Finally Telling It Like It Is

I'm officially off-duty on this blog, but let me just peek my head in and make note of something that bears repeating. Timothy Burke, an academic, writes "The same forces that help academics to produce knowledge and scholarship are the forces which produce unwholesome close-mindedness and inbred self-satisfied attitudes." Ah, so refreshing to finally hear someone say it. And an academic no less.

He gives a bit of a justification for specialization in academia, though in my view this misses the point:
If tomorrow I persuaded my colleagues that the next job that opened in the humanities in Swarthmore should not be dedicated to any particular discipline or research specialization, but thrown open to the most interesting, fertile intellect we could recruit, I would be persuading my colleagues to join in an impractical catastrophe that would involve trying to winnow a field of 25,000 applicants down to a single person.
The real reason I would argue is that there's so much knowledge out there that specializing is simply a matter of efficiency. But the question reveals something important by the way it is phrased. The idea of awarding an academic position on the basis of having an interesting, fertile intellect is posed as a sort of absurd hypothetical. This is very revealing. Because it's true, in many institutions of higher education, positions aren't filled on the basis of intellect at all but rather on the basis of who is best able to supply the desired specialized credentials, or who fits the narrow, often arbitrarilly drawn disciplinary mold best. I'm not saying humanist scholars shouldn't specialize. That's like saying we shouldn't have specialized professionals in our economy - this of course would be hugely inefficient. I'm saying that if you choose to fill positions based on who can best specialize, you're going to get...a bunch of people who can only communicate with specialists.
The peer review that instructs me to come inside a canon so that I can be understood by an audience of comparable specialists quickly becomes the peer review that cracks the whip to force me inside a political orthodoxy.
More accurately, I would say, it's the peer review that demands that any piece of new knowledge or research produced by academics be so arcane and provincial that only another specialist in the same sub-sub-pseudo-discipline would be capable of understanding it or caring about it, and which would brand anything else as "unscholarly" or "queer." This problem of overspecialization and provincialism is particular to the humanities. I'm not saying the science academy isn't quite specialized these days either - it is. The difference is that scientists need to specialize because only a few people are capable of understanding the work (due to issues including aptitude, differences in scientific terminology / methods that are necesitated by the wide variations among scientific domains) whereas humanities academics specialize because they want to feel like only a few people can understand their work. In other words, science basically has an excuse for when it is accountable to only itself because of the considerable learning curve associated with acquiring the fundamentals of most modern scientific specialties. Moreoever, even the most arcane science becomes relevant whenever its findings contribute to the betterment of our society, technologically, medically, or ecologically (which is often) - REGARDLESS of how arcane the actual science involved may be. Can arcane humanities disciplines claim any kind of similar contribution? If the mainstream of humanities academia wants to contribute anything meaningful to society it out to rethink its entire orientation and consider producing ideas, concepts or analyses of general - not just academic -value, social, intellectual or moral.

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