Why Liberal Academics and Ivory Tower Radicals Make Poor Revolutionaries
The revolution will not be cited. It will not have a bibliography, or a title page. The revolution will never happen in the seclusion of the ivory tower built by racist, sexist, and classist institutions. Professional academic researchers in the social sciences of many colleges and universities exploit the struggles of oppressed peoples. Oppressed peoples are left stranded with little to no resources after researchers leave their communities high and dry.
Researchers steal value from oppressed peoples by making them the subjects of theoretical research without lending them access to information that could better help their communities. Articles, books, and dissertations written about marginalized populations are written for academics, not working people, and as such have little impact on the people whose lives are the subject of this research. Liberal academics and social scientists are more concerned about developing the wealth of academic literature than addressing the immediate material concerns of the communities they research.
Penelope Herideen is a Sociology researcher in Western Massachusetts (MA) and a professor of Sociology at the local community college from which I recently graduated. Herideen has written about the importance of critical pedagogy in community colleges. “Policy, Pedagogy, and Social Inequality: Community College Student Realities In Post-Industrial America” was the title of Herideen’s research discussing the realities that community college students face as they navigate their social and academic worlds. Herideen’s research is important, and yet, she was hardly involved in student organizing campaigns against budget cuts that affect low-income students. Community college students need resources developed through research like Herideen’s. This is a major flaw in academic research in the social sciences.
Liberal academics and social scientists need to understand their effect on the communities and people they study. Oppressed people who are put under the magnifying glass of academic research have to live with real consequences after the researcher leaves. This is especially true in the field of women’s and ethnic studies — where class, gender, and race consciousness are a part of the research process. Researchers leave behind a stranded community with little to no resources to help them organize movements that will create real change.
Tim Wise, a well-known anti-racist writer and activist receives thousands of dollars for speaking at various colleges and universities about the impact that white privilege and white supremacy have on communities of color. Wise has yet to give back to these communities in any real or substantial way, such as offering resources and support to the various communities he speaks of in his writings.
Researchers in the fields of women’s and ethnic studies entering oppressed communities without any desire to change serious inequities are in direct contradiction of their supposedly “progressive” fields. Women’s and ethnic studies were created out of the social movements of the 1960s. The aims of the people who started these fields of study were to catapult a movement of better access to education for people of color, poor people, and women.
These goals were met in conflict with a desire in academia to concentrate knowledge among groups of specialized elites, instead of a focus on popularizing this knowledge for the greater good. Try reading any academic text from your local women’s studies, ethnic studies, post-colonial studies, or anthropology department. The texts are almost always written so that only academics can understand. Some students and scholars call it “acadamese.” It is writing that needs to be decoded before it can be understood. This is what inaccessible language looks like in academic texts written about oppressed groups, but not for them.
Indian writer and activist Arundhati Roy discusses the importance of “ordinary language” in social justice work in her speech given at Hampshire College in 2001:
I think it’s vital to de-professionalize the public debate on matters that vitally affect the lives of ordinary people. It’s time to snatch our futures back from the ‘experts.’ Time to ask, in ordinary language, the public question and to demand, in ordinary language, the public answer.
Roy purposefully writes for oppressed groups of people by writing in “ordinary language.” Ordinary language becomes extraordinary when groups of people who have been historically “othered” are able to read something that connects to their lives. Academics who use “ordinary language” are able to encourage oppressed groups to consider their own agency in the fight for social, economic and political justice. Their advisors and colleagues constantly berate academics that attempt to write in ordinary language because their writing is “too accessible.”
Academics use academic language and jargon to centralize knowledge and power in their hands. Academics would lose a certain amount of power if everyone had access to the same knowledge that they do. The division of labor in the ivory tower reinforces capitalist modes of production through individualized research and study that is hardly ever shared with those it most affects. This is how academia operates knowledge in the form of transactions that create restricted, instead of shared knowledge.
Liberal academics become gatekeepers of knowledge by reinforcing ideas that knowledge should be bought and sold instead of shared among communities that are studied. In turn, serious activists who wish to create a world without capitalism and other forms of oppression are secluded from their communities through work in the non-profit sector. INCITE! Women of Color Against Violence Collective’s’s “The Revolution Will Not Be Funded” touch upon the issue of revolutionary praxis among intellectuals in Non-Governmental Organizations (NGO):
Progressive NGOs use peasants and the poor for their research projects, and they benefit from the publication - nothing comes back to the movements, not even copies of the studies done in their name! Moreover, peasant leaders ask why NGOs never risk their neck after their educational seminars - why do they not study the rich and powerful? Why us? The NGOs should stop being NGOs and convert themselves into members of socio-political movements.
The fundamental question is whether a new generation of organic intellectuals can emerge from the burgeoning radical social movements which can avoid the NGO temptation and become integral members of the next revolutionary wave.
It is time to stop depending on NGOs and academia to create revolutionary praxis for us. They won’t. It’s up to us, the oppressed peoples of the world to demand resources for our communities that are being studied by those whose lives are spent in ivory towers. The revolution starts from below and works its way to the ivory tower. Only then will education be free and accessible for all.