Why are academics the way they are?

Academics are back in the news, protesting about cuts, and the coming ‘crisis’ in funding. As it happens, the first postwar use of ‘crisis’ in universities came in 1947, I think, and there has been a crisis every other year since. It is easy to be scornful of academics, but is a mistake to do so. I wrote this piece twenty years ago, and I have changed very little in bringing it up to date. It is twice as long as my usual essays here, but I can see no helpful way to cut it. For readers new to this website, virtually my whole working life has been in or about universities, so I am writing with some inside knowledge!

Academics have an interesting place in the popular mind.  Science academics are usually drawn wearing white coats and hovering over test tubes and beakers (chemistry) or near large machines and computers (physics).  Arts academics are given long hair, corduroy jackets or trousers and are shown in common rooms or near stacks of books.  Women academics are depicted as plain and often dowdy.  If the cartoon requires speech from its characters, the scientists will spout formulae, the arts people pretentious jargon; the academics will often be shown talking down to someone.  The shorthand terms used to refer to them, ‘eggheads’ (US) and ‘boffins’ (British, not restricted to academics, but to scientists — back-room boys) are put-downs.  And the genre of the academic novel (its examples can be numbered in their scores) is not supportive, despite the fact that virtually all such novels have been written by academics or people who spent some time as academics before going on to, or during, other activities.  Few novels about universities can resist satire or caricature of the place or its inhabitants.

Of course, the reality is more complex.  While no group should be hung because of the way cartoonists or novelists treat it, there is something in the stereotypes.  Universities are not like other institutions, and academics are not like other professionals or other work-related groups.  They are set apart, and the differences have something to do not only with universities’ being ‘places’ as well as largely self-contained communities but also with a longstanding tension between human veneration for, and mistrust of, knowledge and the knowledgeable.  University people have defined themselves as the custodians and producers of knowledge, and so they are commonly seen by the community at large.  It is a special kind of knowledge, focussed more on understanding than on doing, more on the general than on the particular, more on the theoretical than on the practical.  Academic life has some special attractions for people interested in knowledge, and to some extent they are sought out and trained early in life.

In Australian schools children who are academically proficient are marked out early, for praise from teachers and for a certain reserve in the attitude of peers.  Someone who has no trouble in coming top of every class in primary school is the despair of the less gifted hard-workers but usually the delight of the class teacher.  If that is all that distinguishes the child, and for some it is (though many clever children seem to be gifted also with a level of hand-eye coordination which gives them a boost in sport), he or she is likely to be styled a ‘swot’, and isolated from the peer group.  Australian schools have rarely been training grounds for the high culture.

At age 15 or so the good scholars have already worked out what they are good at, and if they are good at almost everything are sometimes the focus of competition between teachers.  On the whole Australia has adopted a worldwide belief that the most successful pupils ought to do a lot of mathematics and natural science if they show any aptitude for it, whether or not their preferences lie elsewhere.  A simple hierarchical model of knowledge which originated in the 19th century and has mathematics at the top, with physics following, chemistry immediately beneath and English literature a long way toward the bottom of the pile is probably the root cause.  But maths and science also allow a lot of externally and objectively assessed open competition between clever pupils — because there are right and wrong answers.  Competition, and the praise which accompanies success, are powerful stimuli to clever pupils and thus an aid to teachers.

By now these clever pupils have found what it is they are good at and are beavering away at it.  With any luck they are in small classes taught by experienced teachers.  Their goal is to get to university to do more of that which they now do so well, and as their school years progress they are likely to do less and less of other ‘irrelevant’ things and more and more of their favourite subject mix.

University does not alter this narrowness of gaze, because it encourages specialisation for the gifted.  At the end of four years’ study, six or seven if you count the years when rich diets of the favourite subject were allowed at school, the most gifted and pertinacious will have that reward most sought after in university, a first class honours degree.  It is fair to say that while there are vastly more gifted students than there are university jobs, and many of the best have their eyes on professional careers, the university regards the first-class honours graduates as the pool from which future academic appointments should be made.  But first there is the PhD to obtain, and that takes another four years or so.

By now these students are in their mid to late twenties, poor in material things but rich in the knowledge of the chosen discipline, aware that they are of the chosen few. They can be very able in their field — James Watson was only 25 when he and Francis Crick defined the structure of DNA.  At the same time, most of them have known no other world than that of the school and the university, and most of those that become academics will not leave it until they retire.  They are unlikely to know much about the rest of the world, and many do not desire to.  The more they know about their own discipline, the less they will know about anything else.  And since adolescence they have been demonstrating intellectual prowess, and praised and rewarded for it through test after test.  Academics have egos which are at once large and fragile.  They do not like being contradicted or crossed, and can expect a good deal of respect from those they come into contact with.  Titles and honorifics — ‘Doctor’, ‘Professor’, ‘Dean’, ‘Vice-Chancellor’, ‘Fellow’ and the like are familiar and have a pleasant sound.  They are the marks of office and status of a world within a world.  Universities, like the church and the military (though academics would not much like the comparison), are to some extent closed off from the great world outside their imagined walls.

Within those walls there are other walls.  University life is generally organised within faculties and, inside the faculties, within departments.  The departments advance the cause of a given discipline.  Most academics are at once members of a discipline and members of a university, and the allegiance to the first may be much stronger than to the second.  There is good reason for this split loyalty.  The knowledge which universities care for and enlarge is truly international in its scope, and academics move easily not only from university to university but from country to country.  You define yourself in disciplinary terms —  ‘physicist’, ‘physiologist’, ‘political scientist’, ‘psychologist’ — and so do your counterparts in other countries; the disciplinary language they use is much the same.  A major article or book in the mainstream of the discipline will bring you to the attention of the international discipline of which you are a member, and people you have never heard of will write to you seeking copies of other papers you have written or raising research issues with you.  Outside your department you may be relatively unknown within your university yet highly visible and well regarded by scores of people in twenty countries.

Universities are not mutual admiration societies.  Their own traditions and rhetoric demand that academics demonstrate their worth by writing or saying things which other people take notice of.  That happens best within the discipline. Within the university criticism is much more common than admiration, in part because one way of being noticed is to criticise the work of your predecessors.  Since virtually all academics are specialists of one kind or another, even close colleagues may lack the contextual knowledge to see the special virtues of your work, and be rather more interested in telling you about theirs.  People from other disciplines in your faculty may not think much of anything done in your discipline, while people from other faculties may know little and care less about what goes on in your faculty.  All universities have procedures for appointment and promotion that endeavour to treat disciplines and faculties equally and equitably, but it is rare for these procedures to work harmoniously for any length of time.

And it is sad but true that most of us are not as clever as we think we are.  There comes a time when we encounter other academics who are just better than ourselves.  Since our sense of self-esteem is much affected by what our colleagues think of us, and since universities elevate excellence and achievement above everything else, those who are lesser achievers have a rough time of it.  Universities can be cruel places, especially for those who are slow to produce, or are obsessed with problems that are outside the mainstream, or like to wander on to other people’s intellectual territory.

In consequence, universities are difficult places to run.  They do not govern themselves at all well (the notion of a ‘community of scholars’ belongs to the world of rhetoric, not to the modern university) and they cannot be managed like businesses, or army divisions, or government departments.  If academics like what they are doing they will devote practically their whole time and energy to it, and their students or their research will prosper enormously.  If they feel under-appreciated or resentful they will spend their time moaning or plotting in corridors, or frustrating their head of department, dean or vice-chancellor.  It is hard for them to conceive of the interests of the faculty or the university as a whole, as distinct from the interests of their own research or teaching, except where external enemies are real or can be imagined.  Meetings of faculties or academic boards are therefore rarely productive of good general debate, and the process of change within universities can be glacially slow.

Yet at their best academics are inspiring people, perceptive, generous and courageous.  They will go to enormous lengths to help a student, and work 48 hours at a stretch while an experiment is underway.  They are not paid what their talents could earn them outside (at the cost, of course, of that gift of autonomy of working life which is the university’s greatest blessing), and they can draw on a thousand-year-old tradition — that in universities the truth must be pursued, whatever the cost — that sustains them in battles with governments, churches and others.  Very few who pass through universities as students are untouched by that experience, and for the great majority it represents a broadening of the mind, a development of self-confidence, and a capacity to understand and to tolerate, that are essential ingredients of the civilised society.  The modern university underpins modern civilisation, and academics are therefore the shapers of that civilisation, whether they intend that or not.  They may not always receive the respect from the wider community that they would like, but their work is fundamentally important, and deserves much more understanding than it gets.





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  • ClarkeK says:

    I enjoyed reading your clip on why academics are the way they are, Don, and the critical role they have in contemporary society. It is true though that academia is permeated by many of the same financial agendas that govern companies and institutions and this at times creates conflicts. Bullying levels, for instance, have increased in universities and senior management themselves are governed by KPIs, benchmarks and performance management which in turn invites them to make greater extractive demands of their staff. Commercial agendas external to the university, because they are sources of funding, can create dilemmas. Some years ago now, Professor Denise Bradley spoke to staff at the University of Canberra and she prefaced her talk by saying that she would speak on a topic that was not commonly discussed amongst VCs. Amongst other things, she went on to speak about private requests from CEOs, senior leaders etc that she received in her role as VC: that a few groups of researchers from her institution should be called off projects, or have them terminated, because they were likely to come up with findings that were problematic to their commercial/company agendas etc.

    This dilemma is not confined to universities: so often people are required ‘to deny their inner voice to be in accord with the voices of the institution’. And that’s where the role of the best academics is evident: the findings from their research, the insights from their disciplinary expertise, are articulated without fear or favour. It also applies to academic staff who maintain standards in assessing student work, no matter what the fee paying implications are for the institution.

    Whistleblowers can be difficult. Take Andrew Wilkie and his position on weapons of mass deception in Iraq quite some time ago now. Look at politicians in caucus, in factions, in alliances: their herding and bleating can be pitiful on occasions and the articulation of a common sense viewpoint from someone such as Tony Windsor can be amazingly refreshing yet he’s likely to lose his seat in September should he contest it. Such are the rewards of independent thinking.

    Political decisions are complex and need clear thinking. The banal defence circus yesterday with Julia Gillard and the White Paper launch, the band, the pomp and the ceremony, only distract from the real issues and appal many Australians. Academics have deep roots in critical analysis and clear thinking but it does not always stop them going on parade.

    Your recent observation ‘cheap reliable energy is the foundation of our present way of life. Greenhouse gas emissions come second (or later still)’ raises raises questions of cost, preserving present lifestyle levels and the environment. Essentially it means looking at costs – in the short term and in the long term – and even in alarmist terms if such a concept as the ‘tipping point’ was accepted. But ours for the moment we live.

    The problem is, and I can feel this now as I ramble on, if you write in an academic style you tend in time to lose people amidst the conceptual complexities and perhaps the gobbledegook. This week someone requested that scientists write in plain language and D. H. Lawrence suggested that one should ‘say it strong and say it hot’.

    So in short, I would add briefly
    to your posting: academics should be unflinching in their findings and communicate them simply.

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