The problem of locking intellectuals into universities

(written by lawrence krubner, however indented passages are often quotes). You can contact lawrence at: lawrence@krubner.com

Some of this overlaps with what Ian Stewart has written about the profession of mathematicians. Ian Stewart has written a bunch awesome books about math, and he writes in a classic 20th Century style of science/math popularizer, believing that there is a “general” public out there that might find math interesting. More about him here:

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ian_Stewart_(mathematician)

From the essay itself, this part struck me:

“What I called the transitional generation, those born around 1920, entered the universities, often late in their careers and without Ph.D.s. The Irving Howes and Daniel Bells became professors but retained their allegiance to a world of readable essays and small periodicals. The next generation — my generation — came of age in the universities and never left them. The world became specialized journals, monographs, and grant applications. This generation wrote for colleagues. If they were intellectuals, they no longer were “public” intellectuals; rather, they were academic or professional intellectuals oriented toward one another and microfields. In the 1880s, political science could claim one journal; now more than 40 populate the discipline. The American Political Science Association recognizes more than 30 subfields. The larger culture, I believe, suffers when intellectuals turn inward.”

This is very much what Ian Stewart has lamented about the field of math. In one of his books (I think “Letters to a Young Mathematician”) he mentions that there are now a vast multitude of journals that publish work about math, but that the field now consists of narrow specialists who are unable to understand each others work.

Considering that the whole field of science depends on math, and progress in science often depends on progress in math, the breakdown in math is especially worrisome.

I have the impression that what is needed is more people, within each field, who are willing to play the role of cross – pollinator. These people would not be “popularizers” in the old sense, since they would not be reaching out to the “general” public, but they would be reaching out to various specialities, and trying to unlock the knowledge in each sub-field. Sadly, there are not many incentives for this. I have friends who work in academia, and they would love to see more cross-pollination of ideas, but there is no reward to them for doing so, and there are large penalties if they fail to make progress in their narrow speciality.

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