the rehearsal of other peoples’ knowledge and the professor’s opinions of that knowledge. Knowledge itself—the definition of what is to be learned for the degree of Bachelor of Arts or of Science—vastly changed. Old boundaries gave way. New subjects found entry.

That was the vision. Along with the best and the brightest I knew, I was drawn to a life of learning: reading and writing, studying and teaching, speculating and testing propositions: what if? and why? and why not? That was the life I chose, and, given the choice again and the years in which to carry it out, I should choose that same life again. But not for the same reasons and not in the same realm of reality.

Our tide flowed in, in the 1950’s and 1960’s. But it flowed out again. The ebb tide came in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s. We who then were young, the legacy of the vision of the 1940’s and 1950’s, sustained the hope that others had given us but confronted a world no one could earlier have conceived. The great Presidents of the 1950’s and 1960’s were scholars, one and all. They also had the capacity to find the money they needed to build their universities by finding greatness in scholarship. They also were educators who framed success by the criterion of the quality of mind—and, in the colleges, even the character and conscience—of the young people for whom, for four years, they and their faculties bore responsibility.

But in the trials of social revolution and political crisis, when the campus became the battlefield and the college students the shock troops, the scholars and the educators failed and were replaced. What most of them could not and did not do was hold the center. They were educators, scholars, and teachers, not politicians, not managers, not planners of budgets and manipulators of women and of men. And others came along—people thought they were needed—who could do those things. We still on the campus pay the price of the campus revolution of the 1960’s and 1970’s. And why not? Ours was the mistake, for we believed when we should have doubted, and we thought we could by an act of the faculty senate change human nature, reform society, and redeem the world. But we could not even save ourselves and our own ideals when the barbarians came. And come they surely did.

University leadership has now found its definition not in the particular requirements of the tasks of the academy: scholarship and research. Now what the campus needed was what other large institutions—deemed no different from the university in substance, but only in form—also needed. A person with political capacities could move from the Cabinet or the House of Representatives to the campus. A general could turn himself into a college president. So could a chief executive officer of a large corporation. So could a fund-raiser, a foundation program officer, anybody who had shown capacities to control, manage, administer—and it did not matter what. These new types of academic officeholders were not chosen because of achievement in education and scholarship, and they did not value capacity to teach and write—things they had never done and could not do. They were chosen to keep the peace and balance the budget, much as the Lord-Mayor of Johannesburg can keep the peace and balance the budget. And that is what they did.

The ideal of the builders of the 1940’s and 1950’s produced us, the professors of the 1960’s into the 21st century. We received a vision, and we lived by it. The vision discerned a different America and demanded of the academy a distinctive calling. But the academy can yet serve useful purposes, if not the cause of education and citizenship, community and civil discourse, reasoned argument about honorable alternatives. So use it for what it can give: the chance to do your work, that alone. The academy has no room anymore for those who find themselves called to learning and to service. It is a place for careers—and careerists. It is not going to change very soon. Take your pay, and do your job, just as you would in any other corporation, in a normal, utterly professional and impersonal transaction. More is not wanted.

The barbarians have inherited Rome, and, as before, the Dark Ages will endure for some time to come. Soon we shall smell the smoke of burning libraries. It will not be because the books contain subversive ideas, but because administrations wonder, who needs all those books anyhow? Universities served when they served, for a brief spell. Now they become socially useless, too expensive for the students, sustaining self-indulgent and unproductive timeservers who substitute self-righteousness for achievement, self-inflation for accomplishment.

But learning will go forward, if not on the campus, then elsewhere. For the curiosity of humanity draws us onward, and if this kind of institution does not nurture learning, some other will. The will to know, to ask why? and why not? and what if?—that never-to-be-satisfied hunger and thirst will never fail us but will always sustain us. It is what it means to be human.