Academia and failure to communicate

One of the strangest notes I encountered in talking about the Duke lacrosse case for the past two weeks was this: Academics who spoke up about the case could not have been misunderstood because they make their living with the written word.

That must be the first time in centuries that academics have ever been assailed for communicating ideas so well that everyone reading would instantly understand.

Sure, academics (and lawyers) make their living with the written word. But they’re usually writing for other academics and lawyers. When they attempt to write for the general public, they often fail miserably. If The Chronicle ever finishes taking its archives way back to my senior year, I’ll be able to share a column I wrote eviscerating the prose I was finding in my textbooks.

I was, of course, a philosophy major. (Also a music major, but the vital communication in that department is written for piano and percussion.) The readings could be divided into two groups: ancient civilizations’ most essential thought experiments and modern analyses of those ancient works. One of these groups was full of incomprehensible scribbling that followed none of the conventions of modern communication. The other group was written in Greek.

And yet I’m perturbed to read that UNLV is thinking of cutting its philosophy department. To put my objection in clear, easily understood language: Say what now?

Yes, philosophers tend to talk in tones that few can understand. To their credit, they’re reached out with a lot of books relating philosophy to various elements of modern life. The Simpsons and Philosophy. Monty Python and Philosophy. Etc. Most of them don’t live up to their promise. Neither has the new blog Bleeding Heart Libertarians. The language is too arcane. The passion for learning and sharing ideas is too muted.

That’s why I’m going to wrap up this otherwise depressing post with a book recommendation:

Plato SMASH!


The arguments in favor of keeping a philosophy department on campus are fairly obvious. Plato is an important figure in Western civilization. Logic is a crucial part of reasoning. It’s a terrific major for pre-law students because it teaches reason and critical thinking. Like a lot of liberal arts majors, philosophy requires such complex thought that everything else seems simple by comparison. High-level liberal arts courses are like batting weights for the brain.

And if you keep up the interaction between philosophy professors and undergrads, maybe they’ll be able to understand each other a bit better.

(Made it all the way through the post without a gratuitous shot at UNLV, whose finest student-athletes were SMACKED DOWN BY CHRISTIAN LAETTNER AND BOBBY HURLEY … OK, maybe I didn’t.)

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