The “Real” World and the “Out of Touch” Academics

On my Dad’s latest visit to NZ, I asked him what he planned to do upon completing his PhD in a year’s time. He replied: “I’ll need to find a job where I can mix academia with business. I don’t think I could go in either one of those directions because I find academics to be too out of touch and business people to be too… real.”

I think the conversation ended there because I was lost in thought. To me, my Dad had it wrong. In my mind, it’s the academics who are more ‘real’ – by that I mean, academics are in-touch, aware, and observant. Their job requires them to be.

You can hear my Dad’s sentiment virtually everywhere. It’s very common for recent graduates to say that they are now ‘entering the real world’, and for academics to be described as utopian dreamers, as out of touch, or somehow removed. You hear it when people so readily discount Arts and Humanities subjects as ‘airy-fairy’. If there is no obvious career at the end, then the educational pursuit is deemed unworthy. It’s been drilled into us that the practical, the rational, and the pragmatic, means accepting that we have to work with the economic and socio-political systems that are in place now, learn the relevant applied skills, and ditch the rest. This upsets me.

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For one, why would I go to university to be told that things are how they are, get used to it, buck up your ideas you rebellious youth and be realistic? Would you amputate the hands of a pianist or sculptor? Because that’s essentially what you’re doing when you tell an imaginative young person (your daughter or son, perhaps) to ‘be realistic’.

A university degree ought to be an intellectual pursuit that gives students the opportunity to challenge the status quo, to have new and brave ideas. University is one of the few safe spaces where young people can present dissenting opinions and test out ideas without worrying their relationships with employers or family members will be negatively affected. Tertiary education needs to be invested in innovative thinking across disciplines rather than teaching students to accept our economic and socio-political systems the way they are. This includes the more ‘vocational’ university subjects such as Economics, Engineering and Education. Sure, you can teach students the applied skills they need to become business people, engineers, and teachers, but they also need to be encouraged to question whether those practices and industries in their current forms are sustainable, ethical, or justifiable.

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Secondly, it’s not clear to me that academics are ‘out of touch’. Out of touch means uninformed, and I find it hard to understand how that’s a fitting descriptor for a profession characterised by research.

Academics are some of the most in tune people we have, their jobs require them to constantly read, watch, listen, and write on numerous topics. Few careers are marked by so much research, contestation of ideas, scrutiny, writing, and re-writing. Academics can also be incredibly tough on each other (attend an academic conference if you don’t believe me!). If one academic publishes a book that is poorly researched or theoretically weak, they will sure as hell hear about it from other academics. The best of them will take constructive criticism onboard, self-reflect, and adapt their views accordingly. The very best of them (the non-egos) are engaged in a process of constant, probably quite debilitating, self-reflection.

This back-and-forth exchange is a defining characteristic of academia. For this reason, I think academics are not removed from the real, but immersed in it. Their job is essentially an ongoing endeavour to uncover the truth (or, for the postmodernists: which ideas are truer than others).

We need to be incredibly critical of language that paints the university, particularly Arts and Humanities subjects, as ‘removed from reality’ and academics as ‘out of touch’. This language is ideological. It is designed to discredit dissenting voices and ensure the continuation of current power systems.

ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM AND NEOLIBERALISM

The prevailing negativity towards university and academics, especially in Arts and Humanities disciplines, is often traced back to New Zealand’s ‘anti-intellectual’ culture. I’m not convinced that anti-intellectualism is unique to New Zealand**, but I do think it’s an inevitable by-product of neoliberal reforms. As long as education is treated as a pipeline to the job market, schools and universities treated as profit-making businesses, and students made to feel like consumers, there will always be a widespread negativity towards those who teach, or study, non-vocational subjects.

The university – as a safe space for dissenting opinions and a laboratory for new ideas – is in danger. Increasingly, government support and funding is directed towards vocational faculties like Business and Engineering. Academics in the Arts and Humanities fields find themselves constantly needing to prove the ‘impact’ of their research and writing. ‘Impact’ is measured by economic considerations above all else. This sets a dangerous precedent of things to come.

Notes

** Max Harris (@mdnharris) has written a very compelling blog post about whether or not anti-intellectualism is unique to New Zealand, here: http://theaotearoaproject.wordpress.com/2013/03/27/is-new-zealand-really-anti-intellectual/

Many people have said this before, and much better than me. Here are just a few other sources:

http://harvardmagazine.com/2010/07/open-book-education-for-the-soul

http://www.aljazeera.com/indepth/opinion/2013/04/20134238284530760.html

http://www.salon.com/2013/10/09/6_ways_neoliberal_education_reform_is_destroying_our_college_system_partner/

http://www.plutobooks.com/display.asp?K=9780745331553

by Alex Edney-Browne 

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