Clouding the Issues
An educator argues that higher education should stop lamenting the blurring line between academia and pop culture—and start taking advantage of the synergies.
An old saying has it that academic disputes are especially vicious because so little is at stake in them. Behind the sentiment lies the belief that the intellectual culture of academia is arid and self-absorbed, its head in the sand or the clouds, concerned with rarefied stuff that real people don’t give a damn about. And there was more than a grain of truth to this view before World War II, when higher education was the privilege of a tiny social elite and the disciplines were dominated by a narrowly antiquarian and positivistic view of inquiry, which was seen as a business of piling up minutely specialized facts regardless of their interest or relevance beyond the scholarly world. In that period, to which many conservatives now look back with misplaced nostalgia, research “scholars” were the opposite of “intellectuals,” accumulators of specialized information who left the big picture—the application of the facts to contemporary life—to journalists, the clergy, and other nonacademics.
The narrow pedantry to which scholarship could descend had been a target of satire for centuries, but it reached a kind of culmination with the rise of the modern research university. The philosopher George Santayana, who taught at Harvard from 1889 to 1912, complained that his scholarly colleagues were too busy with their microscopic projects to “form an intellectual society…. I never heard of any idea of movement spring up among them…. It was an anonymous concourse of coral insects, each secreting one cell, and leaving that fossil legacy to enlarge the earth.” William James, Santayana’s Harvard colleague, and published similar criticisms of overspecialized scholarship in a 1903 essay entitled “The Ph.D. Octopus.” Such broadsides made little impact on the scholars, however, who saw their commitment to solid learning undefiled by controversial—that is, interesting—thought as proof of their integrity as searchers for truth.
Large stretches of academia in which not much has changed can still be found today. But for half a century inward-looking specialization has come under challenge by a counterimpulse toward outward-looking relevance. You need only scan the bulletin boards outside any academic department office or the advertisements for the latest academic books to see that a silent battle for the soul of academia is being waged between clashing conceptions of academic work: between a view that sees such work as inherently esoteric and specialized—and all the better for that—and a view that aspires to “outreach” and have broad influence on the wider society. But because our thinking about academia is still shaped by older assumptions, we tend to overlook the fact that since the end of World War II the tide has actually favored academics who can generalize their specialties and demonstrate their wider applications.
“Specialized” is one of the most sloppily used words in the lexicon of education, often functioning as code for “politically doctrinaire.” But if the word means “restricted in interest to a few experts,” then it is misleadingly applied to much of current academia. In the wake of the postwar knowledge explosion and the increased cultural diversity of students, faculties, and curricula, the academic specialist and the wide-ranging generalist increasingly merge in the same person, while the writing habits of the so-called public intellectual, once the exception to the rule, begin seeping into academic writing generally. Academia itself has become part of the mass culture industry, which disseminates and popularizes academic theories and trends. Whereas academics were once rewarded for burrowing into a narrow specialty and having nothing to say about the big picture, such habits today are more likely to get one rejected by editors, granting agencies, and hiring committees. If today’s academic disputes are still often vicious, it is because much more is at stake in them, as controversies over bilingual education, evolution, and creationism, the new general and race studies, grade inflation, and the teaching of literature, mathematics, and history extend far beyond the campus. As the New York Times noted in a report on how “Campuses across America Are Adding ‘Sept. 11 101’ to Curriculums,” colleges are now much more prone “to tackle current problems” than they were a generation ago and much speedier in turning those problems into courses, whose existence in turn becomes news in places like the Times.
Creeping intellectualism has become pervasive, with the growth of a college-educated audience created by the postwar democratization of higher education, an audience that is fascinated by the culture of teaching and learning. The fascination is reflected in the popularity of films like Dead Poets Society, Dangerous Minds, Educating Rita, The Mirror Has Two Faces, Good Will Hunting, Legally Blonde, and countless others, as well as TV series from The White Shadow to The Education of Max Bickford. Other signs range from cerebral cartoons like Gary Larson’s The Far Side and The Simpsons to ex-commentator Dennis Miller’s esoteric allusions on Monday Night Football to the use of the word Theory as a brand name for a line of women’s pants. Academic ideas are increasingly popularized, not only by the media but by academic writing itself, as university presses court the wider audiences of trade houses while trade houses increasingly publish academics. All this refutes the cliché that academia is overspecialized. The University of Chicago Press doesn’t boast in its advertisements that its latest titles in the social sciences and Middle Eastern studies are more specialized than those of Harvard University Press. On the contrary, such presses claim their books are paradigm-smashing, pathbreaking, and broad-gauged, and though such terms of praise may have more to do with hype than with accuracy, they show that a shift in priorities has taken place, a pathbreaking shift, you could say.
It’s true that in the recent culture wars academics and journalists have often been at each others’ throats. But this very antagonism is now a sign of proximity rather than of distance. Whereas academics and journalists once disdained one another from afar, they now compete for preeminence in the common role of explaining the contemporary world. Then, too, the journalistic bashing of academic stars during the culture wars has been matched by the glorification of many of the same stars in such venues as the New York Times Magazine, National Public Radio’s Fresh Air, or Nightline.
The new proximity of the academy and the media has been well described by the academic journalist Ellen Willis, who observes that many of the same theories, terms, and debates now circulate between the university and the media and back:
Ideas that matter, for better or worse,
have a way of spreading as they get picked up, translated, recycled
for different audiences up and down the media food chain.
Not everyone thinks what Willis describes is a good thing, as critics charge universities with selling out to trendiness, faddishness, and disciplinary orthodoxies. Though these charges are often justified, I believe anyone familiar with historical accounts of what academia was like in the supposedly good old days will agree that the gains have been greater than the losses.
Far from being narrow, soulless, and impoverished, then, the content of academic intellectual culture at its best is now rich and potentially compelling. But academia represents and explains this content so badly that one would think it is hiding it, as much from itself perhaps as from it students. Indeed, one of the major facts academia hushes up and hardly recognizes is the one I have just noted, that today’s academic culture is less narrowly “academic” than its prewar counterpart, closer in spirit to the pulse of journalism and popular culture, which in turn are increasingly fascinated by academics and their ideas.
In a real sense, the university is itself popular culture—what else should we call an institution that serves millions if not an agent of mass popularization? But the university still behaves as if it were unpopular culture, and the anachronistic opposition of academia and journalism continues to provide academics with an ironclad excuse for communicative ineptitude. The damaging effects of this ineptitude were limited as long as only a fraction of the American population went to high school, much less to college, as was the case for much of the last century, and as long as vocational success did not yet depend on a college degree. The consequences have become far more serious, however, as higher education has become a mass enterprise and college credentials are a prerequisite of opportunity and mobility.
So what Willis calls the circulation of “ideas that matter” has its limits, as the opacity of university culture leaves the schools in limbo, preventing them from preparing students for higher education. The university’s increased interest in big-picture ideas is not matched by any corresponding effort to clarify those ideas for more than a circumscribed audience. What “feeds the heads,” in Willis’s phrase, of Times writers and PBS commentators (and perhaps even the audiences of Roseanne and ER) doesn’t necessarily enter the heads of college undergraduates or of high-school teachers and students.
As a result, the more things change in the intellectual culture of academia, the more they stay the same with regard to what many students and the general public make—or fail to make—of it. On the one hand, the content of the academic disciplines has gone through revolutionary changes, as paradigm-smashing, boundary-crossing, high-wire interdisciplinary scholarship and teaching become the order of the day and as the line blurs between academia and journalism. On the other hand, the average level of student cluelessness and apathy probably remains roughly what it was, say, in 1910. High-achieving high-school and college students become insiders to the most exciting academic conversations, but the majority remain on the outside looking in.
One of the most closely guarded secrets that academia unwittingly keeps from students and everybody else is that all academics, despite their many differences, play a version of the same game of persuasive argument. That this is so may seem obvious, but in my experience many students have not been let in on the news and are surprised when they hear it. The first step toward demystifying academia is to start being more explicit about the academic centrality of persuasive argument, as did a high-school teacher with whom I work, Hillel Crandus, AM’98, and his students, who coined a useful shorthand term for it: “Arguespeak.”
To be sure, the Arguespeak of literary studies, philosophy, or history is very different from the Arguespeak of the social sciences, economics, or computer science. There exist underlying commonalities, however, that are obscured by the divisions between the humanities and sciences and the subdivisions of these fields. Indeed, in obscuring the commonalities across the disciplines, these divisions obscure disciplinary differences as well.
These common persuasive practices have been inventoried by compositionists like Mike Rose, who writes in Lives on the Boundary (1989) of “framing an argument or taking someone else’s argument apart, systematically inspecting a document, an issue or an event, synthesizing different points of view, applying a theory to disparate phenomena, and so on.” One could add summarizing the claims of others, sticking with a summary to unpack its key implications and premises, weighing evidence, spotting and identifying contradictions and non sequiturs, telling stories and devising examples that exemplify one’s point, generalizing one’s conclusions, and many other practices that come into play in every field. Though the sciences communicate in specialized symbolic systems that only other specialists comprehend, even the most brilliant scientists do not advance in their fields unless they can explain to relative nonspecialists—in a grant proposal, for example—what their work does and why it is important.
Even when writing for fellow specialists, scientists have to follow the same rhetorical principles as everyone else if they hope to make an impact. Jerry Bona, head of the University of Illinois at Chicago’s mathematics department and a leader in the field of mathematical modeling, says that mathematics journal editors are impressed by article introductions that define an issue broadly and indicate what is at stake in the writer’s argument, what difference it would make to discussions in the field. As Bona puts it, “You can be as technical as you like about integral operators once you get into the body of your paper, but if the editors can’t understand why you care about your problem in the first few pages you’ve failed.” According to Bona, not only undergraduates but also some professors fail to grasp this fact: “Lots of articles begin, ‘Let X be a blotch,’” Bona says. “Their writers are under a mistaken conception about how the game is played.”
A second secret is that persuasive argument is not only the ur-discourse of academia, but an extension of the more familiar forms of persuasion that drive the public discourse of journalism and often the talk of students themselves. As in academia, journalistic communication involves listening to viewpoints different from one’s own, summarizing them in ways others can recognize, comparing and contrasting positions, spotting contradictions and non sequiturs, and coming to conclusions that contribute to a continuing conversation of ideas. These forms of argument literacy connect the academic disciplines with each other—and with the public world beyond academia and of student conversations. It is by obscuring these continuities, or at best leaving students to discover them on their own (as a minority do), that schools and colleges make themselves seem opaque.
Here a great opportunity is missed, since “argument” is a term students recognize and connect with their experience (even if they dislike it), whereas equivalent terms like “critical thinking,” “rhetoric,” and “literate public discourse” seem nebulous unless you are already familiar with them. Children learn to make arguments as soon as they are old enough to lobby their parents to stay up late, go out and play, or not have to eat their vegetables, but schools fail to take advantage of this youthful ability or even discourage it as a form of troublemaking. To be sure, students (and teachers) often confuse argument and debate with fighting, hostility, and confrontation, but this very fact makes the topic of arguing—Do you like it or hate it? Is it a confrontational or cooperative activity?—a ripe starting point for a class discussion and a first step toward demystifying the academic argument culture.
When students do encounter a culture of ideas and arguments in school (and too often they don’t), that culture is often made to appear so remote and artificial that students have trouble connecting it with their own argumentative practices. To take just one example, students are far from clueless about how to argue about the arts, engaging as they do in lively critical discussions about films, music, concerts, and TV shows that overlap at many points with those of published reviewers and critics. Arts education, however, instead of taking advantage of this convergence in order to draw students into adult forms of critical discourse, tends to keep critical discourse of any kind out of sight in order to focus exclusively on primary texts or on exercises that have no relation to the ways critics talk about the arts. Bridging the gap between the discourse of students and teachers starts with the recognition that there is a continuum between the adolescent’s declaration that a book or film “sucks” and the published reviewer’s critique of it. Arts education in the schools tends to be poor preparation for college (though so does a lot of college arts education) since art students are not asked to read criticism. In effect, students are expected to produce a kind of critical discourse that is withheld from them and then are graded down when they hand in a poor version of it.
Learning Arguespeak means not simply
manipulating a set of mechanical skills but becoming socialized into
a way of life that changes who you are. As Julie Lindquist observes
in “Hoods in the Polis” (Pedagogy, Spring 2001),
“When people learn they don’t take on new knowledge so much
as a new identity.” The educational implications in this personal
makeover have been well developed by writers like Mike Rose and the
school educator Deborah Meier, AM’55. Meier argues that, at its
deepest level, being well educated means “getting in the habit
of developing theories that can be articulated clearly and checked out
in a thoughtful way.” Meier goes on to stress that such habits
of mind entail a change in the students’ social allegiances comparable
to joining a new club. As Meier puts it, “Somehow, somewhere,
young people need to join, if only part-time, the club we belong to.
That’s more important than the particulars of what they learn.”
This article is excerpted from Clueless in Academe: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind, by Gerald Graff, AB’59, published by Yale University Press. © 2003. Printed by permission. The book is being published in April. Graff is dean of curriculum and instruction at the University of Illinois at Chicago.
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