America has long been a nation of anti-intellectualism. Studies have been done, go read them if you are deeply concerned with a full picture. Or go watch a couple hours of regularly scheduled television. Now I have problems enough with anti-intellectualism. With a desire to "know nothing" or any number of other pleasant euphemisms for disregarding accepted science and intellectual pursuit for short sighted partisan nonsense masked as "faith" or "for the good of the country" or the ever insulting "keeping the nation safe". But anti-intellectualism in general is not my issue tonight. It is not what "grinds my gears" and I have no advice to offer on the subject at this time. After all, things are looking up. Science is in, as federal funding for stem cells, re-institution of protections for endangered species, and the recent acknowledgment by the EPA of the human impact on the environment. Everything's the flavor of the month once in a while.
Tonight's advice does still go out to intellectuals, though. Because the threat to intellectualism, to reasoned and impassioned debate, does not wholly come from without. Indeed, an often greater threat is waged silently from within the tower, weakening its foundations while intending to strengthen them.
Bad intellectualism, useless intellectuals, failed theory, closed-mindedness, single-disciplinarianism, and, of course, bureaucracy all are threats to the academy. Now, to clarify, I don't in any way care about the academy as academy. Or, what the academy has come to represent, the hierarchies, the power struggles, the watering down of curriculums, etc. I do, however, wholeheartedly agree that there must be secure fonts of knowledge, safe places for thinkers to pursue their individual and group efforts to better understand our bodies, our selves, our life, the universe, and everything. And anything that threatens that is a serious issue.
I seem to be deviating somewhat from my initial outline - to advise embattled intellectuals trying to both educate and relate research and theory to reality as they ward off the slings and arrows of outrageous university bullshit. I suppose I could enter into a full on rant about the American education system, about the possibility of an effective system that doesn't force children prematurely into "tracks" or "castes", and that doesn't do so based on economic or cultural bias. It's a hard enough issue and my plague on all your houses mentality hardly matches with the necessary altruism of a national education policy. So I will try to narrow the issue again.
To the embattled intellectual - probably still a grad student or a new assoc. prof. hoping that you can prove yourself in this temp gig so that you can land one of the fast disappearing tenure tracks: drink more, enjoy and relate to life, read phd comics, drink more. So much of my advice seems to hinge on drinking. It's not really the drinking that is the issue, the booze just tends to be a lubrication for the necessary detachment, for the destabilization of hierarchies, for the attempt to reach/create/remix new knowledge centers. Face it, most of what we do as academics is boring. Even to ourselves. Just think about what Joe Sixpack would say when you recite the 15 word title of your disseratation. Don't take yourselves so seriously. Because again, most of what we do is boring and taking it seriously just makes you an ass. No one likes that. You'll have to drink alone. Which, also, tends to be boring - when it isn't depressing or a possible sign of addiction. Actually, this advice is for everyone (i.e. the miserable) not just academics (i.e. the miserably in debt).
Learning to relate is a must. If your disseration is only going to be read by three people and only interesting to five, none of which will ever read it, you might have a problem. Either face up to the pointlessness of it and keep on trucking till something else comes along (the route I ended up taking) or write something more interesting, something that you can relate to in your private life (if you don't have one, get one), something that you won't be embarassed to talk about when trying to pick up strangers at the bar (if they don't understand what you are talking about, you should be embarassed or you are already drunk and then it doesn't matter, ask someone about it in the morning). Video games seem to be popular these days. And comic books. But maybe I'm just too much of a fan of low culture. Someone needs to study the mating habits of porcupines. Of course, I can think of several ways of working that into polite conversation.
So this has rambled on long enough. Chances are I will spend time enough ranting about education in the years to come, so more on that later. I guess it really boils down to this: know who can learn and who will learn and who wants to learn and forget the rest. Know how they learn and how they want to learn and teach that way. Stay relavent, stay interesting, and stay impermanent. Otherwise you'll just get lazy and dull. There are far too many terrible thinkers and terrible ideas in the world. Don't add to them.
And if you want the easy life, quit now and marry rich.