I’m spending the afternoon with a friend who has chosen to go back to college. While I understand her motivations, I have to say it’s a move I have never seriously considered.
While I cherish the learning that happened in college, I always found the American academic community a little too isolated from the real world. As a result, it seems a little too self-serving. Rare is the teacher who will tell you, “Here’s something you’ll need to know when you get a job.” More likely they are going to say, “There just aren’t enough people in this world with a functional understanding of Breton’s contributions to modern mores.” And that’s where we differ. I can’t see how such an understanding would be functional, much less why, with all the troubles in this world, a person would choose that to complain about. I do, however, know I bought into this sort of thinking back when I was college myself. I drank the Kool-Aid, as they would say, for at least the first couple of years. But then the facade began to wear a little thin. College started to feel like that person who always knew all the answers, the one that would always trump your stories with a better one.
At the time, I wasn’t really concerned with figuring out what I didn’t like about college. Instead, I just focused on getting out. It doesn’t matter what’s wrong, I told myself, if I’m not a part of it. So while a lot of my peers trudged on through the chaos, anesthetizing themselves with alcohol and garden-variety inhalants, I took the pain full on, worked hard and freed myself a semester early. This nose-to-the-grindstone attitude may have made me miss some good times, but I definitely avoided a lot of bad. And once I was out, I never looked back. I swore off further education, and blessed the eyes of those who struck down the path of post-graduate degrees. After all these years, I’ve never looked back, never bothered to get to the root of what didn’t like about college. Well, this afternoon the chickens have come home to roost.
My friend and I are sitting around a huge dining room table that is covered with papers—her schoolwork and my writing. We are sitting inside, drinking coffee on a day better spent on bicycles, because we are each dedicated to what we’re doing. My friend has a mid-term coming up, and part of it is three take-home essays. The class is economics. It’s a core class—meaning it has nothing to do with her major, it’s just something the college board thinks she should know a little something about. She’s an artist, gone back to school to learn skills that will help her be successful in her career. This article is called Fairness and the Assumptions of Economics.
Halfway through my first cup of coffee, my friend hands me the article with a frown. “Does this make sense to you?” she asks. I take it and read the opening paragraph:
The advantages and disadvantages of expanding the standard economic model by more realistic behavior assumptions have received much attention. The issue raised in this article is whether it is useful to complicate—or perhaps to enrich—the model of the profit-seeking firm by considering the preferences that people have for being treated fairly and for treating others fairly.
Have I mentioned she’s paying for the privilege of reading this nearly indecipherable article? Because that’s really the icing on the cake here: the salary of the idiot torturing her with this useless reading is paid directly out of her own pocket.
Anyway, after a long and arduous conversation, we manage to translate this into English. To save you the effort, it basically means:
Lots of people are talking about what would happen if economics considered human behavior a factor. In this article, we'll talk about how a policy for treating people fairly might affect a company's profits.
That’s all. Really. But if this is all they meant to say, the question remains: why the hell didn’t they just say what they meant? Almost half the words in that paragraph are eight letters or more. It feels like the product of an obsession with complication. Instead of spending so much time with their thesaurus muddling what they’re saying, why don’t they just attempt to communicate clearly? I can only think of two reason why the author didn’t: they are either mean or they are weak.
To be clear, I don’t mean to imply that this particular person started out that way. No, this isn’t that personal of an attack. What I’m saying is they are a product of too much education. My suspicion is that academic environment, and especially the language they use in there, makes people that way. Why not? If you spend a lot of time time in roadside bars, chances are, after a few years, you’ll be given to cussing and smashing people in the face. And the truth is, thanks to internships, fellowships and the sort, very few people whose name bears the trailing letters of higher education got to spend much of their formative years outside of academia. I’m sure many modern scholars, while perhaps good people going in, inherited these small-minded personality traits during their tenure.
Later in the afternoon, we’re onto an article titled How Neuroscience Can Inform Economics . There we encounter a clue:
Parallelism also provides redundancy that decrease the brain's vulnerability to injury. When neurons are progressively destroyed in a region, the consequences are typically gradual rather than sudden ("graceful degradation").
Translated to English, this says that when your brain is functioning on both the conscious and subconscious level, it suffers less wear and tear. Took a lot of effort to do that translation. Wasted effort, because that statement is completely off-topic. The article’s subject clearly states it’s about how Neuroscience can inform Economics, not about brain health. And I think that’s one of the reasons it’s written in the cloudy way that it is.
See, I can’t help but remember what sort of snide, bright-red comment would get dashed my own paper if I were to stray off-topic as this person did. Mistakes like that don’t just lower your grade, but your ego as well. But here I am seeing someone go completely off subject, and not just in some undergrad’s paper, but one that was written by one PhD and handed out by another.
What’s the difference? Why can they get away with it when I couldn’t? Because somewhere along the path to “higher learning,” this author determined that if they hide everything they write inside a pandemonium of fifty-cent words, they are camouflaging their mistakes. After all, what college professor would invest the time to translate one complicated paper when they have such a big stack of them on their desk. Besides, how much real interest can they have in their student’s point of view on a subject the professor wrote, or practically wrote, the book on.
There’s a Hemingway quote out there, I can’t remember it verbatim and can’t seem to turn it up, but it goes something like, “When you write plainly, anyone can see when you fake.” That says a lot about Hemingway’s straight-forward way of writing, and it also says a lot about those who obfuscate what they are saying with the smoke and mirrors of complex language (obfuscate, by the way, means to muddle or to perplex.) In they end, people who write in such obfuscating language are weak because they won’t take a clear stand on what they are saying, and mean because they make others suffer for their own lack of confidence.
The same sort of weak and mean as the professor who handed my friend this printout, who could easily been motivated by the need to prove how smart she was because she could understand things the students couldn’t. Or maybe she was just trying to distract her classroom, give them busy work so they couldn’t take up too much of her time. After all, the teaching of students is really just a irksome distraction from the college teacher’s most important job: writing their own horrific jumble of Oxford-unabridged confusionness.