Saturday, June 27, 2009

Academic Arrogance

Ummmmm.... you guys, am I arrogant??? (Don't answer that, please; I think I don't want that answer.)

I know those of you who know the in-real-life me are probably expecting a different post. You'll get the yoga and knitting and travel and Tuscany posts, I promise, but I don't want to lose this germ-cell of a thought.

Here's the back story. (You knew THAT was coming.) It doesn't take long hanging around the ivory tower before you notice that there's a certain amount of pomposity; about 5 minutes will do it. Well, probably you noticed in the first minute. It just took you another 4 minutes to realize that some of it is unmerited posturing. That nonsense depends for its success on the innocents among us (and I usually count myself in this camp -maybe it's time for a facebook quiz on this question) believing that arrogance is the same as aptitude.

Yet, some people do have just flat-out jaw-dropping intellect. Through a series of youthful misadventures that involved accidentally (I still believe) getting admitted to a world-class college, I have had the privilege of hanging around with some of these people for a good bit of my adult life. I think it's false to say that the best minds don't need arrogance and can just be relaxed good-natured folks. Some are, but even then... a certain kind of idiotic questioning and challenging can bring out arrogance that is a SIGHT to behold. It's there all right. And it does what it's designed to do -put idiots in their place. This arrogance is just the certainty that very VERY few people play in their playground and that there's work to be done to get an invitation to this party. OK, there's a little bit of smackdown going on, too.

And academics aren't the only ones I don't understand. What gives people the audacity to challenge someone they don't even know, simply assuming they are on equal footing given the subject-at-hand? Say, hypothetically, you're on an airplane and someone sits next to you and asks what you do. So you try to describe it. OK, so it's not all that hypothetical. For the record, I stuck with social worker and described my research a little; it's true, and way easier than describing the whole story. This person had already told me his life story. He probably took one course in psychology in high school (because it was an easy A, he reveals), 15 or so years ago. He remembers THAT imperfectly, and has certainly not followed the research and the literature. But he knows my research plan is flawed in the following million ways, and that homeless people are all mentally ill and deserve their fate, and won't change, and....

A year ago, I would have rolled my eyes (possibly visibly), but not gone for the smackdown. I would have thought it, right enough, but I wouldn't actually have said anything. And then I would have been upset for hours. I think, though, it's possible that there is something in between the arrogance earned by those with jaw-dropping intellect and foolish preening (which is just a measure of a lack of self-confidence, when you get right down to it.)

Before I go any further, there are things that need to be clarified. I don't think a PhD is the only thing in the world worth wanting. I don't think an academic life is the only life worth living. I know plenty of people without advanced degrees, and some of them are brilliant.

But, and oh dear, here come the truly obnoxious question. Are brilliant and untrained people qualified to question and challenge? OK, of course they are. The knowledge that professional researchers come up with is pointless if it can't be explained -and knowledge isn't the same thing as wisdom, anyway. But what if their questions are just flat-out dumb? (Another falsehood is that there are no dumb questions. I think Fox TV and Rush Limbaugh have pretty much proven that one.) And some questions reveal by their word choice and the questioner's tone a political agenda and its attendant assumption that there can only be one right known-in-advance answer. I am a smart-enough person, but I wouldn't go up to a chemist and suggest that he's misunderstood the subtleties of the polymerase chain reaction. I wouldn't do that, because I know that I don't have the first freakin' clue if he's done that or not. I don't even know what the polymerase chain reaction IS. I might have made it up.

When you're questioning from a position of fundamental ignorance, you should probably shut up and listen instead. Being smart IS NOT ENOUGH. There is work to be done, reading and thinking and making connections between this body of work and that one, and extending and nudging theory. Then you can play in the sandbox.

Yeah, I went for the lady-like smackdown. "My goodness, that might have been more effective as a question rather than an assertion." But now, of course, I'm upset about having done that. And I am wondering if I've taken a path that just leads to trouble.



Andrea said...

Oh heck, did I say this out loud???

jill said...

That was a smackdown? It certainly was ladylike, and not half as confrontational as I would have been. I am afraid I would have started with "Fuck you, you uninformed toad," and it would have gone downhill from there.

doviejay said...

Andrea - I work with homeless kids, and believe me, I feel your pain. With jerks like that who clearly aren't interested in learning about the population, I tend to come out swinging. It just classism, sexism, and ignorance that makes them think that way. It's not arrogance to get pissed off when someone dismisses your entire career and interests in one fell swoop. I hope you made him feel like a jerk.

Andrea said...

Maybe it's my Southern "above all, do not be rude" training ;)

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