Most of the great breakthroughs in science, math, and philosophy haven’t been readily accepted by mainstream society, even though the scholars that presented these iconic ideas are lauded for their genius today. Academia, at many times in history, has been the refuge of those who are willing to think outside the box and come to conclusions about the world and our place in it that may be hard for people to stomach. Yet increasingly, this radical element of academia is falling by the wayside, leaving many wondering why academia just isn’t as edgy as it once was.
While there are still some radical academics out there, they’re becoming increasingly few and far between. Mainstream media, funding issues, controls on academic freedom, and even the university structure itself all have a role to play in the decline of radical academia. Read on to learn more and why, for better or worse, academics of today are a much better-behaved group than those in the past.
Even at times when universities should be exposing controversial things happening on campus (a recent incident at Penn State comes to mind), they push them under the rug for fear of garnering bad PR. Think it’s uncommon? A study conducted in 2009 found that many colleges were covering up the number of rapes on campus by pressuring victims or failing to prosecute. If schools are willing to cover up a serious issue like rape to save face, it’s no surprise that they have little tolerance for radical academics who could potentially enrage parents, students, and donors and hurt the school’s image (which they’ve spent millions carefully creating).
Professors with edgy or controversial ideas won’t find acceptance at every college out there. In fact, many are afraid to share their ideas, despite supposed guarantees about academic freedom, because they know it could lead to their termination. Even professors who don’t end up fired could be put on lists like those compiled be the American Council of Trustees and Alumni that found even fairly innocuous statements by professors in the wake of 9/11 to be radical and unacceptable. (One professor made the list for saying, "If Osama bin-Laden is confirmed to be behind the attacks, the U.S. should bring him before an international tribunal." Shocking!)
Can students still learn a great deal in college if they want to? Sure. But the majority of college education systems simply aren’t set up that way anymore. Most students attend college with the goal of using their diploma to get a job after graduation, not because they simply want to expand their minds. In fact, some have suggested that less-marketable majors not even be funded by colleges or be removed altogether in favor of programs in more high-demand fields. This has created an environment that’s pretty hostile to radical ideas, something many academics have noticed and are reacting against, from railing against the Ph.D. system to breaking out of traditional classroom settings.
Radical has become a dirty word in today’s society. You’re more likely to think of terrorists than groundbreaking scientists when you hear the word. Yet radical comes from the Latin meaning "of or having roots" or "going from the origin" and essentially means changing something from the roots of where it came from. This is an essential part of progressing intellectual thought, but these days, most professors wouldn’t shout proudly that they were radicals or had radical ideas.
Getting a job in academia is hard, much harder, in fact, than many Ph.D. students realize. Because of that, many professors are driven pretty hard to get tenure and give their positions at a school some security. Sadly, radical ideas, however brilliant they may be, aren’t often the best path to tenure. In a paper published in 1998, Professor Paul Cantor stated that tenure is actually a very effective way of controlling "radical" professors, stating "…under current circumstances by far the most likely outcome of abolishing tenure would be to increase radicalism of the academic community in the United States." Simply put, if professors want to get tenure, they have to behave and many are more than willing to do so rather than chance losing their jobs and years of hard work and study.
The economic downturn hasn’t left academia unscathed. Research funding is hard to come by, and competition may be fierce for some of the larger awards. Unfortunately, radical ideas, which may be sometimes uncomfortable for universities and research partners to handle, though they may lead to breakthroughs in understanding, are the least likely to see funding. In an age where "publish or perish" is the modus operandi of academic faculty, this lack of funding can be devastating.
Generally, Americans like to think of their country as a place where people have the freedom to speak their minds and that schools are places where a wide range of ideas can be taught and explored. Generally that’s true, but not always. Many professors have brought claims against universities for trampling on their academic freedom after they were censured or fired for actions that should have been well within their rights. At SCAD, two professors were let go for encouraging students to demonstrate on campus. InTexas, one reporter found that professors were being censored when they attempted to talk about research that supported climate change. Others have been fired for making comments or writing papers that offended powerful alumni or government representatives.
Colleges these days are very careful not to anger parents or students when it comes to what’s taught in a classroom. Even when students sign up for courses on potentially controversial topics like queer studies or human sexuality, they can come away offended by the subject matter. A few calls by concerned parents later, and a professor could see him or herself in pretty hot water and having to radically change the curriculum or teaching methods in order to please parents and students. It would be difficult to teach a radical course that didn’t offend someone, so many professors just skip the hassle and toe the line when it comes to pleasing the university.
Ever clicked on an article about scientific research that promised something revolutionary but didn’t deliver? The media plays a big role in deciding what’s news when it comes to academia and can influence public opinion quite strongly in determining what’s radical and what’s not in academia. People who know little about an experiment may become outraged over it if it isn’t presented in the best light in the media or if salacious elements are played up (and aren’t they always?), giving news outlets incredible power over what research may get funding or which professors may be censured by their universities.
While some would have you believe that there are numerous crazy radical professors out there swaying the minds of young students, the reality is that most aren’t that radical at all. Why not? It simply doesn’t pay. Not when it comes to research, career longevity, publishing, or tenure. In today’s academic climate, there simply isn’t much to motivate professors and researchers to push too far outside of mainstream thought. Of course, there never has been, and many a radical thinker, like Galileo, faced much more than the loss of a job over their ideas.
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