“Do you think it matters, Daniyal? Do you think anybody cares about your senior project? All that matters is the people around you, and your senior project doesn’t make a difference to anyone.”
All I could do was to look at my friend with a blank expression, completely stunned and humbled. These words weren’t spoken with the least bit of aggression, as one might think. Rather, they were delivered with a straight, honest face and in a soft-spoken manner, and still managed to convey all the seriousness in the world. The words struck me more so for two reasons. Firstly, I consider my undergraduate senior thesis to be the culmination and high-point of a grueling intellectual journey undertaken over five years. Secondly, my project is dedicated to my friends because they have often been my most ardent supporters as well as my harshest critics during this journey. Yet, there she was, a friend mind you, effortlessly reducing my best academic work to a heap of worthless trash!
In retrospect, her attitude towards a piece of academic writing and a person who aspires to be an academic was not surprising at all. Current opinion on the value and worth of the institutional home of the academic — the university — is far from being conclusively positive. My friend had recently experienced and witnessed some of the worst tendencies of academia at a conference at which she presented a paper. Rather than asking a question about the presentation, a philosophy instructor in the audience had chosen to speak to my friend in a patronizing manner, suggesting that her interest in her chosen subject of inquiry was worrisome, thinking that it was unhealthy for a girl of her age.
Thus, understanding the source of her disdain towards my project was not difficult. Academics and university professors aren’t always worthy role-models, to say the least. Many people I’ve spoken to insist that academics don’t really do anything, just talk; and you can bet there’s going to be a lot of self-serving conversation (at academic conferences, for example, not to say that there aren’t constructive conferences). No wonder academics are often guilty of having inflated egos, which would put the most proud of monarchs to shame. Moreover, academics often have a (well-earned) reputation for being dreamers whose “work” isn’t really of much worth. They don’t really live in the “real world” (or so we are told).
This is not only the view of those who remain outside the university as an institution, but also of those who are very much part of it. Let me cite a few examples from the field of study with which I am most familiar. With regards to economics, Robert Heilbroner and William Milberg have written that “at its peaks, the ‘high theorizing’ of the present period attains a degree of unreality that can be matched only by medieval scholasticism” (The Crisis of Vision in Modern Economic Thought, pg. 4). John Kay (Visiting Professor at the London School of Economics) wrote an essay last year on the state of economics and concluded it with a remark about economists’ “work” during this last economic crisis: “Economists – in government agencies as well as universities – were obsessively playing Grand Theft Auto [a video game] while the world around them was falling apart.” In a similar vein, an article published in 2009 by The Economist on the state of economics was titled “The other-worldly philosophers.” Of course, even though these observations are restricted to economics as a discipline and as a profession, I wouldn’t hesitate to think that they are indicative of the culture of academia in general. In doing so, I am following Peter Berger, who in his article on the state of sociology, says:
“In diagnosing the condition of sociology, one should not view it in isolation. Its symptoms tend to be those afflicting the intellectual life in general.” [Peter L. Berger, “Sociology: A Disinvitation?,” Society (November/December 1992): 18.]
What does all this mean for my (and others’) aspirations of being an academic? Despite the above observations, the fact remains that academia as a world in itself is very real and its influence is far-reaching, extending into society, politics and economics no less. The crucial question is this: Can academics – and the university as an institution – still engage with society in a meaningful and constructive manner? A dialogical relationship with society at large is a must if universities are to remain relevant to modern society in general and to the varying, specific cultural contexts in which they are individually situated.
Another friend recently asked me something to the following effect: “So after this undergraduate experience, have you become disillusioned with academia?” My answer to this question is both yes and no. Yes, there are many narrow-minded ideologues and pseudo-intellectuals whose work and teaching make students like me (who are not yet truly entrenched in academia like many of our professors are) question the supposed worth of academia. At the same time, there are academics whose work informs and contextualizes public debates and conversations so as to make them more constructive and relevant. That is, they do help improve our understanding of our world and of ourselves.
One of my teachers recently said to me that the best writing is that which is informed by an academic perspective, yet is accessible to an educated non-specialist. This remark encapsulates for me the idea of a “public intellectual”, which perhaps serves as a more worthy model than that of a “pure academic.” Far from being an “other-worldly philosopher”, the public intellectual is not a permanent resident of the proverbial ivory tower – more like a visitor. While enthusiastically participating in the town square adjoining the tower, he does bring to his discussions in the former the perspective he gains from trips to the latter. Conversely, his view of the town square from above is consciously shaped by his experience on the ground in the town square. That is, the public intellectual allows his academic work and his engagement with the public at large to re-shape and complement each other in a dialectical manner.
Periods of change and transition offer us good opportunities to reflect on the past. Having just finished undergraduate studies spanning half a decade, I’d say my experience of academia has been a mixed bag. There certainly has been a certain amount of disillusionment, but I have no doubt universities and academics still have a lot to offer. However, to remain relevant and to be able to contribute, current and future academics will do well to listen closely to the voices – coming from within and without academia – which are expressing dissatisfaction about the current role of academia (or the lack thereof) in helping societies across the world grapple with major concerns of the day. Ignoring these voices will only undermine their own value as academics and of the university as a major institution.