academia + me: a 21st-century flirtationship

disclaimer: I use offensive language and am harsh out of a loving desire to see discussion and change. I am also not knocking the many kind and intelligent individuals in academia; I am talking about the system as a whole. 

Academia and I have had great times together, but I frequently doubt our longterm compatibility. 

It’s not because we didn’t “look good” together. The Dean’s List and I were good friends back in my St Andrews days, and before a mental health crisis and medication made me a little bit more cloudy, I was at the very top of my Social Anthropology class. Even after the crisis and the medication and putting a hole in my knee to the bone (that one was totally my fault), I still kept my solid first (a 4.0, for American readers). 

But the thing is, Academia is a fuck boy. 

If a fuck boy is that guy who leads girls on but is just interested in fun times, booze, and casual sex, then Academia is the environment that seems to be “super woke and pretty chill” but is really just interested in the casual continuance of current social systems. 

Academia will give you the cute Instagram couple pics (#awards, #publications) and will woo you with the sweet, sweet booze of knowledge and enlightenment, but Academia as a system is in so many ways just about the money-making and class-climbing. Maybe they’ll throw a few scholarships and funding schemes out there: the equivalent of belated Facebook wall post “happy anniversary.” 

Academia says it’s about knowledge and The Human Spirit (and it’ll constantly debate over the definition and merit of that phrase), but it’s firmly rooted in elitism and, dare I say it, colonialism. Academia, my friends, is a bit of a stuck-up ho. 

If you’re offended by my use of “fuck boy” and “ho,” let me ask you this: would you rather me fit with your well-bred vision of wokeness and say, “Academia, in the form of institutions of higher education, works to perpetuate systems of social inequality and class prejudice while cultivating and presenting an image of egalitarianism and propounding the ill-defined value of accessible education?”  

Does that really make it sound better? Does it really make it sound more inclusive? 

I’m not trying to be too harsh, here, or to blanket-statement everyone in Academia. I met so many of my favourite people because of Academia. I regularly consider going back to do a PhD because everyone needs to get a little action sometimes. For me, that action is knowledge and all the books, but whatever. 

The knowledge I gained while in Academia was, without question or equivocation, utterly beautiful and life-changing. 

My mind leapt to life each time I encountered the legacy of an academic foremother or forefather whose ideas felt so much expansive than my own, and I loved walking into the Anthropology Department and seeing the faces of devoted and passionate academics.

I enjoyed feeling pushed. I loved the readings, the discussions, the academic awards, the lectures, and even, in a weird way, the three-hour examinations. The challenge was deeply felt and genuine, and there hasn’t been a day since 2014 that I haven’t actively appreciated how anthropology taught me to think. 

Anthropologists appreciated philosophy and a good theorist, but they seemed to insist that the best way to understand how different people live and think was to live with and think about different people. They professed the equal worth of all human life, attempted to value all human expression, and expounded a fervently anti-colonialist ethos. It made sense and resonated with me. 

If I hadn’t found anthropology, I would have dropped out. While anthropology gave me enough reason to stay in academia, it didn’t kill my first- and second-year daydreams about living in an ecovillage, volunteering at homeless shelters, and learning how to live off-grid whilst devoting time to writing. 

The thing is? Even these idyllic daydreams came from a place of class and privilege. There was so much about the world I didn’t understand and still don’t. The thing is? I loved discussing the value and merit of all perspectives, but the very fact that I had the time and opportunity to discuss these ideas in a foreign classroom was an unbelievable privilege that remains inaccessible to most. 

Anthropology was, hands down, what kept me with Academia and what draws me back. 

But then I catch myself. 

The thrilling rush of ideas in a damn good lecture was counterbalanced by the irony of students discussing class and ethnocentricism whilst huddling within their $300 jackets and $200 shoes. 

We engaged with the problem of being part of a discipline that was born as a servant of colonialism (i.e., governments sent anthropologists to get information on communities they wanted to conquer, erm, improve) but now attempted to deconstruct colonialism as we warmed our hands with $4 coffees. 

We all sounded so goddamn smart.

I felt intense discomfort each time I was assigned a reading that featured decent-to-mediocre ideas worsened by unnecessary vocabulary. Had I been forced to read too much Hemingway in high school, or had some of these academic writers gone a bit mad? And was I being pretentious by thinking that their pretentious selves needed a daily dose of Hemingway to counterbalance their cumbersome confabulations? Wait, what the fuck did I just think? God forbid that I’m pretentious. 

But in all seriousness, the snobbery and the pretention is only a symptom of the underlying problems of class, prejudice, and the ever-escalating price of higher education. 

In so many ways, the higher education problem is so much worse here in the US than it was over in the UK. Student debt looms staggeringly large, and many children are told that their only path to success is through higher education. This isn’t universally true, as many good trade jobs can provide a stable income and an active, enjoyable career. 

Despite this, prejudice lives on: in the way schools value certain test scores over trade skills, in the way people talk about the working class, and in the way “educated” individuals often regard others who speak with a strong regional accent or dialect.  

The class system is not dead, and there sits Anthropology, in the middle of it all

Anthropology, like many other worthy disciplines, benefits from Academia in that the system supplies money and funding for much-needed research. This research is so valuable and so important that throughout my whole degree I kept wishing that more people knew about this incredible way of attempting to understand other peoples, cultures, and societies. 

Anthropology showed me how much we could know and how much we can never hope to comprehend. 

I wish this research could be injected into our modern world of divisive politics, rampant consumerism and consumer blame, and SEO-driven marketing strategies. 

However, much of valuable academic research is bogged down with pointlessly complicated language. It’s almost as if people stopped having decent ideas or got afraid that their ideas weren’t good enough and then thought, “Fuck, if I throw in some pointless pontification and viscous verbosity, maybe more people will quote me so that they also feel more smarterz.” 

Some specialized or complex language is necessary for any discipline or walk of life. When my welder boyfriend talks about his job, it sounds like another language and I am in awe of what he does. In the world of rock climbing, “Match on the sloper and bump your right hand up to the crimp, but footswitch first” is a totally correct sentence. However, there’s a fine line between vocabulary and pointless verbiage, and Academia really, really sucks at knowing where that line is. 

I’ve heard it said that the point of this dense, academic research is to inform public policy and governmental decision making. 

This makes me hella uncomfortable. I’m not against long, whimsical sentences or esoteric texts. I’ve translated some of Puskin’s short stories from the Russian and grew up adoring Dickens and Dostoevsky; there’s a real joy to be found when lost in a maze of words. 

However, it’s the conflation of one way of speaking and thinking with power that bothers me: 

Why should such an undemocratic way of speaking and writing be given a central role in governance and power-making? 

To me, this is about three primary issues: 

  1. Many of our public education systems suck and do not come close to bringing the average individual to the point of understanding research papers and academic articles. This is tragic because this information could change how we make decisions as a society. 
  2. Our higher education systems only serve to widen the education gap with thinly-disguised snobbery and a headlong devotion to money-making and a publish-or-perish culture. 
  3. The internet, with its SEO-driven content and sale of misinformation, muddies the water even further and degrades the quality of publicly-available information just as it simultaneously makes legitimate information more widely available. 

Let’s take these three problems back to the academic environment. 

When I was in my third year, I won a prize for research and leadership. Before us “chosen few” were allowed to head out on our research trips, we had to attend leadership seminars. 

Much of the seminar was devoted to telling us that we were future leaders of the world and the cream of the crop and that we were so fucking special. 

Meanwhile, all we really deserved was to be told that we got pretty good grades, that we had some decent ideas worth pursuing, and that we all really needed to stop drinking so much goddamned caffeine. 

How the fuck does being told “you’re so special and you’re the cream of the crop” help with cultivating the humility and the question-asking and the ability to critique oneself that is inherent to good research? How does that promote the mental health and stability necessary for balanced research, civil service, and public action? 

It doesn’t. 

It doesn’t cultivate a sense of awareness of the vastness of other professions and skillsets. It doesn’t encourage you to question your own privilege. It doesn’t promote stillness, contemplation, or personal reflection. It doesn’t urge you to turn to other types and sources of knowledge and intelligence. 

But that attitude and that narrative are omnipresent within the culture of higher education: in the wording on university websites, in social media, in graduation ceremonies, in how we talk about college and university. 

Couple all of these problems with the soaring cost of higher education (which is only occasionally ameliorated by token scholarships and funding, which is, in turn, easier to get with expensive prior education or the luxury of time) and you have a recipe for snobbery, classism, and elitism that will continue to rot away at any sense of rebellious curiosity, respectful wonder, or quiet openness. 

And so, with deft strokes, a) the appearance of knowledge, b) class and c) governmental policy influence are conflated into what I humbly dub the Trifecta of Doom. Feel free to quote me on that. 😉

Yeah, Academia is a fuck boy, and the Trifecta of Doom sure is exciting and fun when you’re benefitting from it: sometimes you need to go to a frat house to get your booze. You might meet some really cool people. It might help you move up the social ladder, and you glean knowledge and experience, if you know what I mean. It’s not all bad. 

All the same, we shouldn’t look at Academia as anything other than a fuck boy who has kind of trashed his frat house that he definitely didn’t pay for himself. 

Some reprimanding is in order, and maybe Academia deserves a kick in the read end. Just my thoughts. 

Here are my final reflections: 

The internet has done much to help break up this Trifecta of Doom, but it’s also the place where social media sells our information and ghostwritten content is optimized for keyword searches and sales rather than information and accuracy. In a few words, yay and yuck. 

In this context, how can passionate learners and scholars attempt to break up the Trifecta of Doom and still make a living? 

Maybe by writing more accessible articles.

Maybe by exploring new ways of disseminating information. 

Maybe by changing the way in which we engage with governmental bodies. 

Maybe by actively banding together as intellectual individuals to combat the perpetual sale of misinformation on the internet. It’s no secret that this misinformation is damaging democracy.   

I’m still wrestling with this issue. I don’t know the answer, and so many other individuals (podcasters, better bloggers, etc) are so much further along this journey than I am. The past two years have been confusing and I’ve wrestled with the practicality, morality, and the fun of pursuing a PhD: I want to learn more, but I also want to try to carve my own way, even though I have no idea what that looks like. Maybe I’m lazy or maybe I’m brave. I really don’t know. 

I think graduate studies are the right path for some, like my friend psychologist and photographer friend who needs a higher degree in order to do life-changing work.

Meanwhile, I sometimes kinda think I might be called to be a dirtbag anthropologist, a rock climbing ethnographer, a ski bum social scientist. I want to write, explore, and do my own thing. I’m struggling to figure out what this looks like (and I cringe whenever I think the phrase “dirtbag anthropologist”), but I’ll get there. In the meantime, I write and teach climbing. 

Right now, I’m living life with my sheet metal worker boyfriend, who continues to accidentally supply me with Arendt-level answers to Heideggerian questions and to prove to me that, if the apocalypse were to happen, I know who could rappel down a cliff, make a pipe out of a gum wrapper, forge a sword, and drive through the mountains. (Literally, he can do all of these things.) 

His is a kind of intelligence and honesty I wholly respect, and he challenges the way I think on a daily basis. 

Academia, compared to this guy, you got nothing. Anthropology, won’t you run away with us?

Leave a Reply