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Academia: Circle-Jerking or Intellectual Progress?

By Thomas Frenette

Arts & Culture Editor


“Tiger got to hunt, Bird got to fly, Man got to sit and wonder ‘why? why? why?’, Tiger got to sleep, Bird got to land, Man got to tell himself he understand” - Kurt Vonnegut

Via Open Culture


Perhaps the most comprehensive attempt to collect knowledge in the West is academia. Academia is the scholarly environment of universities and colleges dedicated to engaging with the truths of the world through written and oral discourses. Intellectual societies have indeed helped enlighten the educated public in philosophy, politics, economics, sociology and various other disciplines. 


The essence of all academic pursuits is to argue about other sources in the format of studies, dissertations, and essays. Another scholar engages with the first individual’s material, and so begins a continuous debate over the truth. Everyone cites everyone else; theories on theories, papers about papers, and thinking about thinking to transform them into “new” material. 


Academics and scholars dedicate their lives to this endless spiral of reasoning and logic to debate, articulate, and refine ad nauseam how knowledge ought to be framed. Inasmuch as these works are mere echoes of each other, they are only applicable in their own closed-circuit system. The knowledge they offer is unfit to be applied to life as much as it can be applied to other knowledge. They are not engaging with reality as it is; they are engaging with a reality contained within the rules that are constantly being redefined by academic works. 


But such knowledge is largely untested by real-life applications and it alienates us from the material it is supposed to elucidate. Of what use is all of this knowledge if the only relevant context in which it can be applied is other knowledge? In other words, for what use is academia produced other than for the sake of academia? There is a belief in academia that the intellectual progress of its works is engaging with a conclusion on life itself, while its only pride is the consistent inauguration of conclusions upon conclusions. 


This is what Ralph Waldo Emerson, a 19th-century American essayist, naturalist and philosopher, signaled as the spiraling of knowledge. In 1837, he cautioned academics of nurturing a “degenerate state” of society where one may “tend to become a mere thinker, or, still worse, the parrot of other men’s thinking.” 


Western culture has indeed taken an absurd trajectory that gives more authority to self-gratifying and indirect accounts of a phenomenon rather than lived experience. By participating in academia, other sources of knowledge that have not been or cannot be recorded by academic endeavors are being dismissed. The compulsive search for intelligence through a mechanical and systematic lens results in the rejection of a huge segment of the wisdom of the world. Any form of knowledge which cannot be subjected to revision and republication is discredited as informal and unacademic. 

Emerson aimed to inaugurate a new perspective on intelligence that is not limited to a lazy exchange of theories, but built upon a duty to raise one another’s quality of life and ability to gain knowledge via trade of observations, experiences and ideas rooted in facts that are active and present in the living world, beyond the appearances and conjectures drawn up by academia. 


The world is full of pretense; so much is told about reality that it can be tempting to take all of this pretense as truth. Intelligence should not be categorically stored and accessed in written works; the raw material, or the source of the knowledge that academics toil to copy, makes written works pale in comparison. Academic study can only simulate the synthesis of this raw material that substantiates one’s experience of the world. To illustrate this, Emerson likens the absurd attempt of translating academic knowledge to life to “transplanting an oak into a flower-pot.” 


He suggests that an understanding of the real world must begin with real-life experiences. Doing so teaches not what the world appears to be or what academics proclaim it to be, but of the world as it truly is. Through this exposure of the world may be found endless beauty; Emerson says that “the artist may lose inspiration to paint having seen every piece of art that he can, but the man who lives will lose nothing at all.” Looking outward toward nature and inward without consulting external information teaches an individual to become a student of the world, alert to the beauty of the world and less to the unhealthy and excessive faith placed in academia. 


All in all, this is not to say that academia is inherently futile and misguided. Critical insight regarding a wide variety of disciplines has indeed been provided by academic works. However, the domination of conversations regarding knowledge by academia excludes too many paths to access and share knowledge. Exploring nature for oneself and not for the sake of academia is healthy for the body and for the mind by encouraging a genuine understanding of the world.


Go touch grass, nerds! 

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