The Persistence of Academic Customs

Recently I was reading Max Weber’s thoughts on “Science as a Vocation” given in a lecture on November 7th, 1917 . By science Weber means knowledge creation in the broader sense so pretty much all academics should be included as scientists.

There are lots of ideas in the lecture but the most interesting observation to me was the persistence of behaviours over time in academia. Clearly from looking at this book alone we can’t conclude whether behaviours persisted because they were the best ideas, or through some sort of status quo bias/historical dependence. By the later I mean the persistence of a behaviour because “that is what we do” rather than because it is the best approach. Despite this major caveat the persistence is interesting.

For example, Weber discusses the fact that he won’t hire his own doctoral students. This is an interesting problem in academia. If you hire one of your own students the fact you aren’t hiring another suggests a problem with that student. It becomes Akerlof’s famous lemons problem — the fact you are “selling” your student means no one should want to “buy” the student. That said if you never hire your students some are potentially undervalued — you know how good they are but the market might not appreciate this, especially given how hard it is to measure academic contribution.

Weber notes how blinkered one has to be to achieve success in “science”. I worry a bit about this — I fear people build towers of ideas that if they removed their blinkers they would see the obvious structural flaws. That said total specialism remains the prevailing wisdom and certainly has some logic. One has to be willing to delve into knowledge more deeply than the average person would think sensible.

Finally, Weber seems most modern when he talks about the need to appeal to students. I’m not sure that being said to be a “bad teacher… amounts in most cases to an academic death warrant”  (Weber, 2004, page 6) as he suggests but many professors like to complain about being dependent on student whims. Weber sounds like a classic professor when he says “After extensive experience and sober reflection on the subject, I have developed a profound distrust of lecture courses that attract large numbers…” (Weber, 2004, page 6). Next time my students numbers aren’t high enough I’ll content myself that Weber would have approved.

Weber’s lecture seems very modern despite speaking 100 years ago.  Even though theories and methods have changed, for good nor bad, academic behaviour doesn’t seem to change too much.

Read: Max Weber (2004, written in 1917), The Vocation Lectures: “Science as a Vocation”, Translation by Rodney Livingstone, Hackett Publishing Ltd.

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