It’s All About Evolution, Stupid


New York Times opens eyes and educates this morning:

Why does a diploma from Harvard cost $100,000 more than a similar piece of paper from City College? Why might a BMW cost $25,000 more than a Subaru WRX with equally fast acceleration? Why do “sophisticated” consumers demand 16-gigabyte iPhones and “fair trade” coffee from Starbucks?

Because then you are so much better than the others around you? Sort of.

Suppose, during a date, you casually say, “The sugar maples in Harvard Yard were so beautiful every fall term.” Here’s what you’re signaling, as translated by Dr. Miller:

“My S.A.T. scores were sufficiently high (roughly 720 out of 800) that I could get admitted, so my I.Q. is above 135, and I had sufficient conscientiousness, emotional stability and intellectual openness to pass my classes. Plus, I can recognize a tree.”

[…]

The grand edifice of brand-name consumerism rests on the narcissistic fantasy that everyone else cares about what we buy. (It’s no accident that narcissistic teenagers are the most brand-obsessed consumers.) But who else even notices? Can you remember what your partner or your best friend was wearing the day before yesterday? Or what kind of watch your boss has?

A Harvard diploma might help get you a date or a job interview, but what you say during the date or conversation will make the difference. An elegantly thin Skagen watch might send a signal to a stranger at a cocktail party or in an airport lounge, but even if it were noticed, anyone who talked to you for just a few minutes would get a much better gauge of your intelligence and personality.

In other words, jerks will be jerks. Does this scheme work for academia and its obsession with rankings and sizes of dicks resumes? A good publication record can get you a job, of course, but then does anyone really care about it once you open your mouth and people realize that you are dull and narrow-minded? Why does almost every graduate student I know want to be become the next Zizek? Why does almost every junior scholar who published her/his first book think that people will suddently care to read it and talk about it? Why does almost every senior scholar I know talk about her/his work with sentences that contain not arguments, but simple references to one’s work? 

Now, of course, academia is and will be about status, but somehow we all think that it is a special kind of status game, a sophisticated and subtle status game, not like those homeless dudes fighting over a corner downtown. We are better people, because we have attented educational institutions for a decade or so, but does anyone really care?

16 thoughts on “It’s All About Evolution, Stupid

  1. I think I would agree with that a couple of years ago for sure, but now it seems that demanding fair trade coffee is becoming a fashionable status sign which, I agree, does not mean we shouldn’t care about fair trade, it’s just that the example, it seems to me, works in the same way that people might be pretentiously environmental as opposed to genuinely caring about it.

  2. Here’s a weird side thought: in trying to figure out normativity, I keep encountering the idea of empathy and how it functions in our heads. There’s evidence to support the idea that we mentally “perform” what we’re empathizing with. If that’s true, there’s a distinction to be drawn between imagining oneself in another person’s situation and imagining oneself to be another person in another situation.

    In other words, based on the way we likely empathize, there is always a lot of baggage that comes along, which probably includes values, interests, etc. So although we can imagine ourselves (or others) not being interested in something, we would have trouble imagining ourselves (or others) not being interested in what we’re specifically interested in.

  3. Asher, on the grand scheme of things, I agree – if people are buying fair trade coffee to be pretentious, fine, I simply question the real moral impact of such consumptive behavior.

    In the end, I think it’s fine with me, I’m just concerned that if it is a matter of fashion, not real conviction, it might go away with the next fashionable wind.

  4. A good publication record can get you a job, of course, but then does anyone really care about it once you open your mouth and people realize that you are dull and narrow-minded? Why does almost every graduate student I know want to be become the next Zizek? Why does almost every junior scholar who published her/his first book think that people will suddently care to read it and talk about it? Why does almost every senior scholar I know talk about her/his work with sentences that contain not arguments, but simple references to one’s work?

    Oh how I hate conferences!

  5. M.E.: “We are better people, because we have attented educational institutions for a decade or so, but does anyone really care?”

    Kvond: But I want to know, Do YOU care? Why does academia sound like a banal, grey, infinitely dulled hell-hole of bordoms and minor personality/policy conflicts from the mouths of pretty much everyone in it?

    Is it proof of the nature of academic “intelligence” that all these supposedly “brilliant” people have been herded into a social/institutional corral of largely their own making, and they haven’t a clue of how to get out or change it?

    As least cows mooo (and occasionally stampede).

      • Seriously though, I don’t care if I went to school for a decade or not, or if anyone else did for that matter. I think of it as a requirement for employment but not as an indicator of intelligence or better human nature.

      • I suppose I have come to take it, very loosely, as an indicator of the opposite of each. Not in any essential sense, but rather as a marker that a person has undergone and survived in an environment which selects out certain features. If we can be a bit Darwinian about this (as your post title suggest), the question becomes, Does the academic environment (and I speak from here onward of the non-sciences) select out for features of “intelligence” and “niceness”? Now certainly academia is SELLING the signs of intelligence to others, but what kind of intelligence does it select for? What are the kinds of mental capacity skills make for a survivor in academia? For instance, a workshop or a design firm might select out for, with great emphasis, creative problem solving (a strong sign of intelligence). People there, when confronted with a difficulty in situation must intelligently create a solution. Is this the kind of “intelligence” that gets breed in academia? Does one have to have an active mind to do the kinds of things that academia requires? Do the kinds of hesitant assertion and incremental commentary within schools of thought really require more intelligence, or obedience? I tend to think not. In academia (and I have only had intermittent contact), though I have encountered people that THINK that they are highly intelligent (I mean, they have the merit badges to prove it), seldom did I feel that I was on the presence of sparkling minds at all. I certainly do think that academia ATTRACTS intelligent people, I mean, that is where to go to find others like you, if you feel intelligent, but it seems that somewhere in the great churning of the mill, either genuinely intelligent/creative minds are tossed out, or habitually worn down into retarded drudgery. It is indeed true that some very special kinds possess both mental agility/fulgence AND the capacity to be immune to the conditioning (and these types may soar), but by and large it seems that the mere persistence of a “kind” in academia, either by selection or conditioning, creates the mark of the non-intelligent. I walk into the car repair shop and I see the eyes of the mechanic burgeoning with intelligence. I walk into the office of a professor of English, and I’m not always sure.

        As for niceness, there certainly is a kind of minimal to-your-face cordiality that is selected for, but is that “nice”? It strikes me that academia ATTRACTS nice people, people who care about things greater than themselves, but when “nice” people are put under adverse conditions, they may not be as nice as they would like to be. By and large it seems that academia makes people somewhat defensive.

        What kind of “creature” does the academic environment make?

  6. p.s. I say all the above, with their attendant mis-spellings and disjunctions, as a proud member of the poolhall and the racetrack.

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