Academia’s Identity Crisis
The March for Science, Manhattan, New York, 2018 / Alamy

Academia’s Identity Crisis

Samuel Freel
Samuel Freel

Two months into my first semester as a doctoral student, Donald Trump was elected. A few years later the coronavirus hit. That summer George Floyd was murdered.

Each of these events, along with many less seismic ones in between, elicited a similar response from the faculty, students, and administrators around me: we have to do something. And each time some things were done. Mass emails were sent out affirming “community values.” Committees were formed and meetings were held. And there was (and continues to be) great pressure to conduct research that would be “part of the solution.”

These reactions are evidence of a trend towards an activist model of scholarship. At the root of this model is academia’s image of itself as the vanguard of social change in America, burdened with the grave responsibility of helping to forge the nation’s future and fight its evils.

But this is largely a fantasy. Very little of academic work has a notable influence on society, and when it does, the nature of that influence is very different to what academics profess to believe.

Academia’s culture of activism

A growing number of academics appear to believe that the point of academia is not just to understand the world but to better it. Forced to choose, many would no doubt opt for social change over social understanding as their contribution to society. Analysis has its aesthetic and epistemic pleasures. But the ultimate purpose of analysis—or at least the moral basis for making a career out of it—is to make the world a better place.

The culture of activism has two branches, the first of which manifests in beliefs about academic work itself. If you have read academic papers or attended academic conferences, you will know that a great deal of research is presented as part of the solution to a social problem. In social and developmental psychology, for instance, the two fields with which I have the most experience, it is standard procedure to open a presentation with a detailed accounting of some moral or humanitarian crisis and then to move on to the specifics of the study. The message is clear, if sometimes only implied: research exists to improve society. Where this rationale is lacking, academic work is liable to be considered less “important,” “valuable,” or “urgent.”

This second branch of activism is represented by academia’s internal policies and practices: committees, initiatives, and so on. It is fueled by a belief system that frames campus dilemmas as direct expressions of off-campus evils, making it possible to believe that fighting those expressions is a meaningful contribution in the larger battle for the soul of the nation. This is the logic that allows the murder of a black man in police custody to become the catalyst for a reconsideration of a Classics syllabus.

The second branch is, I suspect, somewhat a reaction to the futility of the first. When the activistic impulse is thwarted externally, it turns inwards. This displacement of energy into campus problems casts doubt on academics’ stated belief that their research work is capable of making a dent in the world’s problems. Nevertheless, they and the people who fund their research, act as if they believe this absolutely.

The realities of academic power

It is not that academic research has no influence on society, nor that it is never a force for good. It is more that the strength and nature of academic power is very different from what researchers say they believe. This is the essence of the identity crisis: a feverish moral urgency to use academia for good and an unwillingness to be honest about the realities of academic power.

Conventional ways of presenting social research point to a specific theory of how social research impacts normal people’s lives: scholar produces explanations of problem X and the people working to combat problem X use those explanations to combat problem X more effectively. But this is mostly wrong. It’s important to stress the mostly bit. A small minority of academics do work on the frontlines of social change, primarily in the applied social sciences, where they work in tandem with activists, NGOs, politicians, and bureaucrats. Another, perhaps slightly larger, group of genuine scientific ground-breakers stands a few yards back feeding them intelligence.

However, American scholars’ primary contribution to domestic affairs is not in the arena of policy but of discourse—elite discourse, specifically. The chances that a given social science study has had a significant impact on domestic affairs is very small. But in the event that it has, it has usually done so by changing attitudes and conversation patterns of relatively educated, professional, affluent people. A very different model is at work: scholar produces explanations of problem X, explanation is disseminated via elite-preferred information channels, elite opinion shifts, and elite behavior changes.

Furthermore, academia’s influence on discourse is best understood as an aggregate effect. It would be incorrect to think of it as a collection of unique impacts from various wide-ranging studies. Rather, academia’s main political outputs resemble a small number of broad ideological frameworks (narratives in other words) produced at the institutional level. Occasionally, these frameworks make headway outside of elite, professional circles—the vision of American prosperity engineered by the Chicago School of Economics in the Reagan Era is a great example. But this is rare.

The ability of the elite to remake American society is limited in general, thanks to the mechanics of mass democracy and the inherent separateness of elite society. But it is especially true in a political climate characterized by polarization, legislative stalemate, and so on. A resolution of these crises is a prerequisite for anything more than minimal progress on the issues that academics hold most dear. Yet, the erosion of elite influence over large swaths of the country makes it hard to imagine that such a resolution can be led by the individuals and institutions who have laid claim to the nation’s moral imagination.

Why isn’t this obvious to those whose job it is to make sense of the world? Probably because the same factors incentivizing the activist-scholar model (above all, the drive for perceived morality) also disincentivize an honest reckoning with its constraints. And so, the identity crisis deepens and the collective delusion spreads.

How to use academic power

There are two routes out of the academic identity crisis. The first is a model of scholarship that makes social understanding rather than social change its first responsibility (which it is, by the way). The counter-argument—that social change should be put above social understanding—would only carry weight in a world where (a) greater social understanding was a hindrance to positive social change and (b) a good deal of academic work had a sizable influence on a large number of people’s wellbeing. Neither of these is true.

Above all, this route requires a renewed embrace of debate and a far greater openness to viewpoints that challenge the narrow parameters of acceptable discourse on campus. Accusations that academia has abandoned objectivity often suggest that rigor and quality of thought are being sacrificed in the service of politically appealing conclusions. This is true to an extent, but it is not the heart of the problem. Many of the core tenets of campus leftism can be (and regularly are) defended effectively with words and data. The problem is that many can also be challenged effectively but a person can more or less operate in academia or higher education without ever having to confront that fact. This contributes to a sense that campus left-wing nostrums are not considered positions but rather the inevitable conclusions of intellectual engagement unpolluted by contradiction. This, in turn, promotes certainty and incuriosity, both of which are antithetical to social understanding and learning.

The second route out of the academic identity crisis is a version of the activist-scholar model that faces up to the realities of its limited powers and commits to using them effectively. The reformist impulse among academics is not a bad thing in itself, but a far greater proportion of it should be channeled into the type of research most likely to positively impact people’s lives—namely, applied research focused on implementable solutions to real problems. We need more of this research, not less. The fact that many of the best people conducting this sort of research have more lucrative positions waiting for them at Facebook and Goldman Sachs points to the value of cultivating some form of moral self-importance in the academy.

While there is potential tension between these two routes, it is possible for them to complement each other in practice. The key is allowing ourselves to differentiate between the areas of academia that bear immediate real-world consequences and those that are analytical and intellectual. A culture of activism is essential to the thriving of the first category and corrosive to the mission of the second.


Samuel Freel

Sam Freel is a doctoral candidate in applied psychology at the Psychology and Social Intervention Program at NYU Steinhardt, researching the psychology of historical narratives and political action.