About 60 comments deep into my post about why Burning Man and academic culture are at odds, I realized that what started out as a provocation and reaction had turned into a relevant conversation … and that the comments section on a blog is a terrible place to have a relevant conversation.
There are worse places, but they’re filled with toxic fish.
So I invited anyone (especially academics) who disagreed with me to send me short essays expressing their disagreement, and said I’d post some on the Burning Blog in order to give their ideas a better hearing.
So far only one has responded: Lans Ellison. (That’s a pseudonym: he asked that his real name not be used. I am hardly in a position to object.) Much in the same way that my opinions in no way represent those of Burning Man, Lans is only speaking for himself, etc. etc. (boilerplate, boilerplate).
His essay is below, unaltered. I’ll include my own response to his ideas in the comments section, after some other people have had a chance to speak (if they’re inclined to).
Whether I’m right or wrong, I think this is a useful discussion to have – and I appreciate Lans stepping up to engage, along with all the commentators to the original post who made salient points.
If anyone else wants a more full opportunity to explain just how wrong I got it, and has points to make that are distinct from Lans’, feel free to send me an email with an essay (keep it to 1200 words if you can), and if the subject hasn’t entirely burned itself out (pun intended?) I’ll post another one or two.
What is Academia? And why it is not a danger to burning man.
By Lans Ellion
Academia is a broad and ambiguous word. Many of us may view academia as a monolithic closed minded structure embodied by only a single viewpoint in life. However, like any human endeavor, academia is comprised a wide array of individuals with differing viewpoints and coming from many different life paths. The topics studied by academics range from the hard sciences of physics and chemistry to the softer subjects of philosophy, history, and anthropology.
In fact, we must wonder who in fact can be considered an academic. Does it require that one work in a University as a tenured professor or can we consider the armchair astronomer who spends his day in the factory and his nights peering through his telescope at the stars an academic as well? I would prefer to use a broader definition of academic to include all those who ponder the nature of our universe whether they perform the complex mathematics of quantum mechanics or ponder the history of an arrowhead found in the ground.
But despite my definition of academic to include all those with curiosity and hunger for learning about our world, I think the concerns many have with academia fall specifically on the structured system in place in our universities and other institutions of learning. Many fear that this system has created closed minds and has distanced these people so far from the real world that they no longer see the real world around them. This view is that academics are all mirror images of Spock from star trek, completely baffled by the human experience.
I reject that definition of academia. While a rare few academics may fit this Spock mold, academics as a whole represent a diverse group of humans just like burning man. Every academic is a human at heart filled with the same desires and emotions that we all have. The defining characteristic of academia that I see is curiosity and a passion for learning. In fact, rather than being closed minded I view academia as the most open minded institution humanity has yet created rivaling even the open mindedness of burning man.
Take Einstein, one of history’s most famous scientists as an example. For nearly 300 years before Einstein, the world of physics was dominated by Newton’s laws of motion. Under Newtonian physics the speed of time was a constant clock ticking away at the same rate for everything allowing us to calculate the motion of objects with simple formulas. Einstein, a young upstart physicist managed to uproot all of physics with a completely outlandish idea. Einstein proved that time is not constant, but in fact relative. He showed us that time passes at different rates dependent on the relative speed of objects and the amount of gravity that an object is subject to. This idea initially appeared insane to many because it contradicted years of scientific “truth.” But, when Einstein presented his evidence the open mindedness of science won the day as traditional scientists admitted they had been wrong. Later in his life Einstein himself was wrong. He spent his later career denying quantum mechanics but, when sufficient evidence finally came in even Einstein admitted that he had been wrong. Despite our view that academics are not accepting of new ideas, Einstein provides the perfect example of how academics are willing to accept new ideas when presented with strong evidence.
Often we view academia as closed minded because it disagrees with beliefs we may hold dear. In fact, academics may often discount or outright disagree with evidence that is very true to us. Thus, we call these academics close minded. But, we must remember when they are being close minded to our truths we are also being close minded to their viewpoints and truths in return. For us to disagree with academics we must deny their world view just as their disagreement requires their denial of our world view. We are no better than they; we just have different ways of viewing things.
Many of us view academia as being absolutely sure of itself and denying all other realities. This is not the case. Academics do not work in the world of black and white; they live in the reality of the grey. When you talk to a scientist you may notice that they use language differently than we do. If you ask a scientist whether global warming is real they don’t say “yes” they tell you “in light of our best evidence today, global warming is likely occurring.” This is because academics don’t believe in absolutes, they realize the world is a vastly complicated place and we will never have absolute knowledge, we can only accumulate better and better evidence.
That academics search for the best evidence is one of the reasons that many of us view academia as close minded. Things like peer review and rejection of implausible claims exist because academia has spent years studying these subjects and improving its techniques of study. We all have biases, and as the saying goes, the easiest person to fool is yourself. This is why academics follow rules for research. These rules are designed to filter out our personal biases and while they may seem overly restrictive to the layperson, they make sense in light of the history of academia. Rather than saying academics are close minded for denying the realities that we perceive, perhaps we should stop to ask why they deny our realities and we deny theirs. Academic study is born out of curiosity and passion for understanding and these are intelligent people who have dedicated their lives to study. Perhaps we should wonder whether their lifetime of study has given them a greater understanding of issues that we may not understand.
I do not believe academics “kill what they love” and I outright reject the idea that “academia tries to establish an empirical model of a phenomenon that limits what is possible in order to better define it.” Nor do I think academia tends to “deal badly with lived experiences on their own terms.” Academics are human beings like all of us and with a passion for knowledge. Academia may be only one way to understand the world, but that way does not kill what it loves, it only gives us a greater appreciation for the beauty of the world. I believe the academic process is beautiful and only increase our appreciation for the world around us. Thus, study of burning man will only help us to better appreciate its beauty.
In fact, if we look at the burning mind project which was criticized by Caveat Magister we can see the perfect example of academia adding to rather than subtracting from burning man. These academics saw success in burning man and wanted to find a way to bring that success outside of burning man and into the classroom. This started a dialogue that I believe has helped many come to a better understanding of burning man. Caveat pointed out flaws in their understanding and they responded with the open minded acceptance that they were wrong. This in itself is the perfect example of academic dialogue.
Burning man may be complex, have many different facets, and be composed of countless lived experiences. But academics are intelligent enough to understand this. They are not Spocks baffled by our human experiences, they are humans just like us and can use their humanity to try and better understand burning man. Academics may simplify burning man to define it because that is how we build understanding. Perhaps we may disagree with these academics “definition” of burning man. But you know what? I disagree with some of my camp mates definition of burning man. Disagreement isn’t bad; it’s just a starting point for conversations that can lead to better understanding by all. That is how I see academia overall. I don’t see it as setting rules for the universe (or burners) to follow; I see it as starting a conversation about the world we see.
We may fear that academics will define burning man in some ridiculous way that leads others to view burning man the “wrong” way or that destroys the 10 principals. But if they do that, they are doing academics wrong and we can simply keep on burning to show them how wrong they are. Rather than rejecting academic study of burning man I say we welcome it with open arms and do our best to help their understanding. Let us be the subjects of their study because, in being subjects, they have given us permission to act upon them and influence their world view. They will be subjected to our reality, our lives, and our experiences. Hopefully we can change them and they can help us change the world to make it a better place. Let us open their minds and in turn perhaps they can also open ours.
I want to conclude not with my own words, but with the words of Richard Feynman, one of most famous physicists from the 20th century in the field of quantum mechanics. His passion for science defies the idea that academics are like Spock and that academic understanding harms what it studies. So if you have the time I highly recommend this video with Feynman’s words. He beautifully sums up exactly why I believe academics can only add to our understanding of the world and burning man.