Why Stupid Ideas Happen to Smart People
Grad school, that’s why. I should know, having spent four years of my life studying postcolonial, feminist, and new historicist literary criticism. Certainly, I wouldn’t simply dismiss a Slavoj Zizek or Homi Bhabha as incoherent or untenable (as do many outsiders). But all those discussions of power relations, fetish objects, and constructions of the Other did strain my credulity to the breaking point — which is why I eventually dropped out.
I used to envy other disciplines. Surely, they weren’t as impervious to outside influence as we were; weren’t so immune to empirical evidence. Now, I’m not so sure. For one thing, reviewing Justin Fox’s The Myth of the Rational Market caused me to realize that the central premise of contemporary economics — that stock prices reflect all available information — has about as much basis in reality as a Jacques Lacan seminar.
And then there is the quote I came across this afternoon, cited in Robert Skidelsky’s Keynes: The Return of the Master, (which I hope to review in the coming weeks). Here is Robert Waldman on why freshwater school economists cling to silly ideas like the rational markets hypothesis:
I have a view of how people can devote so much effort to working out the implications of assumptions which almost no ordinary people would find other than nonsensical if they understood them. Freshwater economics uses difficult mathematical tools. Students in freshwater graduate programs have to learn a huge amount of math very fast. It is not possible to do so if one doesn’t set aside all doubts as to the validity of the approach. Once the huge investment has been made it is psychologically difficult to decide that it was wasted. Hence the school gets new disciples by forcing students to follow extremely difficult courses.
For humanities grad students, literary theory — a.k.a. critical theory and cultural theory — serves the same purpose that “difficult mathematical tools” serves economics students. It wasn’t until my final year in grad school that I realized what, exactly, that purpose is.
The point of all those difficult theoretical texts and heavy workloads isn’t to prepare graduate students for the rigors of academic life (though it presumably has that effect). It’s to socialize you.