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An effigy of the 'ivory tower' worth burning

A relative of mine was in a doctoral program many years ago and was failed at every opportunity by a member of his thesis committee, despite agreement from all committee members that he was doing excellent work. He finally confronted that committee member about why he was being made to fail. The response was, \Every doctorate that is granted in my field makes mine worth less, so I am trying to make you fail to protect my own career.\" This attitude from someone holding the strings of a developing scientist's career is nothing short of appalling. A friend of mine calls this behavior "pulling up the ladder after you've climbed."

Another more recent example echoes this concern. A colleague recently gave a presentation that was heavy with mathematical ideas, which he made no effort to explain for nonexperts in the audience. Those of us who understood confronted him frankly, suggesting that there might be more intuitive ways to express these concepts. His response was that only people who have put in years of hard work deserve to be able to comprehend the ideas in his presentation, and that he felt no responsibility to make comprehension easier for anyone. I call this behavior "burying your toys in your backyard so no one else can play with them."

Such attitudes are toxic to the development of our collective skills in creative, technical problem-solving. We need to bring people up, not block them so that some of us can feel "special."

Let's call these unkind people disablers. These are people who feel that they can better their own stake in a job market or their status in the community by preventing others from bettering themselves. If they were corporations, they would be guilty of anticompetitive behavior.

It takes an intelligent person to comprehend complex technical topics. It takes a more intelligent and good-natured person to be able to lucidly transmit that comprehension and the professional empowerment that comes with it.

The author's affiliation with The MITRE Corporation is provided for identification purposes only, and is not intended to convey or imply MITRE's concurrence with, or support for, the positions, opinions, or viewpoints expressed by the author.

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