In the interview he describes a disappointing but all too believable undergraduate experience:
I went to Harvard as an undergraduate and honestly found it, given the background I had [he went to a great high school], disappointing -- not that there weren’t great people there and some amazing lecturers, but there were a lot of factors that made it difficult for me to learn in a real way. For instance, I found professors intimidating – I don’t think I ever once visited a professor’s office hours during my whole time there.
I realize now that there were a lot of resources there that I probably missed out on. But there was also a very “sink-or-swim” kind of attitude, both among faculty and undergraduates…seminar discussions were often sort of competitive, and didn’t do much to encourage creative thought (or confidence).The intimidation (intimidatingness?) of the professors and the sink-or-swim competitiveness of the students seem related. And these relate too, of course, to things like rankings. To some extent academics have little choice but to compete if they want to get a job and then tenure. And to some extent things like annual evaluations keep this going even after tenure. But to some extent I think we do it to ourselves .
Some of the discussion of this post on what it's like to be a professional philosopher with kids is (or seems to be) revealing. I was going to quote a passage or two, but I think there are too many to choose from, and the context of the whole is important too. So (pretend you have) read the whole thing. A lot of people reveal the very natural desire to be a great philosopher, and to want to publish well (i.e. a lot and in good places) for this reason. Everyone agrees that quality matters more than quantity, but people still seem to focus on quantity quite a bit. People talk about wanting to produce two papers a year, or only one every 18 months, and so on. I do this too, but in a much less regular way than I used to. I used to try to write or revise a draft of a paper every month, present at least one paper at a conference each year, and publish at least one paper every year. Now I just try to do what I can when I can. I don't think the results are any better or worse as a consequence, although I hope my work is getting better as I learn and understand more.
But the overall results seem bad. Lots of imperfect papers get published, lots of people live less happy lives because, say, they are working on papers instead of spending time with their families, and the profession becomes a competition for prestige rather than a science or a humanity. A friend of mine talks about the desire to do research in terms of not being dead inside, and he has a point. But if philosophical research is just another rat race, then joining in seems like a kind of death. And it's not as if anyone can really win. That is, it doesn't look as though there will be any great philosophers any more. Or at least not Great Philosophers. Any more than anyone will be able to get away with dedicating a musical composition to the greater glory of God.
On the other hand, maybe quitting the race is a recipe for the Blue Valentine problem. Maybe a good domestic life requires a successful (and hence competitive) working life. Round here there are people who sit for hours on their porches watching whatever goes by. I could never do that, but I often wonder whether that's a sign of virtue or vice on my part. Should we give up the idea that "I could have been a contender" or should we never be satisfied with what we have and always strive for more? Is it good or bad to be content just to sit? If you think it's good, go to Video A below. If you think it's bad, go to Video B.