Athens, Jerusalem, and Transitioning Careers

What has Athens to do with Jerusalem? What has the Church to do with the Academy?

  • Tertullian (c. 200 CE)

Like many Humanities Ph.D.s in today’s job market, I am currently transitioning out of academia, having decided that I do not want to continue year after year of putting my life on hold in the hopes of attaining a rare tenure-track position. Last summer, I finished a limited-term postdoctoral lectureship and decided not to continue pursuing the professorial career that I had been trained to pursue for nearly a decade. At the moment, I am building a career in tech, and doing my best to find ways to connect my previous life as an academic nerd with my new life as a computer nerd.

I don’t want to write a sorrowful lamentation detailing all of the things wrong with the modern university, there are several good ones that you can readalready, or you can just google “quit-lit” to get an idea of what people are facing. To be sure, there are plenty of adequate reasons for Ph.D.s to feel bitter about entering a market so dreadful, in which exploitation of contingent faculty is such a widespread problem. But others have written this angle already, and I have nothing new to add.

What I would like to share is how I am approaching this transition from my background as a historian of Late Antiquity, the period of Roman/European/Mediterranean History from approximately 200 to 800 CE (these dates aren’t set in stone, but the broader chronological range offers a more productive model than the traditional “Fall of Rome/Dark Ages” categories for studying these centuries). This was a period of considerable change in Europe and the Mediterranean (and indeed, even beyond). In addition to the fragmentation of western Roman political authority, this period saw the rise of Christianity as a state-sanctioned religion, the development of various Christian theologies in ecumenical councils and episcopal disputes, the establishment of Jewish texts such as the Mishnah and the Talmud, and the rise of Islam in the eastern Mediterranean and the Middle East. Late Antiquity was a time of transition, in which old ideas about Rome, humanity, and the gods (or God) were disputed, discarded, and transformed in different ways and among ever-changing communities throughout the Roman world and beyond its borders.

Education in particular saw significant change during this time period. The first quote I cited above is from Tertullian, a Christian author who lived in North Africa (specifically, present-day Tunisia) around the turn of the third century CE. Tertullian sought to define an ideal Christian by describing what they shouldn’t do — elsewhere, he wrote that Christians shouldn’t go to popular Roman entertainment events such as the theater, gladiatorial games or chariot races. In his famous quote about Athens and Jerusalem, he suggested that proper Christian life was fundamentally incompatible with “worldly” education of the ancient world: what has Athens, the cultural center of the Roman Mediterranean (comparable in its reputation for status and learning to a modern-day Ivy League school), have to do with the holy city of Jerusalem?

There is something to Tertullian’s statement that echoes in my mind as I face this coming transition. No, I’m not leaving academe to join the Church — my motivations are entirely secular. What I find striking is the stark dichotomy between the world of “traditional” education and that of the Christian. As Tertullian quipped that Greek learning was incompatible with Christian living, so I often find, in the culture around me as well as in my own thoughts, ideas that the work I have done in graduate school is incompatible with life outside of academe. Whether through legislative attacks on humanities departments as “useless,” non-academic employers who look for tangible experience over transferrable skills, or my own concerns over whether I am somehow abandoning my “true” identity by exploring new career paths, I often find myself feeling as if there is a sharp distinction between my life as an academic and whatever is coming next. To put Tertullian’s maxim differently, what has a Ph.D. in Late Antique History have to do with the “real world”? (By the way, graduate work is indeed a legitimate job that requires substantial labor — hence the scare quotes around “real world.”)

Of course, not all early Christians shared Tertullian’s viewpoint. For centuries after he died, ancient schools throughout the Roman world taught both Christian students and students who followed traditional forms of worship (i.e., “pagans”). After Christianity became tolerated, and then favored, under the emperor Constantine in the early fourth century, the number of Christians increased among the highest social ranks of the Roman world. Most of these Christian elites received an education that would have looked similar to that of their grandfathers and great-grandfathers, based on the works of Homer in the Greek-speaking East, and on those of Vergil in the Latin-speaking West.

Yet things were changing in the fourth century — with the growth of Christianity came new culture wars, as Christians and non-Christians alike disputed the purpose of traditional education and its role in shaping the young minds of the Roman world. These culture wars even reached the imperial throne in 362, when the emperor Julian — Constantine’s nephew — insisted that teachers must worship the gods they taught about. Under Julian, Christians were (in theory, if not in practice) barred from teaching, since they did not acknowledge the supremacy of the gods of Homer. This policy did not last long, yet it kindled in the minds of educated Christians the same question Tertullian had asked over 150 years prior: what, indeed, did Athens have to do with Jerusalem?

In the major Syrian metropolis of Antioch, a young priest named John used this conceptual divide between classical education and Christian spirituality to speak for his own view of Christianity. John’s nickname, Chrysostom (“golden-mouth”), attests to his reputation for powerful rhetoric in the late fourth century. In one oration, Chrysostom sought to convince wealthy parents not to oppose their children’s decisions to abandon their education in order to seek ascetic life in the hinterland of Antioch. To do so, he lamented the woes of the student in language that graduate students today may relate to:

The child’s lack of ability, the ignorance of teachers, the negligence of pedagogues, the father’s want of leisure, the inability to pay fees and salary, the difference of characters, the wickedness, envy and ill will of his fellow students, and many other things will deter him from his goal. And this is not all, but even after reaching the goal, there will be further obstacles. For when he has overcome everything and reached the pinnacle of education, if he has not been prevented by any of these obstacles, other traps still lie in wait for him. The ill will of rulers, the jealousy of fellow workers, the difficulty of the times, the lack of friends, and poverty frequently frustrate his ultimate success.

I have been incredibly fortunate in my graduate career not to have encountered many of the school obstacles Chrysostom described (my faculty mentors are anything but ignorant and negligent). Yet it’s hard for me not to find an echo of the current Ph.D. crisis in phrases like “the ill will of rulers, the difficulty of the times, the lack of friends, and poverty.” According to Chrysostom, the traditional world of Roman education involved constant risk, with very slim chances of success.

In addition to offering a chilling parallel to the life of a present-day humanities graduate student, Chrysostom’s warning about the dangers of schooling in the fourth century reflects the same sharp divide between traditional education and Christian spirituality as both Tertullian and Julian had envisioned. Similar rhetoric can be found in other contemporary Christian authors. In the 370s Basil, the bishop of Caesarea in Turkey, looked back on his education in Athens as worldly vanity. Famously, in 384 Jerome (later famous for translating the Latin Vulgate) wrote that he had been “a Ciceronian, not a Christian” when he was living in the desert but still missed the refined literature of his earlier school days. Around 397 Augustine of Hippo, when recalling his conversion a decade earlier, described his conversion prompted by the example of the Egyptian monk Antony, who (allegedly) gained spiritual wisdom in spite of being illiterate. Saints lives during this time are filled with examples of monks and bishops who outsmart “traditional” intellectuals like philosophers and orators, thus arguing for the superiority of the Word of God (Christ) over the words of “the world.”

Ironically, though, all of this literature critiquing the intellectual life of Ancient Rome came from authors who had reaped education’s benefits. Basil, Chrysostom, Augustine, and Jerome had all achieved high levels of rhetorical training in the classroom. Basil and Augustine had even spent some time as teachers themselves — perhaps they could be considered Ph.D.s who spent a year or two as lecturers before deciding to leave the academy. The point is, even after these authors “left” their education, it continued to shape the way they thought and wrote. Scholarly studies over the past few decades have shown the ways that Christian authors who declared their departure from “vain” and “worldly” schooling (late antique quit-lit?), continued to draw on the texts and intellectual methods of their student days. Even Jerome, who claimed to have had a vision in which Christ whipped him for clinging to Latin literature, continued to draw on the intellectual treasures of “the world” in his translation and exegesis of the Scriptures.

This is where I find a useful lesson for my own career transition. Whatever I will be doing professionally in the coming weeks, months, and years will very likely not have much to do with Late Antiquity. I’m still interested in the field, and I would like to keep up with ancient history in some way, whether that involves reading and blogging, attending the occasional conference, or even working on minor publications. But even without those things, my studies will continue to form a part of me. Asking, à la Tertullian, what a Ph.D. in Late Antique History has to do with the “real world” fundamentally misses the point. The Ph.D. has changed me, and I would like to think most of these changes have been for the better. Those “transferable skills” that people always talk about in defending the Humanities — critical thinking, clear communication, intellectual curiosity — really do exist. What’s more, education’s formative effects reach well beyond the classroom. Both in antiquity and today, education is far more than transferring skills and knowledge from one brain into another. From kindergarten to graduate school, students absorb physical, social, and cultural values, both consciously and unconsciously. Even if I wanted to, I could not simply detach my life studying Late Antiquity from the complex web of memories, experiences, emotions, habits, and sensations that make up what might (with proper scare quotes) be considered my “self.”

Athens and Jerusalem only represented two diametrically opposed worlds in rhetoric, not reality. It’s good to remember that the same holds true for the phrases “Humanities Ph.D.” and “Real World.”