Academics: an endangered species?

The state of education across the world

Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Elliott » 05 Aug 2011, 17:15

Do you think that people listen to academics in the way they used to? Is there still room for the person who speaks from an ivory tower about how we should do things, how we should live etc.?

It seems to me that there is cynicism nowadays about a person who is well-versed in the abstract, the theoretical, the idealistic. Increasingly, we are supposed to all be "living in the real world".

An expert who can't demonstrate that he speaks from real-life experience gets pretty short shrift nowadays. After all, why do we value what TD has to say about the underclass? Because he has met thousands of members of the underclass.

People still listen to experts in the sense that books on how to parent, how to organise your life and so forth sell as well as ever, but even these books talk about "pragmatism" and being "realistic" and dealing with things as they are "on the ground". Politicians echo this terminology, perhaps eager to be seen as down-to-earth and not swayed by dogma. Nobody wants to be seen as "an intellectual", and I don't think the reasons are purely anti-elitist; I think there's a genuine, perhaps well-founded, distrust of academics.

I see it especially in newspaper comment threads. If, for example, Germaine Greer has been interviewed, the comments will contain things like:

stereotyped everyday people wrote:She's never even had a kid herself. What can she tell me about parenting?

Does this woman ever step out of her university?

Easy for her to say that.

Yes, yes, Germaine, we'll all buy your new book.

Yet again she espouses ideas which would never work in practice.

This is what happens when nobody ever tells you you're wrong.


There's also the fact that nowadays, everyone can make their opinion heard via their blog or whatever. Why trust a so-called expert? In the case of journalism, why trust the professional journalist when his articles are often less sincere and less interesting than the comments about them? I find this is the case on the Daily Telegraph site; many times I've seen comments like...

Are they actually paying you to write these articles?


Furthermore, when an article has commenting disabled, people complain about it elsewhere as if outraged by the idea that the elite (namely the newspaper's staff) have considered the hoi polloi unsuitable to pass comment: the authorised word must shine onto the public sphere unpolluted by the public.

My theory is that in a previous age (which is now hankered after by academics), the public more readily accepted the idea of an elite who could comment on everyday life by virtue of their superior education. With the collapse of deference, the legitimacy of academics, and the desire to have "legitimate" academics around, seem anachronistic.

But as I say, there's more to it than simple anti-elitism. Could it be that since academics led us to Communist inhumanity, we find the idea of trusting them ridiculous?

The public's attitude to academics being as it may, do you think academics have anything to offer, precisely due to their detachment from the real world? Have we simply moved beyond the idea of authoritative voices?

Another side to this... Clearly, mere "experience" isn't enough to make someone worth listening to. They also have to be sensible and, depending on the subject, highly intelligent before their views are valuable. Again, TD fulfills these criteria alongside the criterion of personal experience. He is able to relate real-world events and observations to a vast bank of literary and historical knowledge. Yet as we can see, he is not nearly as famous as, for example, AC Grayling or Christopher Hitchens, neither of whom can boast the breadth and depth of personal experience that TD has to his credit. So again, is it that we simply don't like academics?

(As I wrote this, I was reminded of Laurie Penny. Like a career politician going straight from university into politics, Penny has gone straight from university into a career excoriating society. It could well be asked "what does she know about the real world?" yet it seems to have been fairly easy for her to become an academic, even in this age, and even at her age of 26. I wouldn't be surprised if hers is the last generation of academics.)
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Michael » 05 Aug 2011, 18:08

I believe that academics have in fact undermined themselves. Too many academics presume to speak on every issue solely by virtue of being an academic, regardless of whether or not the subject is in their field of expertise. This is not to say that it is impossible for a thoughtful and erudite person to make intelligent contributions to fields other than their own, but it is simply impossible that masses of them could do so. Again, the problem is not so much experts as people claiming expertise outside of their field.

The story as I understand it is this: with the expansion of universities in the 1960s to cope with the baby boom after the Second World War a mass of new academics were needed. These academics were less qualified than those who had preceded them, and needing a way to make themselves seem relevant and important they devoted themselves to radical causes, in the course of which they miseducated generations of young people. The radical trend becomes institutionalized as the first generation of radicals ages and picks their replacements. That conservative or even centrist academics exist is a testimony to their ability to voice platitudes and blend in, or in some cases simply to the brilliance of their work which could not be justifiably ignored.

So our rejection of academics as a whole (though not in part, as there are still some worth listening to) is very much appropriate.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Elliott » 06 Aug 2011, 00:03

You make interesting points, though they are confined to (rightful) mistrust of academics by conservatives.

Then again, perhaps the phenomenon I'm seeing is confined to conservatives. When I look at the Guardian, they still display a lot of faith in experts. How many socialist thinktanks can they find to back up some proposed government initiative this week? There's always an academic to wheel out to say that the government must do something...

What do you think about my point about Communism? Do you think it has discredited academics?
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Michael » 06 Aug 2011, 00:18

I definitely agree with you about advocacy of Communism discrediting academics. Especially once the truth about the crimes of the Soviet Union and Communist China became undeniable, when they either continued to deny them or excused them.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby John » 06 Aug 2011, 07:07

Academics, for all their pretensions about being bold thinkers, tend to be highly conformist. Many could best be described as hacks. This is what Roger Scruton as written about setting up the Salisbury Review

The first difficulty was that of finding people to write in an explicitly conservative journal. I had friends in the academic world who were prepared in private to confess to conservative sympathies, but they were all acutely aware of the risks attached to 'coming out'. They had seen what a caning I had received for The Meaning of Conservatism, and few of them were far enough advanced in their academic careers to risk a similar treatment.


I'm afraid when academics act like hacks they deserve to be seen as hacks.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Caleb » 25 Oct 2011, 04:52

I don't think I'd say that academics will ever become extinct, but I think their role will change. They will still do a certain amount of research, though that will be driven by government and/or corporate sponsorship (so those two could use it for their own ends), rather than a search for truth and knowledge. The rest of the time, academics will be glorified kindergarten teachers.

In some ways, society has brought academics down, but in other ways, they have brought themselves down. I don't even mean with respect to obvious examples of left-wing humanities professors. Martin Heidegger is remembered as much for his association with the Nazis as for his impenetrable philosophy. Milton Friedman will forever be tainted by his association with the Pinochet government, for instance.

Likewise, the fields of business and economics have been tainted by people such as Myron Scholes and Robert Merton not for any political associations they had, but simply because they caused massive train wrecks. Those two shared the Nobel Prize for Economics in 1997, went to work for Long Term Capital Management to apply their theories, and then lost $4.6 billion dollars in less than four months in 1998 during the Russian financial crisis. This forced a bailout by other financial institutions under the supervision of the Federal Reserve.

Depending upon who you speak to, Alan Greenspan, Ben Bernanke, etc. are either the best thing since sliced bread or the devil incarnate. Understandably, people are a little sceptical about academics, even more so after the GFC and the ongoing woes in Europe.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Elliott » 02 Jun 2012, 23:33

This was an interesting thread and I suspect there is more that could be said on the matter.

Gavin mentioned David Starkey in another thread, which prompted me to reflect again on his infamous remarks on Newsnight last year. This in turn brought me back to the subject of intellectuals.

I wonder if Starkey is, through no fault of his own, operating with a cultural mindset that no longer holds water with people: namely that elite intellectuals should be trusted to pass judgement on society no matter how "uncool" their judgements are. I think Starkey may be the last intellectual who has that mindset...

More modern intellectuals range from Laurie Penny (obsessed with being cool) to Will Self and Brendan O'Neill (obsessed with being contrary) to Frank Furedi (obsessed with relying on "evidence" to the extent that almost no sweeping statements can ever be made, nor any conclusions arrived at).

All of these types, which one may deduce have evolved in order to survive cultural change, are a far cry from the likes of David Starkey.

Indeed, I wonder if one of the reasons Dalrymple himself doesn't get more media exposure is that he is redolent of that past age, when academics - learned doctors etc. - expected to be treated with a kind of reverence. I am not saying that TD personally expects that nor even that he would be wrong to expect it, but when I listen to him in debates (particularly this one) it is like listening to people from two different centuries.

Above all, I think what most distinguishes "modern" intellectuals from their predecessors, apart from lacking the quiet confidence their predecessors had in the value of intellectual activity for its own sake, is a post-Cold War assumption that life is more complex than any intellectual can possibly understand. There is cynicism, but also perhaps a newfound wide-eyed curiosity in today's intellectuals that replaces, for both better and worse, the "stuffy" confidence of armchair gods. While it may be a result of the huge intellectual mistake of supporting Communism, it may also be a result of the Baby Boomer tendency to extend child-like innocence well into adulthood.

Of course, extending child-like innocence into adulthood is a very difficult thing to get right - hence Laurie Penny is one of the most bitter and twisted people in public life.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Nathan » 08 Dec 2013, 13:36

I came across this paragraph about past British attitudes to intellectualism in a book I am reading, and thought it might be of interest:

Goethe had a serious aim. He had told Caroline Herder that he had lost his belief in divine powers in the summer of 1788 and the purpose of life, when there is no God, is to become, to become much more than one was. "The ultimate meaning of our humanity is that we develop that higher human being within ourselves, which emerges if we continually strengthen our truly human powers, and subjugate the inhumane." Some non-Germans have found it too much. Henry Sidgwick, the Cambridge-based late nineteenth-century philosopher, is said to have reprimanded a German visitor who observed that there was no word in English equivalent to gelehrt (cultivated). "Oh yes there is, we call it a prig".
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Elliott » 16 Aug 2014, 01:05

This isn't quite germaine (geddit?) to this thread, but I need to ask the question... Can people watch this fairly short video and let me know whether they think the guy is actually saying anything? Can you follow what he is saying? I just need to know whether I am imagining it.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Kevin R » 16 Aug 2014, 02:16

Elliott wrote:This isn't quite germaine (geddit?) to this thread, but I need to ask the question... Can people watch this fairly short video and let me know whether they think the guy is actually saying anything? Can you follow what he is saying? I just need to know whether I am imagining it.


No, he's not saying anything worth listening to, except perhaps that the East has a different culture to the West, and that the past affects the present (well known to more earthy folk as 'the bl**din obvious').

Seems to me that it's just an irritating concatenation of prolix postmodern pedagoguery and pseudo-cant that he's quoting from. It smells suspiciously of that cat's-cradle of codswallop known in the academic trade as 'meta-analysis'. As we all now know, academic charlatans ( many of whom who have a more crafty delivery than this fellow) now publish unceasing reams of the same stuff - papers, theses, monographs, essays and theoretical treatises on the endless deconstructive analysis of 'culture'. A huge mountain of abstraction and obfuscation written and read by the same small coterie of international academics. It's a stock-in trade that enables the incumbent of many a university faculty across the globe to pay their mortgage and fund their latest minimalist kitchen or high-tech espresso machine..

All this mumbo-jumbo talk.. 'hyperidity', 'intestitiality', 'de-ontologisation' (what in God's name is that? A new type of household cleaner?) Oh, and we musn't forget that perennial favourite of all postmodern theorists.. 'discourse'..

No wonder he keeps rolling his eyballs heavenward, I was doing the same thing listening to him.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Elliott » 16 Aug 2014, 03:24

Thanks, Kevin.

I actually began to wonder, about halfway through the video, whether it was all a joke! The title contains the word "mimicry" and it occurred to me that maybe this guy specialises in off-beat comedy videos in which he mimics something or other - in this case, mind-numbing academic jargon talk. But, having looked at his channel, I am pretty sure it's all genuine.

The weird thing is, he seems like a nice guy! He isn't the mendacious, insincere academic archetype that one associates with this sort of language. I don't know what to make of this. Even nice people can get swallowed up in this maelstrom of meaninglessness?
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Kevin R » 16 Aug 2014, 19:34

Yes, he does seem a fairly amenable sort of chap at first glance, but all sorts of people can be dragged into the cult of repudiation theory. It's like Marmite, one's first taste can envince a somewhat novel sensation to the sensibility, but before you know it, you're spreading it far too thick on everything.

Beware intellectual Marmite! It's salty metaphysic will get you in the end if you're not vigilant.
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Re: Academics: an endangered species?

Postby Jonathan » 17 Aug 2014, 02:05

The impenetrable prose occasionally produced by the academia recalls to me a passage from Gibbon's Decline and Fall, on the supposed burning of the Great Library of Alexandria by its Muslim conquerors.

I should not recapitulate the disasters of the Alexandrian library, the involuntary flame that was kindled by Caesar in his own defence, or the mischievous bigotry of the Christians, who studied to destroy the monuments of idolatry. But if we gradually descend from the age of the Antonines to that of Theodosius, we shall learn from a chain of contemporary witnesses, that the royal palace and the temple of Serapis no longer contained the four, or the seven, hundred thousand volumes, which had been assembled by the curiosity and magnificence of the Ptolemies. Perhaps the church and seat of the patriarchs might be enriched with a repository of books; but if the ponderous mass of Arian and Monophysite controversy were indeed consumed in the public baths, a philosopher may allow, with a smile, that it was ultimately devoted to the benefit of mankind.
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