alphabet soup

And today’s nausea is brought to you by “I didn’t eat enough protein yesterday,” and the letter’s “F” and “U.” So instead of my own banter, I’ve decided to share a lovely guest post from Fish in the Water about the pitfalls of academia. Here we go…

against academia

I dropped out of grad school, if you can call it that. I started taking classes, got through one, and decided it was mental to continue. What the hell would I do with a masters degree? Sure, it would allow me to teach professionally, but I have much more fun subversively “teaching” students at the college by hanging out with them and just talking. Does not being allowed to teach classes annoy me? Yes, but not so much that I want to go back and finish school. I hated school. Always did.

But I love learning. There is just a key distinction: I love learning on my own time, in my own way, with other people when possible. I love finding out why some leaves work better than others to make fibers. I love understanding the parts of a tree, and how they work. I’m all over the knowledge thing, especially when it has a practical application. But the problem with the majority of academia is that only certain types of knowledge are considered worthwhile, and those are the kinds produced by people with alphabet soup after their names (you know, PhD, MA, BS, etc).

This need to have a degree continuously irks me, because it discounts the vast amounts of colloquial knowledge out there in the world. There are many, many people who have studied just as long and hard (or more so) than the people with degrees—but because they didn’t pay money for it, it doesn’t count. A degree isn’t actually an indicator of quality—it just means you had the money and the tolerance to stick out a certain number of hours of “education.” You could be a complete idiot. You could not know a single thing about your subject, you could have just been a really good test taker. But you have a degree. And that’s supposed to say it all?

The reason we use degrees as an indicator of worth is the same reason we use the USDA Organic standard to indicate the supposed worth of vegetables. It allows us to know something about an item (or person) without having to trouble to do the work to actually learn about it. For example. If a vegetable is certified organic, that only means the farmer in theory adhered to a certain set of standards, and refrained from using some particular chemicals. It doesn’t mean he didn’t use chemicals at all. In fact, he has a wide array of chemicals and other practices to select from while still being called “organic.” You have no idea what he selected. For all you know, he pissed on his fields every night. You have no way of knowing. An inspector is supposed to go out and determine whether the farmer followed all the standards, but what if the inspector missed something? What if the farmer hid something? What if the standards aren’t up to your own standards anyway? What if the processor did something—or the store? You have no idea. There’s a vast amount of information you can’t possibly know or likely find out. All you know is that it has a sticker on it that says organic. And that’s assuming someone didn’t fuck with you by going around switching the vegetables in the organic section with the regular ones.

I know exactly what was sprayed on my vegetables (nothing), exactly what was in the soil (cow manure), exactly how often it rained on the damn things- I don’t need a label for my own vegetables. I also don’t need them for my neighbors vegetables. I don’t even need them for the farm up the road, because I’ve been there, I’ve worked there, I know the farmer and the workers, and I know what they’re doing. Why would I need a label to tell me what I was buying?

By the same logic, if I take the time to get to know a person, I’ll have a fair idea of whether they actually know their subject or not. Yeah, they could be lying or faking it, but so can someone with a piece of paper. It all comes down to whether you trust them or not. Just because you have a teaching certificate, doesn’t make you a good teacher. Just because you have a degree, doesn’t mean you actually know anything. Just because something is labeled as safe by the FDA or USDA or whoever, doesn’t mean it’s safe. No, it just means you’re too far removed from the people and things you interact with to have any knowledge of them yourself, and so some sort of governing body steps in. If we lived in close knit communities, and were mutually interdependent for our lives, there’d never be any kind of question of degrees. Who the hell would care? What would be the point? You would know who was knowledgeable and who was not, who was trustworthy and who not.

The vast majority of regulations we have are based around the simple fact that you don’t know what’s going on. And so you trust a regulator to make sure it’s all ok. I don’t know about you, but I’m not ok with that anymore than I am with this assumption that just because you’ve finished college you actually know something. There’s this new commercial on tv for some grocery store that’s like, you don’t have to produce your own food to know its natural! You can buy it from us! We promise it’s really natural! And it shows dumb things like people growing wheat in their living rooms like such a thing was possible. It’s interesting that the industry is really starting to feel the pressure from all of us back to the land sort of people, to the extent that they feel the need to respond like that. You don’t have to have your own garden, is the implication, you don’t have to go to a farmer’s market, come spend your money here, we promise it’s safe. But they can’t make that promise, and you’d be a fool to trust them.

For my own part, I far prefer to get to know things—whether it’s a vegetable or a person. It’s why I don’t call any of the professors “Dr. So and Such”, much to the annoyance of a lot of them. Yeah, so they went through ten years of college or whatever, and wrote a dissertation. I know farmers who have been at it for 50 years, and you don’t hear anyone calling them Dr. So and So, PhD in Agriculture. But many of them have put in more time and effort to learning something than someone with a doctorate. I’m not knocking the time of people in academics. I think it’s great that they devote their lives to learning about things. I just wish they wouldn’t exclude the rest of us with the same passion—just because we don’t care to spend the money or the late nights learning things their way.

Originally posted here.

0 Comments on “alphabet soup

  1. I find the piece far from lovely and the USDA analogy inappropriate. This person is misguided about why people earn academic degrees. I guess because there happen to be really knowledgeable people out there without them?

    Once you get to the masters and doctorate level, staying the course in academia is no longer a mere matter of learning things. Or am I missing something? In the four years I’ve carried out my own research project, I’ve developed skills to investigate child language that have absolutely nothing to do with sitting in a class and taking tests. I will soon have a degree that shows — granted, by some arbitrary European institution’s standards — that I am able to carry out independent research that makes a meaningful contribution to my field, deemed worthy by three experts in the same field. I’ve wondered every second during the last four years why I work so hard towards this seemingly absurd goal of earning a PhD. It probably has something to do with the sweet Dutch salary for researchers. But it mostly has to do with my true passion for linguistics, without which I would probably not — no, definitely not succeed. But I definitely don’t do it for the initials or to feel “university approved” or to devote my life to “learning about things.” I certainly don’t do it for the plethora of job opportunities (please note the sarcasm) that awaits. Anyway, the point of having peer-reviewed scientific journals and peer-reviewed scientists (e.g. PhDs) is so that we can say with as much certainty as possible which therapies or medicines or theories work, as well as which scientists work. The scientists that work are those who have proven themselves capable of carrying out valuable and reliable research, signified by an academic degree. Sometimes this seems important (medicine, engineering) and sometimes it seems like needless intellectualizing (literature, history). But really, like it or not, it’s not the “look at me, I learn good” reality this person paints it to be. So read all the non-fiction books in your spare-time that you want to “learn in your own way,” but keep in mind that some experts had to write it. Experts who were likely truly interested in the topic rather than title-greedy elitists.

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