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Category: Academia

The academic conversation (not just for academics)

From Gerald Graff’s Clueless in Academia: How Schooling Obscures the Life of the Mind (which I haven’t read except for the online preview but which I hope to read soon):

But who gives a fig, you ask, about “the academic conversation,” which is often a bad conversation, boring, self-important, and dominated by insider orthodoxies? Academic conversations are often all these things, to be sure, but at their best moments they are more valuable and pertinent to students’ lives than academic-bashers give them credit for. Even so, you persist, isn’t the point of education to produce good citizens, not more academics? Surely it is, but these goals are compatible, for the issues and problems addressed by academic research and teaching are increasingly indistinguishable from the issues we wrestle with as public citizens. The point is not to turn students into clones of professors but to give them access to forms of intellectual capital that have a lot of power in the world.

Those who charge that academic discourse is itself the problem fail to see that talk about books and subjects is as important educationally as are the books and subjects themselves. For the way we talk about a subject becomes part of the subject, a fact that explains why we have book-discussion groups to supplement solitary reading, why Trekkies form clubs and hold conferences as well as privately enjoying Star Trek, and why sports talk call-in shows and sports journalism have arisen alongside the games themselves. Students must not only read texts, but find things to say about them, and no text tells you what to say about it. So our habit of elevating books and subjects over the secondary talk about them only helps keep students tongue-tied.


…one form the academic/popular culture contrast still takes is the complaint that schools and colleges fight a losing battle with popular entertainment for the hearts and minds of the young. The culture of ideas and arguments, so the complaint runs, is constantly overwhelmed and negated by visceral experience and spectacle. How can Socrates, Mill, and Henry James hope to compete for students’ attention with “Survivor,” the Spice Girls, the World Wrestling Federation, and the latest Schwarzenegger/Stallone action hero blockbuster?

The complaint makes sense up to a point, but it is misleading in two ways: first, from an educational point of view, the real opposition should be not between Henry James and the Spice Girls, but between intellectual and nonintellectual discussion of Henry James and the Spice Girls or any other subject. As I have noted, it is not the object in itself that creates problems for students but the public, academic ways of analyzing, arguing, and talking about the object. Members of the Spice Girls fan club do not read academic analyses of the Spice Girls (though if they were students, asking them to do so would be a way to draw them into academic culture).