Universities are not immune to the toxin of stupidity

Mediocre but arrogant academics who appropriate successful projects are a threat to education and collegiality, says Manuel Freire-Garabal 

December 6, 2021
 Honey bee defending the hive against wasp attack to illustrate Universities are not immune to the toxin of stupidity
Source: Alamy (edited)

The retreat has always been a common practice for those seeking spiritual fulfilment. As well as religious believers, writers, musicians and painters have also found their particular temples in isolated places – some of which we now revere, in tribute to what they created there.

Academics’ confinement at home during the pandemic certainly had its drawbacks, but this form of domestic retreat also made us feel wiser by removing distorting elements from our professional environments. Now that many of us have returned to our offices, we miss the idyllic scenario of being able to choose the interlocutors who entered through our routers. Now we must once again come face to face with human stupidity.

In every aspect of academic life, sensible and properly reasoned projects are frequently interrupted by inopportune actors, moulded in vanity’s mirror and characterised by vulgarity and pretentiousness. They emit bombastic remarks, as foolish as they are unnecessary, with the sole intention of first joining successful projects and then appropriating them.

Sometimes you can diagnose medical symptoms of despair in their poses – mydriasis, tremor, tachycardia, or water retention – signs of hyperactivity in their sympathetic nervous systems, which is premonitory of organ failure. Hundreds of thousands of adrenaline molecules run through their blood vessels to participate in a neurochemical orgy that, any day, can lead them to death’s door. Perhaps their doctors eventually persuade them to reconsider their attitude, but, in the meanwhile, the rest of us suffer at their hands, struggling to hold on to our collaborative and altruistic spirit.

Nature depends on the health of human values. It is possible to clean the soil, the water or the air, even if hundreds of years have to pass in the effort. However, in the thousands of years that humankind has been on earth, we have not been able to erase the stupidity trait that makes us unworthy of living in a paradise and that now threatens that paradise’s very survival. Stupidity has become a universal polluter, and that universe includes academia.

Stupidity is the fatal combination of mediocrity and arrogance. I'm not so worried about mediocrity because everyone has a talent: the trick is to identify, develop and apply that talent, to achieve your moments of glory. And although we prefer humility, we tolerate a certain dose of arrogance in a talented person. At high concentrations, however, it becomes neurotoxic, affecting intelligence.

Personality traits can be hidden in our genome, but epigenetics affirms that our destiny is not definitively written in genes. Some harmful ones remain silent until adverse environmental factors induce their expression. We can avoid the outbreak of genetic diseases, such as cancer or autoimmune disorders, by adopting healthier behaviours. In the case of arrogance, a good education will help.

Higher education has a double responsibility to eradicate stupidity. On the one hand, we must identify students’ talents and guide them towards the most appropriate studies. On the other, we have to provide society with adequate knowledge and skills for each professional purpose, and we have to inculcate habits of honesty in the application of that knowledge and skill. But this task is particularly difficult when fake experts roam university corridors, stealing and adulterating the creativity and efforts of brilliant minds and certifying the fake talents of students who go on to jobs as advisers or decision-makers, putting our collective welfare in danger.

Academic stupidity can also drive away talented students from our institutions. A considerable array of top entrepreneurs left university before finishing their studies, in some cases because their teachers misunderstood their approaches or appeared to have nothing useful to offer them, slowing down their achievement of success instead of speeding it up. Fortunately, such anecdotal cases have prompted us to focus more closely on nurturing the kind of talent that is able to derive cutting-edge solutions in different sectors.

Deep down, I realise that stupid people are only ephemeral enemies in higher education, their presence compensated for by a majority of extraordinary people. Universities like mine have stayed reasonably healthy for centuries because, like bees, our peaceful autonomy morphs into belligerent “hive” behaviour when arrogant wasps try to plunder our rich honey. We can and must instil our graduates with that same mindset, to keep their future organisations safe in the global jungle.

But Covid-19 has become an even more potent threat than stupidity to our ability to produce such graduates. The vaccines may have allowed campuses to reopen, but the new omicron variant is a reminder that in-person teaching may yet be interrupted again. If it is, we need to be ready to provide our students with online substitutes for the many other facets of the university experience beyond the classroom, which help form them into skilled, responsible and collaborative people.

Every day, after giving our best, we discuss these scenarios in the School of Medicine's canteen. Perhaps the magic mixture of compounds wisely intermingled in a cup of coffee helps us face life and work with a winning spirit, even from behind a mask and gloves. However, it doesn’t always keep the wasps away.

Manuel Freire-Garabal is a professor in the School of Medicine and Dentistry at the University of Santiago de Compostela.

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