Friday, October 30, 2009

Academia, of Sirens and Irrelevance

It is a self-governing and largely closed community of practitioners who have an almost absolute power to determine the standards for entry, promotion, and dismissal in their fields.
So writes Louis Menand of the academic institution. He continues
Since it is the system that ratifies the product…the most important function of the system is not the production of knowledge. It is the reproduction of the system.
Academia is a bittersweet institution. The cliché of the Ivory Tower pays testament to the pursuit of knowledge over superstition, dogma, and tradition, while at the same time being marred by the very same dogma it sought to remove. Nietzsche would have smirked.

Thomas Jefferson obsessed about creating a meritocracy. The backward aristocracy of Europe drove English colonists away, and despite our Anglo similarities with Europe, it still defines the primary difference between America and Europe.

The Economist drew out a practical example contrasting European aristocracy and American meritocracy. They write that Buffett’s inheritance wishes – after his death, he wants his money to be donated away from the family – would be illegal throughout most of Europe. These wishes by Buffett are completely American, intuitive, and they’re almost non-newsworthy; but as the Economist argues, they remain extreme when compared to the rest of the world, even Europe.

Academia is stuck between a few contrasting extremes. It’s attacked for its aristocratic structure – often by its very inhabitants – and yet it’s as American as baseball. The students being pummeled through it grow in number and yet tuition is constantly on the rise. It is oriented towards specialization and detailed knowledge, but it’s slow to adapt to real-time developments.

Imperfect it may be in many ways, however, history has borne out that one of America’s best strengths - like the marketplace – is its ability to self-correct its wrongs, no matter how extreme they may be. US historian Paul Johnson admires how time and again – from the Salem witch trials to the Red Scare – such ugly crises are marked not by the extreme and shameful actions that took place, but by the widespread guilt felt for years afterward.

Lingering examples of this are political debates over affirmative action; the heat of these debates makes it easy to overlook how uniquely American they are in the first place. In some cases, as in the Salem witch trial, those who carried out the heinous actions were the first to express their guilt; in others, like affirmative action, the guilt and reaction were much more insidious, extreme and long-lasting. In all, however, the underlying principle is a desire to right wrong.

Not to liken those events to academia, but the point is that its warts are correctable.

Oddly enough bits and pieces of it become more relevant. The speed of change in today’s economy – manifested by the accelerating frequency of personal career change – increases the import of basic knowledge, analytic skills, and a flexible mind. Euphemized as economic friction, these changes are the result of an odd marriage between technological improvement and material improvement, both constantly moving upward and one-uping the other.

My life often seems like a mixed bag of challenges and experiences. I sometimes try to make sense of their order, but whenever I do this it feels like I’m stringing together random beads, only to make sense of them later, so I can think they look nice and orderly. I imagine this is how Odysseus felt being thrown from one island and conquest to another.

I never enjoyed reading Homer that much, but I have to admire the historical progression from Iliad to Odyssey. The former is a primitive linear war tale, while the latter is a loose combination of fairy tale strands, one which – upon closer inspection – seems ready to unravel.

More and more this progression, from the former set of tales to the latter, seems like a parable for modern life, where academia is one of multiple strands vying for relevance. Multifaceted as its virtue and output may be, its future success – in way or another – will result from their merit, or lack thereof.


Thanks to Michael White at Scientific Blogging for turning me onto the topic here.

Media (in order of appearance)

Photo: (1)The Great Hall -Christ Church, Oxford, 09/14/2009, Lyon; (2)Terry MacMullan Classroom10, 03/06/2009, EWU; (3)Kaleidascope of Minnows, 10/26/2009, hadartist;(4)Head of Odysseus.

Video: (1)Moby - Porcelain, 07/03/2009, video, by LTUcronus, of the song "Porcelain" from Moby's 1999 album, Play.
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  1. Meritocratic principles are only part of what Menand talks about. Overproduction seems one of his primary concerns, and it is a important one. US Academia may be hampered by more aristocratic sensibilities than here in Canada, where university is generally more affordable. But being relevant beyond the Ivory Tower and continuing to ask hard questions about society's basic assumptions are roles central to modern academia's raison d'etre.

    Again, I think the whole issue of specialization, sub-specialization and the reductionistic imperative in modern knowledge making should also be addressed. Somehow.

  2. Thanks for the comments.

    To the degree that overproduction is a concern, one also has to look at the inputs (and incentives) going in, among other things high tuition and subsidized eduction. The underlying factor here is an incredible amount of public trust - not wholly undeserved - for the academic system, both when it comes to education and research spending.

    As for specialization, I'm not quite as skeptical as you. Indeed, one of the largest pulls away from it is the rapid development of the economy. But even if you're just teaching yourself, it would be rather hard to study anything for more than a few years and avoid reading specialized material.

    What is important in specialization is the transferability of knowledge. There's a well recognized literary quality of detail - its ability to spark a reader's imagination - which I'd argue parallels the role of specialization in the pursuit of knowledge: e.g., "How sharper than a serpent's tooth it is to have a thankless child", or consider the 'parable' of Darwin's first years studying barnacles. However, it is near impossible to teach or inspire the ability to transfer specialized knowledge, lest we make all undergrads study barnacles.

  3. I actually think undergrads should study barnacles, and many other things besides...Nuclear physics, plate tectonics, cosmology, the history of biology, political science, Russian literature, cult anthropology, civil engineering, Arabic philosophy, etc., etc...


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