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Essay: Ivory tower wisdom revisited

Sebastian Partogi

The Jakarta Post

Jakarta  /  Mon, January 7, 2019  /  09:11 am
Essay: Ivory tower wisdom revisited

The gap between the academic world and the professional world is a problem that might be as old as the intellectual tradition itself. (Shutterstock/Galyna Motizova)

A friend of mine recently revisited his campus after he has been working as a communications practitioner for more than eight years. He went there to be a guest lecturer, next to one of his favorite former professors, in one of his favorite courses in college: social sciences. Unfortunately, my friend walked away from the classroom feeling disappointed: How is it possible that the very man he used to idolize as a student a long time ago now delivers the same lecture and yet it sounds disenchanting and naïve?

My friend works in the communications field and, by default, his job requires him to meet, interact and work with countless numbers of people, across many nationalities and ethnic groups, generations and educational and occupational backgrounds. This encounter with real-life people, along with his own explorations of subjects related to his own work (comprising politics, sociology and the economy, among others) enables him to compare and contrast situations surrounding the human condition across many boundaries, making him aware that human nature is far too complex to be reduced into simplistic and compartmentalized social science theories.

He complained how his lecturer, in a simplistic manner, isolated many variables and haphazardly attributed different social phenomena to cultural and generational differences, when in fact the phenomena in question actually have more to do with power, privilege, or personality traits, for example.

He also questioned how his professor seemed to indulge in a self-fulfilling prophecy approach when explaining a phenomenon, which he had learned through theory, and automatically attributed them to culture and generational differences – these are the professor’s specializations – when in fact the phenomenon can be interpreted differently when dissected with a more “realistic” tool.

He also wondered how the professor could easily label members of the millennial generation as being more apathetic and selfish compared to previous generations when the professor sampled only a minuscule segment of the millennial populace. He argued that in his workplace and many other places, he identified many members of the millennial generation who are highly idealistic, if not militant, in their convictions for social justice.

Having been exposed to the “real world”, my friend became disillusioned with the “ivory tower wisdom” offered by his former lecturer. He felt academics rarely expose themselves to the real world as practitioners, always burying their heads in books. My friend is an avid reader, mind you, but he is also mindful that in order to really grasp and approximate the human condition as it really is, reading alone is not enough; you also need experiential learning that gives you lessons on a gut-instinct level.

As for me, I also became skeptical – if not cynical – about all the theories that I learned in university because my own experience attested that once I graduated and entered the real world, only a small number of the theories I learned turned out to be useful in the workforce.

Most of the theories I learned from the university textbooks contain an ideal picture of how human beings should behave and societies should operate. I became really shocked and even fell into a depression when I became aware that reality embodied none of the ideal pictures offered in these textbooks.

Then I became angry at society and my fellow human beings for not following the ideal prescriptions offered by these theories: Why can’t humans behave in a more civilized and “humane” way, like the ideal behavior described in these textbooks? Why can’t societies function in an ideal way, as embodied by the more advanced countries, used by these textbooks as a model on which their authors base their theories? Then I realized that it was me who was stupid. I only saw the trees in my academic learning years and somehow failed to see the forest that functioned as a complex ecosystem to explain complex phenomena.

As for my friend’s complaints of higher education’s singular-minded academics, he is not alone, as many practitioners also complain about the lack of a multidisciplinary approach in many research studies – particularly those in social sciences.

If you take a multidisciplinary approach in your studies, you will not be taken seriously by the “purist – isolationist” scholars. Southeast Asian scholar Benedict Anderson recounted in his 2016 memoir how he and his peers who worked in regional studies were often looked down upon by their “purist” colleagues because these “purist” academics questioned the validity of the “eclectic” multidisciplinary approach typically used in such regional studies.

The gap between the academic world and the professional world is a problem that might be as old as the intellectual tradition itself. Nobody can offer a satisfactory answer as to how to close that gap. Do internship programs and immersion activities truly help inoculate students from the monumental shock they feel upon becoming aware that the professional (and adult) world is a different planet to their higher education environment?

My friend and I have become too arrogant because we feel that as practitioners, we are superior to our “ivory tower” colleagues. Come to think of it, we practitioners also have our limitations compared to our academic peers. I feel that often (although this is not always the case) as practitioners we tend to burn ourselves out or become too pessimistic and cynical because we get too poisoned by the toxin that is the complex, disturbing and mysterious thing we call human life. How can we nurture our young ones with this drained and exhausted state of mind?

Our academic peers, however, might have an advantage by being sheltered in their ivory tower wisdom: They might still retain a little bit of the optimism necessary to nurture the future generations of our planet because their abstract theories might still give them hope that somehow we can alter this world for the better.

So, it seems like having an ivory tower kind of mind also has its merits. Each kind of mind has its own function and role in this world.