1 Oct 2011

What if the problem is traditional academia?

Memiyawanzi raises an issue in Imposter syndrome about perfectionism run amok among linguistics students (and students by and large). I noticed that the focus is on the individual's internal psychology but I have an even broader perspective on this.

Individual quirks and psychoses

My life experience has led me to believe that many students who seem to naturally gravitate to scholarly pursuits have a common personality type. They tend to be detail-oriented for one and this can lead to this beautiful skill being turned inward on themselves for less constructive purposes (ie. perfectionism, self-doubt, anxiety, depression, etc.). Detail-oriented people, I believe, are precisely the kinds of people that will direct their psychic energy inward rather than outward, unlike the stereotypical jock who will instead gravitate towards physical pursuits to work off those same internal energies. If this inward reflection is used in a healthy way, one can properly evaluate one's weaknesses and adapt. If not, a student can be swamped by her own thought processes. All introspective, detail-oriented people need to learn to manage this hidden battle within themselves to stay on top.

However, we should also consider how environment must also play a part in a student's mental health. If an environment is unreasonable, we all know that it can contribute to an unhealthy mental state in an otherwise healthy individual. Family abuse, gang intimidation, drug abuse, etc. are the typical things we hear about as toxic environments for many children, teens and even adults. Yet what if traditional academia itself is adding to deleterious feelings of inadequacy in hopeful students?

University as a "place of learning"? Are you sure?

We're all led to believe that the university is a "place of learning" but we should question that notion. The university is in reality a "place of gambling" where students bet with their hard-earned money for a mere shot at the workforce and a future career. The wonky global economy only makes the game more exciting for career thrill-seekers. It goes without saying that rich and incompetent people can afford to gamble multiple times until a pay-off while competent poor people have little room for error. University is a business, pure and simple. Intellectuality comes second to money.

If university were really a place of learning rather than the heavily corporatized institution it is, it would be more in line with a rationalist Socratic ideal where strict roles such as "student" and "teacher" are regarded as illegitimate. The reasoning for this is simple. If knowledge as a whole is infinite and all humans are finite beings, then all of us must be ignorant one way or another. If we're all ignorant, we all can stand to learn something and then that means we're all students. Yet since we all know *something*, we're also all teachers automatically.

So when we say "teacher", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than "students". The meaning of "teacher" has been perverted into a kind of paid career while the student is an indentured servant beholden by peonage to the system. When we say "specialist", we're really saying that society arbitrarily recognizes someone as "more knowledgeable" than non-specialists and this effectively stops "non-specialists" from questioning them out of threat of shame or ridicule. There's no empirical way to measure how much one is a "teacher" or "specialist" because even the boundaries of any particular "subject" or "branch of study" are arbitrarily defined. Simply put, universities avoid this socratic ideal of equality, critical thinking and individuality because they are in bed with CEOs who would much prefer in its stead inequality, yes-man thinking and conformism.

To be clear, a real student questions others with reason, thinks for herself, investigates the truth no matter how inconvenient, stands up to stupidity and holds her own but none of this is conducive to corporate "team-playing". Learning is and must be a solitary pursuit.

From that angle then, is it any wonder that even a well-meaning, normally adjusted student might feel mentally unhealthy? The university has turned into a kind of ideological war zone meant to separate the true scholars from the status-hungry. The status-hungry win in this system.

On a side note...

Take in UCLA's Campus casts wider safety net for depressed students. This quote is a mixed grab bag of good and grim:
"'Fortunately, at UCLA we have a lower suicide rate than other campuses, and overall we have a higher rate of students who are already being counseled at CAPS,' said Susan Quillan, chief of clinical services at Ashe, who oversaw UCLA’s participation in the partnership."
Oh good, they have a lower suicide rate. We can sleep well at night then. Keep in mind that corporations have made depression into a disturbingly profitable industry (ie. pharmaceuticals) while simultaneously causing much of the woe by creating a head-trip system that runs counter to sense. Irony much?


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