Really Smart People and the Dumb Things They Say

Alright folks, the topic for this week is Education and I’m going to keep it really real today with this post.  I’m going to talk about “Academic Bigotry” and the damage it can visit on really important relationships.

Several years ago I had one of those life defining moments happen to me.  One of my oldest friends had come to visit me while I was working on my doctorate and she literally had to brave the elements to get to me.  I love this woman like a sister because

for all intents and purposes, she is my sister.  We survived growing up awkward and smarter than the rest of the outside world expected us to be.  Fortunately, our families had high expectations of us and so when we got together everything was familiar.  When you’re living in a place where many if not most of the traditions and habits are completely foreign to how your family actually functions, finding others who believe like you do, act like you do is like finding water in the middle of a cultural desert.

But, I digress, where was I…oh yeah!

So, my friend braved an ice storm to come and see me on this particular occasion and I was thrilled.  While she was visiting I lost power in my apartment and one of my other good friends who lived in the same complex (and was at the time also working on her PhD) graciously allowed us to bunk over in her spare room.  During one of those days while we prayed that the power stayed on in that unit another one of our graduate school classmates came by and we easily slipped into one of our familiar “academic” discussions.  I don’t really remember what we were talking about but it was a deep, theoretical framework kind of discussion.  At some point during the conversation I realized that my sisterfriend who was visiting had been out of the room for a very long time.  So, I went back to the guest room where we were staying to check on her.

She was sitting on the bed, not looking very happy.  I mean, we’ve known each other since pigtails so I knew it was something we needed to talk about.  We danced around it for a minute but basically she told me that she felt like we’d excluded her from the conversation and had made her uncomfortable because she didn’t have a graduate degree.  I was horrified.  I wanted to mount some kind of defense but as I thought about the conversation I realized that my classmates and I hadn’t even stopped to consider how my sisterfriend could have contributed to the conversation.  She is the amazing wealth of knowledge on “the world of the real” as we often think about it and we had completely lost ourselves in the academic world that almost forces graduate students to forget what the real world is like and fall down the rabbit hole as we doggedly pursue our PhDs.

I apologized and asked her to come back out and tried my best to keep us from a repeat performance, but that day has never really left me.  I am so very aware when I’m in the room with other academics of how we talk to one another, especially when there are (and I hate to use this term) “non-academics” in the room with us.  I really see the bored spouses at the obligatory departmental/university functions who look like they’d rather drive a spike between their eyes than listen one more minute to people talking about the reliability of their p-value or the vulgarity of those who pay to have their research published rather than submit through the recognized peer-reviewed top tier journals.

On MANY occasions throughout my life I have sat in rooms where academics have all but come out and said that they are smarter than other people and actually believe it as though having a PhD magically means that you can do EVERYTHING better than other people.  One of the things that absolutely drives me crazy is when I hear an academic say that they don’t want to “dumb down” their work so that the average person can understand it.  (What the hell?!?)

Then there are the gradations within Academia where some feel that certain PhDs indicate higher intelligence than others.  You see it caricatured on shows like Big Bang Theory when the Physicists with PhDs tease the Engineer who ONLY has a masters.  I’ve seen that in real life, folks.

I’d really like to see Academia get over itself.  It’s not necessary for us to keep up these “language barriers” to keep the general public clueless about the work we love to research.  I firmly believe that we need to hold onto that ability to talk to all audiences and respect the multiple intelligences of all people.  Having a slew of letters behind our names does not, nor should it, give us the right to hold ourselves above others.  We all put our legs into our trousers one at a time.

I am thankful for the lesson that I carry with me even now about the dangers of “academic bigotry”.  We need to be considerate to the people in our lives who didn’t elect to complete a PhD and specialize in one narrow area of something.  If they are in our lives then we MUST assign importance to their roles in our lives.  Education should NEVER be used as a weapon against the people we love.  I am an academic, I don’t apologize for being what I am.  But I pledge to myself daily to make sure I am the best human being that I can be because it gains me nothing to pursue knowledge and forsake my humanity.

~Marta G.

One thought on “Really Smart People and the Dumb Things They Say

  1. As a “non-academic”, I would like to say that Ph.D students are not the only ones who have this problem. Married folks do it to their unattached friends and vice versa. Same for folks with kids, folks with religious affiliations, and any other group. We all need to be more inclusive in our conversations. We should all expand our bubbles.


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