What is the purpose of academia?


I have been struggling with this question all summer.

Well, not struggling with it, but rather I have been surprised at other people’ s perspectives on it. It’s no secret that there is a big gap between academia and the public and even policy makers for that matter. I think this is a problem and is central to a lot of the problems in society today. I know I must have blogged before about my disgust with the politics in academia and the hubris of some of the professors and phd students that I have met through time.

If/when I do become a phd, I don’t want to write 10 nooks on some random topic that no one cares about and not even make the effort to apply those ideas to raising awareness/solving some social/political ill. The thought of being a self-consumed tenured at one of the top — programs professor is depressing.

I think this summer has made me realize just how wide the gap between academics and the masses can really be.

but I’ve met some folk who don’t feel that way. I guess I will write about this later, when I reflect more, but I just wanted to put the question out there.

p.s. I still love Tariq Rammadan


3 thoughts on “What is the purpose of academia?

  1. ahlan wa sahlan…good to read you again. you also love Tazzy? [nickname my friend and I gave to Tariq Ramadan]. I always like listening to him b/c of his take on things and I am very proud of such a man in our ummah [including dozens of others like Sherman Jackon, TJ Winter, Hamza Yusuf, Zaid Shakir, etc.]. I have to admit that he’s very eloquent and quite attractive..or is it charming?

    Academia is a tricky one…the plus side is the knowledge and the credibility it gives you…the negatives are that it makes some people pompous and completely disconnected from anything but their eccentric ways and ideas…BUT I don’t think it should deter you from pursuing that path simply b/c it is up to you to make it relevant. Listen, you can work in think thanks, you can work in government, you can even be a private consultant and feed in government or multilateral institutions’ policies. You pick the issues that mean everything to you and you go and apply your knowledge in the field. Forget about writing books [yawn] but put yourself out there. That’s my 2 cents, I’m not sure who I’m trying to convince, you or I, lol.

  2. KG

    I’ve definitely felt the tension of trying to balance academics and the needs of the public. I think my situation is slightly different though, since I’m in the sciences, and my institution is a land-grant institution, which means part of its mission is to provide knowledge and services to the public.

    This means that even the more academic, theoretical work (such as is done for a Ph.D.) has to have some sort of justification, even if it’s tangential or so far in the future that it won’t be of immediate help to anyone.

    (One biologist wrote a proposal on investigating a plant protein involved in cell division. She put in all this stuff about how it would somehow show mechanisms involved in cancer. “All I really want to know is how it works in plants,” she said. “But to get funding, I have to say I’m going to cure cancer.” Maybe the info she learns *will* eventually help us learn about cancer, but you can see the sort of stretches that need to be made.)

    Many funding agencies, such at the National Science Foundation, actually require that when you write a funding proposal, you put in a statement of “broader impacts” showing that your work will have some practical value to society.

    The other dynamic is that most of these funding agencies get their money from the government. Which means we, the tax payers, are paying grad students’ salaries and at least part of the professors’ salaries. So, don’t the grad students and professors, and maybe academia in general, have a responsibility to society?

    In my department, we’re working in the agricultural sciences, so the practical argument is generally less a stretch than it might be in another discipline. But there is still a major gap between the extension agents, who work with farmers and tell them when to plant, what to plant, what herbicides to use, etc. and the professors who do more theoretical research. “A farmer would never do that/the planting season is too short for that crop/the farmer wouldn’t make money if he did that…”et cetera.

    At the same time, you have to do the more theoretical stuff to understand the mechanisms, and why certain things work and others don’t. If you understand the mechanisms, you can apply that information to new situations. Otherwise, you’d just be doing something because it worked before, or somewhere else, but it’d really just be a guessing game as to whether it would work in your situation.

    I guess I’m in kind of the opposite situation from you. Of course I want my life’s work to be useful, and to “make a difference.” The problem is that right now, I’m not really interested in the more practical aspects of farming, or the sort of experiments that say, “let’s plant this/till with this machinery, etc. and see if it works.” (Which is what agricultural science has traditionally been like and in some cases still is.) I’m more interested in the mechanistic stuff. Why does this work? Why is the plant responding this way?

    If the gap is like this in my discipline, I can’t imagine what it’s like in other disciplines.

  3. gazelledusahara

    Thanks Kristen and Y.S.

    It helps to know that I’m not crazy and that the gaps between academia in theory and in reality do exist.

    But is it really a bad thing? I think that’s the part I’m hung up on right now. There was a person in my class who said that she like the gap because it provided a special space for her to think… of course my initial reaction was um, yeah ok crazy elitist– children are dying while you bask in your state of elucidation and others go on being ignorant of the information that is vital to their lives…

    But now I trying to give the lady a fair chance… trying…

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