I must take issue with Michael Ruse’s most recent post, “A Prof at 70: Having Fun, Feeling Guilty.” Forgive me if I sound intemperate, but since when has it been hunky-dory for philosophically inclined, erudite people (aka professors) to celebrate the rule of, “If it feels good, do it”? I’m not talking about sex, drugs, or rock and roll. I’m talking about hanging onto your teaching job past the normal retirement age—an action that prevents younger faculty from moving up the academic ladder. Professor Ruse is a 70-year-old philosophy professor, not some bashful bride marrying against her family’s wishes. When he confesses to feeling guilty, there’s probably something substantive there that he should feel guilty about.
This past fall, I did something that’s become not all that unusual at Hofstra: I signed an irrevocable retirement contract with the university whereby I promised to retire in five years, when I’ll be sixty-six and a half. In exchange, Hofstra, following our union contract, gave me a sum that amounts to about one and a half year’s salary divided into equal installments that have been added to my regular paychecks and will continue until I retire. Obviously, the university saves money by getting rid of a full bull like me, and, just as obviously, I was lured into this not-all-that-early retirement partly by the bonus they offered me.
But I did not make this decision lightly. And I am under no illusion that this will be easy financially. It won’t be poverty, but I won’t have the ready cash I enjoy now. And I’ll lose something I deeply value in life—teaching. More worrisome to me than the downturn in financial security and the loss of medical coverage when I retire is the loss of that powerful emotion professors experience in the classroom, where young minds continually putting us on the spot push us to heights of intellectual agility and suppleness we didn’t know we had. Like Professor Ruse, I am still vigorous. And like him, I love teaching and am “having fun.” Anyone who knows and loves teaching, anyone who hungers for it, and is good at it, feels the exhilaration of leading a group of students through a course—or even through a single, exceptional class session where everything comes together and the excitement of teaching and learning burns the air. I will miss these things.
Although I give out among the lowest grades in my department, I receive among the highest course/teacher evaluations, and my courses frequently have waiting lists. The worst insult I’ve ever endured as a professor was being called an “über-bitch” (it’s right there on RateMyProfessors.com) which I rather take as a compliment, seeing as it came from a bad writer who fancied herself a great one and was immune to coaching. But in deciding to go out now, while the teaching muse is still showering me with her blessings, I weighed what was good for me, my husband, and my daughter. Just as important, I considered what was good for Hofstra’s students, its younger faculty coming along, and, yes, what was good for the university as a whole. Sometimes the money numbers aren’t the only indicators of the right thing, personally, for you to do.
Think of the retirement issue in terms of this analogy: I’ve lived through several droughts in my lifetime, each of which resulted in a public call to conserve water. Yet I always had a friend or two who willfully ignored all the pleas and continued to take blissfully long showers. Considered individually, of course, one long shower made no difference to the reservoir. But if you add together enough individuals taking enough long showers during a drought, you end up with a severe water shortage. The geezification of faculty on American campuses presents a similar situation. Professor Ruse’s decision, taken by itself, doesn’t hurt anybody at all. I suspect he’s an excellent teacher, and I take him at his word that he needs the money and bennies. But multiply Professor Ruse by the thousands, and the American college and university system will have yet another prod to go into crisis mode. Save for the extraordinarily exceptional scholar (and I mean exceptional—the E.H. Gombrichs or Steven Pinkers of the world), professors really ought to retire by age 70.
Coincidentally, a few months after I signed my agreement to retire, I saw Shakespeare’s The Tempest at the Brooklyn Academy of Music. With my final act as a professor now laid out in countable semesters, I was in a philosophical mood. As I listened to Prospero’s final speech, I felt the words as if they were coming from my own lips:
“Now my charms are all o’erthrown,
And what strength I have’s mine own,
Which is most faint …”
To experience with grace the last full measure of this speck of dust we call our life requires that we professors depart the college or university island we call home before, not after, we begin our inevitable decline. Throwing aside the plush academic blanket—with its cozy tenure, its guaranteed income, its extravagant medical benefits, its adulatory students, and its countless other privileges that cocoon and protect us from the twists and turns of living that most of the rest of the world endures—requires a combination of reason and will. With any luck, professors who retire by 70 will enjoy their final years—years in which they can write that book they never had the time to write while they were teaching, or figure out the solution to that math problem they never had the time to do. And isn’t it nice—as pure consolation, if nothing else—that in doing these things, they just happen to make way for the young?