The Not Quite Adventures of a Professional Archaeologist and Aspiring Curmudgeon

Tuesday, July 31, 2012

"Oh, well, at least we're better than literary critics!"

Back in the 90s, when Newt Gingrich was still Speaker of the House, he made a speech in which he ranted about government waste (as he was wont to do), and specifically, in this one speech, he argued against government funding for science.  His argument was that the government should not be funding research undertaken purely to satisfy a scientist's curiosity*.

Flash forward ten years...

When I was in graduate school, I took the last graduate seminar class offered by Brian Fagan.  Brian, being the sort of person that he was, liked to challenge the student's assumptions about their own importance, and the importance of their chosen field.  Unsurprisingly, most of us graduate students tended to take the earth-shaking importance of archaeology as a given, with little thought as to whether or not our assumptions about the importance of our field of study were, in fact, justified.  Just as unsurprisingly, most of us also held that our own little corner of that field, the focus of our research and interests, was of vital importance to the whole.

I was a little different.  Of the students in the room, I was one of only two who had held any sort of long-term employment outside of academics.  I was, in short, one of only two who held any idea of what the world outside of our particular enclave actually thought of what we were doing**.

Brian, staring at each of us in turn, asked why we thought that non-archaeologists should consider archaeology to be important.  When he got to me, I responded "well, because we assume it is.  I can give a list of justifications for studying archaeology, but unless the person with whom I am speaking shares my basic assumptions, they're not going to be persuaded by any of them."

Needless to say, this earned me a round of derisive laughter and annoyed everyone except the one other guy who had been outside of academics, and, interestingly, Brian.

the next week, Brian threw a question out to the class, asking what we figured we should be doing to gain and/or maintain public interest in archaeology.  While a few of the other students talked about various public outreach measures (some of which were quite intelligent, others were pretty uninspiring), most simply stated that we should keep on just doing research and not worrying about it. 

It was at this point that I remembered the Newt Gingrich speech that I mentioned at the beginning.  And I brought this up, pointing out that a high elected official had found this type of argument (trying to get rid of research funding by appealing to cost-cutting and phrasing it in a rather anti-intellectual way) pretty effective, and that it indicated that there was a sizable, if currently minority, segment of the public that actually disliked the fact that archaeologists received public funding int he form of research grants.  

One particular graduate student, I'll call her Jesse (because it would likely annoy her to know that I was using such a plain, "common" name for her), rolled her eye, and said "there is no reason why we should have to justify ourselves to a bunch of uneducated fools who don't even have the brains to understand what we're doing anyway."

I pointed out that in taking this attitude, she was ceding the public discussion to the people who wanted to reduce of entirely stop funding for archaeological research, and that this attitude that the lay public was somehow too stupid to understand what we were doing, but should continue to fund us anyway, was (in addition to being arrogant, wrong-headed, and just plain incorrect) one of the factors feeding the anti-intellectualism that many politicians depend on.  If we were so arrogant that we didn't think that we needed to defend what we did, then we were essentially ceding the field to those who would like us defunded, and while it might take decades, they would eventually win.

She rolled her eyes at me, as she tended to do to anyone who was a lowly MA student and not on the PhD track.  The then re-asserted that the general public was too stupid to understand her work, but that they would continue to fund it because it was so obviously important. 

Brian seemed to be enjoying this, and so her went from looking rather bored earlier in the day to looking intensely interested.

I pointed out to her that the research that Gingrich had been making hay by bashing was in fields such as genetics, chemistry, and physics, all of which have much more direct benefits to the public, and much easier to grasp reasons to fund.  Jesse again rolled her eyes, and shouted "oh, well, you can go ahead and waste your time with the idiots!  I have more important things to do!  And if you think we're going to get defunded, oh, well, at least we're better than literary critics!  They don't produce ANYTHING!"

And with that, Brian called the symposium to a close.  The next day, he asked me to talk to him in his office, and he announced that he was rather happy to see someone actually going against the grain and trying to inject a bit of reality.  So, it was nice to know that someone valued my opinion.

At the time, as stated, I was in the MA track, but I had the potential to switch to a PhD.  There are a few specific events that convinced me not to pursue the higher degree, though, and this was one of them.  I value research, and obviously I think that archaeology is a valuable field to pursue.  But I am also aware that I hold these beliefs based on a particular value system to which I adhere, and while I believe that it is a valid and strong value system, I am very well aware that I live in a society where elected officials hold a good deal of sway over what does and does not receive funding, and that the decisions that these officials make are based on a number of factors, one of the larger ones being what they believe either their voters want or they can convince their constituents to support. 

To not try to let the public know what we are doing, how we are doing it, and why we are doing it is for us, as a field, to commit suicide.  Indeed, the fact that a fellow academic was so ready to dismiss those who work in literary criticism shows both the snottiness of some archaeologists, but also where failing to defend a field gets you - there are many good reasons to study literature and literary criticism, many of which have very real consequences in the world (the literary critics that I know have often been the best at spotting political smoke-and-mirrors and working to expose it, after all, they understand narratives, which is what politicians generate), but these are rarely expressed in forums where the general public hears them.  As a result, literary criticism is often viewed as little more than intellectual masturbation by those outside the academy, regardless of how valuable it may actually be.  Similarly, the general public may believe that archaeology is valid now, but after a generation or two of politicians and pundits decrying government funding for research, it will be difficult to defend continued funding (or laws requiring archaeological review for construction) if people who value archaeology are not vocally showing their support and trying to win out in the intellectual marketplace that is the public sphere.

What's more, when academics of any stripe assume that the "general public" is too stupid to understand research, they not only underestimate the general public, they justify one of the great rhetorical weapons that the anti-intellectuals and those who for other reasons want to cut funding have:  they can point to researchers as being self-indulgent snobs with no regard for the common people.  It's an effective tactic, one that has worked before.  We have to be better not only at defending ourselves, but also humbler when doing so.  And it is entirely possible to defend research work without dumbing it down.  Brian Fagan is quite good at this, as was Carl Sagan and his successor, Niel DeGrasse-Tyson.  But we have to understand that this is necessary, and be ready and willing to do it.

If we don't, then perhaps we deserve the professional extinction that we will face.

*I will argue about the problems with such an attitude another time.  For now, I will simply say that it is, from an economic and technological standpoint, a very short-sided position to take.

 **I will not, however, refer to the world outside of the university as "the real world" partially because that's the sort of thing that only condescending assholes do, and partially because one of the most important lessons I learned in the business  world before returning to graduate school was that there is no "real world", the people in business face a particular set of challenges and adversities that people in academics don't, but they are equally sheltered from a variety of challenges and adversities that people in academics have to deal with.  And pretty much everyone living in affluent nations is sheltered, to some degree, from the "real world" outside of our comfort zones.  So, if you are the sort of person who thinks that you know what it's like "out int he real world" you are probably just as sheltered as the people who you look down upon.


Evan Davis said...

I was at a networking meeting and met a guy who was very excited about business he had started. After about 5 minutes of listening to him I realized I didn't fully understand what it was that his company did. I stopped him and said "you have not been able to convey to me the value your business in 5 minutes, how do you expect to sell it to anyone else?" I then continued and explained that he should break his business down into a few key statements that everyone can understand. He was a bit taken aback but he conceded the value of my rather rude point. I think this very much applies to the scientific world as well.

Anthroslug said...

I really, really want to argue with you and make comments about how the strength of academic pursuits is their ability to deal with ambiguity and nuance, etc. etc.

But, as much as I may want to argue, I think that you are essentially correct.

Yes, pretty much every issue in a research field is much more complex than a short pitch could encompass...but most members of the general public want the broad strokes, the "elevator pitch", in order to know whether or not we're doing good things with their money.

There are alot of problems with this - sometimes, the really important things aren't amenable to this approach - but we need to bear in mind that it is an important tool in standing up against those who would attack research on the political stage.

Evan Davis said...

I know what you mean. Do distill the complexity of what I do into "online marketing" makes me cringe. When some idiot assumes it's the same as sales, I want to punch someone. In the end they're not in my field and I have to convey the value of what I do in a way they will understand.

On the bright side there are those who are willing to listen to a longer description after their interest is piqued by a good elevator pitch.