Tuesday, 5 June 2012

When did being intelligent become a bad thing?

My very first blog.  Ok.  So much to talk about.  Where to begin?  I think I'll start with something I wrote recently, around the time when the UN had a special envoy in Canada looking at food supply, particularly in remote communities and among the urban poor.

So, a word or two about “academics”. I have noticed lately that “academic” is being used as a pejorative description for people the Conservatives don't like. Micheal Ignatiaff was accused of being an “academic”. Whole hate ads were dedicated to slagging him off because he's kind of brainy and worked hard at school. The UN envoy investigating availability of food in Canada was tarred with the same brush. He criticized the government's interest, commitment and efficacy in ensuring the entire Canadian population has access to nutritious food. Now, some may say “What business is it of the UN what we're doing with food here? This is a rich country. They should go pick on some 'developing' country. They have no business here. Besides, he is an 'academic'”.

Same thing happened in the US. Many candidates, particularly democrats, have been accused of the heinous crime of academia. One candidate was vilified for being able to speak French. Ummmm,....WHAT? I am really confused. When did it become a bad thing to be intelligent and well-educated?

So, being something of an academic myself, I felt I should maybe try to bridge that gap and explain what an academic is and is not. Academics, I fear, are generally visualized as some sort of amalgam of several different stereotypes. First, the “crazy professor”. This is almost exclusively a guy, often with crazy hair, and/or thick glasses and a maniacal expression. The characteristics range from harmless eccentric, to plotting for world domination, to almost cool (Emmett Brown - Back to the Future, Professor Indiana Jones – Raiders of the Lost Ark, for example). The defining feature is that the crazy professor is a creature removed from the normal flow of things. A freak. Bumbling, amoral, forgetful, inhuman or superhuman (although that is an extreme and rare exception), all different sides of the same die. Indiana Jones is the only action hero prof I can think of. If you can think of others, please let me know! And it is easy, in the course of the Raiders series of movies, to completely forget those introductory moments where he is shown in the classroom. Even if girls have written “LOVE YOU” on their eyelids. The hot teacher stereotype is totally blown out of proportion. Just another dimension of his super-humanness.

Another stereotype is the Boring Professor. This is usually a bit part in popular media. This character is often seen droning on as life unfolds for the protagonist somewhere in the lecture theatre. This one is probably reinforced by some boring teacher an individual had in their own experience. Really, I admit, some people should not be allowed out of the lab. There is no excuse for being a boring teacher. I can make “The role of distribution systems in marketing” into a really interesting class (I've even been told so by surprised students), so if I can do it, there's just no excuse for not engaging students' minds and making learning into an adventure!

Finally, there is the image of the Professor as the stuffy elite. Snobbish, if you will. Images of the professor in some private club, hobnobbing with the landed gentry and captains of industry. Atypical, to say the least. First, most profs do not earn enough to join exclusive clubs. And second, those gentry and captains harbour the same sort of reservations about 'academics' as many other people. They show up as guest speakers at academic events as business obligations, not because they are comfortable with a room full of professors.

What I want to say here is that people who have attained a PhD (and I mean actually earned it, not an honourary) are mostly just regular people, just possessed of a keen curiousity about how things work, why they are the way they are, how they got that way, and what can we do with the future. I don't want to underrate this in any way. Getting a PhD is not having tea with the dean, or romances in the campus library. It is not being the top dog at an exclusive fraternity. It is hard slogging work. It is sleep deprivation. It is feeling like you don't have a life you can call your own for months, even years on end. It is stress because everything you do gets criticized by people who can heavily influence your future. It is competitive. Sure, you are a big family of peers and colleagues in your department, You try to be supportive of each other.... But....some assignments, tests, etc. are set up to be competitive. Sometimes you are competing for grant money. Or money to present your work (that work that has been keeping you up 20 of 24 hours a day for weeks) at a conference and the school will only pay to send one student from your department. You often have to present your work in front of a fairly large group. This is supposed to get you ready for defending your dissertation. This is an event that defies brief description, but which I may go into in a blog update on its own. I will only say now that my own dissertation defence carried very real and present dangers of puking or fainting. Thankfully, I did neither.

See? It is not that different from most people's work days.

And if you get that PhD and apply to schools for a tenure track position, it's like trying for a partnership in a law firm or an accounting firm – you have to earn it. For academics, it's usually about 7 years from when you are hired. You have to be on committees. You have to do research that is accepted and published in peer-reviewed journals. You have to have exemplary teaching evaluations. Depending on the institution, you can expect at this point to be working well over the 40 hour work week. Close to twice that at certain times a year.

So academics have courage, determination, curiousity about the world, an enthusiasm for learning and sharing what they know, and they work damn hard. I must say, from my own experience, I have met far more boring people from the world of business and corporations than I have met boring academics. Most academics are on fire with interest, curiousity, and a sincere concern for enriching human knowledge and well-being. Having said that, some are so well-versed in an area of specialization that has a vocabulary unto itself, quantum mechanics or string theory, for instance, that it is difficult for them to explain their work to outsiders. Think about it this way, a guy who is totally obsessed with rebuilding his 1957 Dodge and talks in minute detail about parts and torque and so on, can be every bit as boring to the uninitiated as someone who is working to map the human genome and is really excited about their work.

Furthermore, being rumpled, or poorly dressed is not part of the job description. Many academics dress very stylishly, thank you very much. Having poor interpersonal skills is definitely not part of being a successful academic. Just like any other job, academics have to deal with people every day. There are students, colleagues, administrative staff, the people who work in food services and IT and physical plant. And they go to conferences where they must make nice with academics from all over the world. They are not isolated. They often have a much better appreciation of co-operation among different cultures than most. University faculties tend to be among the most culturally diverse workplaces around. It is not uncommon for 2 or 3 academics to collaborate on research together even though they live in vastly different parts of the planet. You can have someone in Turkey collaborating with someone in the UK and someone in Canada, for instance. Academics tend to make a lot of use of technology to facilitate these collaborations. They learn from one another. Likewise, it is increasingly common to have academics from different areas of study coming together to work on a project, each bringing their own expertise to bear on the question at hand. So, academics are motivated to co-operate and try to build bridges between different viewpoints.

Academics often have children. They rock babies, they bandage skinned knees, and they teach little people to ride bicycles. They go to junior high school band concerts and suffer just like everyone else. They have hobbies. Some play sports. Many have a favourite TV show and you would probably be surprised just how many are addicted to shows like Survivor, or Jersey Shore. They watch the same kind of stuff as anyone else. After 8 or 10 hours of being in the spotlight at the front of a classroom, doing high level stats for research and sitting through meetings, everyone likes to let their mind rest...

So, why do people dislike or mistrust academics? 

 It suits the purposes of a government with things to hide to discredit  those with the education and cognitive skills to see the linkages between apparantly disparate policies. If you look at who the dissidents of the world are, that is, who repressive regimes have imprisoned, exiled or executed, a huge number of them are academics, intellectuals, authors and artists. Because these are the people who see the big picture, who see through the lies, who are not hypnotised by squirrel tactics ("Look! A Squirrel!), who don't buy the talking points no matter how loudly and often they are repeated.  They are the ones who question. 

In police states it is easier for the government to silence such individuals by locking them up or killing them.  In cases where there is a semblance of civil rights and rule of law, the government cannot resort to such draconian measures.  What they can do, however, is use the terms "academic" and "intellectual" as dirty words.  They couch these labels in ways which project an air of evil and negativity that has nothing to do with the reality.  Just as the CPC made "coalition" into something dreadful and scandalous (while, in fact, coalition governments are functioning effectively in many parts of the world), they are using the same tactic to demean critics and opponents.

As citizens we need to examine what a thing really is and compare it with what those in power would like us to believe it is. There are plenty of examples of this. Resource development issues are rife with terminology that can mean many things. "Environmentalist", for instance is being twisted into a negative term.  If we allow them to change the meaning of our language to suit their own ends, we will lose our ability to object.


  1. Welcome to blogging, C the Ginger.
    Sean Maguire, in Good Will Hunting?

    Please don't forget those of us who are academics via Master's degrees, experience and other forms of education ... we all fight the good fight.



  2. Of course! There are many kinds of academics, and intellectuals (research scientists, statisticians, etc... pretty much all targets for government crackdowns - statscan, etc.) And all are valuable to society!