< Home

Truth of Academia

Truth of Academia
Published on Mar 11, 2024.

Faith in something doesn’t collapse all at once. It erodes in bits and chunks, like icebergs breaking off the coast of Antarctica.

At Stanford, my faith in the way of the world had taken a body blow. That part that trusted in the elites, that believed that they were properly selected to lead the world, was broken.

But I still believed in one last corner of college. I still believed in academia, in the people who dedicated their lives to knowledge, who got PhDs and became professors and spent their lives on this quest.

That's why I transferred to the University of Chicago after my freshman year. Most schools have many more undergraduate students than they do graduate. This makes sense, because only a fraction of undergrads go on to pursue further education. At Stanford, the ratios were equal, with about 6000 undergrads and 6000 graduate students, which was already unusual. But Chicago, in its academic zeal, pushed it even further. It had even more graduate students than undergrads.

When I thought about academia, I imagined a bunch of ferocious thinkers, asking the big questions. For physicists, this might be how to explain the Big Bang. For biologists, I imagined it may be the spark of life, and its possibility of life on other planets. For psychologists, the eternal question of nature vs nurture. I imagined that in each of these fields, the people who had dedicated their lives to it were running around thinking constantly about these big, alluring questions. Because what else would they be doing?

Then I found out.

One afternoon, I visited one of my physics TAs at UChicago in his office hours. After I asked him about a problem on that week's homework, I sat there for a while working away on my own. He was doing the same, on a big stack of papers, and on an impulse I asked him what he was working on. He said it was his doctorate dissertation. I asked what it was about. I expected something grand, something about the arrow of time or what happens if you go through a black hole, but that's not what I got. Not at all.

"It's about the resonant behavior of electromagnetic fields in a dusty Townsend glow discharge plasma at very specific frequencies," he said.

That sounded...not important. I asked him why he was studying this.

"My advisor suggested it was a good niche."

"What makes a good niche?" I asked.

He looked up from his paper, surprised at the question. "It's an unexplored area with good prospects of a career." He saw I was still confused and sighed. "Basically no one else is studying it and there's funding available for it from the Department of Energy. So if I stake a claim to it, I can make it my speciality."

"But is this really what you want to be working on for the rest of your career?" It came out before I had a second to think.

He gave me a blank look over his papers. He knew I wanted to enter academia. I'd told him in the past.

"Look, I don't know if you know how this works," he said. "Getting your doctorate is just the beginning. After you get the PhD, you have to get a job as a professor, and that's not easy. There are a lot fewer openings than graduates every year."

He paused. "You know Jon, right? The TA who runs the electrical lab?" I nodded. "He's been a post-doc for 3 years. Do you know what that means? It means he got his PhD 3 years ago but he can't get a job as a professor, so he works in the lab making like $40k a year. He's got maybe a couple more years to keep applying for professor jobs, otherwise..." He trailed off. There was panic in his eyes.

"And then," he continued. "Even after you get a job, you still don't have tenure. So you have to keep making a name for yourself. They call it 'publish or perish' and it means you have to keep doing research and publishing papers until someone gives you tenure, or else you don't really have a future."

He went on. "What departments are looking for are people who can bring in grant money to fund their own research. They don't want to be footing the bill for you. So you want to find a niche that doesn't have too much competition, something that maybe 3 or 4 other people in the world are studying, but has some decent amount of funding. And you want to write a lot of papers in that small area, so you have to find a couple journals that are interested in what you're doing, again the smaller and less competitive the better. Oh, and you want to do a poster at a couple conferences a year at least, so you can really make a name as 'the guy for distortions in dusty Townsend glow discharge plasmas' or whatever, and then once you have that and you've got grant money coming in, you're pretty set." He was out of breath.

I ventured a meek question: "And then you can work on the things you want to?"

"Yes, if you're lucky." He was already back to his papers.

The more I saw of the lives and concerns of the graduate students who were my TAs, or assistant professors who taught the smaller classes, the more I realized that the life of an academic is a grind. This is not a good grind, like the daily toil of an artist, but the grind of operating by the rules imposed by an institution that were diametrically opposed to the freedoms & wants of an individual.

When I tried to talk to my TAs or professors about the big questions in their field, like quantum gravity in physics or long-term reliability of fiat currencies in economics, they acted like these questions were not important. Like they'd been answered or they weren’t even worth answering anymore.

It felt very much like they had picked this attitude up from some other expert who they once sat across from in awe and admiration. Each master teaching his apprentice how to bullshit the big questions away, and how to blow up the small questions to make them seem like the ones worth chasing. All to justify a niche existence, while still believing they were seeking the truth.

Then there was the pecking order. I’d imagined that one seeker after the truth, when they come across another seeker, would generally be amicable to each other. I thought they’d acknowledge each other as co-conspirators, and try to help the other as much as possible, no matter which domain they came from.

I was wrong again. Academics is full of petty, internecine battles, barely contained under the surface. At the University of Chicago, the biggest ones revolved around the outsized prestige of the economics department, and the diminished attention given to everything else. Economics was what the university was known for. In all other disciplines, ti was largely an also-ran, sometimes ranked in the top 5 in the world, but never the topmost. Except economics. It had a history of some of the most famous economists of the 20th century – Milton Friedman, George Stigler, Ronald Coase, Gary Becker. It even had an entire school of thought named after it.

At Chicago, the happiness of graduate students and professors was proportional to their distance from the economics department. Sure, the economics guys had to deal with the grind of micro-specialization too, but they were the most prestigious, and that almost made it worth it.

It is hard to exaggerate the swagger that economists walk around with on the Chicago campus. They think they're the smartest and most useful academics of them all. They have mathematical models as advanced as physics, and as difficult to understand. But instead of doing something useless with it, like predicting the cosmos, they use their powers to control civilization.

In the Economics building, when I worked in the study area on the ground floor, I'd hear conversations about the Federal Reserve. A couple of econ grad students talking about interest rates and money supply. There was a not-so-hidden pride to their chatter and it didn't come from the finance. What they were really beaming about was the fact that one of them – an economist – had power second only to the President of the United States in deciding the fate of the US economy. Some even whispered that they were more powerful than the President. No other academic discipline could claim this kind of power and recognition, and economists sat high on their horse by it.

The next orbit out from the econ department were the hard sciences, whose tactics economics had borrowed from and still regarded in high esteem, even if it turned up its nose at the pointlessness of analyzing the natural world. These were fields like physics, math, computer science, statistics. Chemistry made the cut, barely, but biology did not. It didn’t have enough math, and math ruled this world.

Another layer out, now two degrees removed from economics, were the other social sciences, or as economists and hard scientists sniggered not so behind their back, the pseudo-sciences. Psychology, political science, and sociology were the big ones here. They tried to mimic the intellectual rigor of their more scientific peers by writing papers full of jargon that only they understood, but it only got them so far. They didn't have the mathematics of economics or the hard sciences, and, as many Chicago economics undergrads loved to point out, none of these other social sciences had a Nobel Prize dedicated to them.

And finally, in the last orbit, came the humanities, arts, and literature. These are the losers in the class, the weirdos who everyone made fun of. As one physics doctorate student told me once, “they can’t predict shit, so what’s their point.”

The pecking order and the petty grudges reminded me of high school. This is the problem with the people who forgo wealth to pursue noble careers, like scientists and journalists (more to come on that later). When money isn’t the metric for success, social stature takes its place. Which is even worse, because it doesn't benefit anyone. Weren’t these people, these so-called seekers of truth, supposed to be as far removed from such petty drama as possible? Why were they so caught up in their tiny little lives, with their microscopic specializations, when the big questions lay unanswered right there?

Yet again, with yet another thing I’d placed my faith on, I grew disillusioned with academia. These people, who I had placed faith on as the silent heroes pursuing the questions the rest of us should be working on, were in ways even worse. At least the other guys successfully achieved their goals. Here, the ideal of honest inquiry was set on a pedestal, given lip service, and then quickly forgotten. This too was a game, an even sillier and more useless game.

In the medieval ages, before the printing press, people who could read were rare. They walked around with arrogance, because only they could read the Bible, which meant only they knew the truth.

Academia is our modern-day version of these self-important priests. In fact, our universities were designed around these ancient religious institutions. Universities were never meant to educate the masses, but only the select elite who would lead them, either in prayer or in battle.

They have continued that role as the guardians of the predominant religion. The religion may have changed – the king of subjects has gone from Latin to math and economics – but the institution has not. It still uses many of the same approaches to internal organization and to its pedagogical mission. There is still a high priest at a lectern, streaming knowledge to an audience of receptive, malleable minds, shaping them in its image.

Even the rituals are largely the same. Why do we wear the cap and gown at graduation? It is literally a vestige of our medieval forebears, but like all rituals, we are reluctant to change the trappings of it. It is important that it continue to look the same, because its power comes as much from its symbolic nature, its link in our minds and imaginations to past glory of that ritual, than to its substance, which has changed dramatically. Where universities 500 years ago were graduating the clergy and the princes who ran their world, today they graduate the bankers and engineers and economists who run ours.

No matter the religion, the temple is always the gatekeeper. It always finds a way to position itself at a chokepoint in the social order, to present itself as the arbiter and final selector of the leaders of the flock. It wraps itself in a coat of prestige. It mesmerizes the masses with the artful display of expert mastery. But ultimately, it is only powerful because we believe it is powerful. Our faith gives it power. Without our faith, it would collapse. It would just be a bunch of buildings housing a bunch of people pretending to be pushing knowledge, forward, when they are mostly just playing games of prestige to feel good about themselves.

Part of a series on elite universities