Wednesday, September 12, 2007

The Insularity of the Academy

I just came across an article about the self-contained universe of the academy in Salon that seems as relevant today or a hundred years ago as it was when it was written in 1998.

In this, Annalee Newitz writes about the challenges of PhDs outside academia, "The problem is not our so-called crappy jobs; it's an educational system that teaches us to think we are not proper intellectuals unless we are employed as academics. Why should my colleagues and I be ashamed to take our considerable knowledge and work as writers, designers, administrators, researchers and teachers outside academia? Why should our worth as scholars be measured in tenure tracks?"

Great question. A few years back I came across a Zionist log-cabin Republican and experimental psychologist who left a poorly paid, high-demand, low-control post-doc for a great job working for a large corporation in the city where his partner lived. On speaking with one faculty member, it was as if he had sold his soul to the devil. Will he be able to rejoin the academy? Unlikely. Would he want to? The answer to that is also unlikely. Call me a non-believer but to me, being with your partner, being able to pay back some loans, buying a house, and working on real-world soon-to-be-applied research sounds....good.

Another topic touched on in this article is related to the insularity of the ivory tower, "In theory, everyone in the United States has the right to be educated. And yet, rather undemocratically, we continue to isolate education (and the educated) in certain elite institutions, effectively eliminating the possibility that useful ideas developed in the academy will ever reach a public that truly needs them. Being more educated than other people does not mean we should escape the real world. We should use our education to change the world for the better rather than hiding from it."

This is perhaps my biggest beef with academia. I am in an applied field well, because I am interested in enacting change. Ok ok, if not actually enacting change, I am interested in identifying targets for change, the mechanisms through which change is possible, and oh yes---this one is imperative--criticizing current methods for change. But if all of my interaction is within the academy--my potential for change is limited.

What is it that causes this insularity? Is it a compositional effect formed by our collective anti-social dysfunctional personalities? Is it an immature reactionary response to the hazing process of graduate school? Are we still worried if we're smarter than everybody else? Are we just trying to please our mentors by following in their footsteps? Do we foster and perpetuate the timeless tradition of isolation because we believe, however subconsciously, that it results in a deeper mystery and appeal of the ivory tower and therefore contributes to our sense of worth? Do we just not know how to talk to other people anymore and thus don't like them because they don't understand all our bullshit?!

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Anonymous Professor Zero said...

What if proper intellectuals were *not* academics? Academia is actually full of people who are not intellectuals, and as one of my colleagues points out regularly, many students are not actually students (to be students, they would have to have intellectual curiosity and study). I think jobs with research organizations, or straight writing jobs, *are* signs of the ultimate success.

12:05 AM  

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