Daniel Lemire's blog

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Why academia is so conservative: academic freedom

To anyone who worked in industry, academia feels like it is standing still. For example, many Computer Science programs still teach programming as it was done 10 years ago, if you are lucky. Most programs undergo only cosmetic changes over time. I have the following explanation:

  1. Most people are out of touch. This is true everywhere. I remember when Java first came out. Years after Java had mostly caught up with C++ in speed, people still complained that it was slow. I still hear people say that Java is slow. Keeping up with the latest facts is hard. People prefer to rehash the same, again and again. The human brain prefers to avoid change.
  2. It takes a long time to build new academic material. Older professors have strong incentives to teach and research the same topics again and again. A similar phenomenon occurs in all large organisations, but professors have academic freedom.
  3. Finally, leaving people behind is not an option in academia. Even in large companies, you can leave some people aside. In academia, even one individual who is left behind can create a lot of trouble for others. This is also true in large companies, but most employees do not have as much freedom as a professor: they cannot resist change as strongly as a professor can.

(We could test my explanation by determining whether there is a correlation between the level of academic freedom and the level of conservatism.)

I find it very interesting that increased individual freedom brings about more conservatism.