The popular acclaim for Alan Sokal's "Intellectual Impostures" suggests a deep-seated suspicion about the value of much theoretical work in the humanities. But if the heroic age of scholarship is past, what are the humanities for? To teach us how to lead better lives?by Alain De Botton / August 20, 1998 / Leave a comment
The oldest and most widespread view of academics is that they are really a bit odd. They often have large foreheads, old-fashioned footwear and high-pitched laughs. Something about their intelligence seems to interfere with their ability to deal with aspects of ordinary existence. Mastery of the details of agrarian reform under Tiberius or of Greek imagery in Keats’s letters leaves them ill-equipped to apply sun cream or order a pizza. So entrenched is this portrait of the scholar that the adjective “academic” has acquired a dual connotation, both “from a university” and “redundant, pedantic, overcomplicated.”
However much fun it can be to lampoon academics, cheap laughs at their expense obscure real questions about their role and the purpose of scholarship in general. These questions have been around since at least the 16th century, when Rabelais ridiculed the scholars of Paris university in Gargantua and Pantagruel, accusing them of the sins with which scholars have been charged ever since: writing needlessly obscure books, ignoring simple truths, teaching nothing of value and abusing the respect of the population.
Even though huge numbers of students sign up to study at universities every year, we should not assume that these problems have vanished. Many academics continue to adhere to a vision of scholarship which appears baffling (and at times laughable) to otherwise sober and judicious people beyond university walls and, more significantly, fails to tally with the expectations of students. The doubts are not directed at all sectors of the academy. It is those scholars in the humanities, in departments of English, history, philosophy, modern languages and the classics who are the chief targets of complaints. The other-worldliness of scientists is more readily excused by their capacity to send men to the moon and to cure tuberculosis.
In recent years, a focus of complaint has been the way academics write. The output of university presses shows that large numbers of scholars in the humanities have been seduced by the technical prose-style pioneered by leading French academics in the 1960s and 1970s, loosely referred to as “post-modernism.” Opponents argue that this style is a sham designed to make readers feel more stupid and writers cleverer than they are-and no critic has been more vociferous about this than the American physicist, Alan Sokal. Last year, Sokal wrote a now infamous article parodying post-modernists’ use of scientific and technical language, entitled “Transgressing the Boundaries: Toward a…