The Strengths of the Academic Enterprise

By Xah Lee. Date:

Recently, i ran into this essay: The strengths of the academic enterprise By Edsger W Dijkstra. At

I think it is fitting in particular of the recent Scheme Lisp R6RS fiasco.

Below are some excerpts:

My third remark introduces you to the Buxton Index … The Buxton Index of an entity, i.e. person or organization, is defined as the length of the period, measured in years, over which the entity makes its plans. For the little grocery shop around the corner it is about 1/2,for the true Christian it is infinity, and for most other entities it is in between: about 4 for the average politician who aims at his re-election, slightly more for most industries, but much less for the managers who have to write quarterly reports. The Buxton Index is an important concept because close co-operation between entities with very different Buxton Indices invariably fails and leads to moral complaints about the partner. The party with the smaller Buxton Index is accused of being superficial and short-sighted, while the party with the larger Buxton Index is accused of neglect of duty, of backing out of its responsibility, of freewheeling, etc. In addition, each party accuses the other one of being stupid. The great advantage of the Buxton Index is that, as a simple numerical notion, it is morally neutral and lifts the difference above the plane of moral concerns. The Buxton Index is important to bear in mind when considering academic/industrial co-operation.

… Just for being different and doing things the uneducated cannot understand, the academics are hated and feared, vide Socrates, executed in 399 BC, Archimedes, killed in 212 BC, and, more recently, Hypatia, AD 415 barbarously murdered by a Christian mob. The original Oxford Colleges were buildings fortified in order to protect the students against the rabble, and if you think that that is old hat, I refer you to the DDR or the People's Republic of China of only 25 years ago. It is a miracle whenever, these days, the academic world is tolerated at all; personally I am convinced that what tolerance there is would completely disappear, were the academic world to become secretive.

President Reagan did not seem to see it that way, but even regimes of modest insight seem to understand that, as a corrective measure, the gadfly's sting is indispensable. The university has therefore the task to nurture the authority of the sting, both for its own protection and as a service to mankind. Aforementioned openness and honesty, though essential, are not enough; we should add a ruthless striving for perfection, ruthless in the sense that, on campus, there is no academically valid excuse for compromises.

The sting also defines the social responsibility of the universities. The question is: do we offer what society asks for, or do we offer what society needs? If the two coincide, there is no problem, but often they don't, and in computing such coincidence is extremely rare. In case of discrepancy, you must ignore what they ask for and give what they need, ignore what they would like and tell them what they don't want to hear but need to know. There are two compelling reasons for this uncompromising position.

… what society overwhelmingly asks for is snake oil. Of course, the snake oil has the most impressive names —otherwise you would be selling nothing— like “Structured Analysis and Design”, “Software Engineering”, “Maturity Models”, “Management Information Systems”, “Integrated Project Support Environments” “Object Orientation” and “Business Process Re-engineering” (the latter three being known as IPSE, OO and BPR, respectively). The external pressures to do the wrong thing are enormous, but yielding to them would be fatal for the academic enterprise, while resisting the pressure reinforces its strengths. The pressures are, in fact, so strong that I do not know a university where there is not some faculty or some department that has yielded, but there should be no mercy for snake oil pedlars on campus. [When a professor is no better than James Martin, he should start a business instead.]

Xah's Note: The republic of China mentioned above refers to the Cultural Revolution (a political strugle started by Mao Zedong, where students persecuted and killed professors and professionals. (Wikipedia states half a million killed)).

For film depictions, see:

Socrates (one of the greatest philosopher of antiquity) is ordered to be killed politically because he refused to bulk his teachings.

Wikipedia quote:

Socrates was tried and convicted by the courts of democratic Athens on a charge of corrupting the youth and disbelieving in the ancestral gods.

Archimedes is the greatest mathematician of antiquity, and one of or possibly the one greatest mathematician of all times. He was killed by a soldier.

Hypatia is one of the great matheamtician, and the very first female mathematician. She was murdured by Christians. (draged naked to death) (i named one of my servers in dotcome time as Hypatia, and have naked pict of her here: Hypathia, Lady Godiva )

Convenient Wikipedia links:

Over all i liked this essay. However, it seems a bit of a unfocused and ranty and not very cogent for me. For example, he indicates the importance of universities by first citing it is “… 66 institutions have enjoyed a continuously visible identity since 1530”. This seems quaint to me. He didn't explain exactly what source or report this is based on. (For example, does that include Asia?)

His main point about how Academicians shouldn't yield to outside pressures, overall i think is very good idea. However, the way he expressed it does not seems very concrete to me. For example, he has mentioned in the article that universities function as a sting to society, but in later parts of the essay, the way he expressed how business shouldn't work with universities, seems to entail the opposite danger where academicians become a bunch of effete group doing no fundamental research and have no idea what goverments and business in real world is like, but cloistered in his ivory tower playing with their own cocks.

I think Edsger prob doesn't want this, but the way he expressed his ideas in his later parts of the essay kinda entangle it.

In general, i think here are some main issues:

I think most parties would agree that (1) is bad. That is, i think both academicians and perhaps most industrial/goverment people would largely agree that academy's researchs should not be dictated or influenced much by current needs and trends. But more for the pure research, fundamental questions, or long-term goals.

As for (2), Edsger's clearly indicates no. Personally, i'm not sure about that. He used the “Buxton Index” to show incompatibilities. (“buxton index”?! what a quait idea) Other than this, he doesn't give much reasons. Whether schools and business can coorporate fruitfully depends on many things and aspects such as what is meant by coorporation, and what defines success… surely corporations can give school the much needed money and school can produce immediate useful results sometimes and this has happened a lot. Of course such short-term gain may be a long-term damage… but in general his assertion that schools and business should not work together isn't convincing to me.

For (3), the concept is not well defined… it could bring different pictures to different people. For example, he pictured it such that schools should be aloof in their pursuit of perfection in pure research, thus schools should not yield or work with businesses. However, from another perspective, academics can be sometimes or often (as happened in history) become corrupt and effete that they enclose themselves doing dead reseach or day-dreaming and have little to no effect on their society or students. (personally, i perceive many (US) academicians to be like this… throwing grand jargon amongst and pleasure themselves and understand little of what or how real is functioning and having no impact on society)

… above are some of my thoughts on reading Edsger's essay. I don't think this essay of his is very good, but anyway the above's the rant of my own. His essay is of interest to schemers because schemers face the same question of the relationships of Industry and University about Scheme the lang, in particular the recent R6RS controversy.

(am not really in Scheme community, but i think R6RS is not good and Scheme implementators should unite politically to oppose it. (by, for example, refuse to implement it, or implement just the part you think is good.) One particular thing about the R6RS i've read is that the voting system used is a any-Joe system. i.e. any moron, can vote, by just having sufficient intelligence to write a letter expressing their fandom, to be onboard. And, seems to me those 1/3 who opposed R6RS are mostly older, more experienced Schemers or implementators … (no, don't quote me …, because i haven't verified much of my claims))