Academy for single issue fanatics?

There was an interesting comment in yesterday’s Sunday Independent by columnist Eilis O’Hanlon. Writing about the increasing tendency of campaigners on this and that to criticise comedians for being insensitive (which I think she is arguing is what comedy occasionally needs to be), she adds the following:

‘Single-issue fanatics are boring, that’s the worst of it. It’s like being trapped in a lift with people who only care about the North or immigration or the environment or reproductive ethics. They’re fiercely passionate about one thing, but mentally dead to every other manifestation of the richness of humanity.

Whatever happened to the notion of the rounded individual? The same thing has happened in academic circles. Specialisation and intellectual protectionism have made disciplines contract around trainspotterish experts who know an awful lot about a small number of things, and have come to the bizarre conclusion that this makes them voices to whom it is therefore more interesting to listen.’

It might seem a stretch to suggest that the natural home for fanatics is the university, but it may be worth a quick analysis. Eilis O’Hanlon would not be the first to wonder whether a retreat into the finer details of complex academic disciplines has created an academic world of nerds who understand in great detail whatever it is their work is focused on, but who have no overall concept of society, community and life. On the whole I don’t recognise the university world in that caricature; but perhaps it reinforces a point I have made previously, that the key questions that concern humanity are to be found between disciplines rather than within them, and that academics need to make connections between different branches of knowledge.

This has in fact become the standard basis on which many new research centres are built. For example in DCU, the National Centre for Sensor Research utilises insights from chemistry, physics, biology, genetics, engineering, computing, and the humanities. Similar connections between disciplines are visible in many of the leading research units in Ireland today. Certainly I don’t believe that our programmes of research and teaching encourage the single issue crusader.

Having said that, I would have to accept that some quite narrow social and political campaigns have been led by academics, as is their right. But I would hope that as our approach to knowledge develops and adapts, this will not be typical of the academy.

And for what it is worth, I would hope that the academic community is finding just the right balance between sensitivity and daring in its appreciation of humour and comedy.

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2 Comments on “Academy for single issue fanatics?”

  1. Vincent Says:

    Ah yes, but what about the Irish joke made by an Englishman, then you will see that O’Hanlon hack mount her high horse by vaulting onto the thing over its arse, along with the rest of us.
    And as with every conversation where an Irish person has with the English there is that finely tuned ear for any reference to Natives, or English speaking.
    Mind you the English have this little blind spot where Europe is concerned, especially the Pope. Nor of course, does it help matters that he is a Bavarian.

    On the matter of jokes, Cruel is the measure, but it walks directly into the path of Plato and his problem with the term Purity.

  2. Mark Dowling Says:

    If we’re generalising academics as knowing everything about one thing, the same generalisation places “columnists” as knowing far too little about everything.


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