THE BLOG
03/10/2014 11:10 am ET Updated May 10, 2014

What Are Academics Good For?

I was at a fintech (financial technology) startup-type event a few nights ago with a postdoc researcher from the London School of Economics. We were both there as we are interested in academic research on the topic (her, professionally; me, well, I'm just an homely master's student). Going through the standard "networking" rigmarole, it's kind of interesting to see the look of confusion, and ultimate indifference, when you explain that no, you are not developing the next hottest app on the market or looking for your second seed funding but are, in fact, interested in studying the socio-economic dynamics and implications of the whole ecosystem from multiple research question points of view. Awkward introductions aside, it is always inevitably followed by a [usually male] investor's or entrepreneur's elevator pitch of why they -- or their application -- are so great. No, no, why they are DISRUPTING the [insert industry name here] market or how they are the Mint.com of full-bred dog breeding.

But I was taken aback when one venture capitalist, upon meeting us, immediately questioned the postdoc if she thought academics actually contributed anything to the domain's discourse, as reality and "business" often move faster than academics normally produce reports. The sheer rudeness and apparent Napoleon complex of the speaker aside, it is probably, admittedly, a question practitioners must often [at least secretly] ask themselves. To the credit of the researcher, her response was rather simple and non-phased, as she expressed her opinion on how academia holds the unique position of retroactively looking deeply and longitudinally into events, analyzing them from theoretical perspectives, and, sometimes, offering sound and empirically-based advice on potential ways forward. As she noted, this also includes providing a unique platform or forum for the private, public, and third sectors to interact together directly on a given issue. I don't think Mr. MBA bought it, but it made me question how academics are perceived outside of the ivory tower.

As it turns out, New York Times journalist Nicholas Kristof was recently addressing the same problem. He writes:

"Some of the smartest thinkers on problems at home and around the world are university professors, but most of them just don't matter in today's great debates. The most stinging dismissal of a point is to say: 'That's academic.' In other words, to be a scholar is, often, to be irrelevant."

As Kristof argues, academics have "cloistered [themselves] like medieval monks" from mainstream debates on almost any issue in which they are concerned through "arcane unintelligibility", pretentious (often nonsensical) wording, and the "culture of exclusivity" that they propagate; not to mention a recent decision by the International Studies Association to ban scholars from having personal blogs (!).

Idiosyncrasies and fundamental flaws (which, do not get me wrong, should be addressed) aside, academics do contribute something, and not only to the sequestered peer-reviewed journals that us plebeians could never afford anyway. From my own personal experiences, these people are just so passionate about what they study, whether it be the lives of medieval peasants in the Middle Ages or finding the algorithm for love, and everything in between. When you get scholars going on any of their research areas, they will talk with such poise, passion, and intellect that you can tell they've spent years researching, analyzing and, moreover, thinking about what it all really means. "Thinking", here, is the critical point, as it is a verb society does not seem to emphasize much nowadays, at least from a scholar's perspective. We are taught to act or react before any given opportunity passes us, move fast, trust our instincts, etc. Rarely do we ever have the opportunity to truly think -- and I mean spend hours, days, weeks, months, years -- on a topic, approaching it from all aspects -- from the empirical and financial to the instinctual, social, psychological, physiological, emotional, and so on. Academics are awarded this rare opportunity and, frankly, I believe people who question their relevance are either a) ignorant (to the value that they can provide to any of us who listen) or b) jealous. Whether or not you personally believe in the value of higher education, we can, at least, respect the craft of researchers.

And their work is by no means an easy feat. Most academics are overworked and underpaid, which makes the bohemian in me an even bigger champion of their cause. They do what they do because they love it (as it's clearly, in most cases, neither for the fame nor the money). They are artists. They are philosophers and thought-leaders. No, they are not perfect and, yes, they are sometimes exclusive and hard to understand, but this reflects more of a fault of the entire higher education industry. As people, which is how we should approach one another as often as possible, they are brilliant and so captivatingly interested in talking about whatever gets them up every morning. So, please, do not ask an academic what he or she has to offer to society. (In fact, do not ask ANYONE this question [SMH]). Instead, ask them about what they know, what they love, and what they do; perhaps even why they do it. I promise you, you'll learn an empirically-based, peer-reviewed, thing or two.