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Academic Tribalism

tribalismgraphicWhen I was a younger scholar, a very famous cognitive psychologist came to my office to visit me during his colloquium trip to my university. I mentioned with pride that I had just written a new textbook in cognitive psychology. His quick response was, “Bob, you’re not a cognitive psychologist anymore.”

I was deeply hurt. I had been trained in cognitive psychology by some of the top scholars in the field and always had thought of myself as their protégé. True, I had strayed and done some research on love. What I did not realize was that this straying from the tried and true path would lead to my expulsion from my academic tribe. Like many academics, I always had been a tribal outcast in the public schools because of my interest in intellectual pursuits. Here I had finally found a tribe that would have me, and they seemed not to want me anymore!

I use the term “tribe” to refer to a group of people who are united by customs, tradition, and adherence to a largely common worldview. Others have viewed academics as tribal. Hazard Adams wrote a lighthearted book about tribalism among academics. Tony Becher and Paul Trowler wrote a serious academic work about it. As those works point out, academics often think and act in a tribal manner, although they might not perceive themselves that way. The problem with tribalism is that it interferes with the academic mission.

Click here to read more from this February 26, 2014 article in the Chronicle of Higher Education by Robert J. Sternberg.

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