Updated: Jun 4
For a time I worked as a research fellow, so let me explain what is wrong with academia. The problem with academia is that the incentives within the system are misaligned. So, for example, when we produced results from a test the senior academic on our project said: “Good. We can divide these results into three journal articles.” This had nothing to do with knowledge acquisition; he wanted to divide the test into three articles because the more journal articles we published, the more successful we were judged to be—even down to how much we were paid and how far we were promoted.
He was a successful academic; and he was successful because he responded rationally to the incentives in the system: he cut up results to get more journal articles, whether these articles were true or useful was irrelevant—few people would read them. The journal article was the academic game; or, rather, it was part of the game: the other parts included visits to academic conferences that were shams to get the necessary “conference points” on your CV for promotion; if there was any real talk at these events it was afterwards, in the bar. As traditionalists know, the model for these events was originally Plato’s symposium: a drinking bout overseen by one sober moderator. Greek “academic conferences” took place with everyone sloshed, and this was precisely because, as the Persians knew, sober men are liars. Hence insofar as anything real ever happens at an academic conference it happens in the bar, not in the conference hall.
I worked in a business school so this was not exactly the hard sciences, but my department concentrated on operational research and models and all the sophisticated accoutrements that go along with social science at its most abstract. I lucked out into the position, having started in a research support role and then won a bid for a research project; an outsider without a PhD, without indoctrination. As with many academic disciplines, from creative writing to psychology, the academics could not do what they taught, by which I mean none of them ran a business; just as few lecturers in political science could outwit a hardened trade union activist in negotiation and few psychology lecturers could match a monk for psychological stability, so the old adage holds good: “Those who can’t, teach.”
As a business school, we encountered more reality than some disciplines; we worked on various projects with firemen and policemen. Yet if I encountered an academic, even from a minor university, who worked in philosophy or literature they became very cold when I said I worked at a business school. Evil people work at business schools; or, perhaps, more precisely, it is the old snobbery—almost aristocratic—about people who work in trade, people who actually handle the filthy lucre. A really refined person went into academia to be above money—to be involved in theory, a recondite occupation for the children of arms company executives. The lecturers in philosophy and literature departments I met were more likely to lead their students in riots against the police than work with the police. I met an academic who did just that, led their class right into a riot against the police—of course, they disappeared just before their students were beaten to a pulp. The instigators always disappear at the right time; they never became academics to get their hands dirty…
As for my department and its journal article churn, this is not a moral issue; the state plays a huge role in education, and the state sets lousy incentives; just as in the USSR, the incentives are misaligned. The general attitude is connected to the cult of labour: everything must be productive. The old eccentric academic who pottered along for fifty years and ultimately produced one seminal work is unacceptable in the current world: modernity sees him as a parasite. Remember that the original universities were connected to religion; and there was a spiritual aspect to the research that was undertaken there; it was done for its own sake, for the glory of God. The universities served as refuges—or asylums, depending on your view—for the five per cent of the population who were so bright that they could not function in normal society.
I once knew a physicist who was brilliant, but he nearly burned his house down when he did a BBQ for his family; and this is normal, very high intelligence correlates with difficulty in ordinary affairs. The universities existed to protect people like this from society, and society from them. Geniuses in this category often only produce valuable insights when there is someone to clothe, feed, and, in extreme cases, cut their toenails—universities used to be asylum-hospitals for the victims of ultra-high intelligence. All this has, more or less, come to an end.
The modern university is, by contrast, the ideal environment for the striver and the “good girl”, or the head girl; the person who thinks “professional” means “good”—then again, according to the adverts for modernist apartments blocks, everyone, from the call centre operator to the garbage disposal man, is a “young professional” these days. For professionals and highly agreeable girl-swots, the eccentric genius is repulsive; he is unsociable, possibly he smells faintly of cat urine—and he just learned Sumerian. “Why are you doing that? This is a physics department. Have you even read the 2021 Research Assessment Plan, Mr. Nash?”
It is true women often outperform men on exams, but they are ultimately conformists; and they cannot stand odd or eccentric behaviour, although this behaviour is entirely typical of the brilliant, idiosyncratic, and difficult men who produce important results. The genius—unlike the “good girl’—often flunks exams because he cannot see the point, finds himself easily bored, or has such a disagreeable character that he refuses to participate. Wittgenstein, for example, became a philosopher pretty much by turning up at Cambridge to have a chat with Bertrand Russell; previously he had studied aeronautical engineering. This informal world was related to the theological aspect of universities and their quasi-amateur nature and it has disappeared. It is not really possible for a modern university to “adopt” a character like Wittgenstein because he is “an interesting chap”; it does not fit with bureaucracy, or an exam-heavy environment.
The more women there are in a university—or any environment, really—the fewer topics of consequence or interest can be discussed; after all, women are neurotic social conformists, they will not tolerate mavericks. New ideas—as opposed to superficially pretty PowerPoint presentations, rather like fashion shows—disturb the girl-swot, her greatest passion being to illuminate sentences in a textbook with neon-coloured highlighters. Obviously, there are a few butch lesbians who think and act like men who are basically alright; and these monocle-wearing characters have always featured in university life, but they are not girl-swots.
Under the materialist worldview, the university as haven for the terminally intellectual had to be done away with. Academics had to prove their worth, and prove it through productivity. Yet great breakthroughs have often come about through men like Darwin, men who were hardly academics at all: they were practically amateurs, perhaps supported by the Church; and they were protected against perverse incentives because they did it for the love of the thing. This decline in amateur pursuits extends to sports; we see in professionalised sports that men like Lance Armstrong—cheats who win “at any price”—have ruined the whole enterprise and turned it into a joke, a competition for money. Conservatives complain that transsexuals have an unfair advantage when they compete in sports, yet in many fields the competitors are already drugged-up on the quiet or subject to bizarre techno-scientific training regimes that make them as odd, biologically, as transsexuals. Sex change aside, how sporting is sport at the moment, really?
The professional academic plays the role of the academic: he must tug his beard, refuse to take sides, demand more evidence, and claim a neutral point of view. “On the other hand…”, “A very fruitful discussion…”, “I’d like to put pressure on that…”—academic semiotics, and yet this is largely a performance for other academics to establish social credentials.
“He’s a wrong ‘un,” says the van driver, three seconds after glancing at some seedy pedestrian outside the bushes by a school. “I feel we need more evidence for such a strong assertion,” says the academic; he plays the status game: I am an academic, I am objective—instincts are low status. The problem with this “provisional” view—tied up with liberalism and science, both provisional and uncertain about everything except liberalism and science—is that due to the expansion of university education millions of people have been trained to think that common sense and instincts are low status.
“I need to see more evidence for that, definitely peer-reviewed evidence!” says some preening nitwit after Islamic Jihad has made kebab out of schoolchildren; he replies to your assertion that Islam is a politico-military religion. “In my political science degree, we learned that actually…” All he learned in his degree was that “science” is a high-status word and how to cite a hundred bullshit articles pumped out by the political scientists. He can doubtless reference his essays faultlessly; and yet Nietzsche never used references—and he knows less about the world than his own grandfather, or someone who has read the Bible with some care.
Eighty years ago, these people would not have been distorted by university education; now they invade what were once sanctuaries for the brainiacs and disturb their cogitations for three-year drink, drug, and fuck bouts that wrack them with debt. Their indulgence is not the same as Plato’s symposium; not limited drunkenness—just hedonism after hedonism. Eighty years ago, these students would have, in the main, been clerks at offices; they needed to be able to read, write, and do arithmetic—yet now they leave university unable to perform even those skills; although they end up in jobs that are the contemporary equivalents to the inter-war clerk, anyway. The exercise wastes their time and degrades the university.
Worse yet, the asinine media recycles every article churned out by the universities to meet targets for promotion, and treats the results as the latest novel scientific insight; whereas real breakthroughs are rare, the media pretends that there is a breakthrough every day; and it is easy to do thanks to the surplus in journal articles—the result is that we live in an information blizzard; particularly regarding areas such as nutrition, where one day red wine causes cancer and the next it is essential if you are to live until you are ninety. All this could be described as a great illusion, academia’s illusion.