Skip to main content

Verified by Psychology Today


Academia Selects for Careerist Cowardice

Be an intellectual honey badger.

Raphael/Wikimedia Commons
The School of Athens
Source: Raphael/Wikimedia Commons

If I were to ask you to list key attributes that one might look for in a Mixed Martial Art (MMA) fighter you’d probably come up with several reasonable traits. The person would have to be an expert in various fighting techniques; they’d have to be in top shape; they’d have to be tenacious and willing to receive and mete out physical punishment; you can’t be a pacifist who is afraid to hit someone and be an MMA fighter. If you wish to be a competitive soccer player, of course you have to master many skills, be in supreme physical shape, and again possess the right tenacity or fire in the belly to engage in aggressive physicality. If I were to ask you to describe the traits that are required of a Navy SEAL, courage would top such a list; one would have to endure and survive Hell Week, a brutal training regimen, where one’s mind and body are put to the ultimate test of human endurance. Someone who is too tepid, who is afraid of their shadow, who sucks their thumb and cries in a corner is probably not going to be on SEAL Team 6, chosen to head off on a mission to assassinate bad people in foreign lands behind enemy lines. If I were to ask you the requirements for a good surgeon, at a bare minimum, they would need to have the right education and medical training, as well as possess the necessary manual dexterity. Similar hand dexterity is required of dentists. I remember my cousin when he was applying to dental school several decades ago; he had to demonstrate his manual dexterity on clay models as part of the application dossier. Not surprisingly, countless professions require that one possess a set of necessary attributes to be successful members of their chosen line of work.

Now let’s examine academia. What are some essential traits that an academic must possess? Of course, to be an academic, one must be intelligent although as I explain in The Parasitic Mind: How Infectious Ideas Are Killing Common Sense, many of the dumbest ideas originate from academics. Beyond intelligence, one must be highly educated in their areas of expertise typically having obtained a PhD. Intellectual fierceness is likely to be missing from a description of what an ideal academic should possess. Incidentally, I am referring here to a polymath intellectual and not merely a hyperspecialized academic who solely weighs in on matters within their very narrow areas of expertise. Many professors are not in the least bit intellectual. They have chosen a career rather than pursued a calling for truth. Someone with little formal education might in reality be more of an intellectual than a professional academic. In any case, a public intellectual must exhibit intellectual brawn, and the reality is that most academics do not have such temperaments. Yesterday I posted the following comments on my social media, which I reproduce here:

"Academics should be intellectual @USNavy SEALs, exhibiting intellectual fierceness, cerebral tenacity, neuronal courage, & cognitive freedom. Instead, most are afraid of their shadows, tepid to utter a single interesting or controversial syllable. Academia selects for cowardice. Most academics know this to be true but they are unwilling to look deep within and truly pursue an intellectually pure and honest life. Careerism forces them into shackles of self-censorship. It’s tragic."

As someone who has been in academia my whole life, I am always astonished by how tepid most academics are, pathologically afraid to utter the most banal of positions, lest they might be ushered out of town by the Cancel Culture mob. A true public academic should be an intellectual brawler capable of using all of their cognitive training and intellectual acuity to head off to every intellectual battle ready to defend their positions. It does not matter whether you are a historian, a physicist, a psychologist, or a neuroscientist, you should be able to step into the ring of ideas and debate people respectfully albeit forcefully.

An academic who is too insecure to step into the public arena, and who hides from difficult conversations is not worthy of being labelled an intellectual. Moving forward, it is imperative that we attract people into academia who not only possess the necessary cognitive abilities to succeed but also the obligatory temperaments to be Navy SEALs of ideas. The battle of ideas is won by those who are intellectually courageous, who are cerebrally bold, and who are unencumbered by the orthodoxy. Let us foster an ethos that promotes intellectual honey badgers and not one that rewards cowardly mice and conforming sheep.

Note: This article is based on a clip that I posted on my YouTube channel (THE SAAD TRUTH_1087) and podcast (The Saad Truth with Dr. Saad_23).

More from Gad Saad Ph.D.
More from Psychology Today