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The Trouble with Academia October 24, 2006

Posted by Tim in Observations.

NOTE: For my friends who are unfamiliar with WordPress’s set up, you do not have to be one of their users to leave a comment. In fact, you can leave your blog URL andyour name will link there. Here ends the NOTE.

I discussed this a little bit in my post Madness, but the idea has been gnawing at me a little more recently. So here goes.

In elementary school I was recruited to read new AR books and write the test questions for them. In middle school I wrote a paragraph describing a cliff that, when I visited my English teacher years later as a college student, she still had on file and read regularly to her new students. In high school, I took six AP tests ranging from American history to world literature to calculus and got college credit for all of them. Accepted to Duke and Rice by virtue of being a national merit scholar, I enrolled at Texas A&M, majoring in physics with the intent to nab a PhD and teach particle physics at the university level as a career. I aced my honors physics class, but shifted majors to International Studies. I now am a declared International Studies/Russian double major, double minoring in History and Sociology.

As a freshman I was interviewed by Pine Cove to be a camp counselor. One of the questions in the interview was “What are five words you would use to describe yourself?” I had to give that question a lot of thought, but one was obvious: “academic.”

Why do I share all this? Because, as one who is really on the upper end of the bell curve, I am starkly aware of how utterly meaningless it can be. I think Christ’s comment about how difficult it is for a rich man to enter the kingdom could easily be amended, in our age, to include the intellectual and the academic. And as Paul lists his “Jewish” credentials and then counts them as nothing, so I too list all the above and count them as rubbish. Sometimes I feel trapped by it – I talk to advisers who listen to my vague life goals and tell me I “can do better than that” and proceed to proscribe a life of graduate research and a comfortable academic career. And I buy in, largely because I would feel somehow wrong for having been given this gift and thrown it to the wind.

It’s possible for a rich man to no longer be rich – he just sells all his stuff and gives it to the poor. But can an academic give up his smarts? Or does his standing represent something more fundamental – talents to be invested, not forsaken?

Because honestly, much of the time I hate academics. I have a class about social movements – environmental organizations, the Civil Rights movement, revolutions, non-violent resistance – and its sounds exciting. But this is what academia does to things that sound exciting: first, remove that disturbingly unquantifiable “human” element; then, parce up these grand concepts into manageable, studiable bits that can slide beneath the microscope for closer inspection.

In my classes, I’ve had why someone would give their lives to a cause broken down into a network of sociological structural forces. I’ve had the spread of Christianity explained away as typical cult behavior, with cross-references to Mormons and neo-Buddhist sects. Books are dissected and put on display as the products of cultural forces, intellectual shifts, government censorship – certainly not innate creativity or bold thinking. Organic, powerful concepts like “revolution” or “nation” are neutered by the horrific process of hyper-definition. Religions are no longer mystic attempts by man to make peace with himself and his Creator, they are inevitable anthropological phenomena characteristic of societal ignorance. The most human of sciences are guilty of inhumanity.

I cling to such statements as “we are all mad” for comfort, to calm the discomfort I feel as I write down the next definition. It is the only way I can unify the disturbing incongruity of academics and their tomes of legitimately useful and accurate research on human behavior and the completely unquantifiable human experience around me. Academia has its sins, but praise God for it and running water and sewage treatment and MRIs and histories and the philosophical sharpening of my faith. Yet when it is my turn to be slipped under the microscope – why was I going to campaign wholeheartedly for a candidate who was unqualified to hold office? – I squirm and declare I am beyond the equations.

Academia has its uses, but up-close it feels completely empty to me. And yet, looking at what the Lord has given me and where he has taken me so far, it often – usually – feels like academia is where I am called, not as a reformer, but as a rank-and-file. Yes, redeemed, but not necessarily radical. I don’t like it, and I wish I could ignore it.

But I need to go study now.



1. meg - October 25, 2006

i would like to leave a comment that is well-thought-out and, if i’m lucky, even interesting. which, honestly, means i had probably better wait until i’m more awake. but for the record, i read it. and i’ll be back with a comment later.

2. David - November 13, 2006

So true…

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