Academics are no strangers to criticism. When scientists, historians, philosophers, and scholars of all kinds publish their research, part of what they are doing is setting their ideas forth to be criticized. In many cases, criticism of past work is an integral part of new work, and sometimes new work consists exclusively in criticism of old work. Though members of different academic disciplines differ widely in the ways that they criticize their colleagues and how they respond to criticism, in most fields criticism is expected, and in some a publication that provokes no criticism can even seem like a failure. Criticism and disagreement are ideally instruments of intellectual progress, and while I have never met an academic who has not received some bad, useless criticism, I have also never met a successful academic who has not benefited tremendously from criticism somewhere along the line. Criticism isn’t just familiar to academics; it’s an essential component of what they do.
For better or worse, however, most academics are familiar with another sort of criticism that is at least not so clearly essential to what they do, or useful at all: criticisms of academia as such. For at least the last four decades, sweeping general denunciations of academic research, colleges and universities, and professors themselves have become a recognizable part of American culture, or at least that part of it that cares at all about such things. The critiques have often been expressed as complaints about academia in general, but more often than not the target in view has been the humanities and certain of the ‘softer’ social sciences like anthropology and sociology, as opposed to natural sciences like physics, chemistry, and biology or certain ‘harder’ social sciences like economics and some areas of psychology. The familiar complaints are that academic research is more and more narrowly specialized and technical, that as a result it is increasingly obscure and inaccessible to non-specialists or at least to non-academics, that it deals less and less with questions and problems that matter to ordinary people, and so has become more and more irrelevant. Frequently the critics add that academic disciplines are largely driven by fashion and strongly discourage creative, original thinking, so that most professors and scholars are in fact conformists unwilling to challenge the dominant dogmas of their colleagues rather than bold, daring intellectual innovators. Occasionally they charge that when academic research seems to have some bearing on important, real-world problems, this appearance is deceptive, and that all too many academics are uninterested in putting their ideas into practice and acting on what they at least pretend to be their convictions. Different critics differ in which of these charges they include or emphasize, but each is a familiar part of the wider genre of academia-bashing: academic research is too specialized, too technical, obscure, inaccessible, trivial, irrelevant, conformist, impractical, and too tenuously connected to real life.
The critics and their cheerleaders often have two things in common: they are politically and culturally conservative and they are not themselves academics. It would be a mistake, however, to think that these criticisms come exclusively from outsiders or from conservatives. Academics themselves have been known to hurl these complaints at their own disciplines or at wide swaths of contemporary academic research, and these academics are not always conservatives in any sense of the word. Nor are the many non-academics who share their judgments. Though conservatives might be more likely than progressives to take a generally dim view of contemporary universities and academic research, it is not hard to find people on the left to echo the same broad sentiments, even if their alternative visions of what academia should be like tend to differ. Academia has often been a particularly active site of struggle in various sorts of culture wars in the United States, but the general complaints I have in mind are not at all partisan property. On almost any way of dividing up the partisan camps, there will be critics of academia somewhere on all sides.
As someone who has been ‘in academia’ in some form or other for more than a decade but is now transitioning into the closely related but quite different world of high school teaching, I might be unusually well placed to assess these sorts of complaints. On the one hand, because I am leaving a traditional academic career behind, there is little or no incentive for me to mute or soften my criticisms. Though I plan to continue certain sorts of scholarly projects to the extent that I am able, I will not be pursuing any of the usual academic positions or honors, and so it matters less whether I irritate my academic friends and colleagues by agreeing with the critics. On the other hand, I am not leaving academia because I am generally fed up with it or believe that it is bankrupt, intellectually or otherwise. I’m leaving it because I haven’t been able to secure stable, long-term employment, because I’m tired of moving around or at least not knowing whether I’ll be moving around, and because I was offered the opportunity to teach classics, philosophy, and literature in a truly outstanding high school that fully embraces an educational philosophy that I wholeheartedly endorse (and where, if things go well, I can stay long-term). So I’m not leaving academia because I hate it, but I’m also not leaving it because I have to; I’m leaving it for what I think is the best available alternative. For these reasons, I am not particularly bitter about it, or inclined to cognitive dissonance. But I’ve also got no special professional motivations to keep quiet about what’s wrong with academia. So here goes.
As I see it, there is more than a little truth in what the critics say. Much academic research is narrowly specialized, trivial, obscure, and inaccessible to outsiders. Most of it is not especially daring or groundbreaking, but instead squarely within an established framework that determines the kinds of questions that get asked, the kinds of answers that can be given, and the kinds of approach that can be taken to answering them. A great deal of it is just plain boring and will never be of interest to anyone other than specialists. To this extent, I think the critics are responding to real features of contemporary academia, not just making stuff up. Where I part company with them is in thinking that these features aren’t really so bad and don’t really deserve such scathing criticism, that the real problems lie elsewhere, and that even if these features were as bad as the critics think, they wouldn’t support such a sweeping general denunciation of academia, or even of the humanities. In other words, the critics generally misjudge the features of academia that they focus on, ignore or downplay others, and pay little or no attention to the tremendous amount of work that lacks most of these features.
The first step to thinking clearly about critiques of academia is to rid ourselves of the idea that there is much that can be said about academia in general as opposed to different disciplines and fields. Generalizations about disciplines such as english, history, psychology, economics, or physics are likely to be misleading when they are not simply false, and generalizations about even broader groups of disciplines such as ‘the humanities’ are even more apt to fall prey to these flaws. If we were to take seriously the idea that we could produce true, accurate, and substantive generalizations about all academic disciplines, from organic chemistry to German literature, from classical archaeology to particle physics, from sociolinguistics to Renaissance philosophy, from cultural anthropology to mathematical logic, it would quickly become clear that hardly any of us has enough experience and evidence to assess most of the criticisms offered. We can, of course, notice that most of these areas are pretty technical and that most of us could not pick up publications in these fields and understand them very well unless we happened to have studied them pretty extensively already. We can notice that particle physics and mathematical logic are at least usually not directly relevant to ordinary people’s everyday lives. What we can’t do with any justified confidence is determine whether there really aren’t any good reasons why work in these fields is generally inaccessible to the uninitiated and without any direct practical application. We may all be able to tell whether we find a particular area of research interesting, but few if any of us are qualified to judge that the great majority of academic research is intellectually barren or otherwise flawed, and that is at any rate unlikely to be true of such a wide variety of fields.
One class of critic will object that what I’ve just said is effectively a concession to the opposition. I’ve just admitted that much academic research has no practical use. I deny that this is a concession, however, because I do not think that lacking practical application is a flaw. Those who complain that the research is useless are guilty of a straightforward mistake, one that is ultimately a moral mistake in the broad sense because it is a mistake about value, about what is good and why. Plenty of knowledge is useful, and some of it is worth having primarily and even solely because it is useful. But it is an elementary and almost entirely uncontroversial point of value theory that not everything good is useful; the most important things that are good are good for their own sake rather than for anything they produce, and if nothing is good for its own sake, then nothing is good at all. It is only a slightly less uncontroversial point that knowledge and understanding are among the things that are good for their own sake for human beings. It would take me too far afield to argue for this claim here; anyone who sincerely doubts it can hit me up for some reading recommendations. Suffice to say that critics who really demand that worthwhile academic research be useful are issuing a radical challenge not only to the whole idea of a college or university, but to a great deal of non-academic life as well. Ordinary human life would be almost unrecognizable if most people acted as though knowledge were never worth pursuing except for its usefulness. This is, of course, not to say that considerations of practical usefulness are not relevant to deciding what kinds of knowledge to pursue or prioritize, or what subjects should be taught or privileged in colleges and universities. But it is a foundational principle of colleges and universities that knowledge is worth pursuing for its own sake, and anyone who objects to this principle is advocating not for the reform of academia, but for its abolition.
Most vocal critics of academia, however, do not believe that knowledge is worth pursuing only for its practical usefulness. They think, instead, that knowledge that isn’t valuable for its usefulness ought to be relevant to understanding the world and human life, to offer us some insights that enhance our appreciation of the world we actually live in. Knowing exactly how many follicles of hair your neighbor’s cat has is not very valuable knowledge not because it is useless — though if for some reason it turned out to be useful, it could be quite valuable — but because it is trivial. So too, the critics might say, most academic research is trivial in just the same way, even if not quite so monumentally trivial as that. Admittedly, it’s not difficult to see why non-specialists get this impression of much specialized academic research. But it’s no more difficult to see that this impression is at least plausibly the product of a lack of perspective. Most particular papers that an academic will publish will naturally appear quite trivial when viewed independently of the wider context of inquiry that gives rise to them.
Take two examples. As an undergraduate I took a class with a botanist who specialized in violets. He had himself discovered something like four or five previously unknown species of violets, and for each one he published a paper recording the discovery. I myself have written a paper about the consistency of Aristotle’s theory of political constitutions, arguing, against a widespread view to the contrary, that the theory is in fact consistent across various texts. On their face, both of these examples look abysmally trivial if not painfully boring; it’s not hard to sympathize with someone whose instinctive reaction to these papers would be “wow, who cares if there’s yet another species of violet or if Aristotle’s theory is consistent?” But a little bit of imagination is all we need to see that, just as my argument about Aristotle is relevant to understanding Aristotle’s political theory, which is of interest both philosophically and historically for the perspective it offers on political life in general and for the distinctive mode of political organization that characterized ancient Greek culture, so too the knowledge of these four or five new violet species is relevant to a broader understanding of violets, which in turn is relevant to a broader understanding of plant life, its evolutionary development, the complicated relationships between organisms and their environment, and so on. As decontextualized facts, both the consistency of Aristotle’s theory of constitutions and the existence of four or five new species of violets are trivial. But they aren’t decontextualized facts. They’re part of much larger and more complex areas of study, and they are non-trivial because of the relationships they bear to those more complex areas. They’re not worth knowing on their own in isolation from their broader contexts, but nobody has ever claimed otherwise (well, ok, probably somebody has, but I haven’t). If you want to assess the significance or triviality of a particular piece of scholarship or scientific research, you have to assess it along with the broader areas of inquiry to which it belongs. It is much less easy to sympathize with someone whose initial reaction to botany in general is “wow, who cares about plants?” or whose initial reaction to Aristotle’s political philosophy is “wow, who cares about political philosophy or Greek history?”
Because most particular academic publications will deal with only one small part of the general areas of inquiry to which they are relevant, it’s hardly a surprise that most of them will be of interest mainly to specialists. In fact, that’s what we should expect of a well developed area of inquiry. The more developed an area of inquiry is, the more refined and detailed our knowledge of it becomes, and the more refined and detailed our knowledge becomes, the more particular contributions will be, well, refined and detailed. Along with detail usually comes technical precision. Here too, the critics of academia are right that most academic research is quite technical, but they are wrong to see this as a flaw. Ordinary, everyday language and concepts were not developed to do the precise, fine-grained work that anyone engaged in a developed area of inquiry will want to do. Naturally, scientists and scholars therefore refine their concepts and vocabulary to meet the need for precision and clarity. As a result, they employ language and concepts that are not part of the common stock of words and ideas that most people have simply by virtue of belonging to our wider culture. You may not know what ‘verbal aspect,’ ‘the aorist tense,’ and ‘the supplementary participle’ are, but I guarantee you that if you want to read and understand ancient Greek competently, you need to know what these things are. Most people in our culture do not, and do not want to, read and understand ancient Greek competently. Perhaps you think that learning ancient Greek is a pointless waste of time; I’d disagree, but to deny the value of a whole area of study is quite different from finding fault with that area of study for relying on technical terms that are not immediately accessible to the uninitiated. It is hard to imagine how any detailed, rigorous, precise knowledge could dispense entirely with technical terms. If we were to take seriously the notion that technical refinement is a flaw, we would have to suppose that all worthwhile knowledge should be available to anyone without having to learn anything new.
So we should expect a developed area of inquiry to lead to increasingly detailed and fine-grained studies of its subject matter and to the emergence of a technical vocabulary and conceptual repertoire that outsiders must first learn in order to understand the work being done in that field. So too, we should expect that most of that work will not fundamentally challenge the guiding assumptions of the field about what kinds of questions are worth asking and what kinds of approaches to answering those questions are worth taking. Though different fields vary widely in this respect — with mathematics, say, allowing considerably less diversity in methodological approaches than, for instance, anthropology — a great deal of intellectual progress is made by people working within a framework that has been fruitful, applying that framework to different problems and questions. It’s true that methodological frameworks and assumptions can be flawed and that sometimes intellectual breakthroughs require rejecting or radically revising dominant frameworks, but this happens considerably less often in science or in the humanities than some popular narratives of scientific progress would suggest. In fact, there is even a case to be made for the progress of modern empirical science depending in good part on a refusal by practicing scientists to allow certain kinds of challenges to their theoretical frameworks until those frameworks can be shown to be inadequate in their own terms. Be that as it may, relatively little intellectual progress is made by bold, daring innovators in comparison to the progress made by ordinary scientists and scholars working within the bounds of generally accepted methods. Virtually every field owes a great deal to its creative geniuses who make certain groundbreaking contributions that change the way the subject is understood, but it is a mistake to overemphasize this kind of contribution at the expense of the altogether less romantic and more mundane ordinary work that has done just as much, if not more, to advance knowledge in almost every field. If nothing else, it is important to remember that even those daring geniuses so revered by critics of academia were themselves almost always first thoroughly trained within the framework that they ended up rejecting or radically modifying. If anything, academics themselves put too much stock in originality as such; the last thing academia needs is further investment in the myth that intellectual excellence requires groundbreaking innovation.
So to the extent that many academics are conformists of a sort, I think that is mostly to the good, just as I think that it is largely unsurprising and unproblematic that much of what academics publish is specialized, technical, inaccessible to the uninitiated, relatively trivial when taken on its own, of little or no practical use, and not always relevant to everyday life. All of these features seem so unproblematic to me that I am tempted to indulge in a vice that I often castigate in others and to speculate about the psychological causes that would lead someone to think otherwise. Are these critics just intimidated by people who know more than they do, I wonder? Are they just embarrassed that they don’t understand what they’re trying to read? Are they driven to dismiss as trivial any topic on which they can’t plausibly masquerade as experts, where they might have to defer to someone else’s intellectual authority? Plausible as some of these speculations might be, I can’t indulge in them too much, and not only because psychologizing one’s intellectual opponents too easily devolves into substituting the genetic fallacy for genuine argument. More importantly, at least some of these features are too often carried to excess, so that the critics aren’t simply misunderstanding what’s going on.
Consider, for instance, the allegation that academic writing is obscure and inaccessible. I’ve defended this feature as an almost inevitable result of a salutary aspect of developed intellectual inquiry: developed areas of inquiry get technical, and thereby relatively inaccessible. But of course, technical refinements are one thing and obscurity is another. Though I admit to suspecting that particular critics of academia gripe about obscurity solely because they haven’t made the effort to learn the technical vocabulary of a specific discipline, there is no avoiding the charge that academic writing is too often excessively obscure and that this obscurity frequently stems from an unnecessary reliance on jargon. Here, however, it is important to notice differences in disciplines. I am fairly well read in three academic disciplines: classical studies, philosophy, and political theory (the latter of which is often done, in the United States, by people with PhDs in Political Science rather than Philosophy, which has led to some recognizable differences between ‘political theory’ and ‘political philosophy’ in this country). Classical Studies itself is not really a discipline, but an interdisciplinary field that includes everything from archaeology and art history to hard core linguistics, with history and literature somewhere in between. So I have quite a lot of experience reading a pretty wide variety of work. In these disciplines alone, the standards of clarity and precision vary wildly. Though there are saints and sinners in each area, analytic philosophers as a whole tend to write much more clearly and precisely than most others, while literary theorists tend to write much less clearly and precisely than most others; the worst offenders in literary theory fail to convince me that even they understand what they mean, while the worst offenders in analytic philosophy fail to convince me that we really needed all that baroque logical formalization to make what turns out to be a simple point. My goal here isn’t to rank disciplines by the clarity or precision of their writing, but rather to observe that some corners of some disciplines are generally quite clear and readable while some corners of some disciplines are an absolute mess. No discipline is free of problems in this respect, and it doesn’t take long to find a piece of painfully bad academic writing. Neither, however, does it take long to find a piece of good, clear, academic prose, at least in the disciplines I know best. I do sometimes wonder whether certain other disciplines are beyond redemption, but even if that were true, the fact is that it isn’t generally true of writing in all disciplines.
So obscurity is a real problem, and one for which there is no legitimate excuse. But the critics of academia tend to exaggerate its severity and extent. The same is true for the charges of triviality and over-specialization. While much of what critics label with these terms is, I think, just good, healthy, advanced intellectual inquiry, it is ultimately hard to deny that there is too much published on excessively narrow topics that are of marginal interest even to other members of the same fields. But insofar as over-specialization and triviality are real problems with academic research, most critics I’ve read misidentify their source. For almost every article published on a trivially narrow topic, the leading cause is not, I think, the narrow triviality of the author’s mind, but the perverse incentives of contemporary academia. These will be familiar to most people who know much about academic life: employment and promotion are increasingly tied to the quantity of a person’s publications, thereby generating economic pressures to publish more about less in a shorter time. Unlike the standard complaints lodged by critics of academia, however, this is one that almost every academic I’ve known has complained about. Even those whose research programs allow them to produce a steady stream of quality publications on genuinely interesting topics usually recognize that the general academic emphasis on quantity over quality has led to too many publications that would have been better had they been further developed over a longer period of time and presented as part of a larger project. Too many of the same academics who recognize the perversity of this system are also complicit in its persistence, but most recognize the problem. To my mind, the incentives generated by the priority of quantity over quality are the driving force behind the excessive quantity of low quality academic publications. Critics of academia consistently understate the role of these incentives when they do not ignore them entirely.
So even where the critics are onto something, they’re typically exaggerating the problems or failing to point to their real cause. Probably the biggest flaw in the standard criticisms, though, is that their allegations are simply false when applied to a tremendous range of what academics today are doing. I’ve appealed several times to the importance of attending to differences between disciplines, but for these purposes let’s just stick to philosophy and political theory. These are, after all, disciplines whose practitioners, let alone ordinary non-academics, expect their work to have something important and insightful to say about issues that matter to human life quite generally and to the particular circumstances in which we find ourselves today. The charge that academic philosophers and political theorists largely produce narrowly specialized, overly technical, obscure, inaccessible, trivial work with no practical significance, and that these thinkers have little or no interest in putting their ideas into practice, is just manifestly untrue. There are, of course, many particular philosophers and political theorists of whom some or even all of these things might be true. But I defy anyone to read representative works by the following authors — all living, and some not very old — and to tell me with a straight face that many or any of the accusations stick: Martha Nussbaum, Charles Taylor, Michael Sandel, Rosalind Hursthouse, Michael Walzer, John Finnis, John Haldane, Edward Feser, Peter Singer, Tom Regan, David Schmidtz, Jason Brennan, and (why not?) Irfan Khawaja. This is just a highly selective list, but you will find that each one of these authors writes accessible, if challenging, prose that addresses important questions that are or should be of concern to any thoughtful, educated person. While some of their works get pretty technical, if you’re willing to make some effort you’ll be able to understand them. Every one of these thinkers has put some considerable effort into putting their ideas into practice, and they have all in various ways influenced the action, as well as the thought, of many of their readers. It would be hard to convict them of being conformists given that many of them disagree deeply with one another; the list (intentionally) includes progressive liberals, socialists (of some stripe), conservatives, libertarians, and a few hard-to-classify cases; it (intentionally) includes atheists, theists, and agnostics, Christians, Jews, and a lapsed Muslim, religious traditionalists, religious progressives, and those indifferent or even hostile to religion. So the list contains plenty of ideological diversity; the only thing that unifies it is that all the people on it are all either influential philosophers/political theorists or ones that I’ve enjoyed reading. It would be wrong to say that they collectively represent the mainstream of political theory and analytic philosophy, but they are by no means unusual, eccentric, fringe characters, and with the exceptions of Khawaja, Feser, and possibly Brennan, they would all be acknowledged as leading figures in their respective fields (even if there are few people who will endorse the claim that every single person in the list does really great work; this is just more evidence for the falsity of the conformity charge). No doubt in many respects they all stand out from the pack, and much humdrum political theory and philosophy is not nearly so accessible or relevant to the concerns of plain persons. But these folks represent some of the best of what academic philosophy and political theory have to offer.
If these were the only academics writing reasonably accessible, broadly relevant, practically significant works, then perhaps the general allegations leveled by the critics of academia would have some plausibility. But in fact they’re not. Nor are philosophy and political theory unusual in this respect. Psychology boasts authors like Steven Pinker, Jonathan Haidt, Daniel Kahneman, Paul Bloom, and Martin Seligman, all of whom have written accessible but substantive books. Perhaps other disciplines are worse off; Classical Studies in general seems to me to suffer from a severe lack of serious scholars who are both interested in and capable of writing good works accessible to non-academics, though Mary Beard has proven that it can be done. Maybe some disciplines are beyond help. I certainly don’t want to defend the general discernible trends of every discipline out there; in several cases, I think that general theoretical approaches and even entire fields are at least broadly wrongheaded and even severely flawed. But even if that’s right, the general charges against academia, or even against ‘the humanities’ more specifically, simply fall flat. There are real problems with contemporary academic research, but they are exaggerated, misunderstood, and inappropriately decontextualized by the most vocal critics.
Unfortunately, I doubt that my critique of the critique will decrease its frequency or its volume. But that’s alright. I’ve got papers to grade.
A bunch of obscure, trivial, impractical stuff, I bet.