At one point in Chaim Potok’s classic The Chosen, David Malter—the father of the main character Reuven—discusses the decline of Jewish scholarship in the eighteenth century. In the discussion, he uses a term that accurately describes much of modern academic writing—“pilpul”:
“Jewish scholarship was dead. In its place came empty discussions about matters that had no practical connection with the desperate needs of the masses of Jews. Pilpul, these discussions are called—empty, nonsensical arguments over minute points of the Talmud [the commentary on the Jewish Law] that have no relation at all to the world. Jewish scholars became interested in showing other Jewish scholars how much they knew, how many texts they could manipulate. They were not in the least bit interested in teaching the masses of Jews, in communicating their knowledge and uplifting the people.”
Is not this a fitting description of what has happened in the modern academy? Academic writing has become increasingly specialized and divorced from the concerns and questions that occupy most people. It has essentially become “pilpul.”
According to some estimates, academics produce about 1.5 million new articles per year. But a 2007 Indiana University study found that half of these papers are read only by their authors and the journal’s editors. An article last year gave a more optimistic outlook: the average academic journal article is read in its entirety by about 10 people. 82 percent of articles in the humanities are never cited… not once… meaning that they’re not really contributing to the so-called “conversation.” In other words, academic articles are not even being read by other academics.
So why has modern academic descended into the depths of pilpul?
Certainly the changes in tenure requirements have been a contributor. In recent decades, tenure has become increasingly dependent on having a robust record of speaking at academic conferences, articles in peer-reviewed journals, and a book publication. If you’re at a top-tier university, it’s best to play it safe and have two books published before you come up for tenure review in six years. Due to this “publish or perish” mentality, we’ve ended up with an abundance of writing from many academics who, unfortunately, don’t have much talent for the enterprise.
In addition, professors’ writing is not really subject to any metrics of public opinion. Their tenure and prestige is tied to the number of entries on their CV and the reputation of the journal or academic publisher that has accepted their manuscripts. As a result, there’s little incentive for academics to make what they write relevant to the concerns of everyday people.
In general, too, the university life and culture has become more distanced from the world outside. Isolation is in a way inherent in the model of the Western university, which has always believed that educational training requires freedom from the stresses and concerns of the workaday life. But this isolation has become more pronounced in the modern era, which saw the assignation of the term “ivory tower” to the university. And it is becoming more apparent to the public, most recently in last year’s complaints about college students’ increased demands for safe spaces and trigger-free environments. This growing gap between the university and the public has undoubtedly had an adverse impact upon academic writing.
In his famous Idea of a University, John Henry Newman said that the purpose of a university is the “training of good members of society… its end is fitness for the world.” Ideally, this purpose should also apply to the writing produced by a university.