A Problem in Academia: The Problem of the “Outstanding Book Reviewer”

The modern university has a major problem, and that problem may be presented in the form of a description, a description the “platonic form” of professor: has memorized more than history has forgotten and can write a book review like it’s nobody’s frickin business.  That’s really it, that last part; the part about the outstanding book reviewer.  In my opinion, there is a fundamental problem with the university, in that it is structured to produce people that know a bunch of stuff and can write book reviews.  Of course, I have a particular person in mind, when I say “the outstanding book reviewer,” but I won’t say who it is, because I mean the phrase in the pejorative —and as far as I have been able to tell, this individual has never had an original thought in his or her life.  My frustration has recently arisen in having read this person’s works, many of which are book reviews, and is quite prolific in this “genre.”

My animus with this current state of affairs is really the culmination of a long career as a student within academia, having struggle very consciously against one of the most problematic elements of Western education, namely, that Western academic institutions are built around the notion that remembering stuff and regurgitating it is far, far more important to having a creative mind.  These aren’t strictly mutually exclusive, but there is definitely a give and take.  My view on this is that an individual who memorizes information, in non-stop fashion, will invariably lack originality.  My understanding is that one has to give up some amount of mental freedom to afford for structure.  In so saying, the benefit is clear, as far as the converse goes: freedom without structure is empty, so some amount of structure, as afforded for by the implicit structure in a theoretical framework that pervades information, yields an incredibly more productive variety of freedom, call it creativity.  Therefore, I am suggesting that there is a kind of paradox, though not really.  Let’s call is an allocation of resources, because that’s what it is.  The goal is to possess a large amount of information, while maintaining creativity.  If we could talk about it in mathematical terms, the idea is to maximize y in the function, f(creativity, information) = y.  My proposal is that, not only do you want to maximize why, but creativity and information constrain one another to a certain extent.  Throw in social pressures about “how one should not think,” and pressures of the like, and it is easy to see why there is so little creativity and high-level academic productivity anymore.  Just think about all of the recent great thinkers that have been unattached to the university, and you know what I am talking about.  Consider names like Žižek, Hitchens, Rand, and Hoffer.  Really, it is amazing that such an individual as Douglas Hofstadter exists within the confines of the university, considering his tremendous creativity; and this is a case in point, because, well —what did they did with him?  The powers in the university have left him alone.  He has little in the way of responsibilities that have been heaped upon him, and, as far as I know, he does what he wants, operating when the creative inspiration takes him.

I was recently at a presentation given by Alistair Sponsel on Darwin’s work on coral reefs.  The presentation made me realize just how involved Darwin was with data, and two things came to the fore, for me.  The first was that Darwin was constantly throwing himself in to a pile of data, a swarm, a chaos, an absolute mess of data and as much as he could come across.  The other thing was that his education was very, very focused on topics that he enjoyed.  It makes me think of a child at play, where sufficient competency is had of the items in play, and that no activity in play is a burden.  It is a continual state of inspiration.  Competency and passion.  What does this sound like?  To me, it sounds like David Hume, who thought that rationality and passion were inextricably interconnected in the individual.  Think about the function I presented above.  Isn’t this the added constraint upon the relationship of creativity and information?  Sure it is.  Someone who earnestly and most desirously wants to learn something and use (a practical element a la Dewey and Rousseau) will still have imagination enough to use it, and the rational structure of a mass of unwanted information does not impede the imagination.  Sir Ken Robinson has made a similar point.  Sir Ken has noted that adults, when asked what they can do with a paper clip, will say something like “hold papers together,” or “unfold it and pick a lock.”  He also notes that children will respond most often with questions, all of which are silly to adults, “is it as big as a car,” or “is it made of foam?”  Somewhere in the rationality in the above function is passion, and somewhere in the creativity variable is imagination; and drawing out these non-prevalent parameters, these “intangibles,” I think we see the interrelation between all the moving parts, and why information and creativity have some give and take between them.  I think we could go much, much further and illustrate how the shift between medieval forms of pedagogy and enlightenment pedagogy has effectively ruined academia, but that is beyond the scope of what I want to say in this blog.

In all of this, I think it is undoubted that there are two attributes that the academia values above all: 1) remembering a bunch of stuff and 2) the capacity for unheralded abilities to rip apart a text and summarize it.  These individuals are the ones that tend to get jobs in academia, as those who try to publish original work rarely succeed (most because it is off the beaten path of what “we,” the academicians, are doing).  The university is not, in general, a place of creativity; rather, there is a filter by negation in place to ensure that such does not appear in the academic ranks.  I have seen this in science, and it happens with much greater regularity in non-scientific disciplines.  Fortunately for me, this is not as problematic in history & philosophy of science, but it’s a mess in philosophy and even more so in other disciplines.  In writing this, I reflect on that “very notable” “book reviewer” who is exemplar of all academia, whose book reviews are widely read, and who tries to make a baby step in the same direction of the same line of thinking as the last scholar, sitting in his or her office, cutting and pasting lines of text in his or her head and permuting them.  Rather than end on the sour note of the master of text memorization and book reviewing, I will end with a quotation by someone who was not a book reviewer: “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

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October 20, 2012 · 2:24 am

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