I’m Almost Ready To Be A Normal Academic, I Think
By David Metcalfe
February 1, 2019
During my third year in university, I had a persistent feeling that something was wrong about the system we were in. People were either studying so that they could work long hours and attain wealth and status (especially the medical and law students), or, if they did study for the purpose of gaining knowledge, seemed to be gaining a biased and morally questionable kind of knowledge.
In sociology, we learned that there were hundreds of different genders. In psychology, we learned that everyone was on a sexuality spectrum, ranging from homo to heterosexual. In biology, we learned that humans are nothing more than animals who happened to evolve consciousness, and every emotion and thought we have is merely chemical reactions in our brains. In physics, we learned that the universe is a random product of the big bang, and will eventually die of heat death.
The students who embraced these ideologies did well in their classes, but were hardly inspired, or inspiring, in how their ideologies manifested in their lives. They were militant social justice warriors who sniffed around for their version of homophobia and racism like it was the Salem witch trials. They treated sex as if it didn’t matter at all, and pornography and all forms of sexual expression were permissible as long as it was within the rules of “proper consent”. They had no concept of why humans were valuable and had rights beyond what the state claimed those rights were at any given time. They believed the universe was random, uncaring, and their existence would come and go like a flame on a candle.
It didn’t seem right to me, but I wasn’t totally sure why. I didn’t believe in the university system, because I felt their “truths” were wrong, and therefore the processes arriving at them were also wrong. I instead went to NAIT, where I thought that I would leave higher thinking behind, and embrace simple work for normal pay. But higher thinking plagued my mind. I wanted to read about oil wells and pump jacks, but my mind would drift to the economics of capitalism, the efficacy of democracy, the history of slavery, etc. For once, my parents were right: NAIT was not a suitable place to study for the way my mind works.
I went back to university to finish my degree. I figured I would just put up with the ideologies and get passing grades so I could move on to other things. I became very interested in my sociology and psychology classes, far beyond the course material itself. I would read so much, I’d come to class and debate my professors using things I had learned from other experts, and sometimes, I would win. I visited them every week in their office hours to discuss things that were important to me. By the end of the year, I was convinced that I was smarter than my professors, and that the university system, to a large extent, was corrupt and sacrificed reality in favor of dogmas.
I’m The Smartest Person Ever!
During my post-university studies, I clung to certain “ultimate truths”, like that the basis for human rights was made possible only by God endowing us with them, that laws were only just if they were consistent with “natural law” as defined by God and the reason of man, and that logic and evidence could achieve everything that could possibly be known. Essentially, I had created my own dogma based on the philosophy of John Locke, which, at the time, I did not see as dogma, but rather as the actual reality. An actual reality, of course, that the whole of western society sort of knew, but was not fully accepting. It seemed like my mission in life was to restore the dissonance, and thus create paradise on earth.
My arrogance, and thus my sanctimony, and thus my misanthropy, grew very much. I felt as though I knew more than everyone else, and I needed to challenge them out of their stupor. When this seemed to not work as well as I hoped, I felt as though society was against me. It was as though I had this great gift of knowledge that would cure society of all wrongs, if only they would listen to me.
As I continued to study, I found more “ultimate truths” to solve humanity’s condition: the rich people are not donating enough to the poor, governments are not abiding by natural law, capitalism assumes a meritocracy that doesn’t exist, sexual expression is a vice best solved by a return to the Victorian Era, etc. And it seemed like nobody quite seemed to get it, but me.
Wait, There’s Other Smart People?
But a funny thing gradually came to happen. I first realized that Jeremy Bentham had an incredible critique of Locke’s theory on human rights, and there was actually no way to prove Bentham wrong and Locke right merely by logical means, as Locke had once suggested. I later realized that post-modernism was not some “wishy washy” non-sensical dogma, but actually an extremely well invested, intelligent approach to understanding the world. As my perspective gradually broadened, my arrogance dwindled.
I came to realize that on any issue, we are simply making our best guess with the available evidence. Lawyers gather tons of evidence and apply reason to it, but they still get verdicts wrong. They obviously get more right because of reason and evidence than if they were to select at random, but regardless, the system is not perfect. That is the case with any thought or belief, regardless of how much evidence you think you have. There is still room for error, and the bigger the belief, the more possible evidence there could be, and the bigger the potential for error.
The wave of forced humility shook me a bit, to the point where I wondered, at times, how any belief could be possible, and whether I should even bother to study or write anymore. After all, if I’m just one perspective of many, who’s to say mine is any better, or even worth saying?
What I came to realize is that Thomas Paine took John Locke’s theory and essentially created modern society with it. Aristotle, Galileo and Newton made significant contributions to science with the theories they had. Thoreau and Emerson took what wisdom they could from wherever they could get it, and created a new approach to life with it. Over and over again, we see people using imperfect theories to generate really amazing results.
And in that imperfection, a great deal of humility and nuance becomes necessary. We do not have a “theory of everything” in any discipline, and we never will. The growth of knowledge is gradual, and brought about by the careful consideration of multiple perspectives and the maximal utility of evidence and reason in so far as it can go.
After Locke and the Founding Fathers elevated reason as the only knowledge source, capable of solving all problems, a new movement came about, most notably exemplified by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who questioned those ideas. He posited that, instead, an element of the heart, or soul, guides much of human knowledge. And really, this can be found in the work of Locke and Paine as well. In fact, there is essentially no philosophies in existence that truly think logic and evidence can solve all reality. Even logical positivism suggests that there are things that logic and evidence cannot attain knowledge of, but their argument is that those are not possible to know by any other means, and thus not worth the effort.
Without digressing too much into philosophy, what I mean to say is that I think universities are actually very legitimate, and doing their best to develop a perspective that represents the evidence as they can best attain it. Dogmas permeate some places, but do not get far. If there is something suggested without proper reason, academics are quick to criticize it, and harshly, so that it ends there.
I Guess I’m Not The Messiah, But I Can Still Be A Prophet
So, how does this make me an almost normal person? Well, it means that it is not up to me to solve the world. There are tons of people working on it in bits here and there, and I am happy to stay updated on what experts are figuring out, and continuing to discover what has already been figured out. There are no “ultimate truths” that only I know and the rest of the world are blind to. I am happy to share what I have learned with people, and hear, in turn, what they have learned. I’m open to new ideas, to discussion, to evidence wherever it may lead.
But that doesn’t mean I don’t still think I’m exceptional in certain ways. That part of my arrogance has not dwindled. I think I can understand, process, and communicate ideas very well. I think I can use that to change the world in some ways, to make it a better place. I can communicate an economic idea that helps poor families get healthcare, a philosophical idea that helps someone understand their life purpose, a sociological idea that helps a community know how to treat marginalized people with more respect, a psychological idea that helps someone be more confident in themselves, and the list goes on.
So, I suppose I’m not normal in the sense that I still refuse to have a normal job or lifestyle (according to current cultural standards among my social community), but I trust academic research, I do not claim to be smarter than everyone else, and I certainly have come to appreciate a great variety of perspectives. If someone asks me if I know everything, I’m happy to say “no”. And if someone asks me if I know anything, I’m happy to say, “here’s my best approximation with the evidence and understanding I have thus far, and I’m looking forward to hearing what evidence and understanding you also have to share with me.” The idea of spending the rest of my life gaining evidence and engaging perspectives is one that brings me great joy. What form that will take in the long term remains to be seen.
A lot of people tell me I should do a PhD program so I can teach at a university, others tell me I should attend law school so I can practice law, and others tell me I should do a journalism diploma so I can get hired with an actual organization. But, for now, I like my freedom, and feel I am gaining quite a bit just from personal study, discussions, and attendance at public lectures. I see it manifest in little ways that I find quite fulfilling, and as I get older and wiser I hope to see my writing read by many people, and speak to large crowds. Whether that’s as a professor, lawyer, journalist, or random guest speaker is not important to me. It’s about the content, and the journey it takes me through as I seek to discover more truth of life, both exterior and interior to myself.