The Ivory Tower

Note: I wrote this a couple of days ago, but coulnd't get it to post until now. See, even why I try to do this more often, I fail.

The combination of dealing with grad school applications and attending a Southeast Asian Studies conference this weekend has me thinking a lot about academia in general. Specifically, the way in which some people seem to educate themselves into irrelevance.
I mean, I'd like to think I'm pretty well read, and I've basically completed the requirements for a degree in Southeast Asian studies, but there were a couple of papers presented that left me scratching my head, wondering a) what the hell they were on about and b) why I, or anyone else, should give a shit. Papers where people descended so deep into theory that any connection to reality seemed at best tangential, that seem like they could only possibly be of interest to other academics.

(I'm not condemning the conference as a whole, there were a few really good panels, where people seemed to be making a sincere effort to use their knowledge about a subject to contextualize current or past events -- particularly coups in Thailand -- in a meaningful way, and seemed to want to contribute to a larger public dialogue.)

I've generally been questioning the purpose of higher education, especially since deciding to stay in academia for at least a couple more years.
I'd like to think of it as a way to better prepare myself to be of some use to society -- partly because, as a student at a public university and the recipient of thousands of dollars of grant money, my education is heavily subsidized by society, which seems to me to create an obligation to give something back. More broadly though, I guess I can't imagine feeling satisfied with myself or my work if I wasn't doing something at least slightly useful to other people. Granted, probably nothing I ever do will have as much tangible value as a paramedic or a garbage collector, but that doesn't mean it's not worth trying.
On the other hand, there's a part of me that feels like anything that people do with their lives that's done out of genuine passion makes a positive contribution to society as a whole, if only because it means there are fewer bitter people roaming the streets. I mean, practicalities aside, I'd rather live in a world full of people who feel intellectually fulfilled by publishing arcane articles in obscure journals than in a world full of people who hate whatever it is they spend the majority of their conscious life doing. At the same time though, considering how few people really have the opportunity to spend decades in school, to do nothing more with it than sit in a small room and talk to people who are just like you seems like, to put it mildly, a bit of a waste...