Beware Star Academia

I recently saw the show Old Jews Telling Jokes, and was reminded of a big change in humor over the last century. The show was full of old-style jokes, i.e., jokes designed to be funny given only a moderate level of showmanship. Once upon a time the jokes we heard were mostly jokes that got passed around because lots of pretty ordinary folks could tell them and get laughs. Today, instead, most jokes we hear are told by professional comics, who mostly tell their own unique jokes integrated with their life story and personality. Few others, even professional comics, can get such laughs from these jokes.

A similar change happened in music. Once upon a time the songs we heard were mostly songs that got passed around because many relatively ordinary folks could sing them and sound good. Today instead we mostly hear songs designed to show off the particular abilities of particular musicians. We are less tempted to sing these songs to our friends, or even to ourselves. Further in the past, a similar change happened with stories. Once, the stories we heard were passed around because many story tellers could enthrall listeners with them, even with many details changed. Then after the invention of writing we have preferred to pass around the exact words of particular story-tellers.

These changes seem driven by the ability to pass around more exactly the particular performances of particular artists. When we have that option, we take it eagerly. While we might think we mainly like the jokes, songs, and stories, and that artists are just a vehicle for getting to those. But it seems instead that we more care about admiring the abilities of particular artists, and that jokes, songs, and stories mostly vehicles to showcase artists.

If, as I have suggested, academia mainly functions to let us affiliate with impressive intellectuals, then academia should be at risk of suffering the same trend. That is, once upon a time we passed around the intellectual arguments and claims that a wide range of speakers could use in many contexts to persuade many listeners. But as we have gained better abilities to pass around the particular ways that particular speakers argue for claims, the above trend in jokes, song, and stories suggests that we did or will switch to focus more on the particular ways that particular intellectuals express and elaborate claims and arguments, and less on the claims and arguments themselves.

This is a problem because we have stronger reasons to expect that the arguments and claims that many people can use in many contexts to persuade varied listeners are more likely to be true, relative to those designed more to be parts of overall impressive displays by particular persons in particular contexts. If listeners actually care less if claims are true than if claimers are impressive, we should expect that when the audience for intellectuals can get better access to a rich personal display of attempted persuasion, they will lose much of their derived interest in the truth of claims. After all, maybe the audience never really cared that much if the claims were true – they mainly cared about claim truth as evidence of claimer impressiveness.

I’ve actually seen a lot that looks like this in my intellectual travels over the years. For example, many famous classic texts, especially in philosophy, are said to be popular because they can’t be effectively summarized or rephrased for a modern audience; to assimilate their insights, one must read the original authors in the original voices, even if their issues and styles are strange to us. We should suspect that folks read these classics less for insights and more for admiring and affiliating with impressive minds.

Also, I have seen people take arguments that others have made and express them with a bit more elegance and status, perhaps using more difficult methods, and get famous for originating such arguments, even when they mostly repeated what others said. It seems that people pretend that they celebrate these folks for originating certain arguments, but really want to admire and affiliate with their impressiveness.

Where could you go if you wanted to get the robust arguments, instead of affiliating with impressive intellectuals? First, read textbooks. I heartily recommend textbooks in most any subject. In fact, it is hard to do better than just sitting in a university bookstore and reading all the intro texts they have. Long ago I spent many days in the Stanford bookstore doing just that. Once you are done with textbooks, review articles are the next most robust option. And beware when interest in a topic seems to focus mainly on a particular author, and doesn’t transfer much to others who write on that same topic.

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