Why you have to go and make things so complicated?
Posted by Peter Chen, columnist
Russell Jacoby, a history professor at UCLA, has written this column for the Chronicle of Higher Education
essentially outlining a critique of the academic tendency to complicate everything. I mean, how often have you heard professors say they are going to “complicate” a situation, point out “complexities” in a model, etc.? Being an English major, I hear this kind of stuff (and regurgitate it into my papers) all the time. But isn’t the whole point of academia to take a incomprehensible system and turn it into something comprehensible? Certainly I prefer over-complication to over-simplification, but the results of either extreme are rather undesirable.
Jacoby points out a couple reasons why the tendency for over-complication has become the norm:
1.) New scholars need work. If you’re studying, say, Shakespeare, you find that a lot of scholars have already done plenty of work on that guy. In fact, he may be coming quite close to being understood! Heaven forbid! Suddenly, you could be out a job. So, why not poke holes in previous simplifying theories and “problematize” the whole thing. As long as you can turn it back into a problem, you’re still not hopelessly irrelevant.
2.) How do you prove it wrong? If your theory is nothing but further “problems” based on your observations, people will rarely call you out on it. Sure, everything is very complicated and requires more than a “binary” understanding, but if that’s the case, isn’t it trivial to note it? I mean, if you say something that no one can (or even wants to) question, why should you be writing it at all? Complication insulates you from criticism.
I don’t necessarily agree with Jacoby’s extrapolation that complication in academia leads to academic dishonesty (because of “other options to academic dishonesty”), but I do find his dissection of the “complications” in academia important in the grand scheme of things. In all their attempts to complicate matters, professors have veered dangerously close to self-parody (see: The Post-Modernist Essay Generator) and by rejecting any attempt to simplify rather than complicate, their knee-jerk predilections obscure the bigger picture rather than illuminate it.
Oh, and that song is great.