March 14, 2018

PINERO | Overthrow Academia

Print More

Academia, at least in the social sciences, is the pursuit of knowledge by and for the elite. It’s a circle-jerk for nerds.

Joining a university faculty is like signing up to play a professional game of whack-a-mole. Institutions require scholars to publish in order to remain employed; specifically, they require regular original research written for peer-reviewed journals or discipline-specific books. Behind each publication awaits the due date for the next.

Academia’s mandated curiosity (“publish or perish”) is problematic, but its mandated stylistic orthodoxy is a bona fide tragedy. The only scholarship these institutions recognize is formally written with a lexicon too complex and a subject too specific for all but the most erudite audiences.

The bulk of scholars’ time and energy is spent on such research, leaving even those who would prefer to create more accessible content exhausted. Our most gifted, inquisitive minds exist in a vacuum. Their revelations are not endeavors in awakening the masses, but fancy accoutrement for privileged pedants.

The pursuit of knowledge has, unfortunately, always been the purview of the elite.

From the 18th to early 20th century, the Western world’s movers-and-shakers partook in exclusive ‘salons’ where VIP attendees discussed politics, philosophy and culture. Like those salons, the contemporary world of academic literature cultivates revolutionary ideas far away from those who most need the revolution.

Yiannis Gabriel, professor of sociology at the University of Bath, (ironically) co-authored a book for Oxford University Press on academia’s structural flaws and penned a peer-reviewed journal piece advocating potential solutions.

As a committed blogger, Gabriel puts his money where his mouth is, distilling complex concepts into simple summaries. Blogging about the flaws his book addresses, he argues, “Society at large is a loser, as most burning social issues fail to be addressed by researchers preoccupied with discovering tiny gaps in the literatures of their sub-specialisms and pretending to fill them.”

Academia’s explicit goal — original, meticulously-researched work — reveals its driving implicit goal: the absolute aggregation of knowledge. This fundamental premise, upon which the entirety of academia rests, is patently absurd.  The sum of the universe’s information is by definition infinite; its total mastery is a both all-consuming and totally futile pursuit. It is academia’s white whale.

Plato, the venerable daddy of Western academia and higher education, was interested in knowledge, justice and existential purpose. He explored these questions in The Republic, a collection of stories in which the characters philosophize cooperatively, arriving at answers battle-tested by the reciprocal exchange now known as the Socratic method.

Greek philosophers did not simply advocate the enlightened society in theory; they strove to make it reality by writing plainly and debating publicly. Plato, for instance, wrote “entertaining” narratives, within which he couched profound philosophical dialectic; Socrates, his mentor, was a dirty barefoot hippie who roamed the streets engaging regular-degular folks in conversation. Academia today bears no resemblance to its origins, but is instead individualized, elitist and entirely divorced from any notion of greater purpose.

Gabriel says the “more than 50 million [academic] articles in circulation… [and] more than two million added each year” generates a “black hole of meaning.” Why do we lock our greatest thinkers in a soundproof box? Why don’t we, instead, push them into the bully pulpit, as our forebears intended?

Plato’s Republic features a comparable black hole: the famous allegory of the cave, which critically examines the pursuit of knowledge, the ignorance of the masses and the obstacles to enlightenment.

The cave is home to prisoners who have never been in the outside world. They are chained up, unable to move or turn. Behind them, a fire burns. They face a wall where they watch the shadows of movement behind them cast by the fire. Having never seen what casts the shadows, they believe the shadows are beings unto themselves (rather than mere projections).

This metaphor teaches two lessons relevant to academia.

First, Plato posits that a caveperson dragged up to the surface would become enlightened, come to feel pity for those still in the cave, and recoil at the thought of returning to live amongst them. Second, Plato argues that should this newly enlightened individual ever return, their eyes would struggle to re-adjust to the darkness, preventing them from accurately describing the shadows. The returned individual’s inability to comprehend the cavepeople’s reality convinces the prisoners that nothing is gained by ‘enlightenment.’

On the first lesson: Social science academia insulates its members from the ‘unenlightened’ world. It prohibits those who genuinely care about humanity from interacting with it in practice, confining their participation to theory. These limitations separate intellectuals from the characters and communities they study. Over time, the chasm widens, sharpening scholars’ macro view but simultaneously moving them out of earshot of those they left behind.

On the second: The elite academic bubble speaks a dialect difficult for most people to understand. PhDs often struggle to communicate their knowledge, even to the brightest undergrads in their own fields. Worse, when researchers write, they make no attempt at simplification; to the average person, it’s an entirely different language.

In academia, the terms ‘pop science’ and ‘pop history’ have a derogatory connotation. Rather than degrade those who attempt to make accessible the wealth of wisdom otherwise hoarded by institutions, academia should consider ‘pop’ content just as legitimate as conventional research. Doing so would improve the access, quantity and sophistication of the education available to all people.

Academic administrations must transform the role of the scholar from that of peer educator to that of public educator. Original research is incredibly important, but the vast majority of what is produced today is superfluous addition to an already-crowded bubble. Outside the bubble, however, reading is on the decline, anti-intellectualism is on the rise, and accepted ‘objective’ reality, while always manipulated and incomplete, is now completely subjective.

Universities can no longer hide their luminaries. Now more than ever, we need a guiding light.

Jade Pinero is a junior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. She can be reached at jpinero@cornellsun.com. Jaded and Confused runs alternate Thursdays.