One of the most striking developments in collegiate life since World War II has been the increased emphasis in the academy on publishing and research. Teaching loads until recently were falling, and at the highest ranked schools the senior faculty often teach but one class a semester, with frequent leaves for major research projects.

One of the things quite striking to me is how incomprehensible the typical academic paper sounds today to more than 99% of the population compared with what was the case in say 1925 or 1950. In that earlier period, an educated lay person could, for example, understand the gist of most articles in the American Economic Review with little or no economics; that is not true today. Scholars strive to sound profound and think that using big words or flaunting their knowledge of esoteric technical procedures or statistical techniques makes them somehow better, more educated scholars. Even some professors of English literature, from whom we might expect lyrically beautiful and lucid discourse, often write using pseudo-sophisticated academic drivel incomprehensible to those outside today’s literary cognoscenti.

In the popular press, writers strive to be understood, quoted, and, above all, read by large numbers. In academia, almost the opposite is true. Academics rejoice in their obscurity amongst the broader public. There are exceptions to be sure. Far more people read and ponder my writings for Forbes or the Wall Street Journal than my serious articles in outlets like the Journal of Economic History or Public Choice. I constantly hear from readers “you are one of the few academic economists I can understand.”

Now comes four University of Arizona academics understanding all this who have written a paper for the Journal of Marketing. They analyzed 1,640 papers appearing in marketing journals, concluding that the more abstract and technical papers are less cited in places like Google Scholar than the more straightforward written ones readily understood by readers. They say that academics suffer from a “curse of knowledge,” forgetting non-specialists are often unfamiliar with some terminology or techniques used by highly specialized scholars. If anything, I suspect the problem is worse outside the field of marketing, in many of the humanities, social sciences and, of course, the hard sciences.

Going back several hundred years, the great contributors to advancing our civilization tended to dabble in many disciplines and were not ultra-specialized. Leonardo Da Vinci, when not painting masterpieces like the Mona Lisa, was building putative flying machines or pursuing other quasi-scientific pursuits. Isaac Newton was both a great mathematician AND physicist. Adam Smith wrote an insightful treatise in philosophy before he wrote the first great book in economics.

When I began teaching, professors identified themselves primarily with their university: “I am at Ohio University where I teach economics.” Today, with hyper-specialization, they more likely identify themselves with their profession: “I am an economist,” possibly parenthetically adding “I teach at Ohio University.” The “curse of knowledge” is a consequence of identifying too closely with a narrow group of academics, usually a subset of a broader discipline.

I am not a critic of specialization: indeed, it is a necessary condition for many advances in human knowledge of modern times. At the same time, however, it not only has made communication more difficult because of the language problem identified by the Arizona scholars, but it explains why today’s colleges and universities often cannot agree on what is a “general education,” an indispensable body of knowledge that all college educated persons should possess. In four years, students cannot even have a cursory expertise in all the major areas of knowledge. What is especially vital, and what can be left for a small number of specialists?

Resolving that question often embroils schools in intense controversy, especially since campus influence and resources are thereby impacted. Many schools, rather than fight a civil war, seek compromise: students shall take X number of courses from each of Y number of broad fields of knowledge (i.e., “natural science and mathematics,” “social sciences.”) A few schools have students read “the great books” that influenced our civilization’s development. Some others say, “here’s a menu: take whatever you want as long as you pay your bills.” Variety is the spice of life.