Why can't the professor learn to speak?

In 1998, the British Golden Bull award for academic pomposity was awarded to a Birmingham University professor for research entitled: "The Measurement of Consumer Criteria for Manufacture Parameter Values in Biscuit Texture." In other words, the good professor was trying to discover why people prefer crunchy cookies to "squidgy" ones.

Unlike previous recipients of the award, the professor took the accolade badly, accusing the Plain English Campaign (sponsors of the award) of crude populism.

Academics everywhere - be they from the arts or sciences - produce pure research studied mainly by other academics. They apparently need jargon to define membership in their exclusive circle. Those who understand belong; those confused do not.

One is reminded of the medieval monks who argued with each other over how many angels could dance on the head of a pin while, outside the monastery, the real world was crumbling. In February, the British government openly complained that it is not benefiting from academic research because it seldom comes "in a form accessible to policymakers."

In order to give legitimacy to their work, academics mystify it, creating myriad magic circles to which only those who speak the secret language are admitted. Many of them have lost the ability to communicate, except in the sense of communicating with each other.

A few years back, I reviewed a study of communication and the media during the Vietnam War. The book was so loaded with jargon that only a specialist could possibly understand it.

As I pointed out in that review, the irony of a book on communication which was totally incomprehensible to the average reader apparently escaped the author.

I have another book on sexuality and social relations, a fascinating topic which deserves attention. Unfortunately, I've never been able to get beyond the first few sentences: "When we turn our attention to theoretical discourses, our gaze falls on what the discourse itself sees, its visible. What is visible is the relation between objects and concepts that the discourse proposes. This is the theoretical problematic of a given theoretical discipline."

I'm proud to admit that I haven't a clue what that's about.

But what really scares me is that an innocent student might actually think it's intelligent simply because it's incomprehensible. I don't understand why communication is such a problem for academics.

Isn't teaching supposed to be about conveying knowledge? Perhaps academics feel that sophistication requires complexity, that simple expressions can't convey complicated ideas. But it's more than that. There seems to be a deep contempt for the public and a concomitant belief that any research that is understandable to the lay person is inferior - too populist.

I recall meeting a colleague some years ago who proudly boasted that his latest book sold only 257 copies. He slept soundly knowing that only specialist libraries had bought it. Ordinary people hadn't managed to get their grubby fingers on it.

It is a basic truth in education that people learn best that which they enjoy.

Yet, within the ivory tower, there exists a strange prejudice against academic writing which is interesting or, heaven forbid, entertaining.

This same attitude holds that the academic who writes for newspapers has crossed into the forbidden zone of pop literature.

Back in 1995, a sociology journal accepted a paper by New York University physicist Professor Alan Sokal called "Transgressing the boundaries: towards a transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity." No one could possibly have understood the paper for the very simple reason that it was complete gobbledygook. Dr. Sokal later admitted that it was made up of "syntactically correct sentences that have no meaning whatsoever."

Yet since no one at the journal wanted to appear stupid, no one had the guts to tell the emperor that he had no clothes.

Academics are supposed to be public servants, yet most are openly contemptuous of the public. In my field, historians pride themselves on being chroniclers of culture, but whose culture is it?

What use is all the expensive research if 99 percent of the population prefers more entertaining myths.

It is pointless for historians to sit in cozy common rooms being smugly superior about the inaccuracies in "Braveheart." They should write in a way which shows that the real story is often just as dramatic as the myth.

In 1931, the eminent historian Carl Becker warned the American Historical Association: "Berate him as we will for not reading our books, Mr. Everyman is stronger than we are, and sooner or later we must adapt our knowledge to his necessities. Otherwise, he will leave us to our own devices, leave us to cultivate a species of dry professional arrogance growing out of the thin soil of antiquarian research.... The history that lies inert in unread books does no work in the world.... If we remain too long recalcitrant, Mr. Everyman will ignore us, shelving our recondite works behind glass doors rarely opened."

Becker would be horrified at the gratuitous mystification practiced by academics today. The world is confusing enough without academics bringing darkness to every corner of light.

*Gerard J. DeGroot, an American, is chairman of the department of modern history at the University of St. Andrews in Scotland.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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