Reality checks

Academics have long been criticised for being out of touch with the real world. Matthew Reisz finds that many make great efforts to dispel ivory tower attitudes, but others believe such habits will never disappear

December 23, 2010

There have always been people born with ambiguous genitalia. In the past, they were often put on display in freak shows and undoubtedly faced a terrible life of exploitation. Nowadays, they are more likely to be exploited intellectually. The "intersex" are interesting and disturbing precisely because they challenge traditional notions of two, rigidly separate, sexes. This can lead them to be co-opted and even celebrated, particularly by academics, in bigger debates about gender.

The danger is that academics can become so immersed in theory and outlying examples that they become incapable of appreciating the way that non-academics approach these issues. In extreme cases, there are scholars who sound surprised that most people tend to be interested in, and certainly to notice, whether their children are boys or girls.

Gender is, of course, notoriously an area that people theorise about in ways that have little to do with how they choose their sexual partners, organise their domestic lives or bring up their children.

So just how far do academics believe and live by what they say? To what extent do they really "live in the real world"?

The charge that they do not is as old as the hills, but we are likely to be hearing a lot more of it as academic value for money comes under fierce scrutiny. To what extent is it a meaningful charge?

Academics can obviously be just as hypocritical as clerics, politicians and newspaper columnists when they start telling other people how to live their lives. One story concerns an economist who was wrestling with a major personal and professional dilemma. "Well," a colleague said helpfully, "you've got a number of options. Why don't you do what you say in your books on decision-making, and just try and maximise the utility functions?"

Needless to say, this advice was treated with utter contempt: "Oh, for God's sake, this is real life!"

Certain mannerisms of academic writing help their practitioners detach their theories from reality. Deborah Cameron, who holds the Rupert Murdoch professorship of language and communication at the University of Oxford, once pointed out that words such as "clearly", "obviously" and "of course", when used by academics, tend to "signal that whatever follows is going to be contentious, illogical or impenetrable".

James Woudhuysen, professor of forecasting and innovation at De Montfort University, gets irritated by the use of escape clauses such as "where appropriate", which can be used to sidestep any possible criticism of academics' claims. Furthermore, he notes, "the coquetting with language - so common in postmodern theorising - is something of which the public is rightly distrustful. Postmodernists have a lot to answer for in the suspicion and ridicule from which the academy now suffers."

An adviser to leading companies in the field of energy, Woudhuysen reports that his title can be a mixed blessing: "If you are a professor and try to make the case that you can also do other things, people tend to sneer. That happens to me a lot."

Even when it is not justified, academics get tarred with the brush of unworldliness.

But when "academic ideas become merely an intellectual pursuit", there can be serious political implications, says Lisa Clughen, senior lecturer in Spanish at Nottingham Trent University. She cites an academic who cheerfully referred to the Spanish Civil War as "a text" - until someone pointed out, "My father died in that text."

Does it not take a particular kind of willed callousness to "forget" that people lose limbs and loved ones in wars?

Joanna Bourke, professor of history at Birkbeck, University of London, is "infuriated" by academics who treat people who lived through wars or other times of great upheaval "as disembodied 'texts' or simply representative of 'trends'. When emotion is written out of history, we are left with a rather grey, limp 'narrative' (a word much loved by such academics)."

She also distrusts "big theories" and points, for example, to the claims of a recent book by Ian Morris, Jean and Rebecca Willard professor of Classics and professor of history at Stanford University, Why the West Rules - For Now: The Patterns of History and What they Reveal about the Future. Morris implausibly discounts culture, values and beliefs, she suggests, in arguing that "it is geography that explains why the West rules".

This theme is taken up by Clive Bloom, emeritus professor of English and American studies at Middlesex University, who believes that, far too often, academics "play irresponsible games".

"They don't listen to what they are saying," he argues. "I remember a conference where someone said the Holocaust couldn't be proved, because it's just a text. That must have been in the mid-1980s, the high point of post-structuralist nonsense, when everything was just text, just interpretation, and you couldn't get to reality.

"Radicalism got lost in a series of relativist positions. That meant that the Left had no answer when Mrs Thatcher said there was no such thing as society - ideas had made them impotent. Academics are good at chatting the revolution but in the meantime have allowed themselves to be managed by accountants, because their own ideas blinded them to what was happening around them."

Clughen and Bloom's examples both come from some years ago, and it is sometimes argued - if often in rather abstract terms - that today's academics are more scrupulous in anchoring their thinking in lived experience. Clughen claims that they have come to understand the need to "develop a voice that is congruent with our beliefs" and an "embodied, whole-self or meaningful engagement with ideas", since "the ideas we debate in academia are both about and implicated in our lives, social organisations and interactions and, therefore, not just about the mind".

Priyamvada Gopal, lecturer in English at the University of Cambridge, acknowledges that "the worst pretenders (among academics) may make no attempt to bring together high-minded pontification and quotidian practice", but says that, "a few stragglers and postmodern diehards notwithstanding", this debate has now had its day.

"Critiques of 'textuality' and extreme 'constructivism' exist already within scholarship and critical theory," she adds. "Many academics, including feminists, have shown how examining narratives or discursive structures does not or should not result in the neglect of reality and material situations.

"Should academics be held to higher standards than civilians? Yes. Do many academics attempt to adhere to those standards? Yes. Do others fail spectacularly? Also, yes. We know about the feminists in abusive relationships with men, the Marxists who smoke Cuban cigars and wear Savile Row shirts, the stuff of cliché."

Others believe this view is too optimistic. Mary Evans, centennial professor at the Gender Institute, London School of Economics, regrets the new "tyranny of the academic article" and believes we have actually been moving away from the kind of engaged academic writing that "deals with the social world in an immediate and readable way".

Part of the problem, Evans believes, is the nature of disciplines, which "stop us thinking about our own relationship to what it is we are studying. Academic subjects are like Frankenstein's monster and take on their own life - the monster gets out of control and takes over from other sorts of examination. He runs around creating havoc because he hasn't been socialised."

This can lead to the kind of academic analysis that has not been tested against the real world and which, if they put aside their disciplinary blinkers for a moment, scholars might acknowledge has no relation to their own experience. The result is a more or less wilful myopia that in certain cases can amount to intellectual dishonesty.

If this seems like a theoretical argument, we only need to look at the current financial crisis. The credit crunch represents a kind of collective failure to "live in the real world", for which academics and their disciplinary blinkers surely have to take some of the blame. The crucial point that was missed, after all, could hardly be more obvious: what goes up must come down or, more specifically, US house prices could start dropping dramatically.

"So why didn't more economists seem aware of the possibility?" asks John Lanchester in his recent book about the credit crunch, Whoops! Why Everyone Owes Everyone and No One Can Pay. "Has the profession really moved that far away from the real world? The short answer is that, with some stellar exceptions...yes, it has."

If this seems a bit general, Lanchester is careful to set out the detail.

"Using the Gaussian copula formula and the modern edifice of risk engineering," he writes, "the figures the quants (mathematical whizz-kids) came up with for the current market implosion - based on a 20 per cent decline in house prices, feeding through into the CDO (collateralised debt obligations) industry - was that it was likely to happen only once in a time-frame many, many trillions of years longer than the history of the universe.

"You have to ask yourself how intelligent people could ever have come to persuade themselves of that. I'm only 47, but this is the second time in my adult lifetime - the second time in my lifetime as a mortgage-paying property owner - that property prices have fallen by more than 20 per cent."

Such is the magic of mathematical myopia that it can turn "a drop in house prices which caused people with bad credit to have trouble paying their mortgages" into "literally the most unlikely thing to have happened in the history of the universe".

Perhaps the most impassioned comments on this topic came from an academic who works in health issues but asked to remain anonymous. The reality, she suggests, is that such work is "by definition political. People starve not because of lack of food but because of lack of political will to feed all on the planet. I feel that, as academics, people who are paid to read, write and teach for a living, we come from a position of power and privilege. We often work with vulnerable, miserable, poor and/or disempowered people. This is a tremendous power differential that can only be ignored by those who take a relativist perspective as their ideological framework.

"The world is facing serious challenges that intimately connect us all. We don't have to take too many steps to see the impact of our actions or inactions on the lives of others near and far. For me, academics must stand up to their duty as educators and provide the taxpayer and the world with a real application for what they are so privileged to know."

This obviously raises the question of how to respond: "Is a lecture or discussion in a tutorial that illustrates or explains the experiences of those vulnerable and poor, with our predominately privileged students, enough? Who can fit in 'feeding back to the vulnerable or stakeholders' or 'speaking truth to power' with all (the daily teaching and administrative requirements of the academy) and a personal life on top? It's easier and, in some circles in my discipline, 'more intellectual' to sit back and claim objectivity, relativism and non-interference.

"So do academics really mean what they say? It depends on the academic. For some, what they say in class has nothing to do with who they are outside the ivory tower. It is not meant to. The worlds are separate, divisible and mutually exclusive. The process of engaging with other cultures or groups is purely intellectual and academic and therefore interference is not possible: they must maintain the status of the objective observer."

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