Millennium Post

Intellectual mumbo jumbo

For a few years now, full-time faculty at government colleges and universities have been drawing salaries based on the recommendations of the sixth pay commission of UGC. This puts all these people from the rank of assistant professor and upwards in the top five per cent income bracket of the country, whose people they are supposed to serve. How is an academician whose salary is paid by the people supposed to serve the people? Here, a term, which I picked up in the West, comes in very handy. The idea is that everybody has to earn his or her keep. While everyone gets the fat sixth pay commission salary at the end of the month, it is not very clear whether everyone actually earns it.

The knowledge project that intellectuals and academicians are invested in, in so far as they are bankrolled by the people have to be intelligible to the people themselves so that they have an idea what they are paying for in the first place. Whether they like the content of the project is another question but at the very basic level, those who pay for my bread should know have an idea of what I do with their money, irrespective of whether they like what I do or not. Peasants produce crops – people eat that produce. Whatever the academicians produce, it needs to be eatable. By eatable, I also mean digestible. Surely, that is not too much to ask for.

A kind of human being derives strange pleasure in appreciating music that few others like. In fact, if too many people start listening to it, they get dejected. Their special thing has become too commonplace like a roadside tea stall. Such is often the case with those academicians and their acolytes who love big words and impenetrable sentences. They protect their rarified lens to the world with smugness. They are quick to defend their demigods who helped them build these lenses. Why would legitimate knowledge seekers be so invested in thinkers than thoughts themselves and whether such idolatry is healthy for frank and critical knowledge production is another question.
In the first year of my PhD at Harvard, I sat in a two-semester long statistics class. Professor Jim Sidanius, a former Black Panther, taught us concepts – breaking them down for us. But he also wanted to make sure that we were digesting the broken bits. He knew that hiding behind jargon is the best way to evade clarity. And he would have none of it. So, when he asked us questions, and we started replying in jargon, he would promptly cut us short and ask with a smile – ‘How will you explain that to my grandma?’ This was a crucial question.

In many cases, it called our bluff and made us more honest to ourselves. This was more than knowledge acquisition. Jim was trying to drive in a characteristic that academicians and thinkers owe to society – clarity. Clarity is something that ought not to be limited to knowledge acquisition, but also knowledge production and communication of ideas. But are not some ideas inherently so complex that an insistence of broad intelligibility would somehow make those ideas flatter than they actually are. And to this, a response came from Steven Pinker, another professor from our department at Harvard. To simplify is not to be simplistic, he said.

Fine, but why should we care about such issues at all? Ideas shape people, their ideas about themselves, other and the world at large. So, if certain kinds of ideas gain currency, it is important that these do not become received wisdom but are critically evaluated by the people. For that, it is necessary that knowledge and ideas are available to the people at-large, with clarity, in forms and sites they can best engage in. Academicians occupy the most privileged centre of knowledge production in our times – the university. Hence they have to be held particularly accountable in this regard.

When we look into the academic circles that elite subcontinental universities have been breeding, they seem to breed a pathetic tendency to jargonise and speak in tongues that are largely (and I daresay, intentionally) unintelligible to people. The intention is not necessarily conscious for most practitioners of this dubious art – it is something they pick up to be counted. This gulf between ‘high-brow’ knowledge and its public intelligibility is most acute in those practitioners to invoke that shameful phrase ‘in our field’. Typically, this implies that one would take liberties about facts or be oblivious of contrary facts, not expose the underbelly of assumptions to scalpels, would discount fundamental criticisms as being ill-motivated or worse, expressions of ‘power’. Such a petulant watertightness is typically seen in ‘fields’ full of ‘-isms’ or those where sentences are peppered with things like, ‘in a –ian sense/paradigm/view’. And so forth. The latter is a classic method of saying – I will tell this to you without explanation.

Either you will not object as you wont admit to not knowing what the ‘-ian view’ is, or if you say so, I will give such an exasperated look and say, well all this has been known for so long, and you are not at an intellectual level where I deem fit to engage with you. And such elements still have the gall to say that society owes their keep to them.

It takes an immense amount of hubris to think that ideas articulated in forms unintelligible by much of perfectly intelligent people have added that much to that understanding that it can demand funding in spite of being unintelligible. It is about time that the real world asked for explanations about what is being done with their money. The subcontinent is a hotbed of posturing by people who speak in unintelligible ‘tongues’. It is time we asked them to practice that art at their own expense. Then we shall see, as an old Bengali saying goes – Koto dhaane koto chaal.
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