Student Perspective: The Problem with Academics who Write for Academics
By: Nate Sikora – Staff Writer
College could be summed up easily: you pay thousands of dollars to read books. I could not even imagine what law school or doctorate programs are like compared to undergraduate study. This article may be catered more toward the humanities majors that spend most of their days in Humanities or St. Joes. Regardless, the point of this article is to discuss the reasons, if any, as to why philosophers and other scholars write in such a difficult and jargon-filled manner.
As a freshman last year in first-year CORE, I was exposed to excerpts and texts from notable writers throughout the centuries, and I quickly noticed that most of them write in such a difficult manner that the average reader can become lost within a matter of seconds. What sense is that? Sure, having a mature writing structure and elevated diction is valuable, but where exists the line when writing becomes obnoxiously incomprehensible? Should philosophy not be based on being able to explain the ideas to others in a concise manner? Is that not the goal?
This article is not to bash or demean writers who are experts at language with extensive vocabularies, but it is rather a critique of the writer’s purpose. In my major of history, historical writings have evolved over time to the point where historians write only to the audience of other historians. What has occurred in contemporary scholarship is the conscious neglecting of the common individual. Scholars do not write in order for the common person to understand; they write for their fellow colleagues to not only understand but to also agree and praise their writing. The entire purpose of writing has seemingly lost its true purpose in today’s academic environment.
Let us analyze two major philosophical thinkers to expand on this idea. First, is arguably the first philosopher of the Enlightenment, René Descartes. He lived during a transitory period in history, during the late 16th and early 17th centuries, after the denouement of the Reformation and on the precipice of the Enlightenment. His writings, specifically his book The Principles of Philosophy¸ is not the easiest book to read.
Imagine what it was like attempting to read and interpret it in the 1600s. Standard rules of language did not even exist then! Placing his writings in context, however, he shall be pardoned from this critique. But still, if you are attempting to communicate a point, is it not more effective to keep it simple as possible? Is that not the way we are supposed to be taught in order to be an effective and efficient employee in the job market after we graduate?
In the same vein, the writings we read in college classes are antithetical to what we are preached to about explaining our thoughts and ideas. We are taught to be concise and to the point in our messages, especially in the real world with jobs. In other words, we stick with the meat and potatoes of the message.
Academic writing, however, does the opposite and expands on ideas with jargon and big vocabulary that have us googling words every page. Academic writing, although usually deemed bland and dry, is full of fluff.
The second philosopher embodies this fluff perfectly: Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel. Hegel by far is one of the most intricate and abstract philosophers of the modern time. For others who have read his work, I feel your pain. To explain further Hegel’s writing complexity, scholars to this day still struggle with understanding what he is trying to say. Still, even after his death in 1831, people are confused.
The example of Hegel brings us to the crux of my argument: why make writing so hard to understand? Granted, philosophical ideas are not easily constructed and may take a decent amount of words to formulate, but the skill of a philosopher is not determined by what ideas he or she constructs but by his or her ability to explain it to others. That is the key, and that is what is missing.
Scholars need to take a step back and reassess the purpose of academic writing. Is it merely about impressing your fellow colleagues and contributing to your specific field so you can be remembered? I would hope not, but that is what universities incentivize and what journals ask for.
Unfortunately, the people who lose from this are the students and the general public. Studies and new ideas are reserved only if you have a Ph.D. to your name. Academic writing must change its purpose to elevating the overall knowledge of the general public because if we have a more educated society, the problems that academic writings address will more easily be eliminated and improved.
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