There are a lot of very bright people ensconced in academia, and that’s a tragic thing, for them and for us all. Academia, you see, abuses and limits their talents.
To put it simply and directly, academia has sequestered and drained many of the best minds of our era. Academics know this and complain about it among themselves, they just don’t see any alternative. (The 21st century status quo rests upon people seeing no alternative.)
For every famous academic there are hundreds of others, laboring for unimpressive rewards and a very narrow slice of recognition.
I know this because I’ve been skating around the edges of academia for a long time. I’ve never been a member of the club, but I’ve known and loved people on the inside, over multiple decades.
Smart kids are drawn to academia because it promises them a life of the mind, while being properly supported and respected. That appeals to them and especially to those who were abused for being smart.
What happens then, however, is that they are made to work stupidly hard and long to find a slot in some academic structure. It’s abuse, in my view.
Entry into the precious slot, however, isn’t really based upon ability or hard work: it’s based upon servicing the lord of that structure. Academia, you see, is feudal. Most academics, certainly the young ones, are little more than serfs. And if they want to get ahead, they must be very careful to serve the theories and whims of their lords.
The young academic who espouses a contrasting idea with that of his or her lord is pushed out. Sometimes they’re even pushed out for their lifestyle. (Who wont find many moms with tenure in the social sciences.) And I can promise you that thousands of academics have, with pain and anger, called their position a prison.
The big thing, though, is that these fine minds are never given free reign. In practice, it all goes rather like this:
- They are slaves to their programs, slaves to their institutions, slaves to grant money, and slaves to donors.
- Making a public mistake is verboten. If you make an error inside a canonical theory, that’s okay, but if it’s your own maverick idea, you are “discredited,” and will be shown either to the door, or to a small, windowless office. (Great minds must be free to make errors and learn from them. Without that, they don’t become great minds.)
- Every step up is either given or forbidden by some older academic who defines him or herself by their pet theory. If you hope to rise, you must champion that theory. And the lord of that fief must also believe that you’ll continue championing it after they’re gone. The old joke about science proceeding “one funeral at a time” is true.
What academia has created over the past half century, then, is a field full of rigid silos, each filled with formerly wonderful minds, now bound like the feet of ancient Chinese women.
Now, to round this about a bit, here’s a passage from Albert Einstein (in Autobiographische Skizze, April 18, 1955):
The work on satisfactory formulation of technical patents was a true blessing for me. It compelled me to be many-sided in thought, and also offered important stimulation for thought about physics. Following a practical profession is a blessing for people of my type. Because the academic career puts a young person in a sort of compulsory situation to produce scientific papers in impressive quantity, a temptation to superficiality arises that only strong characters are able to resist.
The great thinker, you see, should not be a disembodied spirit. That’s an imbalance, and it warps characters over time. Einstein took side jobs through most of his career, and I think this is why.
After enough time playing the feudal game, smart kids end up with with rigid souls, and very often with nasty little souls.
But the real tragedy is what might have been. If the smart kids had been free to became what they were, not what the institution, program and grant writers demanded they be, our world would be massively better off.
What we need from our best minds is development. They must be free to struggle with the real world, to make their mistakes, to follow unexpected trails of evidence, and to try new things. That is, they must become, as G.K. Chesterton put it, “vigorous organisms.” That would benefit the world, and them.
As for academia, it is unfit for continuance. Certainly its present feudal lords will fight to keep it going, and, of course, their overlords in the state apparatus will want to keep academia going. Ultimately, however,it will end, as Mary Wollstonecraft noted in The French Revolution:
The endeavor to keep alive any hoary establishment beyond its natural date is often pernicious and always useless.
For all our sakes, but especially for the sake of the smart kids, the feudal reign of academia must end.