Saturday, December 19, 2009

Collins on Academic Stagnation

Academicization is a two-edged sword. The material base that schools provide for intellectual life can be positive or negative in supporting creativity. The tendencies toward rote learning, narrow technique, and a routine of exercises and exams are always present. When they are overlaid by the energies of building new career paths and reorganizing intellectual space, the result is creative breakthroughs in the realm of higher abstractions. It is only when a fine balance holds among intersecting factions at a focus of attention that creativity exists. Distrubing the balance or removing the focus, one may be left with the material institutions and large numbers of intellectuals, but settled into schoalstic routine. With this comes the stagnation of classics and technicalities, and eventually an atmosphere in which the more creative high points may even be forgotten. Stagnation in all its forms is a danger of academic success.

Randall Collins, The Sociology of Philosophies, Harvard University Press (Cambridge, MA: 1990) p. 521. Collins identifies three forms of stagnation in the intellectual life of a culture: (1) stagnation involving loss of cultural capital; (2) stagnation involving confinement to the classics; and (3) stagnation involving jargonistic over-refinement. None of these mean that there is no good work being done; rather, they are three different ways that new research and examination of new ideas is hampered. Old ideas, which can birth new ideas, may be forgotten -- raised, but overlooked, and re-discovered only in hindsight. Intellectuals may enter into a little treadmill of treating the same points over and over again, without serious regard for problems and aporia. And the way in which intellectuals typically approach a question may become so overspecialized that non-specialists have difficulty seeing the value of the work, which makes it harder to recruit top minds to that field of study, which, if not corrected, leads to marginalization or collapse. Infrastructure and context is heavily responsible for this -- for instance, a culture in which scientists spend most of their time writing grant applications for expensive experiments to answer big questions will have a very different intellectual character, and be in danger of very different intellectual failings, when compared to a culture in which scientists spend most of their time coming up with cheap garage-and-kitchen experiments to answer little questions. Schooling ties intellectual life to a particular kind of infrastructure, at least loosely. This infrastructure allows intellectuals to keep track of more ideas, engage in more extensive investigations, and interact on a larger scale than they otherwise could, but at the same time it also locks in routines and expectations, some of which can, at a certain point, impede any of these three things unless it is restructured to take new circumstances into account (which can sometimes be difficult to do). Collins is famously pessimistic about our current academic infrastructure, which he has argued is creating conditions for all three kinds of intellectual stagnation. Unfortunately, he is largely right, although educational reforms could potentially breathe new life into the culture of study and research.

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