Myths and mismatches, part 7

This is part of a series of posts that was written as a response to – and a means of thinking through issues raised by – an e-course by Jo VanEvery and Julie Clarenbach called “Myths and Mismatches”. Here is the link to the original post, from January 15, 2011:“Myths & Mismatches” Part 7: How to Apply Yourself.

Closely tied to the idea that “Academia is the only game in town” and that “You’re not qualified to do anything else“:

“Myth #4: School is the only place for smart people.”

Jo and Julie pose the question, “why are we telling ourselves that if we’re smart, we must necessarily go for the highest degree possible?” One answer would be that this is how the system works; certainly Ken Robinson makes this argument, that the entire educational apparatus is designed to perpetuate itself by allowing those most successful to ascend to the level of Professor. When or not one agrees with the rest of Robinson’s theses, this point is useful because it highlights the process of replication that becomes especially important in graduate education. This can be stultifying; not only is the government agenda to push PhDs out of the university, but “if the last twenty years have taught us anything […] it’s the power of smart people outside of school”.

Not only is “school” the only place for intelligence, there’s also a hierarchy of knowledge. I know when I was considering doing my PhD in Education, I was advised not to (by more than one person) essentially because the discipline wasn’t respected; this seems to relate to a long tradition of Education as a research area being perceived as less valuable and prestigious than other disciplines (for some history on this, see “An Elusive Science” by Ellen Condliffe Lagemann). I’ve also heard of top students being advised not to apply for their B.Ed, for the same reason–teaching as a profession isn’t respected the way law, medicine and engineering are. The irony is that we need teachers to be the smartest people we can find, since they’re the ones preparing the future generations who’ll be running this place when we’re all too old to participate. Seems straightforward enough to me.

To be considered very smart and to do something other than remaining in academe is to violate expectations; after all, academe is supposed to be the one place where intellectual merit is rewarded most highly. But “what if we could bring our smartness to bear on whatever it is that makes us passionately, excitedly happy? For some people, yes, that will be academia. But not everyone.” I think this summarises my attitude – I want to be as effective as possible at something, given my own abilities and limitations; I need to feel like I’m doing something towards whatever my goal is (though the goal itself is evolving, and has always been so over time).

For myself, I do think it’s reasonable to view a university career as a good fit if I can engage in the things that are meaningful/productive to me (such as teaching, writing a book, being around other intellectually engaged people, communicating/engaging with different “publics”, and so on). I like the structure of the academic environment because in spite of its flaws, it helps motivate me and at its best it gives a kind of institutional form to practices and values I find important. And I think the university should be a place where new ideas can be tried out – where faculty also have a responsibility to voice critical viewpoints, to “engage” with larger audiences. Knowledge is political, that’s one of the things that draws me to this career; and the university is an ongoing project in which all members have some role. I find the perverse balance between tradition and innovation to be at the heart of the university, and rather than destructive I think this struggle is its very reason for continued existence over thousands of years.

But all this is about more than being “smart” or a good writer – it’s about negotiating the whole package, warts and all, and that’s part of what this whole series of posts has been about. You can be smart and do a hundred other worthwhile things, it’s just that this isn’t necessarily the message you’ll get while you’re at university, particularly in graduate school. If the whole package doesn’t end up working out, there are other, equally meaningful forms of employment to which you can apply your considerable skills and training.

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