Academia, Teaching, and Thinking

Alan Jacobs’s little book How to Think, published last year, draws an interesting contrast between “academic life” and “teaching”:

Academics have always been afflicted by unusually high levels of conformity to expectations: one of the chief ways you prove yourself worthy of an academic life is by getting very good grades, and you don’t get very good grades without saying the sort of things that your professors like to hear.

So again, no, academic life doesn’t do much to help one think, at least not in the sense in which I am commending thinking. It helps one to amass a body of knowledge and to learn and deploy certain approved rhetorical strategies, which requires a good memory, intellectual agility, and the like. But little about the academic life demands that you question your impulsive reactions ….

Being a teacher, though: that’s a different thing. I have been teaching undergraduates for more than thirty years now, and generally speaking undergraduate education is a wonderful laboratory for thinking. Most of my students know what they believe, and want to argue for it, but they also realize that they still have a lot to learn.[*]

This provocation deserves some pondering.

By “the academic life,” I assume, Jacobs means scholarly research and publishing—and the chain of undergraduate and graduate educational successes that lead into it. When he says academic life fosters conformity, Jacobs doesn’t necessarily mean partisan political conformity. He’s referring to a more general phenomenon. (In a footnote, citing Jeff Schmidt, he clarifies that “people who do well in the academy tend to have ‘assignable curiosity,’ which is to say, they are obediently interested in the things they’re told to be interested in.”) Basically, academics are people who are very good at having other academics recognize their ideas as very good.

Now, a lot of nonsense has been written about a lack of political “ideological diversity” in the American academy—usually grounded in the banal observation that academics overwhelmingly tend not to vote for Republicans. I do suspect Jacobs sympathizes with some of that literature. But this passage actually doesn’t require us to hop aboard that particular bandwagon.

As I see this passage, Jacobs describes a form of disciplinary conservatism that may or may not be responsible for the academy’s political liberalism. But it certainly can be detected in the confident (and perhaps arrogant) postures that individual academics adopt toward all sorts of knowledge that they haven’t interrogated for themselves.

In short, if Jacobs is right, academia is about producing specialized knowledge, not the virtues of good thinking. Sometimes this promotes bad habits. That can be true whether or not one’s ideas happen to be correct.

There should be a caveat here, however. As Jacobs himself argues elsewhere in How to Think, there’s no such thing as thinking purely for yourself. Thinking always happens in contexts, i.e., in conversation with others. That’s true—necessarily true—for professional academics as much as anyone else.

Given how important this observation is to his book, it seems ironic that Jacobs accuses academics of being especially susceptible to a particular form of contextual thinking. I’m not sure he has given due weight to professional academia’s nature as a specific kind of institution in which people have to think together in specific ways. Advanced research is possible only because each discipline assumes a set of common beliefs and scholarly precedents as a starting point.

Perhaps Jacobs has considered this, though. He may simply be pointing out that academia doesn’t foster the general open intellectualism he promotes in this book.

Except, of course, that he says it does—through undergraduate teaching. That’s the claim I find most interesting here. Jacobs argues that it’s in an undergraduate classroom, not in a scholarly publishing career, that a typical academic—together with her students—engages most truly in “thinking” as such.

For all the ways we might have to qualify that claim (especially as a factual description of real-life classrooms or in certain disciplines), it’s a statement I find valuable as a kind of moral assertion. It implies that an academic should expect to find or renew herself as a thinker when she’s in the classroom, not when she is engaged in the other forms of “productivity” the academy prizes so highly.

And that, in turn, implies that students contribute to their teachers’ intellectual development, as much as the other way around.


[*] Alan Jacobs, How to Think: A Survival Guide for a World at Odds (New York: Currency, 2017), 24.