Many believe that academics are the neutral gods above us, who look down at the world and see things clearly. Academics are the “experts” of society that are quoted and interviewed in the media, despite having minimal participation in that society. They hog the intellectual limelight, while others on the ground do the hard yakka of organising, working, and fighting – usually invisibly.
The academics the media turns to to decipher economic poverty, political uprisings, and other human events, aren’t usually experiencing these things, nor on the ground among them in order to be able to appreciate the nuances and intimately know a reality unfiltered by big business media or right wing governments. Academics are often too far away from something so complicated so as to really be able to understand what is at stake and why. However, it is their interviews and comments that are meant to be our guide to understanding serious situations like war, extreme poverty, NGO corruption, and so on.
But they’ve read all the books, giving them context and perspective that those on the ground don’t have, and they’ve worked so so hard, some would argue – as if those on the ground aren’t working hard. I know there are a few good eggs among the bunch who put ego aside and passionately believe in the importance of knowledge to humanity and the role it can play in a better world. But they are a minority, and even then they aren’t always our best spokespeople.
In a world of intense equality (yes, a world, not just the countries of the UK and the US – the unelected factories for global news commentators and analysts, as though only the rich white people could possibly understand the whole world, or Latin America, or Africa …) anything involving a high investment of intellectual labour is going to be biased towards those with more economic and social comfort. In short, those who aren’t poor, women, migrants, Black, indigenous etc,. Those who have been told since time immemorial that they are the ones who deserve to be heard in books, political life, and the media, because they are the main ones being heard already. A vicious, exclusive cycle.
The numbers make it clear: Of professors in the US, 58% are white males, 26% are white females, and 7% are Asian or Pacific Islander males. Black and Hispanic males and Asian females are all 2% each (study’s labels not mine), and the others were less than 1% each.
In academic journals, even issues like abortion only have a 63% female author rate, while economics is 13.7% and philosophy 12%.
Beyond who’s heard, learning is something to share around. But instead those who do the hard work on the ground, amongst life, have, through no fault of their own, much less time, if any at all, for books and study. Yet they need it, as both a human right, and to complement their experience and ideas.
Looking only to them, instead, also isn’t the solution. Rather it’s two fold:
1) Recognising that experience is a valid learning method, and taking it just as seriously as intellectual study
2) Understanding that the real prerequisite to useful, collective human knowledge are a healthy combination of both experience and study, as well as the eradication of economic and social inequalities.
In the meantime, a gentle call to especially the US and UK non-poor, male, white academics out there: pass the microphone on.