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Reza Aslan on the Academy

I recently had the pleasure of a Midtown conversation over lunch with writer, scholar, and filmmaker Reza Aslan, which appears today at The Immanent Frame. In it, he shares a number of quite radical ideas, including his support for the one-state “solution” in Palestine-Israel, the un-uniqueness of Jesus, and, as well, the prospects for an academy that can speak more relevantly in the public sphere. The latter hits especially close to home, since the experience he speaks of here took place at my beloved U.C. Santa Barbara religion department, where I did my graduate work. It’s a tough challenge he poses. Though, I have to say, I’d hate to lose some of those masterpiece dissertations on vowel markings.

NS: […] What can scholars do to be able to speak relevantly, the way you have, to the public—and to each other as well?

RA: I’m very pessimistic about this. Academics have been reveling so long in their own private language, speaking to each other and not to anyone else, that it’s going to be very hard to break through the current paradigm. I’ll give you an example. I wasn’t finished with my Ph.D. when No god but God came out. The book was very successful, but life became miserable for me in my department. Professors who had been working with me suddenly turned their backs to me. Unnecessary obstacles were put in my way. There was an attitude—not just amongst the professors, but amongst my fellow students as well—of Who the hell do you think you are? How dare you take this discussion that we’re having in a room with four people and make it palatable to a large and popular audience? Things got so bad that I actually had to switch departments, and I ended up getting my degree from a different department altogether. That, to me, is an example of the problem academia has, which earns it legitimate criticism for being out of touch with the concerns of people outside of its walls.

NS: How do you think scholars can learn to take part in broader conversations?

RA: It’s often a total waste of time. You can’t be trained to speak to the media in a weekend seminar before going on Anderson Cooper. You have to be immersed in the kind of world in which there is no division between the academic and the popular. I honestly think that the best hope that we have is to foster a new kind of student, one who doesn’t spend eight years in the basement of Widener Library at Harvard poring over a thirteenth-century manuscript and writing a dissertation on the changes in the vowel markings of a sentence. That kind of scholarship has a very small role in the world we live in now. We need scholars who understand that there is no division between the world of academia and the popular world. Trying to take staid academics and teach them to use words with fewer syllables is not the way to break that wall down.

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