In Defense of Academia

Earlier today think tanker Michael Doran tweeted out a link from the multi-author blog The Monkey Cage. The linked post was about the nature of networking at academic conferences like the annual conventions of the American Political Science Association and the International Studies Association. The post referenced, but chose not to directly address, an earlier discussion about the same topic that was couched in offensive and insensitive language regarding underage children, prostitution, and sexual promiscuity. That original post was trying to use these as metaphors, but it was obviously poorly done—the author removed the post, apologized, and explained what he was trying to do and how the message got lost.

Doran’s tweet referred to academia as a “perverse little bubble.” (I can’t say whether this was in response to the networking or to the issue of sexualized politics.) This isn’t the first time Doran has expressed less-than-positive comments about academia and academics; I’ve argued with him on Twitter before about this. Others in the policymaking and think tank worlds have also disparaged academia as too-ivory towerish. The debate over what academics contribute to the human good is an old one, though it seems to have been getting more attention lately with the Republican war on the humanities and, to a lesser extent, the social sciences.

It certainly behooves us academics to defend our work and our relevance, since we do make demands of the state and the public but bristle at suggestions of interference in our research. Most of us could do a much better job in our defense and in promoting the relevance of our ideas and research for real world policy problems. So I join the expanding crowd of scholars who are doing this by highlighting several points (or perhaps misconceptions) about academics and academia.

1. To begin with, it’s far too broad to say that “academics” or “academia” don’t matter or don’t care about the real world. Some academics sometimes think directly about these things and channel their research toward such ends, while at others time these same academics consider other questions because they are interesting and important in other ways. This gets to another point. I don’t have any detailed evidence for this, but I suspect that when critics say academics should focus more on the real world, they mean the stuff of high politics–conflict and war, economics, relations between major powers, and so on. There are plenty of other real world but less visible or dramatic issues that matter and that academics do work on.

At the same time, there is a distinction to be made between fields and disciplines. It’s natural that policymakers are less likely to draw directly on, say, studies of medieval English literature to think about how to prevent an escalation of violence between two states. But:

2. Even those academics who don’t research and write directly on specific policy issues matter a great deal and contribute a great deal. They do so by teaching students skills like critical thinking, how to conduct the detailed—sometimes boring—research necessary for a good grasp of an issue and the necessary evidence for considering the issue, how to write, and how to analyze.

3. More broadly, thinking about political science and international relations specifically, the work that professors do serves as building blocks for the less-academic-more-policy-oriented work that comes later, which in turn forms the basis for information and analysis that others use in their own think tank, media, or other work. Sometimes non-academic analysts draw unknowingly on the work done by professors, because the information/evidence/research is solid and therefore used by others. And sometimes these analysts draw directly from academic journals.

4. The presumption that academia is a stale and isolated exercise in irrelevance might have had more weight in the past. But today, when more and more academics work in the public sphere by writing op-eds for traditional media, writing for non-traditional media, giving media interviews, and engaging in social media like Twitter and blogging, that perception just doesn’t stand. Obviously many, many academics do not do this. But take a look at the blogrolls of sites like The Monkey Cage or Duck of Minerva, or check out Lawyers, Guns & Money or Political Violence @ a Glance to get a sense of how many academics are participating in the public sphere, the highly relevant issues they are exploring, and how they are doing it.

5. There is perhaps a less visible vitality in academia that critics like Doran often miss. Academia is subject to hierarchy, like any other area, but here there are multiple and different kinds of hierarchies that undermine the notion of “academia” being a monolith, which in turn undermines the criticism of it all being too out-of-date and extraneous to the real world. There are hierarchies in social media (who has more followers/readers); in traditional research (who is cited the most); in perceptions of up and coming research (whose work is most interesting); who gets called for media interviews; who gives public talks around the world; and so on. These reflect the diversity and vitality of the academy.

6. Critics of the academy often ignore the fact that boundaries between it and the think tank and policymaking worlds (normally the ones they unfavorably compare academia to) are often blurred. Academics also go into government and think tanks, and back again; many think tankers teach academic courses. (Doran is himself an example of this process of back-and-forth.)

7. Finally, I’ll just add that the notion that academic culture is particularly ill-suited to the real world, or that it has terrible problems that wouldn’t exist anywhere else, is simply silly. Every profession/career/job/occupation has its own culture, and sub-areas within them also have their own sub-cultures. For example, sexism and gendered politics are by no means an “academic thing,” and any suggestion to that effect is simply disingenuous or dishonest. This doesn’t make any such norms right; on the contrary, their existence is proof that something needs to change and the culture be reformed. But again, that’s not an “academic thing.”

Of course not every academic does work directly connected to policymakers’ concerns; many really do get lost in theoretical musings and jargon completely indecipherable and off-putting to outsiders (including other academics). Then again, not every think tanker has access to or has their stuff read by policymakers. But at bottom, the freedom to study and write about different issues is the hallmark of academic freedom, which was implemented to prevent strict religious and other doctrines and agendas from shutting down genuine human curiosity and opening up society to new ideas. This, in turn, is what helps us think about how to resolve pressing social, economic, and political problems.


One thought on “In Defense of Academia

  1. As a professor, it’s probably not surprising that I basically agree. In 2 and 3 above you rightly imply that theoretical skills and knowledge — like critical thiking and information/evidence/research — serve a foundational purpose for all practical pursuits. As a professor of philosophy, it’s probably not surprising that I would cite Aristotle as supporting your view. In the “Metaphysics” Book I, Section 1, he distinguishes (in order of importance, from less to more) between those with mere experience, to “craftsmen,” to “master craftsmen,” finally to those with knowledge of “the purely theoretical sciences.” Practitioners have experience, but Aristotle says they they only know “that” such-and-such happens, not “why.” The difference, he says, between “those who know” and “those who do not” is their (the former’s) “ability to teach”: “craftsmen can teach, while merely experienced people cannot.” Opponents of such a view counter with the maxim, “those who cannot do, teach.”

    Stranded on a desert island, if I had to choose I would prefer to have someone nearby who has experience gathering food or building boats, not merely someone who can tell me the chemical make-up of vegetables or wood. In a world of states and civilizations and political communities, however, we need both, and theory ultimately grounds practice. We need theoreticians in ivory towers, or brick buildings, or mud huts or somewhere who can effectively argue WHY things are the way they are, and why we SHOULD choose one course of action over another. Then we need knowledgeable practitioners who can pull it off politically. Immanuel Kant is sometimes (disputedly) credited with saying, “experience without theory is blind, while theory without experience is mere intellectual play.” Of course, it’s true whether Kant said it or not. Thank for the insightful post.

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