The Great Divide: Bridging the Gap Between the Academy and the PublicI recently had a revealing conversation with a friend of mine, a fellow graduate student at the University of Chicago Divinity School. After spending a number of years building a successful career in banking, my friend decided to do something “more real,” as he put it. He had read avidly writers like Joseph Campbell and Alan Watts, and was hoping that his studies in world religions at the Divinity School would allow him to find new ways of conceptualizing and connecting with the Divine.
Alas, my friend was in for a rude awakening. As those of us who had majored in religion or related fields as undergraduates were already aware, the academic study of religion today (at least among historians of religion, as opposed to theologians) consists primarily of the deconstruction of power and politics within religious traditions, and (running a close second) the dismantling of “essentialist,” “reductionist,” and “Orientalist” theories like those of Campbell and Mircea Eliade. Ideas of “the Sacred” — the magnet which had drawn my friend to go back to school — largely no longer apply in the academy.
This all came as a great shock to my friend. Although fairly widely read in religious studies for a layperson before going back to school, he had not come across an easily accessible assessment of the current state of the field. “I just wish someone had told me,” he said. Disillusioned, he plans on returning to the business world after finishing his master’s degree.
All of this got me to thinking: why is there such a wide gap between “academic” and “popular” concepts of religious studies and its subfield of mythology? Scholars consistently lament the lasting hold of outdated and simplistic theories of myth and religion on the unwashed masses — then they continue to write esoteric, jargon-filled tomes aimed mainly at an academic audience, works which are often quite incomprehensible even to that group. Even the most accessible (in terms both of writing style and availability at your average Barnes & Noble), serious, contemporary works on myth (i.e., Wendy Doniger’s The Implied Spider or Bruce Lincoln’s Theorizing Myth [reviewed in this issue]) tend to assume a certain amount of familiarity with concepts and theories (such as structuralism, or the writings of Foucault or Barthes) that the intelligent layperson may never before have encountered.
Partially, this is a symptom of scholarly snobbery, which is itself something of a defense mechanism — academics’ job security is, after all, based upon the general consensus that they know stuff that you don’t. It is also a result of Ivory Tower isolationism, the fact that folks in universities mostly interact with other folks in universities, and with their own minds. For example, I am currently part in a discussion on course design with a group of graduate students from several different disciplines. Not far removed from being an undergraduate myself, I had little difficulty conceiving of a an introductory class in the field that I’d like to teach. The other particpants, however, all of whom are deep into doctoral programs, have spent so much time thinking and talking about the subjects that they plan on teaching that they find it nearly impossible to put themselves inside the heads of first-year college students who may have no knowledge of the subject at all.
So what’s to be done? Can the gap between the Ivory Tower and John Q. Public be bridged? I’ve made my own attempt with this little website, but I think the real burden lies on scholars’ writing. Writing well requires a certain amount of empathy, a resource which academics rarely fail to invoke toward the subjects of their study, but often neglect to give to their readers. Certainly, it is difficult to convey complex ideas in language that is clear and easily understood by many people, but far too often academic writers appear to revel in their own incomprehensibility, jealously guarding the knowledge they have worked so hard to gather and create behind walls of buzzwords, obscure name-dropping, and tortured grammar.
Let’s hope those walls will come down soon.