March 4, 2013

Attention to detail

Far from wasteful, academia’s fixation on seemingly trivial issues is necessary in a complex world.

As someone who enjoys discussing current events, feelings, and text message punctuation at great length and in great depth, I am often accused of “over-thinking.” Based on the contexts in which it has been used against me, apparently I am to take this term to mean that I am intellectually wasteful: I spend time and effort thinking about matters that will not change anything. If it isn’t already clear, I don’t buy this accusation, and not just because it’s insulting. It also recalls what seems to be the primary, and most potent, critique of academia on this campus: that it embraces a narcissistic, do-nothing spirit that ought to be quashed in the service of Progress—that academia is masturbation of the mind, if you will, in place of intercourse with the real world.

Before I dive in, some analytical housekeeping: It is no secret that when we invoke an abstracted “academia,” we always seem to end up talking about the humanities and social sciences, and that those areas of scholarship bear the brunt of the negative assumptions about higher education. It is under this general idea of “academia” that I will operate, since it is those negative assumptions that I hope to overturn. I would also like to acknowledge that I am aware that this debate is an old and tired one. I will do my best not to further age and tire it here.

OK, where was I? Ah, yes—masturbation. The thing is, if we allow for such a thing as over-thinking, then we must also allow for such a thing as under-thinking: spending not enough time and effort thinking about crucial ideas. What I want to argue is that the implications of the latter are far more dangerous than the former. It is far riskier, ultimately, to elide difference than to presume complexity.

This is not to say that intellectual wastefulness does not exist. Relatively simple questions such as, “If this banana is moldy and I prefer to stay alive, should I eat it?” or “Should I inform this stranger whom I have no intent to harm that his sleeve is on fire?” certainly do not require a whole lot of thought, and to spend a great deal of time on them is evidently ridiculous. But when it comes to areas like politics, and the arguments and language we use to talk about things we all claim to care a great deal about, shortcuts have unthinkable consequences. To draw from a topic I’ve been reading a lot about recently, it is definitely worth spending time thinking about what “sexual exploitation” means, and then how to spot it, and then if legal intervention is necessary in what you’ve spotted. If you blunder off into the world ready to eradicate something called “sexual exploitation” without being able to talk about what it is, you will probably end up being more harmful than helpful. If that sounds obvious, good. It should.

Here a heroic caller-to-arms might argue that time is something we cannot afford to spend and that immediate action is always more valuable than dithering around thinking about things. She might even quote John Maynard Keynes’s famous, and entirely accurate, observation that “in the long run, we are all dead.” I agree: It’s important to make a move. But it also seems clear to me that if you make an important one without thinking it through, the resulting web of misunderstandings will surely ensnare you such that you can no longer move at all. And, in a satisfying twist of fate, the confusion and frustration you feel upon becoming entangled will undoubtedly be hundreds of times greater than the confusion and frustration you initially felt attempting to slog through a difficult question.

This is where over-thinking comes in. Academic writing—though sometimes dense, obtuse, or pretentious—is over-thinking at its finest, and that is wonderful. We need it. It’s true that often these complex thoughts are expressed in copious pages with eye-numbing blocks of prose and Google-worthy words every fifth sentence. And this isn’t, of course, to say that bad academic writing doesn’t exist, or that academia is to be sheltered from writing criticism. It is simply to say that the world is complex and that efforts to tease out its complexity are not in the least wasteful.

Old and tired this all may be, but it is absolutely not irrelevant. Accusations of over-thinking are so effective at stopping conversation because they laugh at the possibility that a conversation is necessary—in short, they trivialize. As students at this university and thus members of an extremely fortunate and select group, we should be especially humbled by the risks of trivializing any concept, person, or idea. Academia treats with grave importance that at which we laugh; it asks those people to speak whose voices we habitually silence; it retraces systems of power that have vanished into the woodwork of our experience. It is essential that all of us, no matter our academic and career interests, recognize that a willingness to take the world seriously in all its detail is something we cannot afford to disdain.

Emma Thurber Stone is a second-year in the College.