Hitchens and Conformity: a student’s perspective on Academia

As someone who has spent nearly every day for years reading academic literature), 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. In addition, my enthusiasm for academic literature lead to me reading a number of books across many disciplines, and so interdisciplinary and creative thought is a cornerstone of my thought process. Inside an institution centered around standardization, my creative propensity has been the life source of my frustration.

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. And even more so, there are subjects which I am still entirely uneducated in; for instance, quantum physics. Indeed, there is nothing wrong with being wrong, nor anything inherently good about being right; but there is something wrong with teaching wrongs as rights even when someone has corrected or pointed out the error. The fervor for self-correction, within academia, is like water in a desert. No professor dare deviate from the well-trodden textbook literature, regardless of the falsehoods the book contains.

Quite regularly, my professors display either a questionable 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 some of the professors had not read the original works of these men, as is the case for many other works as well. Even furthermore, I have been told by professors that psychology is not the study of the emergent patterns that stem from physiology but rather the study of the mind and behavior. Of course, when one asks what, physically, the mind is, we are left with the complex patterns that emerge from physiology; but, this concrete view of the world is not to be had, as it diminishes the self-importance of a psychologist; that is, it allows physiologists to have a say on what constitutes a behaviour, what constitutes a thought, and what constitutes dysfunction. Psychologists will even go so far as to say, “behaviour cannot be explained through physiology,” even though it can. Behaviour cannot be understood by physiology alone, however; especially since humans still require a phenomenological perspective for points of reference: i.e., that a lack of serotonin is correlated with individuals reporting that they feel sad or depressed. Introspection, when combined with tools of measurement, provides important context and reference.

And moreover, when I suggest that another discipline has the solution to a problem being discussed in class, the utterance, “sit down, shut up, and stay within the box,” manifests in the form of a furrowed eyebrow. For example, when offering a combinatorial math or computer science approach to cognitive modeling, I am either readily dismissed as being irrelevant or flat out ignored. If the method of study was not outlined in the textbook, then do not bring it up; otherwise, one will push the professor off the edge of rationality. Even more frustrating, their graduate programs encourage, insofar as we can call forced conformity encouragement, their graduate students to stay within the discipline. Graduate school, the place one goes, traditionally speaking, to push the limits of human knowledge beyond its current state has now become the place one goes to propagate out-of-date doctrines and ways of thinking. 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, informative 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.


Ideasinhat is a business development analyst and longtime reader of academic literature. He writes books and essays on science and philosophy, and posts them to this website. The essays, as with the books, cover topics from psychology, philosophy, and cognitive science to economics, politics, and law.

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