The Fallacy of the Modern Academic
Academics have a curious relationship with the ideal. Many people think the ideal is obtainable, provided that we take our time to discover the relevant parameters. People have expectation that policy can be shaped exclusively as good policy. Generally, the solution to creating good policy involves taking space to find out enough information. If we just take our time to collect appropriate information, then we will be able to implement better decisions.
I am sympathetic to this view. I often think we rush around too much, leaving all sorts of people in our wakes. Yet, I also contend the exaltation of information in decision making is the fallacy of the modern academic. Simply, the idea that we could possibly have all of the information we require before acting is false.
A belief that we have all of the required information does not lend itself to the creation of processes to acquire information as processes unfold. Unfolding processes often require acquiring information on the fly, asking people to punt from their own best professional judgment, and embracing mistakes inherent with the learning process. People working in learning processes will mistakenly assume that some information is urgent, ask for the wrong forms of information, and underestimate the time required to gather information while hopefully creating space for other persons to participate in the learning process.
Certain challenges of being human lend themselves better to a “wait and see” process of decision making. However, removing oneself from the day-to-day realities of decision making is a luxury uniquely afforded to academics [and for the sake of argument, other elites]. Being present within a situation on the ground, acting with your best possible judgment, and making decisions out of simple necessity all have their place. Yet, I contend that the most difficult decision involves the choice to be present.
Many policymakers seem absolutely content to make decisions removed from the “contamination” of the ground. We can wax eloquent about the appropriate nature of particular situations that change drastically when we encounter the lived experience of that situation. Hot button issues like abortion, homosexuality, poverty, unemployment, educational reform, AIDS, what have you all contain various divisions that get reshaped entirely when one has to enter the situation. A teacher working day in and day out in a low-income school has a distinct perspective, shaped significantly by the tension between the ideal and the pragmatic. A physician working in an urban center has a distinct perspective. In my opinion, callousness is the main threat that blocks people on the ground from affecting meaningful change. Learning to hold the ideal and the pragmatic in tension is important.
“Let’s study this” generally is the academic approach. The academics can take their time. They generally do not have to live with seeing the daily humanity of the situation. Humanity is full of joys and losses. We can get into trouble when we assert that the pragmatic is only negative. Yet, an idea that somehow a comprehensive national policy will emerge from on high strikes me as a complete and utter fallacy. This fallacy exalts a particular view of things that remains detached from the situation.
In my mind, pragmatists engage. Sometimes we have the option to engage. We get to choose. Considering carefully the net impact of our options before engaging is important. Embracing the learning processes that occur alongside of our engagement is also critical.