The Perverse Conservatism of Academic Culture - Evolution News & Views

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The Perverse Conservatism of Academic Culture

In reviewing a new book by Helen Sword (Stylish Academic Writing, Harvard U. Press) that seeks probably in vain to instruct professional scholars on how to write, Barton Swaim in The Weekly Standard nails it:

Bad writing is (to use a once-fashionable term) institutionalized. [Ms. Sword] herself says roughly the same thing when she points out that academics learn how to write from three principal sources: their doctoral supervisors, their academic peers, and the academic journals in which they wish to be published.Supervisors typically preach stylistic caution [to their postgraduate students]; they want their students to demonstrate mastery of disciplinary norms, not to push against disciplinary boundaries. Editors and referees, likewise, are often more intent on self-cloning than on genuine innovation or empowerment. Peer-reviewed publications, meanwhile, offer a range of stylistic models that are at best unadventurous and at worst downright damaging. .  .  . Academics who learn to write by imitation will almost inevitably pick up the same bad habits.Academia, if I can give Sword's observation the sting it deserves, encourages the worst kind of conservatism: a conservatism that values correctness over creativity, and sameness over originality.
You see, I trust, the relevance of this to the debate over evolution. Darwin advocates are always telling us how in academic science overturning bad old ideas is strongly encouraged since for young scholars that's the way to make your name. Therefore if Darwinian theory were fatally flawed, as Darwin critics claim, some up-and-coming hotshot at the local university would have gunned it down by now.

Of course that's baloney. The main product of the scholarship industry -- namely the writing that professors do, whether in the sciences or humanities -- itself testifies not to any value that academic culture places on innovation and revolution but rather to "the worst kind of conservatism," a deadening sameness and demand for conformity.

And that may be the top challenge intelligent design has in winning the Darwin debate in the world of academic science.


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