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The Accidental Elitist

Academia is too important to be left to academics

“What came first,” in the immortal words of Nick Hornby, “the music or the misery?” During one of the most highly anticipated panels at the biggest academic conference of the year in my field, I’m sitting on the floor with a bunch of other eager dopes who didn’t show up in time to snag a seat. Everyone’s still in high spirits, though. One of the hottest names in “theory” today is running the panel and all the papers sound fascinating, in an obsessive hobbyist sort of way—it all promises to be a thunderous nerdgasm.

Then, halfway through the panel, it hits me: this is awful. The redeeming insights are just so few and far between, stranded between deserts of lame, forced conference humor and straightforward, even banal points dressed up in comically unnecessary jargon. And everyone in the audience keeps nodding. I’m annoyed first, then just overwhelmingly sad. Being overwhelmingly sad is, to be fair, a regular part of being an academic, and oftentimes it can feel like there’s just something about the profession that attracts overwhelmingly sad people. But, for the first time, I start to wonder if it’s not just me. In my head, all I can hear is Hornby by way of John Cusack . . . Did I join academia because I was miserable? Or was I miserable because I joined academia?

There’s something serious going on here, and we need to talk about it. No, this will not be another rambling naval-gazing excursis on what “the role of the academic” should be. Instead, I hope to isolate the sick blisters on the academic body politic that are rotting away our ability to even talk about such things in mildly interesting, let alone useful, ways.

To be an academic in today’s America is to be plunged into a perennial identity crisis. And like most academic things, it’s a maddeningly elliptical, recursive, and small-bore sort of crisis. Fueling all our self-indulgent angst is a never-fully-acknowledged social contract, the one that, via countless professional canons and conventions, confirms your choice to be a so-called academic, to assume it not only as a profession, but an identity, and to wear on yourself the trappings that come with that identity without stopping to wonder how necessary they really are and whether they are actually killing your ability to be and do something better. Most of the time this doesn’t even feel like a choice at all, but it is. At other times, how to deal with this choice may seem more or less like a personal matter. But, in the age of Trump, the public implications of this choice, the civic implications, have been exposed more than ever before, and the stakes are as high as they’re going to get.

Every couple of years, some civic-minded pragmatist publishes a new article entreating contemporary academics to make their work more accessible to the general public, and to please, for the love of God, cool it already with all the fancy-pants jargon. There’s typically something in these articles that is particularly targeted at the humanities (and, to a large extent, the social sciences). No one in popular political media freaks out about academics in the hard sciences having their own impenetrable disciplinary languages, which are understood as necessary complements to demanding subject matter, at least as impenetrable to the lay reader as the fare at any humanities conference. “Well, guess what, America?” Slate columnist Rebecca Schuman writes in a defense of jargon. “The humanities are also full of difficult concepts . . . Difficult concepts sometimes call for big words.” On this point, Schuman is absolutely right, and she has been right many times before on questions relating to higher education. But there are two glaring absences in the rest of her defense of academic jargon.

We fear that making ourselves easier to understand will take away some of our social capital, our special aura as keepers of the densest secrets.

First, the humanities rightfully pride themselves on their devotion to the study of the stuff of human life and culture and being, which, by definition, humans (academic or not) experience more intimately and have a more immediate claim to than, say, the aerodynamics of a Boeing 777. If we want to be treated with the same kind of elite reverence as scientists, we have to accept it as part of our job to tell average people that we know more about the circumstances surrounding their humanity than they do. But even if we don’t necessarily agree with this approach, we still carry on as if we do, and this goes double for how we deal with politics. Academics in the humanities love thinking about politics in incredibly dense terms, while also considering our work itself as somehow “political”: “politics” appears in seventy two panel or paper titles at this conference; “political” in thirty four; “resistance,” twenty one; etc. It goes without saying we are implicitly celebrating a kind of technocratic anti-politics, though, when we contribute to making the discussion of politics intelligible only to a select few. If Trump’s election didn’t teach us that this kind of thing is a death wish, nothing will.

Second, in just about every takedown or defense of highfalutin academic jargon, it’s generally taken for granted that such jargon is just part of the job academics do, but when it comes to determining the role of “the academic” in society, things get messier. The arguments make it seem like the main choice facing academics involves determining to what degree they might deign to display some civic-mindedness and try to translate their findings into something that will somehow engage and benefit “the public.” But all such arguments tend to rest on unchallenged assumptions about academics in general, and these assumptions are often the biggest problem.    

There’s a huge difference, for instance, between defending academic jargon as such and defending academic jargon as the typical academic so often uses it. There’s likewise a huge difference between justifying jargon when it is absolutely necessary (when all other available terms simply do not account for the depth or specificity of the thing you’re addressing) and pretending that jargon is always justified when academics use it. And there’s a huge difference between jargon as a necessarily difficult tool required for the academic work of tackling difficult concepts, and jargon as something used by tools simply to prove they’re academics.

It’s not that things like specialized disciplinary jargon are inherently bad or unnecessary. They are bad, however, when they’ve traveled into that special category of identity markers, which so often allow people in contemporary academia to at least act like their primary purpose is to confirm their identity as academics. Like the tweed jacket, things like jargon help form a template of accepted behaviors and traits that qualify one’s identity as an academic, and such qualification becomes the primary justification for keeping them around. You’re not an academic unless you use a certain kind of jargon when you speak and write; you’re not an academic unless you publish in certain journals, etc.

The scales tip a certain way and being an academic becomes less about what you do, how you do it, and whom you do it for, and more about where you do it and how you look and sound doing it. There are still other, more noble parts of the profession (advancing human knowledge, shaping the minds of tomorrow, etc.), but on a daily basis they can slip unnoticed into the background of secondary concerns. Sure, it’s not like you don’t ever think about what you can do and whom you could “help” with your reading knowledge of Deleuze and Guattari, for instance, but doing and helping can take a back seat to affirming that you are an academic, that is, the kind of person who reads Deleuze and Guattari.

At worst, even the more noble pursuits of “the academic life” can become nothing more than window dressing—clichés academics repeat out loud to give themselves purpose, honorable things they want credit for even if they themselves aren’t doing shit for them. The sinister part of all this, then, occurs when, even if you don’t realize it, you end up being more willing to serve your public image and professional ego than you are inclined to put yourself out for the sake of other people. In any phase of modern intellectual political engagement, this complex is obnoxious and not worth defending. In the age of Trump, it is downright unforgivable.

The perpetual conceit of academics in the humanities is that translating their work into a more accessible vernacular will “dumb down” what are necessarily complex subjects. Important stuff will be lost. Behind this conceit, though, is an implicit presumption from just about every academic that they could perform this kind of translation if pressed to. It has been one of the great sources of my disillusionment with academia to realize that a staggering majority of jargonauts, when pressed, actually can’t.

We don’t have to go to city council meetings wearing fake moustaches.

There’s a further presumption that what needs to be translated from academese is indispensable wisdom in its own right. But taking for granted that the complicated-sounding stuff is always justified because it’s complicated actually harms the very work we do in academia. Sometimes we need to clean house. For instance, it doesn’t need to be taken as a knock on the invaluable past and future contributions of Queer Studies to say that, as with every other discipline, it produces ways of thinking and talking that mainly serve as obnoxious props of tired, self-referential cliques. When the convention of “queering” something has itself become a normative cottage industry in academic departments that’s met with comfortable nods of familiarity, perhaps it has outlived its usefulness, and perhaps the radical spirit of queering needs to attack the convention. Nor does it need to elicit judgmental stares to say that, when excitable academics overuse the term “ontology” and can claim to be studying the specific ontology of just about every little thing, ontology itself ceases to mean anything. (This, indeed, is but a higher-brow variation of the reflex that slaps the term “politics” on everything.) But instead of being more thoughtful about such conventions, we keep relying on inherently “problematic” and self-serving ways to defend them.

This, I realize, is part of what has been grossing me out so much. And the bigger, grosser part lies in the fact that many academics will subconsciously fall back on the “complex” nature of our work as a way to put normies back in their place and get them to stop asking questions. Remember, we’re neurotic, anxious, self-conscious people. We have our own defense mechanisms and will do much to deflect the realization that very often, the problem is not that our work is so complex that it can only be understood through disciplinary jargon, but that we can’t or don’t want to do the work of “putting it in terms others would understand.” Or, even worse, we fear that making ourselves easier to understand will take away some of our social capital, our special aura as keepers of the densest secrets. We fear that, if we actually could explain our dissertation and book projects to others in simple, but still precise, ways, we might face that most troubling question—“So what?”—without being able to come up with a remotely plausible answer. 

 This discussion is, alas, no longer purely academic. The anti-intellectualist “populist” backlash sweeping parts of the West, capped off by Donald Trump’s presidential victory, has framed the key questions of academic work and its intended audience in a very peculiar way. Debates about the merit of academic jargon and “public scholarship” have been swept up in the larger fuss over “coastal-elite” echo chambers, liberal “political correctness” on college campuses, the elitist technocratic vision of the Democrats, the “Real America,” and so on. The roiled masses, it seems, have risen up to support a dangerous jackass with the vocabulary, mental capacity, and temperament of a third grader, threatening to destroy values and institutions that academics know need to be preserved. It’s only inevitable that this culture-war flashpoint would re-ignite strong sentiments about the elitist tint of academically informed politics as well as the political repercussions of academic elitism. And one of the go-to academic responses to such chaos has been to envision a future for the mythic figure of the “public intellectual,” or at least some form of public intellectualism whose mission would be to reach general audiences and make it as clear as day what they’re getting disastrously wrong.

Before the Trumpocalypse began, n+1 co-founder Mark Greif addressed some of the biggest problems with these often pie-eyed discussions about the public intellectual in a feature for The Chronicle of Higher Education. For the most part, Greif lays out an informative historical comparison between mid-century intellectuals writing for the Partisan Review and today’s professional university class. This comparison culminates in some sensible prescriptions for a more capable species of public intellectual in the 21st century, one that must aspire to “[restore] the highest estimation of the public” by first engaging with it on a more equal, less condescending level than that of the current “pseudo-public culture,” which encourages smart people to peddle “dumbed-down ‘big ideas’” to Joe Public.

When discussing current academics’ impractical hopes for more public intellectuals and user-friendly scholarship to help right society’s wrongs, Greif largely chalks such problems up to people’s ignorance of historical changes to “the public” and academia, which have, among other things, produced the dead ends of today’s “pseudo-public culture.” But it’s much more uncomfortable to consider that much of today’s clichéd glorification of public intellectualism isn’t so much the result of people’s ignorance of how intellectuals and the public have changed, but a self-serving, if subconscious desire to maintain a certain distance between the two.

What is necessary, what is excessive, and whom are you serving? There are precious few incentives in today’s academy to wrestle with such questions.

Spend a few days at a big-time humanities or social science conference and you’ll soon see that the portrait of public-intellectual work as well-intentioned but misdirected academic slumming doesn’t really add up. The quest to recover accessible scholarship hinges at bottom on the difference between “academics,” as a group, being so fog-headedly disconnected from the public that they don’t really know how to talk to it, and academics having a more specific vision of the public and choosing to engage with it (or not) in a very specific way (with prohibitive complexity or with condescending “regular speak”). My sense is that academics tend to veer more toward the latter excess than they would care to admit.

This is important: I’m not agreeing with conservative shoe-bangers and cranky old idiots like George Will of the Washington Post who love to seize on problems like these as proof that we academics are all hoity-toity elitists who are conspiring together to lord our knowledge over a public full of nothing but bigots, lardos, and morons. What I’m arguing is that, far more often, we are either unconscious of, or we don’t think hard enough about, the ways we act as if this is the case. We may fundamentally reject the “pseudo-public culture” Grief describes, and the stuffy, condescending ideals of “the intellectual” and “the public” that come with it. But that doesn’t mean we don’t do our part to bolster that same culture by, say, using jargon for what are essentially self-serving ends, or not working harder to hash out forms of meaningful, critical engagement with non-academics in ways that move beyond the dumbed-down TED Talk model. Even if we are consciously not the archetypal ivory-tower elitists conservative pundits like to pretend we are, we can still essentially amount to the same thing by not making it a priority to honestly ask questions like, “When is my jargon necessary and when am I just being an asshole?”

All of the persistent talk of tragically marooned academics seeking to engage a vanishing public exposes what is, perhaps, the most crucial point: what we’re talking about requires much more than finding more effective ways to “translate” our academic knowledge into something that will be able to “lift up” the public while also remaining legible to it. To limit this to a question of translation is to still presume that the toughest, most important, and mind-bending work must be done first in private and in one’s native academic tongue before it can trickle down to a more public arena. As if our primary task is to come up with Derrida for Dummies. But, in fact, the more important work starts with a deeply self-reflective consideration for when the academic heavy lifting is necessary and when it is pompous bullshit. Again, this is not to say that what is written and talked about in high-octane academic forums is vapid and meaningless. It’s about asking, very seriously, when you are packing hyper-complex sentences with loaded terminology and references to deep theoretical traditions: what is necessary, what is excessive, and whom are you serving?

There are precious few incentives in today’s academy to wrestle with such questions. If you ask them when you’re low on the professional totem pole, people tend to look down on you in a way that suggests you just don’t get it yet: you’re not familiar enough with these terms and these traditions, to question their practical value. And the fear of being written off in this way pretty much guarantees you won’t ask such questions in the first place. This, in turn, ensures that when you finally do start to get it, you’re generally so happy to be in the mix, so cognizant of how much hard work it took to get there, and so desperate to impress the people on whom your professional career depends, that you’ll continue walking the walk and talking the talk of the blue-blood academic caste. Add to this an anemic job market, pressure to publish, and everyone’s secret hope of becoming the next celebrity theorist like Judith Butler or Slavoj Žižek, and the risk of rocking the boat hardly seems worth it.

These mechanisms of fear, envy, masonic inclusion, posturing, etc. keep the cycle of academic professionalization going while simultaneously neutralizing efforts to make destroying these mechanisms a professional and a political priority. Because such mechanisms have turned so many good, smart academics into insufferable windbags, so much of our work into pure elitist masturbation, and so much of our political “roles” into pseudo-noble, condescending fluff. But we need to start addressing these mechanisms and the questions underpinning them—urgently so, if we want our work to be something more than an outburst of moral vanity, or an obliging target for the anti-PC right.

To begin at the beginning: our goal should not just be to “translate” the more complicated and prohibitive language of our insulated scholarly circles into one that is more accessible to the public, but to develop a critical, workable language out of the non-academic spheres and “publics” we’re already a part of. This includes smaller spheres, like families, neighborhoods, local jobs, social networks, and increasingly larger ones, like city councils, unions, professional associations, major media outlets, etc. Such spheres vary widely, and a crucial part of this work will be accepting and engaging with the limits of local spheres instead of enacting the old academic conceit of having more universalist ways and means to address them all at once.

The left’s battles often involve conditioning popular discourse to unfamiliar material, while the right has been exceptionally good at “framing” popular discourse so that people will support things that are bad for them.

It’s easy to see this as an attempt to reach into the attic-chest of failed political tactics and blow the dust off the nineteenth-century Russian narodniks’ effort to “go to the people,” or the New Left’s own attempt to do this in the decades after WWII. But in so many instances, such “populist” efforts in the past were driven by the same conceit haunting discussions of public intellectuals today. It is an inherently vanguardist lullaby, which assumes that going to the people ultimately means going out to educate them about what we already know—a self-regarding overture that almost always ends up in failure.

What I’m suggesting here is way more important and much, much harder. It requires more than going out to non-academic forums with the underlying goal of injecting them with academic concepts and views. It also requires more than having academics sit backwards in their chairs for a moment to “talk like the people” in some popular forums and news outlets. It requires that one goes and does the painstaking work of learning languages that express and condition the worldviews of their speakers, that are encoded with specific logical systems and empowered by cultural conventions, which must also be learned and practiced. It requires daily efforts to understand how this cultural material works for smaller and larger publics as well as repeated attempts to construct workable critical stances out of that very material. If we want proof this kind of thing works, we can unfortunately find many examples from the right. Whereas the left’s battles often involve conditioning popular discourse to unfamiliar material (“normativity,” “the patriarchy,” “genderqueer,” “alienation”), the right has been exceptionally good at “framing” popular discourse out of familiar material (“right to work,” “political correctness,” “class warfare”) and shifting people’s sentiments in such a way that they’ll even support things that are fundamentally bad for them.  

This kind of work is incredibly hard, because it mandates that our learned caste does a lot more learning and, in many ways, returning to square one, where they themselves are indistinguishable from “the public” they wish to address. And this needs to be achieved more in deed than mentality. It’s something that requires talking and doing things differently on account of a radically different set of answers to the questions: what is necessary, what is excessive, and whom are you serving? We don’t have to go to city council meetings wearing fake moustaches or try to scrub all public knowledge of the very thing that would generally render us of any public interest (i.e. our academic bona fides). Academics, as we know, generally suck at pretending to be regular Joes and Janes. But in the sustained work of building critical discourses and worldviews out of the material of non-academic spheres, they can at least be forced to act as if they are. And we already know they’re good at that. Because this is essentially a more productive mirror image of the problem we already have, whereby we embody the identity of an “academic” through certain normative practices and disciplinary languages, which keeps us acting as if we’re elitist egomaniacs, even if we consider ourselves to be something entirely different,

Far from feeling threatened by such a return to an un-distinguished place in the mass, academics should feel heartened by it. After all, we’ve already proven to ourselves that we can do what needs to be done. One positive thing I see at this conference panel filled with unending streams of disciplinary jargon is proof that deeply critical and sophisticated communities can emerge out of specialized languages that were, at different points, new to everyone in the room. The learning and using of these languages expanded the critical capacities of everyone in this room, which is the power of language and culture itself, not of specialized academic terms alone. But academics, by profession, have far more practice in it than most people. That same creative spirit of learning, the same strength for using different cultural and conceptual material to build communities and stances that are, from the start, critical and demanding—this, more than any specific terms, traditions, or specialized knowledge, is what academics in general bring to the fight.