Dear Academic: I Want Society’s Money Back
Recently, I came across something horrifying: Buffy studies. Remember Joss Whedon’s cult show from 1997–2003, Buffy the Vampire Slayer? I do. I watched it and enjoyed it (as well as the spinoff, Angel).
Well, turns out that a whole academic industry has sprung up around it. University scholars spanning media studies, women’s studies, psychology, sociology and philosophy have directed their taxpayer- and student-funded attentions to deconstructing the meanings of Buffy and assessing what it says about society.
Are you kidding? This is their best use of time and money? This is progress for 21st century humans?
Now, to make sure I wasn’t disparaging a field of inquiry that really does have important insights for wider society, I took a look at some of the work.
Holy shit, it’s bad. Or not so much bad—fields like media studies and women’s studies have their own esoteric criteria for what’s good—as pointless, inutile, inane, a giant waste of effort, resources and intellectual capital. Most of the scholarship comes down to this: in Buffy, gender stereotypes are both reinforced and subverted.
No shit. My drunk brother could have told you that, and he did not go to university (well, he did in the sense that I used to take him to the Uni tavern so we could both get drunk). None of this would matter if it was just someone’s privately-funded hobby or passion. Do whatever you like. But these people are taking money bilked from students for an education or confiscated from people with less fun jobs who don’t get paid to watch Buffy. When you take public money you have an obligation to contribute to the public good. Buffy studies fails that test.
The problem is marrow-deep in the universities, where this sort of thing is allowed to happen. No one—colleagues, department heads, administrators—ever asks the question: what is the value of this? It’s just not in the mentality of these disciplines. Value is judged intrinsically—based on how well work conforms to the pre-set rules and conventions of the discipline. I know, because I used to be knee-deep in it myself.
When I was studying for a PhD in history I quickly tired of being asked by new acquaintances what I was researching, so I made something up. I conjured the most ridiculous, pointless, valueless topic conceivable. From that point on, when someone asked what I was researching, this is what I told them: I’m writing a history of beer-bottle caps.
I was very specific—only beer bottles, only their caps. It did the job. I could describe my (pretend) topic in one sentence, and people, presumably disdainful, didn’t dare ask a follow-up query. But you know what should have happened? They should have told me I was a complete waste of space. That I was spending taxpayer money to investigate something that was worthless to society. I was a disgrace—that’s what I should have heard.
But I didn’t, because people in our industry know that once you start pulling that loose thread, the new clothes unravel and we’re all naked, exposed for what we are: opportunists. We get the opportunity to take governmental or institutional funds, often with little in the way of encumbrance, and use it to do something we enjoy or think we’ll be good at. We don’t give a shit what benefits it brings the rest of society. Oh, we’ll make some reasons up if you ask us—bullshit about better understanding social mores, or social processes, or the economics of this or that, any number of confabulations—but the truth is, we did the most human of things: saw money on offer, took money on offer.
I want to be clear: a lot of what goes on in universities is awesome. There are great people doing great work in fields that are dripping with potential for application to society’s problems either now or in the future. But in all fields—even the sexy ones—there are people spinning the hamster wheel, doing whatever they need to do to stay employed and get funding; doing what they can get away with doing; doing research that has already been performed, been shown to be useless, been shown to be misguided.
If I just look at my own example, the simple truth is that I was rewarded for being smart. Not an especially hard worker, not especially resourceful or industrious, just lucky by birth-right to inherit genes that gave me a talent for words and bullshit. I parlayed that inheritance into an APA scholarship at a sandstone university where I received close to $20 000 each year for three and a half years, had all my university fees paid, and I also got a dandy office (though that did require some industry and resourcefulness: by the time I was done I had a beer-fridge, beanbag, view unto a courtyard, fancy chair [a few fancy chairs, actually], book shelves, huge desk, filing cabinets—plush).
Little was asked of me in return. If, after however-many years, I hadn’t finished my studies, hadn’t produced anything? Just keep going, son. If I failed to finish after twelve years, dropped out, or did a really terrible job? I still didn’t have to give a dime back.
Now, all that is great. It allowed me to get a very good education. I learnt things I now use. I made decisions that will impact the rest of my life.
But I got all that because I was born with a very specific set of talents. How can I justify that when people who aren’t born with those talents, and people born in circumstances that make the expression of those talents impossible, get nothing?
Well, I can’t.