Steering Past “The Ivory Tower”

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage

Ivory Tower: “an impractical often escapist attitude marked by aloof lack of concern with or interest in practical matters or urgent problems”

The term Ivory Tower has an unusually long history. Dating back to antiquity, the phrase has been associated with everything from saints and poets to giant white buildings (surprise!). Today, the Ivory Tower is a metaphor that describes an unaffordable, inherently rigid, and elitist college system. In this post, we will take a closer look at how we can avoid this image of academia as a world full of eccentric intellectuals, eternally buried in books and papers, using words like “A priori,” “zeitgeist” or–god forbid–“Foucauldian” to order coffee.

A recent survey studied attitudes towards academia in Britain and Turkey, asking people to fill in the blanks to: “An academic is like… because …” The similes created by respondents revealed an internationally negative perspective. Some were elaborate: “An academic is like an exaggerated Fox Terrier because they eagerly hunt down the opinions of others while spitting out their opinions as facts.” Others were blunter: “An academic is like Satan because they like to push and provoke.” Ultimately, cultural differences between Britain and Turkey did little to suppress the underlying critique, as the study found that people held broadly similar perceptions of academics as arrogant, unpredictable, and “removed from reality.” Perhaps the winning metaphor was: “an academic is like a bad dinner guest: they are not good at talking about normal things.”

That all sounds a tad unfair to us aspiring academics. Intellectual detachment is, after all, the nature of the game. Scholarly pursuit requires rigor, which often compels academics to self-isolate and disengage from the conventional. And therein lies the mother of all grievances brought against scholars: unnecessarily complex and opaque writing. This is an industry-level issue that comes with specialization within a discipline. And graduate students are well aware of the importance of getting published in an academic journal or press which caters exclusively to the experts. This leaves little space to practice writing for broader audiences. As we specialize within our disciplines, the jargon becomes a shibboleth–a sign that the student is familiar with the scholarship of their peers. 

Scholars of public policy and international relations have also found themselves repeatedly accused of detachment from real world problems. Countless articles (“Professors, We Need You!”, “Scholars on the Sidelines,” etc.) have appeared over the past decade attempting to bridge the growing gap between academia and government. Grievances center on academics focusing on filling literary gaps with theory and methodology instead of writing for those who practice policy in government. US nuclear strategy is one field that showcases both the tensions and promises of the practitioner-academic relationship. Deterrence theory is the bedrock of national security but has also been a magnet for controversy, with academics and policymakers clashing over it since the dawn of the nuclear age. However, nuclear weapons have not been used in combat since World War II, so policy makers and military planners often have no option but to turn to academia for insight. Where there are disagreements, there is also hope for a continually improving partnership.

Indeed, there are ways around the Ivory Tower. One solution is that students should practice writing for a diverse audience, but there may be more to it. The very structure of academia is what makes academic writing a difficult barrier to overcome. For academics, job security is based on tenure which requires more than just credentials and accolades. Consider Harvard sociologist Paul Starr, who was denied tenure but awarded a Pulitzer Prize for his work. Universities value original research published in peer-reviewed journals and publishing companies rather than popular magazines, or sometimes even bestselling books.

Adapted drawing by Frits Ahlefeldt

Despite the looming pull of the Ivory Tower, academics have made remarkable progress in engaging broader audiences beyond faculty and peers. Social media platforms like Twitter give scholars the opportunity to share their work and get feedback on ideas or projects in progress. For historians in particular, when issues of public concern intersect with their area of expertise, there are many opportunities to reach a broader audience.

That said, some historians are reluctant to use events of the past to draw conclusions about the present or predict the future. They’re trained to consider the past as changes over time that can help understand the present. As aspiring historians, we can sidestep the Ivory Tower by learning to throw in a dash of ‘historical sensibility’ to the narratives we find and present to the world. What is historical sensibility? It is a term meriting its own blog post, but for now, think of it as the ability to understand historical events and incidents in context to surrounding conditions. It’s adjusting ourselves to the times and providing the services needed of us. And, finally ‘historical sensibility’ means that we should practice history that is inclusive and comprehensive, never selective. 

Image: Scholar in his Study, by Godfry Kneller. Accessed through Yeager-Crasselt, Lara, in the Leiden Collection.

Devinie Lye-Ukwattage is a Graduate student at Georgetown University’s Global, International, and Comparative History program. Devinie‘s research interests explore the political andsocioeconomic factors that shaped the development of science and technology in the West. She also serves as the History Department Inclusive Climate Committee representative for the MA Class of 2022.

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