We live in interesting times for academia.
Traditionally, even though society at large has never particularly played a cheerleader role for the universities, funding has always been available for all sorts of research. Moreover, academics have consistently been held in high regard as intelligent, hard working and useful to society.
In the recent years, however, the English-speaking world has gradually witnessed a mass revulsion from academia. And even more strikingly, some of that revulsion has been championed by precisely the sort of people who have traditionally fit the academic mould, i.e. curious types unafraid to ask questions and think critically for themselves.
While at Oxford, I myself underwent a similar process.
In the abstract, science is great and academia represents as much of a free-thinking heaven on Earth as there could be. Or at the very least, those were my expectations going in.
Going out, however, all I could think was: if this is the best we could do in terms of institutionalized curiosity, then God help us. Academia felt more like a hell than a heaven.
It is no secret to anyone who’s recently been on a university campus that the place has turned primarily into a political battleground (as opposed to an intellectual one). Many students seem more interested in activism than in hearing out differing opinions. Argumentation has mostly given way to idea imposition and political correctness. The academic orthodoxy enshrined at universities feels distinctly cult-like and frankly little better than the closed-mindedness academia supposedly stands in opposition to.
Consequently, there are two possibilities for the dissenting voices in academia. One is to shut up and do your work in hope that things might get better or that they won’t ever interfere with your life. The other is to judge the whole enterprise flawed as it currently stands and leave. In truth, there is a third possibility, namely to speak up. But it is fast becoming a career suicide for faculty and a social hell for students. In practice, the people who speak up are donors and those who no longer have anything at stake, i.e. those on the way out.
Today, it feels like academia has forgotten a very simple historic lesson: don’t moralize too much or people will begin to resent you. And if this lesson holds true in basically every domain, it holds twice as much in academia. For academia, at least in theory, has committed itself to the accumulation of knowledge and the assimilation of different perspectives. And that means being as impassionate, or at least as charitable, as possible to differing points of view — a sentiment hard to square with a top-down censorship of opinion or an embrace of student intolerance.
Yet, though I still have hope, I don’t expect much to change. The university system has shrugged off many other complaints before.
That such attitude only makes a mockery of the plea for feedback one receives after leaving; that the millions spent to entice children into science are then offset by millions spent to put them off their scientific ideals; that academia is turning more and more into an obstacle to learning; that the intolerant attitude is causing deep societal divison… all that doesn’t seem to matter.
All the above is why many of those who were willing to give the academic system the benefit of the doubt in the first place are ultimately leaving.
But there is another group in society — those who never got to university in the first place. Those are the people who academia tries to reach and inform, at least if you believe the public statements. Alas, those are also the people who oftentimes dissent only to be met with accusations of bigotry or willful ignorance.
Just like Jesus, who said he came to save the sinners, academics claim they came to save the masses from their ignorance. But unlike Jesus, who embraced sinners and preached non-judgement, academics are fast to argue and quick to judge. For many academics, the perfect lay person is not the one who is curious and asks questions, regardless of how ignorant they might sound. No, the perfect lay person is the one whom you can keep at distance, but who buys your book and learns submissively from you, the academic master.
(This dynamic has always irritated me immensely. As soon as one actually engages with academia, the peer review system and its appeal to criticize seem to function more as a be-an-sshole system with an appeal to demean.)
In any case, the truth is this: academia is given the prestige and the tax-payer funding it enjoys only because it works. No matter what one thinks about the philosophical foundations of science, at the end of the day, science makes life better. The humanities too have much to contribute to a great life. Or at least they used to.
Nowadays, for every good paper in the humanities, there seem to another three full of non-sense. The humanities no longer work. The former contract — the public funds academia, academia does its thing and helps the public back — has been broken. And broken not only by making the humanities irrelevant (for then maybe no one would have noticed and consequently cared?); no, it’s been broken to an extent where the humanities are pushing a distinct ideology that makes life actively worse for many. I don’t believe much in Europe on that front, but at least in the US, self-censorship by a majority of the population should never be a thing…
In conclusion, the reality is that most people are pragmatists. They might support things they don’t understand, but they won’t support things that don’t work. And frankly speaking, there is no real reason why they should.
Mine is a delicate position to be in — both loving the ideas behind academia and hating the thing it has become today.
Thankfully, it is finally becoming clear that being against the institutions of academia is not the same thing as an ignorant preference to stay in the dark.
If I could describe my position with a word, it would be academic patriotism — an attitude that can honestly see the flaws in modern academia without mistaking them as fundamental; an attitude that is not willing to give up on something so dear despite its current sickness…
Here are some prominent people (among many others) who are working to change academia for the better and who have influenced my thinking on the subject:
- Jordan Peterson
- Eric Weinstein
- Bret Weinstein
- Gad Saad
- Jonathan Haidt (especially this lecture)
- Hunter Maats
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