I had an interesting conversation with one of my professors last night, who described some of her academic colleagues in a half-joking manner as “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y’.” The implication here, of course, is that some academics take a position early on in their careers and stick to it throughout. Interestingly, this is a conclusion I came to early in my Political Science education; while studying for my very first test, I realized that I didn’t actually need to know what a specific author said on each issue – if I knew how he approached any issue, I could work out for myself his probable stance on whatever issue(s) came up during the test. (This has served me well, both in grades and in sleep…) For some academics, the position they take is a new and unique one that eventually gets accepted by the wider community, and they become the famous academics we read in our introductory courses. The vast majority, however, don’t. They pick tangential positions that are neither new enough or bold enough to be interesting, which means they are both safe from significant push back and unlikely to be ground-breaking.
Of course, the politically cynical among us see the “I am ‘X’, therefore I say ‘Y'” idea as particularly prominent in political discourse. The particularly interesting thing about this is that academics and the most highly educated members of society not only engage in the same cognitive patterns that cause them to ignore countervailing information or narratives, but they actually engage in these patterns to a greater extent than the average American; highly educated people (like those that both teach the next generation and rule over it) are actually more likely to actively avoid information they don’t like – and thus remain ignorant of opposing arguments – than the public.
I asked my professor, “If you are ‘X,’ what is your ‘Y’?” She said she doesn’t have one, that she splits her time among many subjects and that she is actively seeking counter-narratives. In spite of the obvious self-serving nature of this comment, (She literally said “I’m the exception that proves the rule,” and though she said it with a smile, she wasn’t joking.) I’m inclined to believe her. Her research is fundamentally around the reality that factual information is biased, that history is just that – a story, and that literally every piece of information we collect in our lives is biased, either in the way it is presented or in the way it is interpreted. Considering that, I think it is likely she questions everything she reads, hears, and believes. Probably every day, all day.
I want to do that. I want to be the exception that proves the rule. I want to constantly question the information given to me, and I want to do that in an intelligent and non-threatening manner. If I go into academia, I don’t want to have a “Y.” If I work for the government, or even in the private sector, I want to be the person who is constantly questioning assumptions and constantly pushing back, because even if that means I don’t fall nicely into a undergrad’s summary box, it means I’m likely to be making intelligent, accurate, and well-informed decisions.