It’s one thing for an academic to reach certain degrees of fame. A person with the credentials of, say, Neil deGrasse Tyson typically proves to be an entertaining host or an interview on late night television.
Here’s the thing, though: Neil deGrasse Tyson is an astrophysicist. He attained a PhD from Columbia University in astrophysics in 1991. He followed that up with three years of post-doctoral research at Princeton.
We love him because he makes the broad universe of science engaging and accessible. He’s a scholar well-rounded in his field enough to reduce subjects like chemistry, physics and the favorite of every humanities major, math, into dad-joke Tweets about political realities enjoyed by nerds and plebeians alike.
Sometimes I find that Red & Blue are simply on opposite sides of the spectrum from one another.
— Neil deGrasse Tyson (@neiltyson) July 30, 2016
Carl Sagan, the Bob Ross of physics and an early inspiration of deGrasse Tyson’s, did much the same. And the public benefits from the endeavors of people like this because at the root of their popularity, is a deep curiosity and passion for life, the universe and everything.
Cornell West is another. A deeply provocative thinker and scholar who helps bring class consciousness to the public. But, again, West has a PhD in philosophy from Princeton. He completed his undergrad at Harvard. We thank him for thinking and being and being able to give us insight on the intersection of race relations and philosophy because he is a person who possesses a strong intellectual ability to wonder and then translate those thoughts into something we can all digest.
Now we enter actress, entertainer and philanthropist Angelina Jolie who is coming off of a similar appointment at the London School of Economics, which isn’t exactly Liberty University. That’s a school with a strong reputation which also employs one of my favorite academic authors, David Graeber.
Angelina Jolie, for what her philanthropy is worth, is no academic. The class that she intends to teach include subjects “close to her heart”, according to US Weekly. That’s just not enough. While I won’t exclude experience from the factors of crucial to teaching important lessons, can she actually hack it in a teaching capacity and has the worrying fusion of entertainment and news become standard in the mix of entertainment and academia? Jolie is not the first celebrity to be appointed a position at a top university, and she won’t be the last.
But unlike others such as Spike Lee and Kevin Spacey and even Condoleeza Rice, whose respective tenures at some of the US’s top schools are related directly to their expertise and profession, Jolie is attempting a manifold intersectional study involving topics on women, peace and security. Was Angela Davis busy?
This sort of study is not a walk in the park, and that’s not a dig at Angelina Jolie’s intellectual ability, but her experience comes through a very specific lens working with the United Nations, other governmental organization, and governments. So are these lessons, given through workshops and lectures, going to be top-down, depend-on-the-government in scope? It immediately calls into question the ability of one of the wealthiest humans on the planet to relay the dangers facing parts of the global population which she will never fully glean the experience of.
Going back to someone like Angela Davis, who was head of UC Santa Cruz’s Feminist Studies department, and also is a noted academic, scholar and activist who has contributed a professional lifetime to the pursuit of some of the very same topics, would mean that I am choosing to study under someone whose mind probably thinks well beyond the boundaries of my own. And that’s why I would, as a student at Georgetown, pay to study under someone like Davis, or deGrasse Tyson, or West, or Sagan because I might be able to pull from their minds, their brains, some of what makes them tick.
Being appointed a UN Special Envoy for Refugees is a fine accolade, but give me a million dollars, and I’ll be well on my way to doing the same thing that Angelina Jolie does. There’s a litany of people, of any race or gender, that could. She is a case to be studied, not the one who should be guiding the study. She possesses the resources to produce documentaries which could be crucial elements of study, she shouldn’t be taking potential jobs away from people with more to contribute.
And getting away from scholarly acumen, just the fact that there are hundreds, if not thousands, of qualified PhDs in the US who could do what she is doing is troubling. Why are we not attributing the responsibility of intellectuals to actual intellectuals? Again, this is not to doubt Jolie’s faculties, but there are people who devote their professional lives to these very topics and are, through the work they put in, entitled to positions now occupied by an unpaid guest lecturer.
And then there’s just that, the unpaid bit. In the US, we’re seeing a dramatic recoiling of trust in public teachers, intellectuals and scholars. Whether its No Child Left Behind, Race to the Top, or whatever terrible STEM-oriented education plan is crammed down the throats of America’s students which turn public education teachers into veritable robots, stripped of provoking any curiosity within their students’ minds, it also extends into higher education where opportunities are beginning to dwindle. In 2012, a record number of PhDs applied for food stamps in the US. What are we doing with our best and brightest minds as opposed to our shiniest celebrities?
If you’re an adjunct with a Master’s degree, teaching at a community college for minimum wage, or say, one of the tenured faculty Georgetown who hasn’t received a raise in some time, a free lecturer is detrimental to your ability to fight for fair wages.
But universities do this because it helps admissions. And when profit-motives and education mix, dilution of the end goal, which is producing capable, critical thinkers, abounds.
Education is a collaborative field. It is unique in this aspect. From pre-school to post-doctoral research, an employ in these fields learns from and builds off of the work of others. Throwing a profit motive into the mix, whether it comes in the form of the charter school scam or through celebrity lecturers compromises the mission of education to begin with. Sidestepped are curiosity and expertise while marketing fills the void.
If I were a student at Georgetown, paying what the students there pay, I’d feel cheated. I’d begin organizing a campus-wide boycott of the classes, but this won’t happen. Students will sign on and they’ll still gain from the experience at some level, but the detriment comes at an institutional level. They’ll learn, but will they learn as well as they could? Are they getting their money’s worth? Does this promote continuing the use of celebrities to takeover valuable time?
In an era like the one we currently occupy, where intersectional studies are becoming more popular, should we be ceding the podium to the famous as opposed to those who dedicate their lives to the study of the same issues? It’s a worrying trend. It didn’t begin with Angelina Jolie, and it won’t end there, but she does possess enough wealth and status to build her own platform as opposed to taking jobs away from beleaguered academics.