By William Gupton
Accessibility of information has been on my mind a great deal since a particularly interesting class period in Contemporary Mathematics, where we discussed a mathematician named Shinichi Mochizuki who had announced a proof of what is known as the “abc conjecture.” I won’t dive into the conjecture itself because I don’t fully understand it and it isn’t relevant, but there was a problem with Mochizuki’s proof – no one had any idea whether or not it worked. His proof was incredibly long and ridiculously complex, and even experienced mathematicians who studied that exact field couldn’t understand it. This proof was the epitome of inaccessibility.
Mochizuki’s proof is an extreme example of a problem that I see unfolding in very small ways almost daily, and was especially a problem for me when I first came to college. I had come from a rather conservative area and I found it a massive culture shock to suddenly be in a space that was having completely different conversations than I was used to without doing anything to help me keep up.
For instance, the first time anyone used the term “privilege” in my life was in my college colloquium, but when it was used it was assumed that everyone had a healthy understanding of it, which I did not. And because it was used in such a presumptuous way, I often found myself unwilling to ask for clarification for fear of being ridiculed. This is not to say that the classroom should have completely reshaped itself to meet just my needs, I needed to improve my attitude and perspective to meet the standards of the room. But I do think we need to be more aware of when someone might not be on the same pafe as everyone else. I have since learned how to educate myself more and have improved my attitude around this, but I see a problem within this paradigm. In these instances, the burden was placed on me to understand the speaker, not on the speaker make themselves understood. In these smaller examples, this isn’t too much of an issue, but in higher level academics this attitude has serious consequences.
Assuming it is up to the listener to understand the reader is a barrier to entry for anyone who was not given a means to enter in the first place, and this barrier plagues academics. According to the Clear Language Group, the average reading ability for adults in the U.S. is at the seventh to eighth grade level. This means that, if given an academic thesis paper, the average American will mostly likely be barely able to read it, and probably understand very little. And yet, the academic institutions in our country do very little to make themselves and their knowledge broadly accessible to anyone who is not already a part of that institution. This creates a system that reinforces a separation between the academic world and the general public.
To be direct, I believe that information that is inaccessible to the broad public is largely useless, because it becomes limited to high level academia exclusively. Consider again Mochizuki’s abc conjecture proof. A proof that no one can verify, much less understand, is utterly worthless. Likewise, when research is done that could be very beneficial to the public, but cannot be understood by the majority of the public, it is not very useful.
Granted, there is some need for having specialized methodology and terminology in high-level research, it enables academics to function at a very high standard. However, systems designed to educate and gather knowledge should remember that their first and primary purpose is to better the lives of as many people as possible through that education. Right now, I would argue that much of our institutions are greatly lacking in this regard.
The way I see it, there are two solutions to this greater issue, one for each party involved. First, give all Americans, and I mean all, a better education system. We need to raise our average literacy in our country and improve a mediocre system of basic instruction. However, this will cost millions of dollars and will require a total reshaping of our educational systems; and even then it will only benefit the next generation and will do nothing for the adults who are below standards right now.
The second solution is to make higher level academic more accessible for the public to engage with. We, as members of these academic institutions, should be making as many efforts as possible to ensure that what we do in the classroom is not exclusively accessible to those who have been in our classroom. Teach those around you, find ways to simplify concepts and make them easy to understand for those who are less privileged than we are. Be patient and define your terms as you work, even when you think that most people already know what they mean. Don’t disadvantage the one person listening who isn’t as up to date as everyone else.
Consider the idea of parsimony, that the best explanation or solution is the simplest one. We should apply some of this concept to academics: the best education is the one that it most accessible to all.