The Glitter of Gems On academic bling

Our universities are going down the drain. They’ve become cash-burning bureaucracies ruled by a managerial caste of impostors who speculate with the inflation of degrees, diploma’s and titles. Young idealist researchers are the proverbial children thrown out with the bath water.

In Switzerland, at a reputable institution (40th place on the Times Higher Education (THE) World University Rankings), a young PhD student resigned because of his (her?) frustration with the moral decline in academia. The (anonymously published) letter of resignation was heavily discussed on Hacker News, with lots of intelligent comments, recognizing the sobering experiences of the disenchanted young truth seeker and attesting his/her sad observations.

Woodcut after Hans Holbein, illustration for the editio princeps of Erasmus’ _Laus Stultitiae_ (15??). Taken from the edition … page 196; grabbed from Google Books: http://books.google.be/books?id=QxhnhpmVNgEC&pg=PA169
Woodcut after Hans Holbein, illustration for the editio princeps of Erasmus’ Laus Stultitiae (15??). Taken from the edition … page 196; grabbed from Google Books: http://books.google.be/books?id=QxhnhpmVNgEC&pg=PA169

This same week I received an invitation to a doctoral defense at another venerable university (ranked #64 on THE). It reads as follows:

“On [date, place] Prof. [X] will defend his doctoral project.”

All the while, that professor/PhD student (age 71) has been the promotor to fellow (no pun intended) PhD students.

At my own alma mater (est. 1425, ranked #58), I’ve known a PhD-student being made a vice-dean. Other ones became heads of department, in their first year as (fifty-something) PhD students. It is beautiful when you heed a late vocation as a student of truth. And it’s a welcome bonus when that call keeps you going climb the richly branched organizational chart.

In spring, the university where I did my post-doc (#192) awarded herself a doctorate honoris causa, for her self-proclaimed “contribution to the public interest”. In the past they’ve complimented local politicians and other jugglers with the same honor.

“In much of the world … professor is reserved only for the most senior academics at a university, typically a department chair, or an awarded chair specifically bestowed recognizing an individual at a university or similar institution. A professor is a highly accomplished and recognized academic, and the title is in most cases awarded only after decades of scholarly work to senior academics.” — Source: Wikipedia

Surely, someone who teaches must have been taught how to teach; (s)he must obtain a licentia docendi first, or prove to have mastered the level of a magister. Those who learned more, are docti; they can become doctors, lecturing doctorandi on the more arcane secrets of knowledge. But only the top-class of doctors may speak in public and be called professors. Things were still simple in the Middle Ages, when etymology held ontological truth.

I was instructed that the semantics of words is of course dynamic, and as a trained academic I know that Wikipedia is but an untrustworthy source of authority, crammed with the uneducated ramblings of the hobbyist populace. In academia we know better, we may revisit the nomenclature among each other and rephrase our peer-reviewed definitions at will. We may repel the bright ones and promote the dunces.

In the tech industry, debunking college education and belaud dropouts is bon ton. Startups don’t hire academics, and pretty soon being a graduate will be completely obsolete in the recruitment process. One of the commenters on Hacker News said this:

The letters ‘PhD’ no longer carry the same meaning anymore. If anything, it’s become an additional signal that you once bought into a system that is selling you short. I still respect those who have PhD’s, but only for what it once meant, not for what it means now.

Our academia have turned into ghettos. Outside da hood the bling of the bros means nothing. We’re laughed at, like people laugh at the decorated chests of banana republic army marshals.

An gemmarum fulgor oculos trahit? Sed si quid est in hoc splendore praecipui, gemmarum est lux illa, non hominum. — Boëthius, De consolatione philosophiae II, prosa v

Read my comments on the resignation letter cited above, here and here on HN.

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