Monks in High Towers: A Plea to Our Fellow Academics

Monks in High Towers: A Plea to Our Fellow Academics

Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell
Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell
10 min read

“The man who knows more and more about less and less is becoming a public nuisance”¹

Emblazoned above the entrance to the religion department at Florida State University is an inscription: The half of knowledge is to know where to find knowledge. The imperative of knowing where to find knowledge cuts deeper than we might imagine in science. Knowledge isn’t quarantined off in a single corner of the academy. Rather, it is dispersed among different fields, much like information is spread across the hard drive of your computer. The sad reality of the modern academy is that many academics work under the assumption that knowledge is proprietary to their field. A great many modern scholars do not even know where to find knowledge.

Monks in Many High Towers

Academic life involves a menagerie of different fields of study. For a scholar working in any given area, decades of time are invested in understanding her subject with great intensity. The goal is to be an expert in a very particular nook in an increasingly narrow corner. Like secular monks working in towers that shrink in size as they grow in height, academics pursue knowledge with great fervor.² They write grants, publish papers and books, give presentations and mentor students. For these monks, days grind into weeks, weeks into semesters, and semesters eventually stretch into entire careers. Careers that, for most of us, fade into history and are forgotten in a few years or, if we are lucky, a few generations.

This is a desolate view of the academy, and, to some extent, we mean it that way. But we do not want to disparage the gains that specialization has enabled. It was, after all, the technological advances made possible by scientific research that lifted humanity from the dark ages into a time of longer lifespans, greater wealth, less sickness, less violence, and a general increase in our welfare as a species. We owe a great deal to the secular clergy working in high towers. And in that spirit, this is intended as a plea to our fellow monks.

Maintaining the Towers

We recognize that much work is needed to maintain the towers. Curricula have to be developed and periodically adjusted. Committees are convened in order to oversee important things like tenure and promotion, strategic planning, and accreditation standards. Enrolments are watched with a wary eye, in the hopes that they don’t unexpectedly plummet. Maintaining the towers is a full-time occupation. One might imagine, then, that the ability to scurry from the economics tower over to psychology for a guest speaker is a difficult thing to schedule.

We do, of course, leave our towers from time to time in order to convene with other monks, from other monasteries spread around the country (and the world). Conferences of monks gather in large hotels annually in order to catch up with friends, discuss the goings-on of the field, and socialize in a scholarly environment. And yet, all of the monks gathered at these conventions come from the same towers. They are nearly all psychologists, or economists, or epidemiologists. Might a stray monk from a different tower slip in unnoticed from time to time? Of course. But the homogeneity of these academic gatherings is stunning.

By the time we’ve devoted ourselves to managing our own towers, and also carved out a week or so to visit with our fellow monks, there is little time for other activities. We are a secular order, after all, and so many of us have families to return home to. Children to watch grow up, plays to attend, dates to go on, elections to vote in, yards to mow, groceries to buy, and lives that must be lived. Where is the time needed to travel across the hallowed grounds of a university to a neighboring tower in order to sit at their feet for protracted periods of time? Sometimes, it simply isn’t there.

The University of Sydney

A Map to Nowhere

The tragedy in all of this is the illusion that each tower contains within it all of the requisite knowledge required to do our scholarly vocation. Thus, the great sin of many monks is a desire not to even visit another tower. Scholars who are so narrowly focused on their topic often fail to consider that knowledge contained in other towers might help illuminate some dark corner of their field. Economists, toiling hard to explain how people respond to incentives, or when they are likely to act from a sense of fairness rather than self-interest, rarely ask evolutionary biologists for help.

To be sure, there are some towers that — for reasons of proximity — align themselves from time to time. Sociology and criminology, economics and statistics, biology and psychology, to name a few. To argue that people in different fields do not communicate would be demonstrably incorrect. That said, it is easy to locate sociologists who can’t explain what a gene is, economists who are unacquainted with how natural selection works, and political scientists who couldn’t tell you how economic markets work.

Likewise, many philosophers seek to understand justice, but dismiss economics and political science as concerned with empirical details rather than normative questions. Welfare economists try to figure out how to efficiently allocate scarce resources, but pride themselves on their ignorance of the two millennia of thought philosophers have given to questions of distributive justice. Sociologists try to understand social trends while being completely ignorant of the fact that our choices are partly a function of heuristics shaped by natural and sexual selection. Women’s studies scholars attempt to understand the sources of gender inequality without taking seriously the ways in which sexual selection has shaped the evolution of human nature, including biological differences between the sexes. If the goal is to find knowledge, then this jumbled mess is a map to nowhere.

Guarding the Tower

An insidious consequence of all of this is that towers are often perceived to be in need of guarding. Too much encroachment on the part of psychology by the economics monks is often met with resistance. To take an example, evolutionary psychology, which holds that our minds are composed of dispositions that were adaptive in the conditions in which we evolved — conditions that are often quite different than those we find ourselves in now — is either ignored or actively spurned by sociologists and political scientists as a set of “just so” stories. Yet, some stories explain better than others, and if our goal is to robustly explain behavior, surely we need an “all hands on deck” approach.

There are, of course, some notable exceptions: Robert Frank, Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, Matt Ridley, Herb Gintis, Sam Bowles, and Margo Wilson come to mind. These scholars have the capacity to do rigorous interdisciplinary work and to convey to other scholars and laypeople what the big questions are, and how much progress has been made in answering them. But as accessible and inspiring as the work of these scholars is, many of our colleagues are either unfamiliar with their work, or feel threatened by it, and thus focus on the minute details they get wrong, rather than the overall picture that they get right.

Adam Smith anticipated much of the mess we find ourselves in back when he was trying to explain how the division of labor could produce exponential gains in wealth and knowledge, but also increasing ignorance in each of us. It’s not just that as knowledge expands, we each know a smaller fraction of what it is possible to know. It’s that we have increasing professional incentives to focus on a tiny part of an overall research program, and have little incentive to figure out why the program is significant, whether other disciplines have much to say about it, and why students (rather than colleagues on hiring and promotion committees) should be interested in it.

As Smith observed when thinking about workers in the late stages of the division of labor:

The man whose whole life is spent in performing a few simple operations, of which the effects too are, perhaps, always the same, or very nearly the same, has no occasion to exert his understanding, or to exercise his invention…. He naturally loses, therefore, the habit of such exertion, and generally becomes as stupid and ignorant as it is possible for a human creature to become.…³

Smith was primarily talking about manual rather than intellectual labor, but the same point often applies to academic monks. As Anthony Kronman argues, graduate students learn to restrict their attention to one specific area and accept their incompetence in other fields and other areas of their own field. Since young faculty must focus on increasingly arcane topics to be hired and promoted, and yet are free to teach on virtually any topic they like, they often elect to teach on topics that fail to help students gain a sense of how to approach the basic questions they come to college to explore.

It must be acknowledged, of course, that this degree of specialization can have real advantages for the advancement of knowledge, especially in the natural sciences, but only if a significant number of scholars and teachers make a deliberate effort to bring these bits of knowledge together. When we fail to do so, we may actually distort knowledge rather than promote it, and turn students and eventual scholars into “experts” who assiduously avoid controversial topics, or who fail to stitch together insights from different disciplines.

No Easy Solutions…But Some Ways Forward

Over three decades ago, the Pulitzer Prize-winning biologist Edward Wilson wrote about the “consilience” of knowledge in the academy. Our plea to scientists is the same as his.

Toward that end, we suggest a few steps forward:

I. We should reward collaboration, and think of generalists as the new specialists

Universities are beginning to recruit and reward interdisciplinary faculty, but traditional faculty are skeptical of their value. To some extent, this skepticism is healthy. After all, when everyone is a generalist, it is hard to make intellectual progress. But it’s also true that when everyone is a specialist, it is hard to bring insights together effectively in an overall research program, or to convey them to students in the classroom.

For example, economists are interested in modeling public goods problems — situations in which if enough people contribute to a common goal, benefits will be freely available to all. Beach cleanups and park maintenance are typical cases. For decades, many economists assumed that without material incentives and enforceable contracts, nobody would take on personal costs to contribute to such goals. Everyone would “free-ride,” hoping other people would be gullible enough to contribute. We now know this is wrong, and that people are often motivated by a sense of fairness to contribute to the provision of public goods — at least when they believe the outcome is worthwhile and other people are willing to reciprocate. Knowledge about the precise conditions in which cooperation emerges in such situations only emerged once ideas from evolutionary biology, game theory, economics, and political science were brought together by interdisciplinary scholars.

This may seem like a trivial example, but Robert Frank has highlighted the pernicious consequences of teaching false views of human nature to economics students. Similarly, Herb Gintis has suggested that if we are taught that economically rational actors are self-interested wealth-maximizers, we not only fail to explain cooperative action; we might also make selfish choices easier to justify for those who internalize this model in business school.

II. We should teach process as well as content, especially in the sciences

Many introductory classes in the “hard” sciences — like chemistry, physics, and biology — are taught in a way that is intended to sift out non-majors rather than teach students how discoveries get made. Very few university students who take science classes get a sense of how science works, or how subversive and paradigm-shattering scientific discovery can be.

Journalists, for example, are notoriously prone to confuse causation and correlation, and to treat science as an accumulation of indisputable facts, rather than a set of falsifiable theories that are more or less consistent with an imperfect and rapidly changing body of evidence. This leads to confusion when discussing subtle topics like anthropogenic climate change or the ways in which genes predispose us to certain behaviors without strictly determining them.

More importantly, the use of science courses as sieves rather than explorations (especially in American universities) helps explain why so many students are turned off of science. Richard Dawkins and Carl Sagan have described the scientific disposition as requiring “an appetite for wonder” and “a desire to find the hidden connections between things.” Encouraging curiosity along with the intellectual discipline of the scientific process is likely to be far more effective at promoting public understanding than simply asking students to memorize the periodic table or the Latin names of the constituent parts of a cell.

III.We should make a conscious effort to promote viewpoint diversity in the humanities and social sciences.

Many students come to college ready to soak up the wisdom they’ve been led to believe their professors have accumulated. And sometimes they find someone who fits the bill. But often they encounter professors, especially in the social sciences and humanities, who are more interested in teaching them what to think than how to think. The academy is dominated by “progressive” political ideology, and many faculty members take it for granted that all good people share their basic views. Just a little over a year ago Heterodox Academy was founded to combat the loss of political viewpoint diversity in the humanities and social sciences.

The push for viewpoint diversity owes in part to Jonathan Haidt’s work exposing our tribalistic tendency to surround ourselves with like-minded people working on similar projects from the same perspective. If most of us share a common set of political views, we are less likely to find mistakes in each other’s work, especially when our conclusions bolster our pre-existing views. For example, in the 1990s, a frequently cited study claimed that being prompted with information about the performance of various groups to which you belong can affect your test scores. Thus, if you are Asian and told that Asians are good at math you would be more likely to do better on math exams, or if you are Black and told that Africans are not good at math you would be more likely to perform poorly.

These claims have become dogma in the modern academy, and “stereotype threat” (as this phenomenon is called) has become the basis for diversity training programs and racial sensitivity classes. Yet the evidence for stereotype threat is paltry and weak. In fact, the evidence that stereotypes are often accurate generalizations is arguably stronger than the evidence that stereotyping has large effects on behavior.

Moral psychology (guided in part by insight from evolutionary biology) is beginning to reveal that our minds are adapted to follow shortcuts that function to help us navigate the world in ways that facilitate group cohesion rather than (necessarily) help us get to the truth of a subject. Our hope is that if scholars become aware of their own biases, and open themselves up to the possibility that viewpoint diversity is important for good scholarship and effective teaching, Ed Wilson’s vision of consilience is more likely to materialize.

We should remember that the creation of knowledge is generally a positive sum game. When practitioners in one field make progress and gain insight, all fields stand to benefit. Our fates are intertwined. Border patrolling and tower guarding will hurt everyone. The monks in high towers should recognize that apprenticeships in other towers are not only helpful, they are essential for both the creation and conservation of understanding and knowledge.

[1] AD Lindsay. Quoted from The Economist, 06/25/2016.

[2] For another fitting analogy (hedgehogs versus foxes), see the work of Philip Tetlock.

[3] The Wealth of Nations (Indianapolis, IN: Liberty Fund, 1981; originally published 1776), p. 506.

[4] Education’s End, 2007, p. 93.

[5] William Deresiewicz, Excellent Sheep, 2014, p. 60.

EducationArt and Culture

Jonny Anomaly and Brian Boutwell

Jonathan Anomaly is a core faculty member of the Freedom Center, and Assistant Professor in the PPEL Program, at the University of Arizona. Brian Boutwell is an Associate Professor of Criminology.