Itir Toksoz, writing from Istanbul, Turkey.
Many of you may think that this post is going to be about the different stages of professional maturity as academics progress in their careers, but no, this is not what I intend to write. My point will be the about the personal maturity of academics and the way it affects how they handle both their social and professional lives.
As early as when I was a graduate student, I came to realize one very bad habit of academics: they use knowledge to prove their superiority. Now, of course academics clash their theories, findings, arguments with those of others and they try to prove that theirs are superior. An academic, thanks to a focus on knowledge and his training to process knowledge (not just knowledge in his expertise area but knowledge in other fields in general), often knows much more than a non-specialist and some of the most intellectual and knowledgeable people I know are academics. But this is not what I am getting at.
Academia is also home to people who have higher opinions of themselves just because of their relationship with knowledge, and who use this self-perception to win in a race of “who is the best” in their personal as well as their professional lives. I cannot say that we are all like that. Luckily, we also have many people in this profession who have defeated their egos in a timely manner and who spend their time on better things than proving that they know everything and that they are always right. However, when we meet people who lack maturity in academia, it is not hard to detect them, and their number is not negligible either.
Some academics see themselves as superior to general folks, and I think we are all like that to a certain degree, whether we would like to admit it or not. The mere fact that we get great respect from those around us and that we do not think that those who respect us are wrong is proof that we internalize this state of being worthy of respect. There is nothing wrong with this unless the attitude surpasses just enjoying the respect and becomes demanding the respect. Then the academic person sees non-academics as second-class and fails to see that these “small people (!?!)” also make valuable contributions to society in a variety of ways.
Some take it even further and see themselves superior to other academic folks. They never acknowledge the great work others do, they seem to not know the importance of encouragement, they always find faults with the work of others and they become masters of ungrounded and overly-done self-promotion. They use their knowledge to “beat others up”, trying to belittle their colleagues or to inject a sense of superiority to the atmosphere they are in, not realizing that the way they see themselves and act, according to this self-perception, and the way they are seen by others never match as they become pretentious and conceited to the outside eyes, thanks to their over-aggrandized self-constructed images.
Unfortunately, the more years I spend in academic life, the more I come to the conclusion that maturity in academic life is the exception rather than the rule. I contemplate that the lack of such maturity can be a side effect of all the years spent in academic life, in limited contact with the people in the “real” world or all the years spent in competition with others for degrees, promotions, positions etc.
Knowledge is not a stick with which to beat others up. If it can be used as a stick, the only function it should play should be to raise the platform of the level of our students and of society as well as that of our peers. This is the only acceptable nurturing approach of academics with a sense of superiority that would feel right: to feel the need to educate others, to enlighten them, but not with the expectation that they realize how great we are, but with the hope that we can then all share this world and life in higher standards.
If one day I forget about all that I wrote here and I myself get to a point of boasting about myself too much just because I am an academic, please do me the favor of pinching me and telling me that I knew better when I was a younger academic.
This post was also published in Inside Higher Ed.