The Fundamentals of the Academy are Strong

I’m aware of the dangers of making such a statement. On September 15, 2008, while campaigning for president, John McCain declared that “the fundamentals of the economy are strong.” A few hours later, Lehman Brothers went bankrupt, triggering a global financial meltdown. Time magazine has accordingly called it the fourth most “unfortunate political one-liner” ever uttered, bested only by “read my lips”, “I did not have sexual relations”, and “I am not a crook.” Indeed, Time reminds us that McCain’s bad timing repeated, almost verbatim, Herbert Hoover’s words of assurance four days before the stock market crash of 1929: “The fundamental business of the country, that is, production and distribution of commodities, is on a sound and prosperous basis.” So when I now declare the production and distribution of knowledge in the university to be on a sound critical basis, it is not without trepidation. Perhaps tomorrow another scandal will make it appear that the whole edifice of higher education is a giant Ponzi scheme and extortion racket!

I was spurred to thinking about this by two opinion pieces published on the same day. Both declared academia to be “fundamentally broken”, albeit in two very different ways. In the Guardian, citing troubling mental health statistics, Julian Kirchherr argued that “the current PhD system is fundamentally broken”, while a blog post at Scientific American by the 500 Women Scientists collective argued that “academia is fundamentally broken and incapable of dealing with harassment”. The issues that they are addressing are of course both real and serious, and I’m sure it is intended as hyperbole, but before we even imagine tearing the whole academy down and starting over I think we should reflect on our foundations a little more carefully. I don’t think the situation is as a bad as we think.

I want to begin by defending both McCain and Hoover’s “unfortunately” timed pronouncements. (Let me make it absolutely clear, however, that I’m not defending Bush, Clinton, or Nixon!) What they were saying was in a certain sense true enough: in 1929 and 2008 the problem was not the fundamental productive capacity of the nation, but the circulation of money, the availability of credit. There was no shortage of supply or demand, just a lack of money to connect the two. The problem, as both McCain and Hoover were trying to explain, was financial not economic. The solution, accordingly, would not be a fundamental reorganization of the economy but a recentering, if you will, of the economy around its fundamental strengths. Indeed, some would argue that this has more or less been accomplished in both cases. (Others would rightly emphasize that a great deal remains to be done to avoid future crises.) I am aware that this sort of sophistry will not convince everyone, nor prevent them from making jokes. But it does, I want to insist, have some truth to it and it applies in an important way to the question of the academy’s allegedly fundemantal “brokenness”.

Just as the crises of 1929 and 2008 were not economic but financial, the problems that beset the academy today are not epistemic but social, not academic but political, and in that sense the institution is not (at least not yet) fundamentally broken. (I grant that social pressures can in extreme cases undermine intellectual foundations.) What is needed, I want to argue, is return of the social machinery of academia to the fundamental problem of knowledge, we need to recenter our scholarship on the production and distribution of truth, rather than trying to leverage our intellectual output in the service of political and, yes, economic goals — things like “justice” and “growth”, often brought together under the banner of “impact”.

In the same way that the economy was being distorted by “synthetic” financial products in 2008, so too is scholarship being distorted by the wrong sorts of incentives and “moral hazards”. They have been widely discussed, and I won’t go into them here, I want to look at our strengths. I want to show that we can do away with the administrative superstructure that caused this mess and rebuild on foundations that are, in fact, not broken at all.

In what sense, then are our academic “fundamentals” strong? In what sense can we declare that the “fundamental business” of the Academy rests on a “sound and prosperous basis”? First, consider the raw availability of intelligence and curiosity in the population. Millions of young people the world over attend university and many of them are eager to continue on to pursue graduate studies. (This, to answer The 500 Women Scientists, includes increasing numbers of women, who have already gained parity in some fields.) There is some variability in the trends, but, in general, academic pursuits are not being eschewed by the most intelligent and curious among us. It has even been suggested that the general intelligence of the population is naturally increasing. We’re getting smarter and smarter with every generation.

Second, the store of existing knowledge is both well-maintained and easily accessible. Our libraries do an excellent job of maintaining collections of books and articles and we have better and better means of searching them. Moreover, the system of email and blogs and social media makes it increasingly easy for researchers to contact each other directly and informally exchange ideas and challenge each other’s viewpoints. Never before have we had such promising conditions for the exchange of knowledge, and the situation is only likely to improve. If something it known, it is increasingly likely to be available to others to know as well. And if a falsehood is believed, it is increasingly likely to be corrected by someone who knows better.

Fortunately, there’s good reason to believe that rhetoric of a “fundamental brokenness” is not being used in a literal way. Asked for solutions to the sexual harassment problem in academia, Kathryn Clancy, who served on the committee that produced the NASEM report, has taken a somewhat hard line. “Burn it all down,” she said to the Washington Post, “and let’s start over.”  That’s certainly the line one would take on a system that is “fundamentally broken”, but I was glad to see that she softened this view when she talked to ScienceNews, noting that radical change “would be harmful to the people [she’s] trying to help” since “dismantling the system immediately, given the way sexism and racism still operate, means we wouldn’t have a clear lane for success.” Addressing the mental health crisis among PhD students, Kerchherr also ends up taking a more reformist view. He proposes to tweak the incentive structures and “fix the broken PhD machine”. Here, again, one imagines that radical changes wouldn’t bring much comfort to a PhD students who is already suffering under the strain of intellectual life.

Note that the idea of fixing something, rather than burning it down and starting over, already belies the language of “fundamental brokenness”. Indeed, if I’m as right as I hope I am, the system is not fundamentally broken. The incentives are just a little misaligned. What is needed is merely to shift the system (gently) back onto its true foundations. Exactly how to do that will have to be the subject of another post and the result of much discussion, but, whatever solutions we come up with, we should presume that the foundations are strong, not that everything is going to fall apart any day now.

Also, and perhaps most importantly, we should keep encouraging curious and intelligent people to pursue academic careers and assure them that they have the power to reject some of the more perverse incentives they may be offered. As I said many years ago, if you’ve devoted yourself to a life of the mind, you have an obligation not to engage in soul-destroying labor or moral degradation. Despite occassional outward appearances, it is my firm conviction that you are certainly not actually obligated to do so.

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