On Rebels

By Meijke Balay

The Palestinian-American cultural critic Edward Said defined an intellectual as “someone whose place it is publicly to raise embarrassing questions, to confront orthodoxy and dogma (rather than reproduce them).” In modern academia, there is a dearth of intellectuals of this type. The rebel who boldly stands alone, the rogue who speaks truth to power, the polymath who spurns provincialism — these archetypes have faded from our consciousness, and their roles have been mostly vacated. The last century gave us such iconic intellectuals as Feynman, Einstein, Dirac, Schrödinger, to name those just coming from physics. Each of them transgressed boundaries, had radical ideas, and thought deeply about not only physics but biology, philosophy, politics, etc. One is hard-pressed to find comparable figures who can be called genuinely 21st-century intellectuals.

Those few revolutionary thinkers, whether public intellectuals or not, are essential for the progression of knowledge. They are often described as highly disagreeable, stubborn, eccentric, or arrogant. The famous mathematician, Alexander Grothendieck, fits many of those descriptions. He compares a mathematician to one who is heir to a beautiful, fully-equipped house, with marvelous cookware and tools in all corners. Most would never question how and why the tools were designed or the rooms laid out in the way they are. The analogy naturally applies to all fields of academia. The house is the “paradigm” of the field in the sense of Thomas Kuhn, which defines valid problems and solutions, standard operating procedures, and the conceptual framework by way of consensus in the field. As Grothendieck puts it, “He ignores the silent and flawless consensus that is part of the air we breathe — the consensus of all the people who are, or are reputed to be, reasonable.” Of course, “normal science,” as Kuhn calls it, is a necessary paradigm and allows for brilliant and efficient research on well-defined problems, but the analogy makes clear the importance of those innovators: without them, we will eventually languish in an outdated house, with ineffectual tools.

There is always a natural resistance to rocking the boat, but the current academic climate strangulates this small but crucial reservoir of rebellious thought to a degree that should concern any student or academic. To identify a possible reason for this strangulation, we analyze the incentive structures. In the case of academia, one salient feature is the oversupply of doctoral research degrees for a vanishingly small number of academic positions. For an institution such as the university, there exists a minimum amount of growth necessary for it to remain honest; Economist Eric Weinstein terms this the “embedded growth obligation.” Round-eyed students dream of being professors with doctoral students, all of which will become professors themselves and have themselves doctoral students, ad infinitum (a more caustic critic than I would call this a “pyramid scheme”). The university cannot support this growth, nor can it maintain an honest narrative, so it cruelly deceives those hopeful students.

The data bears out the claim. A 2011 survey by the National Science Foundation shows that 30 percent of humanities Ph.D’s and a measly nine percent of physical and life science Ph.D’s get academic jobs. More recent sources estimate this figure to be as low as five percent. One may object that more graduates are simply drawn by alluring industry jobs, but consider the fact that in 1969, roughly 70 percent of university faculty were tenured or tenure-track, whereas according to a 2016 study by the Teachers Insurance and Annuity Association of America, that figure was 40 percent in 1993 and dropped to 30 percent in 2013. The same study also reveals that between those years the number of part-time faculty more than doubled. This creates a permanent underclass of postdocs, adjunct professors, lecturers, and other euphemistic titles indicating grueling hours, low pay, and lack of job security. Most of whom are discontent with the drab reality of their situation.

It is no wonder then, that academia does not tolerate those who would criticize it from within. It selects those who will subscribe to their narrative and sing the praises of their system. Like an auto-immune reaction, an unhealthy system attacks its own vital organs. Namely, those with highly unorthodox ideas and those that can look beyond the walls of their narrow domain pose the greatest threat since they are the most likely to perceive the ailments of the whole enterprise. This, combined with the dismal academic job prospects, is enough to deter the type of intellectual of which I speak.

In his 1959 Rede lecture, C.P. Snow noted the differences in the Russian, English, and American models of education. The American strategy, Snow says, is to educate loosely and broadly in high-school and college while having stringent Ph.D. programs. Such a model results in a lower level of professional training for college graduates, but “a higher proportion of the best of them, having been run on a looser rein, retain their creative zest.” It is that creative zest which propels American intellectual contribution, and which we disregard to our detriment. We depend on the creativity and courage of the intellectual rebel to make wild leaps and bounds that may fail but, more importantly, may succeed.

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