A Short, Confusing, and Rambling Complaint About Universities

Lacking an interesting topic for this week, I’m gong to complain about academia in Australian university from a frustrated undergrad’s perspective.

The tasks I am asked to do as a student, especially in non-historical fields, are often asinine in their requirements. Questions that have already been answered, with sources that have already been corroborated. We already know who won the battle of Marathon. We already know what’s wrong with this news report. We already know what it’s like to live in a culture that’s not the same as yours. Personally, I’d prefer to ask my own questions.

But in academia, we frequently lie about what we’re doing. When collecting evidence to fit an argument, we’re not engaged in ‘research’ as our professors tell us unless we’re consulting primary sources. The ‘research’ has already been done; that’s how you’re able to find it in one of a thousand middle-of-the-road journals that no one reads except for the purpose of completing undergrad assignments. What the student is doing is coalescing knowledge, and taking it from certain places, which is an inevitably biased process (again, the exception is in original assertions made from the study of primary sources). You can find an article in a journal to support almost anything, from bogus racial crime statistics to the basic facts of history. And even excepting this selection of articles, you can select individual sentences and quote mine sources to fit any framework you want.

This would be all well and good, and part of merely collecting information, if it were not for the fact that in academia you’re allowed to change the answer in order to keep the question, or change the question to retain the answer you want…some time ago, I wrote a report on the history of post-war Japanese literature. I traced a general path over about 60 years of writing, some of it extraordinary, with only three examples, and two of those the most ridiculous examples I can imagine: Dazai’s Setting Sun, Murakami’s Wind-up Bird and Ruth Ozeki’s Tale for the Time Being, (which isn’t even a Japanese book. It was written by a Japanese-American woman living in the latter country, and written in English.)

Even before I had begun, I knew it was ridiculous, that I wasn’t giving a full picture of post-war reading in Japan, and I knew that because I lacked, and still lack, a comprehensive knowledge of Japanese literature and probably would have been hard-pressed to choose examples even if I had that knowledge. The assignment itself was undertaken in bad faith. I got a 7. (For those of you who live outside the cursed Australian university system, that’s a perfect grade.)

I thought about what I could do in an attempt to make the work less overtly intellectually dishonest. I didn’t have enough time to familiarise myself with the entire Asian literary canon, which was my ideal choice; and so, lacking options, I redefined the question.

But I asserted that Japanese literature had undergone and helped in a meta-textual psychological healing process for the culture – that writing about WWII helped exorcise the scars the war had inflicted on the psyches of many Japanese people, and this was represented by the general themes of popular literature, which had an increasingly ambivalent attitude toward the war. Obviously, a huge question that would require mountains of unattainable empirical data…the class was more about essay writing, so I phrased the question in such a way that I didn’t have to study the reading habits of Japanese people over the past sixty years, and made it about textual analysis instead.

That went well, but it made the report a waste of time; on a casual reading anyone could see that the three books demonstrated a slow process of psychologically moving away from the war. So this brought me to the question of ‘what exactly was the point of all this?’

(Well, the point was that I was required to do the class to graduate. But seriously now…)

But what I had done was pose a potentially interesting question and then basically Procrusteanise it into a framework that would allow me to get a 7.

(Procrustes was an ancient Greek mythological figure who owned a large steel bed; and would force travellers to fit in the bed by either stretching them or cutting their legs off. The myth is a metaphor for the way humans treat ideas, by squashing them into preconceived frameworks and distorting them to prove a point or sustain a worldview.)

There is no reason at all a researcher cannot do the same thing with data in a ‘professional’ journal. And the conclusions in so many of these journals are only read in such small circles that they may as well dispense with the formality of publishing and just meet in person.

Nothing has made me more cynical about the formal academic process than being part of it.

In academia it becomes easy to forget the applicability of one’s ideas. Today I read Nassim Nicholas Taleb’s comment on Wittgenstein, which was that language games were essentially ‘weekend philosophy’ and had little to no bearing on how people live. And he was exactly right.

Wittgenstein, the 20th century philosopher, proposed the beetle in a box; a society of people who possess a creature seen only by themselves in a sealed container. They can never understand the contents of anyone else’s box, and have no way of knowing if the ‘beetle’ inside is the same creature at all. It’s a metaphor for the internal experience, for emotions if you like, meant to demonstrate that language is an entirely cultural, intangible system of communication.

That’s all well and good, and you can talk about children coming up with new words for ‘depression’ all you like, and being unable to express themselves, but there are other ways to express ourselves than language. Most communication is nonverbal. So Wittgenstein’s examples and language games, while fun to think about, are absolutely inapplicable to the real world. Sure, there might be a slight difference of understanding of the depth of an emotion when I communicate it in language, but enough of the message is carried across most of the time that it really doesn’t matter. And, if I fail to communicate some aspect of my internal experience one way, say if someone underestimates the extent of my happiness in a certain moment, I can easily find different words to express the depth in enough detail that they understand it.

The specifics often simply don’t matter. And academia forces us to focus on them as though they’re the most important thing in the world, sometimes at the expense of real skills.

A grammar class (again, I had to take it to get out of the system with the damn piece of paper) that focuses on the minutiae of English, down to the most painfully dull intensifier…all pointless for someone who already knows how to read and write. I did no study, and received an above average grade for the first piece of assessment (unfortunately the course is ongoing). But it demonstrates the same principle – if I can already communicate, why do I need to know the minuscule gaps in knowledge that probably won’t change the way I do anything?

Academia focuses so much on these kinds of micro-examples and tiny issues, and teaches so many things that don’t need to be taught – scrap the grammar class and just have students do some actual reading. What we should be taught is how to discern tone in writing – how to detect sarcasm for example, how to interpret the meanings of texts, how to rewrite what we’re reading and retain the same meaning…that’s what I would expect from a writing course. And throughout all this work, we would be expected to read a huge amount of writing, and thus naturally pick up the formal rules of grammar.

There is something to be said for non-formal, inexpressible knowledge.

It’s all very well and good to keep a copy of Strunk & White’s Elements of Style around; just don’t expect me to ever read it.

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