For the longest time while in graduate school, I simply could not figure out academic writing or the academic culture of writing. Almost every article, review, and book I read left me perplexed. I couldn’t decide if academics were dumb or merely bad at writing. I never presumed, at least as a graduate student, that both things might be true. Though, I was willing to entertain the idea that I was simply not as smart as these writers. Sometimes, it’s brutally hard not to question oneself in the face of such overwhelming evidence.
At all three of the academic institutions I attended, praise the Good Lord, I was blessed with amazing writing instructors—from Marvin O’Connell to Anne Butler to R. David Edmunds and Bernard Sheehan. Not only did each possess and share a poetic understanding of the word, but each also possessed thick skin and a serious fire in the belly to change the world for the better through writing and through any variety of things.
Of course, having these fine writers as mentors only deepened my confusion: what was wrong with everyone else in the humanities and the social sciences?
And, at this point in the post, let me clarify. I’ve no knowledge of what’s going on in scientific journals, engineering journals, medical journals, law journals, etc. I wouldn’t, in any way, be willing or qualified to comment on such things. In my criticism and analysis in this post, I mean specifically writing in the disciplines generally regarded as humanities and social sciences. I must also note, there are some really good journals out there. In particular, I can think of the William and Mary Quarterly, The Review of Politics, etc. But, these are certainly exceptions to the norm of academic publishing.
In the unhealthy way a Gnostic puzzle plays at the edge of our souls and taunts us, taking us away from the good to gaze at the horror, academic writing intrigued me while I was in my 20s. I was still single, and I had time to explore even absurdities, however unhealthy they might prove. Consequently, throughout my graduate school years, I researched the history of academic journals, the professionalization of traditionally liberal disciplines, and the history of academic debates over the past several decades to a century.
Several errors of both aesthetics and thought have plagued numerous academic journals for years now. Most importantly, too many academic writers (indeed, almost all) rely on bizarre jargon. Though the English language possesses a stunning and beautiful array of words, almost always covering what needs to be described, academics tend to invent new ones whenever necessary. These neoterisms, of course, serve three diabolic purposes.
First, they hide lazy thought and poor education of the writer who should wield a greater vocabulary or, at the least and to no shame, the ability to discover what already exists.
Second, they lead to a narrowing of the audience. The vocabulary, which often becomes discipline specific, evades understanding and evaluation by all who are not part of the in-group, privileged with the nuances and contexts of such words. Those reading such works must approach them as one would the Gnostic handshake or ritual as an outsider not given the key to knowledge.
Third, and intimately related to the second, such new vocabulary serves to promote group think among the in-group. These persons become the high priesthood, the elect. Not only do they exclude others deemed unworthy, but they dehumanize themselves by falling prey to the easiest answers and inability to ask the questions that might lead to truth. Instead, they have sold their souls to the in-group.
We Should Rage
While I have strong enough feelings about academic writing to produce nothing but a massive rant here for the very generous readers of The Imaginative Conservative, I actually believe there’s argument to be made for all persons of good will to fight like mad against poor and downright offensively poor academic journals. Indeed, we should do the same against all poorly formed thought, dialogue, and writing. We should rage.
Poor writing, equally wretched thinking (these two things always connected, one to another), and the formation of academic cliques (generously called disciplines) has made much of the academy nothing if not completely and utterly esoteric and, hence, irrelevant to the needs of the modern world and the res publica of humanity.
Even more tragically, most of these Gnostics lead and teach in disciplines traditionally associated with the liberal arts. Yet, such elect live as far removed from true liberalism as is imaginable.
Real liberal education liberates us from the things of this world, tying us into a community of thinkers of good will spanning from Socrates to the Apocalypse. Real liberal education make us citizens not of a clique but of the cosmopolis. Real liberal education does not select its priesthood, it leavens the greatest within each of us. Real liberal education does not offer the secret handshake, it offers us open and often quite divisive dialogue. Real liberal education does not seek conformity, but loving diversity.
The more we allow the pretenders to play professor, the less the public will care what we profess.
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