The Measure of a Good Academic Discipline
Or, how to downsize a field in a world that values growth over everything
Ever notice how all the greatest achievements of some academic fields tend to have happened a long time ago?
Some fields are only maintained nowadays for the purpose of having real and experienced people teach students material which was discovered and settled upon several decades ago. Those students then go on to graduate, and those graduates go on to just barely grab either, one, a private sector job which doesn’t relate to their major, or two, a university tenure at the end of a strenuous academic track which allows them to regurgitate the same info as their professors did. Is it too taboo, in an age where knowledge of these disciplines equal to and far beyond that of any one person is available for free to most people on the planet, to ask if the academic system is really in need of all the heaps of graduates it’s churning out? Or is it just unprofitable?
Other fields ask questions they can’t fully answer before splitting into new fields which then never do the dirty work of abandoning the old. Lots of fields arguably did this to philosophy a long time ago, and yes, philosophy is the quintessential example of a field whose best work seems to be behind it, but in truth, I think philosophy may be one of few disciplines exempt from this issue, for no other reason than because it studies the conditions of life itself, which can and will never stop being relevant.
Not every discipline can say that. Take, rather, anthropology. What was once the explicitly Western colonial discipline of analyzing and understanding foreign cultures has overstayed its welcome long enough to transform into a hodgepodge of perpetually unanswered questions, undefined directions and fierce debates over the most basic of methods.
For a slightly different example, take my own beloved archaeology. There actually are a wealth of jobs open for archaeologists at the moment, though most of them are temporary and pay poorly in harsh working conditions. However, that’s only because archaeology in the US is a legally required part of most large construction projects, and that’s not what most majors are setting out to do when they decide on the field, is it? Most of them want to play a part in understanding and preserving the most important sites of cultural heritage in either one region or across the globe.