One of the things I despise most is incompetence. I have no patience at all for incompetent people.

Unfortunately (for me), I have encountered a fair amount of incompetent people, both in academia and out. That’s why I found this passage in Robert Harris’ Archangel so amusing (and sadly accurate).

‘What’s he saying?’ demanded Duberstein, who was considered a world authority on Soviet communism even though he had never quite got round to learning Russian.

It’s sad but true: academia seems to tolerate – and even reward – incompetence in a way the non-academic world does not. And yes, I am aware that there are incompetent people in the private sector (and even more in the government sector), but academia is just a whole different world. The tenure system rewards only those who toe the official line (if you have a radical new theory that goes against the views of major scholars in your field, you would do well not to publish that theory until after tenure, or else you risk not getting tenure) and it also does not allow incompetent people to be fired, as they would be in a company.

Consider this: can you imagine an accountant who did not know general accounting practices? Or a tax lawyer ignorant of modern tax law? Or how about a doctor who did not know human anatomy? We all believe (or, at least, would like to believe) that these people would be fired (and possibly sued).

Yet while on my study abroad, I had a tutor who was writing a doctoral dissertation in Russian history and he, like our esteemed (fictional) Dr. Duberstein, had never managed to properly learn Russian. Keep in mind that he was (allegedly) basing his dissertation on Russian archival sources.

I am sympathetic to people who develop an interest in a field late in their undergraduate years and discover too late that they do not have the requisite language skills. I have met such people, people who suddenly discovered a passion for Russian literature, but had never taken a Russian language class. I recognize that I was really, really lucky in being able to take (and learn) a foreign language that matches my interests so well. But if a person does not have the required language skills to do research for a dissertation, that individual should first acquire the requisite language skills. It’s not easy, but it can be done.


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