The Brain Supremacy

From the frontiers of neuroscience

What Are Academics For?

Is the role of the (public) intellectual changing?

Image of stereotypical academic
An academic in full regalia
Wikimedia Commons

Why do we have these people? We see plenty of them; they’re always in the media. They talk, a lot. But what’s the point of academics?

We know why we have universities and colleges. They’re safe houses, quarantining intellectuals so that the rest of us only have to put up with them at a distance, buffered by radio, TV or internet. People who don’t really fit are collected into pleasant refuges where they have others like themselves to keep them company. We’re OK with that. One mark of a good society is how it treats its academics.

All we ask in return is that they teach some vaguely useful stuff to kids to help them find jobs, while allowing the dear little things to a) make the friends who’ll help them out in later life and b) get the partying (mostly) out of their systems.

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Oh, and there’s paperwork — and boy, do academics whinge about that. Like no one else faces hateful bureaucracies.

But why have academics at all? Can’t the teaching be done by teachers, instead of people who’d really rather be researching the sex lives of protons, or some such?

Traditional answers to this question are as follows:

1) Academics provide the creative sparks which drive innovation

Isaac Asimov‘s short story ‘Profession‘ makes this claim. In its future Earth, children are selected for specific jobs based on their brain structure, and programmed with the necessary knowledge. Asimov asks how, in such a system, creativity is sustained, and links creativity to rebelliousness and to — in conventional terms — failure.

Governments make this claim too, but they don’t see the need for rebelliousness, and they do appear to see creativity purely as a money-making tool.  Oddly, this doesn’t stop my government piling up obstacles, like the costly, cruel and inane Research Excellence Framework. Poor management, a plethora of regulations, and soaring numbers of students and managers — but not academics — could have been designed to stamp out the creative impulse. Either our masters are stupid, or they’re not listening to front-line people, or ideology can trump both evidence and economics. My guess would be it’s a mix of the latter two.

2) Academics create, store and pass on knowledge

Computers can do that. They used only to store stuff, but online teaching’s becoming ever more common, despite its problems. And data-crunching algorithms are being loosed on big datasets to find new ideas. At present, we still need academics to programme the crunchers and interpret the results. Students also seem to prefer being taught by humans. But part of the anxiety cascading through academia at the moment may be due to a feeling that they are undervalued, and may become superfluous, in a system whose overriding ethos is about money.

3) Academics speak truth to power

I wish. Those who do generally don’t get a hearing, and most don’t. Academics may be creative, but that doesn’t make them natural activists. Besides, the system comes down increasingly hard on troublemakers. (The current enthusiasm for open access publishing is, paradoxically, making things worse: because universities have to pay the author fee, they’re now deciding who gets published, giving them a hefty motivational lever for irksome faculty.)

4) Academics help us become better citizens

Do we have any evidence for this? As an academic myself, I’d like to believe that we’re gatekeepers, helping people make sense of life’s complexities. Human beings do seem to enjoy understanding stuff, judging by the kind folks who’ve thanked me for ‘making it so clear’ about brain research. So maybe academics provide that particular reward.

Could it be that our education systems haven’t yet succeeded in starving the desire to think out of everyone, and our politics haven’t yet brought us all to believe that the only things that matter in life are cash and career?

5) Academics are part of the entertainment industry

In darker moments, I wonder: is this what it’s come down to? Watching the news, and the newsreaders’ expressions as they report on some new scientific finding, it’s sometimes hard not to hear a patronising tone. ‘Just look at what these inventive people have come up with now, girls and boys! Whatever will they think of next? And now, here’s Sally with the weather.’

Academics are more and more judged by impact: whether they can get a TV tie-in, or ‘engage the community’. But the community has plenty else to think about, so the intellectuals compete to offer light relief from the daily grind. And yet, some of the things they’re saying may really matter. Is ‘infotainment’ always appropriate?

*******

Creators, interpreters, truth-tellers, guides, or entertainers: what are academics for? What should they be for? Are their purposes changing, and if so, for better or worse? And who’s driving that change?

Maybe that’s what academics are for! Asking questions …

 

Copyright Kathleen Taylor (@neurotaylor) 2013.

Kathleen Taylor is a freelance science writer and researcher at Oxford University.

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