The other day I was talking with one of my best friends about academia. And how it kills absolutely everything it touches. You like Dickens? Take a class on him, that’ll fix that problem. You’re a fan of writing about and analyzing interesting cultural phenomena? Go to grad school, so you can learn to write so well you’ll be unintelligible. Want to share ideas with like-minded people? Learn how to speak jargon so well that you’ll never be understood by humanoid life forms again.
Ah, sweet academia. Being outside it – at last? finally? unfortunately? – feels odd to me. For the first time in a long while, I find myself outside a scholarly community, living in “the real world,” even if only for two years, after which time I shall go to grad school and become a Slave to Academia once more. But this little respite prompts me to ask: is academia useful? For studying fairy tales? Folklore? Does studying something actually partially destroy it, as I’ve suggested elsewhere?
First of all, before you even say it: yes, I agree. Academics need to make themselves – and their work – more accessible. It’s part of the reason why I write this blog, and why I write it the way that I do. I write about what I’m working on, and I write to be read. Understood. Much though I love certain academic thinkers, they specialize in being obscure. Like Lacan! Reading Lacan is like doing mind-gymnatics: how well can you perform on the balance beam? Can you do a triple flippy thingy? Those who cannot do a triple-flippy-thingy are abject failures whose minds are worthless. Or so the prevailing attitude goes.
Some people seem to think of academia the way that Miranda Priestly thinks about fashion. Click here to listen to Miranda Priestly from The Devil Wears Prada explain it all, as she rants at her assistant for not caring about fashion. But fashion actually controls us all!
For those international viewers who can’t watch the clip, I’ve copy/pasted the relevant text here:
‘This… stuff’? Oh. Okay. I see. You think this has nothing to do with you. You go to your closet and you select… I don’t know… that lumpy blue sweater, for instance because you’re trying to tell the world that you take yourself too seriously to care about what you put on your back. But what you don’t know is that that sweater is not just blue, it’s not turquoise. It’s not lapis. It’s actually cerulean. And you’re also blithely unaware of the fact that in 2002, Oscar de la Renta did a collection of cerulean gowns. And then I think it was Yves Saint Laurent… wasn’t it who showed cerulean military jackets? I think we need a jacket here. And then cerulean quickly showed up in the collections of eight different designers. And then it, uh, filtered down through the department stores and then trickled on down into some tragic Casual Corner where you, no doubt, fished it out of some clearance bin. However, that blue represents millions of dollars and countless jobs and it’s sort of comical how you think that you’ve made a choice that exempts you from the fashion industry when, in fact, you’re wearing the sweater that was selected for you by the people in this room from a pile of stuff.
Oh Miranda, you’re such a honey-bunch. And you have successfully encapsulated the attitude which some academics have towards their discipline! Imagine that! Indeed, some do believe that, odd as all the papers and conferences and classes and books produced by academia are, that they do somehow influence the public. They trickle down, as it were, from Miranda Priestly to Andy Sachs. Or from, say, Habermas to a construction worker.
This is the academic equivalent of trickle-down economics. Remember trickle-down economics? Sounds like someone’s peeing on you. And that’s because they are. During the Regan era, the idea was that giving benefits and tax-cuts to the rich would result in benefits for everyone. Money would just trickle down. Here’s a lovely New York Times article about how and why “trickle-down” doesn’t work, if you’re interested.
My point is that its elitist to say that academics somehow control the way that the public is thinking, like Miranda Priestly, or that our ideas somehow trickle down from the Ivory Tower to bless the crops of the poor, normal folk below. I’m not saying that there’s no truth to it – after all, every action has a reaction – but I am saying that people have free will, are independent beings, don’t act predictably, and have many influences on their behavior. Saying that the awesome dancing style Krumping evolved even in part because of academic – maybe even Foucaultian – interest on the body as revolution would be delusional. It evolved as an alternative to overly flashing b-boy dance moves, and as a way of releasing rage at bleak economic conditions.
Can I just say that I love that clip? OK, I said it. Watch the movie “Rize.” Watch. It.
In fact, the relationship between academia and the outside world usually works in reverse. Something happens. We go: “wow! That something is fascinating! I want to think deeply about it, and then write some well-turned phrases about it.” And it’s actually in this act that academia proves its worth. First of all, it teaches people to think. Which is, I suppose, the whole point of a Liberal Arts education. Academia teaches undergraduate students to analyze why and how something “cool” or “boring” or “weird” produces a response inside of them, and to describe that response in ways that go beyond “cool” or “boring” or “weird,” and maybe even to relate the description to something outside, to the broader world.
But what about for the scholar? Some scholars feel that their access to privileged knowledge enriches them somehow, that it allows them access to a kind of secret knowledge. To quote the historian Arlette Farge:
Reading the archive immediately incites a sense of the real that no printed matter, however little known, can arouse. It is in this sense that it compels reading, ensnares the reader, produces in him the feeling of finally seizing hold of the real. And not examining the real through a story about, a discourse on.
I really love this quote, because it touches on something very true. Doing the work of scholarship feels like being alive, like pushing the boundaries of knowledge, like actually discovering something new in the past. This feeling is not entirely false; historians and scholars often unearth previously forgotten narratives, stories, or ideas. And that is so, so important. But that doesn’t give us the right to feel like we made them.
We do, however, make three things.
1. We make understanding. Even if my work is only read by a small number of people, I can still reach those people, and increase their understanding about something which I find interesting and important. Making clear and interesting what was once opaque and obscure is a noble thing.
2. We make people and ideas come alive. Everyone is good at something. I am good at literary analysis. It makes me come alive. When I do that, I inspire others to do what makes them feel alive, as well. And with academia, I can get paid to do what I love and feel alive. Awesome.
3. We make life-detectives. This is why I love academia so much. I love it because dedicating one’s life to academia means constantly re-examining the work one is doing on a daily basis. It means never really having a clear purpose, and constantly having to make a new one. It means taking your energy and channeling it, using a combination of pre-created moves and putting your own spin on them until you create something that is, at least partly, your own.
In this way, ladies and gentlemen, academia is like Krumping.