Hitchens and Conformity: a student’s perspective on Academia

As someone who has spent nearly every day for the last 16 years reading academic literature (from 8 to 24), the advice found in Christopher Hitchens’ “letters to a young contrarian” is invaluable. Without his advice, my future in academia would have ended much sooner. Indeed, I would have dropped out long ago, and for good reason. The mountain of a library that I have gathered over the years has offered me insights and knowledge which allows me, with confidence, to spot errors in reasoning that most people fail to notice, and this has done my social and academic life no favors.

Do not misunderstand, might I add, my confidence as arrogance; certainly, I have committed many errors in my reasoning, and I was lucky enough to have scholars like David Marr, Immanuel Kant, and Adam Smith to point out my aberrant stupidity. But this fervor for self-correction is like water in a desert amongst the general public and academia.

Quite regularly, my professors display either a terrible understanding of their subject matter or are unable to think across disciplines. I have had to sit in classes that attempted to tell me Pavlov was the founder of behaviorism, that Watson was a radical environmentalist, and that Skinner completely disregarded the inside of the black-box. It is evident that my professors had not read the original works of these men, as is the case for many other works as well. And moreover, when I suggest that another discipline has the solution to their problems, the utterance, “sit down, shut up, and stay within the box,” manifests in the form of a furrowed eyebrow. Even worse, their graduate programs encourage, insofar as we can call forced conformity encouragement, their graduate students to stay within the discipline. A neuroscientist has no interest in hearing the solutions that a computer scientist has to offer when it comes to the wiring of the brain, nor does a psychologist want to hear the solutions a physiologist has to offer. From my anecdotal observations, education is about entering a platonic cave; be drowned in your disciplines textbooks for four years, and then continue to drown yourself in the literature of that discipline for another 5 to 8 years in graduate studies.

Perhaps these professors have spent all their lives only reading the textbook interpretation of a given scholar, and perhaps these professors do not genuinely enjoy learning an entire discipline from scratch, and so cannot think across disciplines. Or, perhaps the love of knowledge is secondary to the acquisition of funding, as well as statistics that make bureaucrats indistinguishable from children on Christmas morning. But, for whatever the reason, my disagreements with professors, though respectful in nature, are plentiful. Textbooks are far from perfect; a 5 paragraph summarization of Pavlov’s life-long work will never display the fullness of his thinking patterns and worldview, nor will it show you how he explained the most idealistic phenomenon in terms of materialism. Yet, my dear professors would have me believe otherwise, that textbooks are wonderful, overly expensive, masterpieces. At any rate, the most valuable advice someone could offer for the disposition that I find myself in comes from a great mind:

“Dissenters are never welcomed” – Christopher Hitchens.

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