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Professor as Caricature, Academia as Ivory Tower: a Revisiting
by Dr. Emanuel Paparella
2014-12-24 11:35:11
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Socrates with a tin can begging in the agora


The lampooning and caricaturing of professors seems to be a new phenomenon in academia. What is intriguing,  ironic, and even funny about it, is that quite often the caricaturizing is conducted by people who claim the title of professor themselves, or people who consider themselves cultured intellectuals. Let’s survey this intriguing phenomenon. As the saying goes “a picture is worth a thousand words,” so rather than writing a long essay with many words defending the liberal arts or the humanities as educational areas worthy in themselves and crucial to our humanity (something which I have already done repeatedly in Ovi magazine) I’d like to rely on a few selected cartoons which visually make the point much better than many words. This is also an Ovi tradition which is fortunate to have some very good and imaginative cartoonists.

To be sure, the phenomenon of the lampooned professorial type is actually not so recent.  In fact, it goes all the way back to Socrates, who while not being a bona fide professor teaching in an academy, as Plato and Aristotle certainly were, taught the young and not so young in Athens’ agora. His wife Xantippe was not happy about this state of affairs and would chide him because he refused to charge anything for his teaching and made a miserly living as a stone cutter, while the sophists who were not as intelligent as he was, presented themselves as professors of rhetoric of sort and were getting rich by charging  for their teaching while Socrates’ family was poor, which only added to the ammunition available of Socrates’ detractors. As the saying goes: “if you are so smart, why are you not rich?” The above cartoon is therefore a biased and unfair caricature of the great philosopher who actually never went around begging.


Education assessed by its utility and profitability

Be that as it may, the damaging lampooning came from the pen of none other than Aristophanes the famous ancient Greek dramatist who wrote a comedy of ideas titled “The Clouds” wherein he makes fun of  the father of Western philosophy. This is similar to the modern mediocre detractors who routinely accuse brilliant professors  such as Einstein or Darwin exactly of the offense of being brilliant and valuing learning  for its own sake.  They critique what allegedly is a prioritizing of abstract ideas at the expense of pragmatic practical concerns such as the market and entrepreneurship. Plato mentions this event in the life of Socrates (Socrates was 45 when the comedy was staged in 423 BC) in his Apology as a factor which contributed to Socrates’ trial and conviction. Socrates is portrayed in the comedy as the absent minded professor with his head in the clouds reflecting on ideas but inept in the practical things of life. This of course is pure slander. If one takes the trouble to read Plato’s dialogue where Socrates is usually the main protagonist one will soon notice the great attention to particulars that he capable of. He is far from being the absent minded professor forgetting to put on his sandals or what he ate in the morning. This bias for practical action at the expense of theory is clearly manifest in the current spade of caricatures of professors who hold Ph.D.s and have made the professorship their life-occupation. Many of them actually continue teaching and serving society even after their retirement in the sunset of their lives. One thinks of Hans-George Gadamer, the father of modern hermeneutics, who lived till the ripe old age of 102 and kept on teaching and lecturing till the end.

To be sure, the lampooning usually proceeds from those who have first dedicated their life to making money and then, as an ego boosting avocation of sort, enter academia and claim the title of professor by the mere fact of their experience in the world of business. Sometimes they even claim the title of doctor without having an earned Ph.D. degree. I still remember the unfair lampooning of a particular professor at the college that I attended in the mid sixties. The college’s strength was liberal arts and philosophy and several professors were still working at their Ph.D. One in particular, who already had a Ph.D., was perceived as too abstract by some students and therefore some students proceeded to lampoon him by showing up in the cafeteria dressed up as Socrates with his head in the ethereal clouds. Of course the professor was upset at this charge which was in fact unfair since he had a family and was very much the practical man, a necessity when one supports a family. I have often wondered if those students were put up by those unmarried colleagues who were slightly envious of the accomplishments of their colleague. Things like that have been known to happen in academia.

Be that as it may, the question arises: what is the real motivation for this caricature, especially when it proceeds from other professors who in no way are rather mediocre and in no way as famous as an Aristophanes, but remain misguidedly proud of their hand-on empirical, utilitarian practical experience devoid of an earned Ph.D. and even devoid of any theoretical-philosophical underpinning. Is it a mere prioritizing of action over theory, mere positivism privileging science, which would be bad enough, or merely sour grapes? A psychologist like William James, who taught at Harvard University, does in fact attempt an answer to the question in his two famous essays “The Ph.D. Octopus” and “The true Harvard” where he simply points out that a university is not a social club; the visible social club is not the university; the true university is invisible, somewhat like the true Church (which is not the Vatican and its trappings) and has to do with a community of scholars who have dedicated their lives to intellectual concerns, learning and wisdom. Indeed he had no Ph.D. but he was a doctor (an M.D.) and knew very well that diagnosis comes before prognosis and to do a prognosis without a diagnosis is to be an incompetent doctor. The same applies to being a professor. To reduce education to the pragmatic social instrumental purposes, is to degrade the very idea of a university.



Lampooning Socrates as a professor in the agora

Closer to our times, the next most famous caricature of the professor is that of Einstein who is also represented as the absent-minded professor who could fathom the mysteries of the universe and the relationship of space to time but forget to zipper his pants in the morning. Here again most of those who proffered those caricatures were not luminaries themselves and were usually at the bottom of the academic totem pole.


The absent-minded Professor Einstein


An Einstein-looking professor

Then there is the former show “Gilligan Island” where the professor is also lampooned as brilliant but impractical, a mere pretender, incapable of solving the most basic practical problems. The core of all those caricatures is that those professors by their absent-mindedness end up pretending to be what they are not and a disservice to society, a fraud of sort. That in fact the title of professor should be bestowed not on the theoretician and/or philosopher or those who study liberal arts for their own sake and not for utility (that is, not for profits) but on those who are pragmatists and solve real existential problems such as the environmental crisis or political issues such as torture justified as Machiavellian means to an end, and, not unlike the ancient sophists, get rich in the process. After all, what would a Socrates, or an Einstein, or a Darwin know about practical issues? It is like arguing that risk varies inversely with knowledge, given that most professors, like Socrates, are not rich, albeit some like Socrates and Einstein are famous. It’s a kind of circular reasoning eating its own tail.




Then there is the case of Professor Darwin who has been caricatured and continues to be so caricatured simply for disagreeing with those who misguidedly believe that creation is a one shot deal and has no evolution and change in its essential nature.


Caricature of Prof. Darwin’s Theory of Evolution



The brain substituting the mind in a post-modern positivistic world


Primitive man appreciative of a Ph.D. degree

And what is the point of this brief humorous excursus into the caricaturing of professors? Simply to point out that one cannot promote genuine education, which always begins with the theoretical and with ideas before passing on to the pragmatic and the useful (even a pragmatist like William James would not deny that) and at the same time debunk the essence of education. It would be like attempting to square a circle. One cannot claim to be a professor and put the cart before the hose by beginning with the exploration of what makes us human with the practical. To put it in more colloquial practical terms: one cannot have the cake and eat it too.


Sparring Professors: the pen is mightier than the sword



There is another popular myth being promulgated by some misguided professors inside academia, usually late-comers to academia, which needs to be explored and duly debunked and it is this: when academia engages in theoretical issues and neglects the commercialization of applied research it becomes the proverbial irrelevant “ivory tower” isolated from the everyday workaday world. The fact is that academia’s contributions to society go well beyond commercialization and entrepreneurship; the forces of a savage greedy capitalism which has reduced education to just another market force.


The very notion that knowledge exchange is an activity driven solely by commercial and pecuniary interests is misguided at best, and it usually proceeds from the mouth and the pen of charlatans. Let me explain. A recently published report funded by the Arts and Humanities Research Council, explodes some of the myths surrounding the alleged ivory tower isolation of university academics to reveal the wide, but often hidden, impact of universities outside of academia. They also show the way in which universities can act as a ‘public space’ within which a variety of initially informal interactions can develop into a broad spectrum of fruitful interactions with the public, private and third sectors.


Harkness Tower at Yale University

It should be prefaced here that the data for this piece has been extracted from the public Centre for Business Research at the Cambridge Judge Business School and member of the Prime Minister’s Council for Science and Technology. According to this data, in a UK-wide survey of all academics, over 22,000 academics responded to the survey – the largest survey in the world to date to cover academic involvement with external organisations – as well as over 2,500 businesses of all sectors and sizes. The results permit a detailed mapping of the patterns of interactions of academics with external organisations in the public, private and community sectors, together with an in-depth examination of private sector business views of their relationships with academics. For the UK academic community as a whole, the survey results make it very plain that commercialisation activities in the sense of licensing, patenting or spin-out companies are a very small part of the overall knowledge exchange spectrum. Compared with 5% and 7% of UK academics, respectively, who report having licensed research or are carrying out patenting activity, over 30% report being involved in standard-setting forums with external organisations or are directly employed in employee training and student placement with external organisations. Nearly 90% attend events such as conferences involving external organisations.


The Invisible Ivory Tower: Knowledge

These people-related activities dwarf knowledge exchange through direct commercialisation. In addition, problem-solving activities, such as involvement in research consortia, prototyping, testing and, in particular, the provision of informal advice, are between five and 10 times more important than direct commercialisation. Finally, around a third of academics are involved in lectures for the community, school projects and the provision of a wide variety of public exhibitions and arts activities for the community. The academic survey also revealed that the external organisations involved in these academic interactions extended beyond the private sector to include a rich set of interactions with the public sector, and with a wide range of charitable community and local and regional organisations. In terms of the constraints on knowledge exchange between the private sector and academia, the conventional wisdom that constraints are caused by cultural differences, conflict over intellectual property and differences in time periods over which research should be carried out is not supported by evidence. Instead, the principal constraint reported by businesses was their own internal capacity to manage academic relationships effectively. From the academics’ point of view, it is the pressure of time and the need to manage pressures to combine external relationships (which were frequently seen to be positively related to research and teaching activities) with the demands of career prospects (which are dominated by academic publication).


The overall survey includes 3,650 responses from academics in fields within the scope of the Arts and Humanities Research Council, including English, linguistics and modern languages, classics, history, philosophy, architecture, cultural studies, and the creative arts and media. An analysis of patenting and licensing reveals that this is, with the exception of the creative arts and media, a relatively low level of activity for these academics. However, once we move beyond this narrow perspective to include knowledge exchange that spans people-based, problem-solving and community-orientated activities, the arts and humanities display as rich and diverse a set of connections as other disciplines, and a particularly wide-range of third sector and community interactions. Academics from the arts and humanities therefore emerge as highly connected with the UK economy and society.


A typical Academic Ivory Tower

 Moreover, these interactions are regarded by the academics involved as strongly supportive of scholarship and represent a two-way complementary interaction with external organisations. The notion therefore that knowledge exchange is an activity driven solely by commercial and pecuniary interests is a myth – for most academics in the arts and humanities, the main impact of connecting with others is complementary to their research and their teaching. Even within a narrow commercialisation perspective, a disaggregation of the arts and humanities to distinguish the creative arts and media from other humanities reveals that the former displays connection characteristics as deep as other disciplines and with considerable private sector and commercial interactions. The business survey responses also reveal a pattern of interactions with academics that spans all disciplines and stretches beyond patenting and licensing.

Businesses frequently use multiple disciplinary sources including the arts and humanities to address a wide range of activities spanning marketing and organisational change and which go beyond a focus on technology development. Many academics from the arts and humanities (and those from other disciplines) do not connect with external organisations because it is not considered necessary for their research or teaching. Two striking findings of the research in this respect are, first, that the connections which are made are most frequently initiated by the external organisations that academics partner and, second, that they are not initially instigated via technology transfer offices. For knowledge exchange to be effective and provide benefits to all partners, the development of mutual understanding and management of expectations are crucial.

Maintaining a strong pattern of knowledge exchange activities is closely connected to what may be termed the ‘public space’ role of universities: a forum in which a wide variety of individuals and organisations can interact and develop relationships. Some of these relationships may lead to a commercial and contractual stage, but their development depends on the ability to connect in a way that is, at least initially, not driven by strictly instrumental and commercial needs. Universities provide an environment to nurture interactions and potential links from which a wide variety of other connections, including strictly commercial ones, may develop.

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Leah Sellers2014-12-24 18:23:32
Indeed, Dear Brother Emanuel !
Are we to be a World of Pictographs, Petroglyphs, Hieroglyphs, manipulative, less informative (and often Mis-leading) Sound bytes delivered within nano-second flights of Whoever is in Power or the Thoughtful and Thought Provoking intricacies and complexities of
Written Language and Art ?
Is Education to be a profitable Business Enterprise (profiting the Few and Fewer still) Ching ! Ching ! Or to be a Beacon of Enlightenment for overall Informed and Character Enriched Societies (so that they can make Better Decisions for their Individual Lives and the Lives of the Collective and the Planet we are Blessed to have as Our Home ? Thank you for taking this very Important Topic head-on, Dear Sir.

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