Academic scholarship and ideology outside of the ivory tower

                A couple of weeks ago, I wrote about a couple of issues involving the field of disability studies. In that post, I commented about the need for there to be a balance between the needs of the practical and the needs of academics in regards to creating theory. The struggle between theory and the practical is a significant concern in a number of academic fields. How do these fields stay relevant to practical needs? In particular, this is a concern in the humanities, but it is certainly not limited only to those disciplines.

            However, there are significant concerns in regards to who is creating knowledge especially with regards to economic circumstances. O’Toole brought this up in regards to disability studies conferences (2013, November 24, http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/11/op-ed-ch-ching-economic-barriers-in-disability-studies) and Gutting (30 November, 2013, downloaded from http://opinionator.nytimes.com/2013/11/30/the-real-humanities-crisis, 9 December, 2013) bring up the concern of scholarship moving into certain spheres of economic privilege. This line of argument tends to argue that because of economic barriers, only the financially elite get to truly participate in creating knowledge within academia unless one makes severe economic sacrifices.

            This is a concern not just from an economic justice perspective, according to Gutting, but also from the perspective of limiting ideas. If academic work is essentially done for “love” of the subject without any particular concern for the practical (as economic inequities sometimes allow), they also limit ideas. For example, Gutting argues that middle class humanists may have good ideas, but are restricted from working at the highest level because of economic needs. Thus, their ideas and knowledge are restricted from the academy.

            Utility, however, is not limited, however, to who gets to economically participate in such a system. The utility of an academic field is also a matter of function.  That is to say academic fields can be measured by their degree of usefulness to the general public. However, it is also important to comment on what exactly usefulness might mean.

            It is often fashionable amongst the general public to assume that a field’s usefulness ought to be measured by its “practical” usage in the real world. By practical, in this sense, we would generally be referring to a field’s usefulness to the economy. These individuals generally assume that the usefulness of the academic fields ought to a) prepare students for careers (the ones needed at the time) and b) do research that advances the needs of society, often referring to economic needs (i.e. contributing to the development of useful and often money-making projects and protocols. This side is concerned with the advancement and furtherance of society in a very practical way. It concerns itself most strongly with the pursuit of “objective” truth (at least with what appears to be objective truth) without considering ideology. Ideology can be many things, of course, but this side may see their work as being non-ideological, but rather an objective search for truth.

            There also exists elsewhere in academia a faction that believes the advancement of knowledge is the most important thing that academia does. However, this side has little concern for economic or perhaps social usefulness. Rather, the continuation of knowledge is its biggest concern. These individuals may see the world mostly in moral terms and believe that their version of morality is the correct path based on their views of the discipline.

          However, not all academics that may profess this viewpoint necessarily recognize this way of thinking. Some of these individuals claim that their views expressed in academic work are only those of their disciplinary search for truth and, thus, any political views are only tangentially connected to scholarship. Stanley Fish (2013, December 10, http://www.nytimes.com/opinion-fish-scholarship-and-politics-the-case-of-noam-chomsky.html?pagewanted=1&ref=opinion, downloaded 9 December 2013), writing about a series of lectures recently given by Noam Chomsky, claims that disciplinary claims are based on 1) an academic system that is profoundly different from most other workplaces, 2) academic work is a professional, not a public space, although performance may be public, 3) academic work is only tangentially political, and 4) that a person’s disciplinary views and their private views are independent variables. Fish goes on to praise Chomsky for embodying such work.

          Fish’s claims are not above criticism, however. First, Fish claims that academic systems are different from other sorts of workplaces. This is part of the academic mythology and perhaps when Fish started working this was true. The public has started to demand different things from the academic workplace and the face at the front of the classroom is changing. Jeffrey Williams (2013, December 2, “The Great Stratification”, downloaded from http://chronicle.com/The-Great-Stratification/143285, downloaded 9 December 2013) highlights how market demands have led to a “great stratification” in academia. While the institution of tenured professors still remains, there are a number of “beta” individuals working at institutions as well. Williams compares this to the medical profession. More individuals who are not physicians are and can attend to patients now. Likewise, academia has changed to become more like other professions. For Williams, this changes the “face” of academia in important ways. It may be the same from where Fish sits, but this does not truly represent the modern academy. Some of academia is different (somewhat to uphold its mythology), but it is becoming less and less what it once was.

          Secondly, Fish makes the claim that academic work is professional and is not meant for the general public, although the general public may hear of it. Essentially, this is the claim of those who believe that academic work ought to just be for folks related to academia and that is it. It is a limiting of work only to a certain sphere. Indeed, it insists upon a vaulted space for academia. This view is truly “ivory tower” oriented and, some might say, elitist. It also ignores the real impact of academia on the world.

        Third, Fish claims that politics is only tangentially related to academic work. I would assume that he would take the view that academic work is a noble pursuit of truth. That’s the way it is supposed to work. Does it always? I’m not sure I would agree. It probably does not really matter much given the broader viewpoint.

        Fourth, Fish claims that academic claims are different than political claims. Again, that may be what ideally works (given the need to pursue truth), but that is not always the case. Indeed, by his own admission, Fish could tell what view Fish actually preferred. Besides, if the pursuit of truth is so important, should not those that are supposed to seek the truth have the courage to live it in their own lives?

        In reality, no matter how much certain academics might protest that academic views expressed do not represent their true views, it is usually this path that the public sees as irrelevant to their lives. This side may have its usages, but they are often harder to communicate. The truth is that members of the public (perhaps not all) are concerned about academia. These individuals are not directly in the system (although they might have attended a college/university), but they do have perceptions and needs from academia.

         Also important and significant is the role that academia does in regards to communicating with the general public and others. This may be just a “face” that the public sees, which does not fully represent itself in actual scholarship, as Fish suggests, but what academia does do, even in the name of scholarship alone, has an impact both within and outside of academia. Two weeks ago, on this blog, I highlighted Elizabeth Grace’s article Cognitively Accessible Language (Why We Should Care)” (2013, November 22, found at http://www.thefeministwire.com/2013/11/cognitively-accessible-language-why-we-should-care).   Now, the decision to write in a certain kind of language may not occur to some as having a political stake, and perhaps for some on a conscious level it does not, but it most certainly is an act that excludes certain people from the conversation. Access barriers, of all types, can be sites of doing politics. Putting forward one view or another can be a political act even if it is scholarly in nature. Not all these acts may be consciously political, but they are meant to either put forth an idea or enhance a culture. As such, they can certainly be read as being political to some groups.

            How might higher education become more relevant to the general public especially in fields not involving the scientific method? These individuals could adapt their work to the needs of the community better. I am not implying here that academia should abandon traditional scholarship, but I would suggest that perhaps the humanistic and social science fields need to perhaps better communicate how their work impacts the general public. Preserving and/or extending humanistic knowledge of important cultural items / work, for instance, can have a practical relevancy to society. Perhaps an individual’s theories can be useful to other scholars who do applied work and/or those who practice an occupation. There’s many ways a scholar can have impact on the world, but it is essential to have the foresight to know what is important and what is not.

            The search for truth is also important. The search for truth is about finding out the truth regardless of what that truth might be. It does not, necessarily, exist as a political act, but rather exists as a separate function. The search for truth can be difficult to find, but it is an essential act for scholarship.

            Relevant scholarship, therefore, can be found when a) there is a concern for utility of the project and it can be explained and b) there is a pursuit of truth that exists in and of itself without concern for partisanship. To extend these goals to the wider public, it is essential to a) look at the utility of the project and b) open the pathways of knowledge to those outside of elite economic circles by either 1) making sure that participation in academic circles are more economically viable and/or 2) expanding the places in which academic knowledge can be used.  

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