what is the academy for?

I’ve been a great defender of the academy as “a living archive” of ideas, some of which were supposed to have gone away due to unpopularity…Ideas kept alive and lively by impassioned scholars who can impart detail and vividness to the next generation.

But I’ve also always suspected, and now want to insist, that it is also a form of social control. Suck in “the best and brightest”, absorb whatever privilege has caused them to spark, train them to a dizzying level from which they can barely communicate with the rest of society, and then lead them down a path very surely designed to keep them powerless.

It’s that last bit that’s the kicker. I’ve come to understand that the best and cheapest social control takes the form of psych-ops. Indeed much of the use of force is ultimately psych-ops, exerting an indirect effect on the courage of observers. It’s also harder to trace, and organize against. It seems more humane than force. It is the method of purportedly democratic societies for controlling their populations without appearing to censor, exclude, or detain.

Beyond the Baccalaureate, which is now mostly a marketed commodity (as are the terminal/professional Masters degrees), the function of academic degrees and careers is to incapacitate critical thinkers. As Jeff Schmidt points out in his brilliant book, Disciplined Minds, this is not primarily about the content of scholarly work (although certainly the corporatization of research funding has constrained and directed research, especially in medicine and the hard sciences). If you can organize funding or fund yourself you are generally free to study whatever you want and write whatever you want. As long as it stays within the paradigm of your discipline, and meets the formulaic criteria of the academic journals, you can be “radical” in your content. Very few people read those journals anyway (because they are prohibitively expensive and relentlessly arcane the general public cannot neither access nor understand them), so it doesn’t much matter what is printed.

The more important dimension of the psych-ops is to render academics powerless as social actors. The means for this is quite simple, and has many historic Sisyphean metaphors. The promise of success is proffered, but it can never be attained. Some (often the partners of academics) see this situation as self-imposed or an individualistic problem of “workaholism”, but they are failing to perceive the long-cultivated psych-ops, which runs deeper than tenure, promotion, and professional recognition.

As an academic, you can never be good enough. You are supposed to be an expert, indeed The Expert, in your specialization. Younger and foreign colleagues are nipping at your heels. There is more to read and know and keep up with than anyone ever can. But most importantly, as a scientist you swallowed early on the mind-altering pill of humility. This in itself is not a bad thing. But the system plays on it.* Your confidence, if you can muster it, is always arrogance, because you know (and everyone knows) you/we don’t really know. Every scientist knows the gaping holes in our knowledge, and how we fill them with bluster. And the dialogic culture of the academy is limited to ruthlessly hunting your every mistake. (This is the only reason we read one another’s journal articles.) This vigilance, again, is not such a bad thing. We should be rigorous in assessing the validity of research.

What feminist epistemology has done for the world is to expand and valorize the territory of uncertainty. The information that may matter in leading us to the deeper truths we need is in the contradictions, and edges. It’s in Gordon’s “seething absences and haunting presences”, in LeGuin’s misshapen carrier bags, in fiction that tells the truth, and in bits of truth that add up to something else entirely that we may find more than science tells us we can have.

But academics cannot afford uncertainty. It is our currency. And in our relentless search for more and more of it we know, because we have the tools of empiricism and the professional ethic of honesty (even if our doubts are never revealed), that we can get caught out. And it is life in that psychological world that keeps us small and quiet, keeps us from acting boldly.

I used to moan, while in grad school and professoring “I wish I’d remained a secretary because in that occupation you are able to complete tasks and often someone says ‘Thank You’ afterwards.” Now that I am out of the academy, I am living in the wound of the long deprivation of success. I just want to do something and feel good about it. I don’t even care what it is that I’m doing as long as I get to feel successful afterward. Having been rebuked for work that turned out to be as good as I thought it was, I admit no more preliminary, gratuitous, casual criticism. Of course the biggest fight is against the internalized critic. At times I get dizzy from this recapitulation of reality, worried I have blown to the other side of narcissism.

But that’s the point.

When the only two choices are narcissistic arrogance and humble trepidation, most nice people will choose the latter and work to prove themselves. Certainly the kind of people who might seek a more liberated world will choose smallness and self-doubt over bluster. And there they’ve incapacitated us, rabid for success defined by CVs, narrow-minded journals, social network gatekeeping, and a discursive space that is Dead On Arrival.

The reality, distorted beyond recognition, is that we have elite talent. We have already succeeded in completing impressive tasks. We have helpful (even if imperfect) insights which people would value and celebrate (if they knew about them). And we are skilled and competent and could make major contributions to pretty much any project we gave ourselves to simply based on our empiricism, analytic capacity, and skills for systematic work.

The academy ensures that we stay psychologically disconnected from our powers and capacities to contribute to social change.


*I owe N.B. credit for insight into the role of humility in institutional manipulation, which he observed in the profession of classical ballet.