In college, it was beyond me to imagine staying in academia like some of my peers soon would, committing so much of life to research a small piece of the world, hidden away, not making money or anything. It seemed so restrictive and myopic, and in a self-induced way, no less. Academia doesn’t enjoy a great rap from non-academics. It’s that last-resort hideout for people – the “intellectuals” – who can’t find “real” jobs. It’s that place where people go to do nothing except read all day, and say lots of theoretical things that can’t be proven.
Doing my dissertation showed me the value of the pooh-poohed humanities and social sciences. I see how the death of these departments would be a very ominous sign for our society.
I think that most of us summarize the academia vs. “real” world issue in our head like this: an old, graying professor who’s been sitting in a sunken armchair surrounded by stacks of old books on a mahogany desk in a dim, slim closet of a room for the last 50 years. This a caricature of academia’s worst side: sterile and irrelevant. Academics stick around, sometimes longer than they should. Plus their world, like basically every other institution in the world built by man, is threatened by human cravings for gossip and security and by human habits of bureaucracy and corruption. I won’t deny these aspects exist.
But the institution’s root vulnerability, its endurance, is also its most crucial offering to society. How many other institutions live beyond the up-and-down booms of the business cycle, the two-to-four-year political cycles, the increasingly short media cycle? For the first time, I’m beginning to understand why some people stay, and how awesome, awe-inspiring, it is that they have they are permitted to in the first place. I never thought about it before, but what does this time afford them, and what has it given to human development? If we put aside the stereotype of the professor whose mind lives in the 18th century and the 18th century alone, we might start to see the value of long-term study. We do in our everyday lives, anyway. We seek out mentors who are more experienced in something than we are; we trust professionals whose resumes are stacked with real degrees; we know that journalists need to take years off daily duty to write comprehensive books about yet another huge business scandal.
It’s easy to forget that academia serves the same purpose of in-depth critical analysis, but for a wider context. Everyone says education is important, but for what? If it’s important to find a job, that’s fine: we go to college and gain our applicable skills and job app training and then get the heck out. That’s fine! That’s the necessary route for a lot of us. But if education is also important to change the way the next generation of people think about something, that’s another thing entirely. That’s for another set of people, for whom this post is written in general admiration. Their job takes a lot, a lot of time, garnering rewards that might take an even longer time to make a dent. Their articles don’t directly contribute to the market – our reigning paradigm of value – but thankfully not everyone chooses to buy into that logic. (Indeed, some might say the value if most academic research is in it’s inherent inability to be priced at market value…) As I researched for my relatively wee dissertation, I learned that some people stay in academia because they see something wrong and unjust in society that no one in the busy world of commute and meeting and phones and “crises” seems to see. They feel that to work a real change on society, they can’t work directly in it.
It clicked as I got lost at the stacks in the LA Central Library last month, got lost down that rabbit hole of Ah, here’s the book before a Oh, this looks relevant followed by OHmygosh this is the best, too and then This EXISTS!? Whaa! (I promise you, this is how that voice in my head sounds when I get lost in libraries). It clicked again when I got back home and actually cracked these books open. I started reading words, in legitimate academic texts, that were fired with a lot of anger and indignation I had never heard about our current economy; or intense concern about private ownership of the Internet; or deep confusion as to why these issues hadn’t driven the public up in arms already. Why were these things not being addressed in mainstream news? I began reading authors whose questions about my country and way of life were urgent, but also broad and all-encompassing. They went past singular questions like Why did that business behave that way? to Why did businesses begin behaving that way only in the 1970s – why then? Or they nuanced the excitement over the Internet’s democratizing nature to ask What unexpected patterns are preventing the Internet from becoming more free than it is? But their analyses about long, slow evolutions of policy and economy could not be distilled into 750-word columns, let alone a headline. This partially explains why it required so much time and serendipity to get acquainted with their questions. It also partially explains why so many systemic changes in our world are never truly thought through until a bit too late. Too quickly they become “common sense” ideas, buried under short-term scandals that are far more exciting and maybe a little distracting. (I have to thank Roland Barthes for writing about this idea, so here’s a synopsis; also an LSE professor Nick Couldry, too.) Despite the removal of the “ivory tower,” sometimes that is the only place with enough height, distance and historical perspective to see modern society’s biggest problems and, most importantly, solutions.
Freedom is a reason for why some (not all, mind you!) people go into academia for a career. You can have the resources to publish questions that jab at the currently most popular institutions. You can spend years investigating a crime against humanity that never received immediate coverage coverage. You can gain access to centuries of first-hand research documents and secondary accounts of history. You can become slowly familiar with people who died long before you were born. You can do these things, the kind of things that make any community stronger through honesty and accountability, without losing your livelihood. It is a wonderful place we live where such societal self-reflection is allowed in the hope that we don’t keep making the same mistakes over and over and over again after the generations pass and personal memory fails. Think George Orwell’s 1984, or Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451, or Lois Lowry’s The Giver, where reading and history were not given to the people for the sake of the status quo. These were fictional accounts spinning off of a very real fear of mass, blind, ignorant consent.
I felt only a glimmer, a brief whisper of these things as I wrote my dissertation, which could only briefly thank or mention by name some of the most interesting and impassioned scholars I’ve ever met. Like the academic institution’s ability to last, many more of its apparent weaknesses are also its strengths. It’s when these strengths are abused that the institution of critical thinking starts to crumble.
Broadly speaking, this is a post about the social sciences and humanities; I don’t think I can speak for anything else. But I do think that it is in the discursive, exploratory nature of these fields that we have tended to ask ourselves the questions about tolerance and equality and peace and freedom. To remove these institutions would be like assuming that we have achieved all those. It would be like assuming our system is perfect as it is, and all we need are workers to carry it out in perpetuity. Not to de-emphasize those people. Of course. Just to say that the way we live starts with how we think, and figuring that stuff out takes some serious, concerted time. And maybe, yeah, it’s in a dim dark room in a corner closet at a university.
But here’s a good example of how protecting professorial freedoms to challenge mainstream institutions (or well-funded interests) requires ongoing effort. The University of Illinois apparently withdrew its appointment of a professor who had publicly denounced Israel’s latest military decisions – on the basis that his comments went against democratic principles. Later, it was discovered that university donors had seen those comments, too, and threatened to withdraw their financial support to the school if the professor responsible was appointed. Was the University protecting democracy or the views of its donors? Hmm.