last revised: January 2, 2006

Academic Elitists and Elite Academics: An Essay

Home | Index by Charles T. Keally

This is a revised version of a paper published in Sophia International Review no. 28, 2006. This journal can be obtained at:
Sophia International Review
Faculty of Liberal Arts
Sophia University
7-1 Kioi-cho, Chiyoda-ku
Tokyo 102-8554, JAPAN

Fax: +81-3-3238-4076

Academic elitists rarely if ever are elite academics. I know many of both types. And many in between.

Academic elitism is, in my view, the attempt to appear academically elite by trying to associate exclusively or nearly exclusively with the famous and the great. It is the attempt to associate and be associated solely with academics who have high reputations, are associated with famous academic institutions, and are graduates of famous academic institutions. Academic elitism looks down on the ordinary researcher. Academic elitism also focuses on publication, and especially on publication in the best academic journals, all peer-reviewed of course. It avoids publication in journals that are not peer-reviewed and that are not well known.

Academic elitism looks at the reputation and fame to judge the quality, rather than looking deeply, critically and independently into the product. And it hopes to be judged by its association with, and publication in, the famous. It avoids the ordinary. It is roughly the same as brand-buying by cultural snobs, or those who would like to be seen as persons of high cultural tastes, but who actually cannot distinguish the real from the fake, and who do not really know what constitutes high culture.

The academic elitist's excessive emphasis on publication in peer-reviewed academic journals is part of the brand-buying false front put up to cover the lack of truly elite substance. Here I need to insert a few comments on publication in peer-reviewed academic journals before going further with discussion of academic elitists and elite academics.

Peer-reviewed academic journals are, simply, journals reviewed by peers of the authors publishing in those journals. Peer review itself is an attempt to avoid getting poor research into the world's body of knowledge. Ideally it saves those of us who cannot judge the quality of the research from reading a lot of junk and mistakenly thinking we have read something valuable. I see no inherent problem with this. However, the fact is that publication in a peer-reviewed academic journal is no guarantee of an article's worth. From time to time, articles in peer-reviewed academic journals are exposed as faked or plagiarized. And there is a constant low-level murmur of complaints about peer review's potential to become censorship, and the occasional realization of that potential. Further, people who read widely and critically all know that there are some excellent academic articles in publications that are not peer reviewed.

Although I see considerable benefit and no problem with publication in peer-reviewed academic journals as such, I do see academic elitism and its offspring, an excessive emphasis on publication in peer-reviewed academic journals, as serious impediments both to good academic research and to getting the results of academic research to the people who ultimately fund that research.

The people who ultimately fund all academic research are the taxpayers and consumers of the world. Their money goes through other organizations on its way to the academics doing the research, but ultimately it is the taxpayers' and consumers' money and not the private money of the academic or the organization directly providing the money for research. These ordinary taxpayers and consumers deserve, and need to get, the results of the academic research they ultimately fund. Academic elitists do not, and do not want to, provide the results of their research directly to these ordinary people. But elite academics are fully involved in directly getting their research results to everyone, academic and ordinary person and child alike.

And, in order to do truly good research, a scholar must get information from every source that generates good information. But academic elitists tend to hold themselves aloof from many of these sources. Consequently, they do not get some of the necessary and useful information for their research. Elite academics, in contrast, interact with everyone and thereby acquire information from a much broader range of sources than the academic elitist has access to.

In contrast to academic elitists, the elite academics that I have met have all appeared very ordinary. They have reputations and fame. They publish widely in peer-reviewed academic journals, and yet they publish equally in common magazines and newspapers. And they even publish books for children. And they talk to leading scholars and ordinary people and children all as equals.

Before going on with more discussion of academics, let me first illustrate the difference between elitists and the elite with two famous non-academics who visited Sophia's Ichigaya Campus in the middle 1990s, people many of my older colleagues will remember.

The first person was a Nobel laureate in literature. He impressed me as a snob, or worse. He appeared to have little interest in talking to anyone at the gathering in the cafeteria after his lecture. But he did seem to have an eye for females, not for their knowledge or intelligence but rather for their shapes. This person was elite in literature, but he was not elite as a person.

The other visitor showed up at the Ichigaya Campus for his daughter's graduation. He was very, very ordinary, and warm and friendly. He talked to everyone equally, including people like me who were obviously illiterate in his speciality. If I had not recognized his face from newspaper articles and television programs, I would never have guessed he was among the world's most famous orchestra conductors. He would have been to me just another student's father. This person exemplifies "truly elite."

Now let me return to academic elitists and elite academics, and one who is neither. First the "neither" example.

I am sure that no one who really knows me and my academic work considers me an elite academic. And I certainly am not an academic elitist. I do not even consider myself to be an academic but rather a researcher. Nevertheless, I am sometimes surprised at what has happened in my career as a researcher. First, a brief overview of my academic background.

I was a mediocre student and did not even begin college until I was 27 years old. My college career ended with an academic dismissal from a Ph.D. program for low grades, a fact which is stamped in red on my graduate school transcript. I am considered an archaeologist, but in fact I have almost no academic training in archaeology. I am about 95% field-trained or self-trained. My first tearchers were an old farmer (Shiono Hanjuro) and a carpenter (Kono Shigeyoshi) who did archaeology as a hobby. Yet, shortly after getting the red stamp of academic disapproval from graduate school, I embarked on a 11-year career in full-time field archaeology and a 33-year career as a college teacher. My last four years in field archaeology were spent as director of a four-year excavation with a 300,000,000 yen budget (about US$7.0 million in today's buying power).(Note 1) And I spent my last 13 years teaching as a tenured full professor, and four of those years as departmental chair. Further, I am author, co-author (both junior and senior), editor or co-editor of about 60 articles, book chapters and books dealing with archaeology, published in English and Japanese, and in Japanese and non-Japanese publications. There is life after academic failure.

Most of my publications are not peer reviewed. Nevertheless, some of them have made considerable contribution to archaeology.

One of my first publications was a Japanese translation of a paper I wrote in graduate school. It was translated by one of Japan's best-known archaeologists, Kobayashi Tatsuo, at his request, and published in a non-peer-reviewed small archaeology journal.(Note 2) According to Dr. Junko Habu (associate professor, UC Berkeley), this little article introduced the North American method of settlement archaeology to Japan -- "...method of North American settlement archaeology, which was first introduced into Japan by Keally (1971)" (Habu 2004: 84).

A privately published monograph (not peer-reviewed, of course) I helped write as junior author with Oda Shizuo in 1979 ended up as the standard for the Japanese Palaeolithic cultural chronology against which all other interpretations were compared for a decade or more (Oda & Keally 1979).(Note 3) It became a classic and was translated into Japanese and republished bilingually in 1999. This monograph is still in use, judging from its occasional appearances in reference lists in recent publications. Further, this little non-peer reviewed, privately published monograph was also used by a leading Soviet (now Russian) archaeologist as the thin frame on which to hang a large (271 pp.) book (Derevyanko 1984). This Russian archaeologist is no minor figure in the field. At the time he used our paper, he was one of the two or three top archaeologists in Asian Russia (then Soviet Union). In 2003 he was the Secretary of the Department of History and Philology of the Russian Academy of Sciences and Director of the Institute of Archaeology and Ethnography of the Siberian Branch of the Russian Academy of Sciences.

Several of my Sophia International Review articles (not peer reviewed) have been cited favorably by internationally well known and respected archaeologists. And a number of my publications in Japanese (mostly not peer reviewed) are cited here and there as the "basic work" or as an "important contribution." And a paper I wrote with Oda Shizuo in 1986 (Oda & Keally 1986) will be cited for a long time into the future in works on the history of Japanese Palaeolithic research.(Note 4)

Enough of the "neither" (elite nor elitist). Let us look at a few elite academics.

I know a number of truly elite academics in Japanese archaeology. And these people have many publications (of great value in my mind) that I am sure no academic elitist would think of writing or getting involved with.

I have on my desk a book titled Shogakukanban Gakushu Manga Shonen Shojo Nihon no Rekishi, vol. 1, Nihon no Tanjo (Shogakukan Editions of Manga Pictorial Learning Texts for Children, Japanese History, vol. 1, The Birth of Japan, Shogakukan 1981, 1994, 77th printing 2005). This is the first volume in a 23-volume manga (comic book) series on Japanese history for grade school children ages 10 to 12. The series editor is Kodama Kota (Professor Emeritus, Gakushuin University)(Note 5) and the editor of the volume I have is Sahara Makoto (Head, now deseased, of the National Museum of Japanese History, Sakura City). There are about 6,000 to 7,000 archaeologists in Japan. Sahara Makoto is one of the top 10, one of the top 0.2% of Japanese archaeologists. Yet he does not hesitate to edit a manga book for grade school children. Because he is truly elite. And the list of advisors for this book includes many other top academics, among them Kobayashi Tatsuo, who is probably Japan's most frequently interviewed archaeologist, and possibly one of the most frequently interviewed archaeologists in the world.

These top national archaeologists get fully involved in publishing a manga book on Japanese history for grade school children because, as truly elite academics, they feel they are responsible for getting their research to all of the people, not just to other top academics. I know these people. I doubt if any of them ever thought about the broad interpretation of Article 1 of the Japanese Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties, which roughly translated reads: The purpose of this law is the protection of cultural properties for the benefit of all the people of this nation and of all the peoples of the world.(Note 6) But Kodama's "Words from the Editor" introducing this series are instructive:

Explaining history through the medium of manga is quite an adventure. But when people read history or hear history, they form individual pictures in their minds. The intent of this series is to try to use the manga pictorial form to explain history to children who do not yet have the experience to form pictures of history.

This statement reflects a strong sense of responsibility to the ordinary people. It does not reflect an awareness of the Law, and it also does not seem to reflect a feeling of obligation simply because these ordinary people are the ultimate funders of Kodama's research. This statement shows the heart of a truly elite academic.

Go to a large book store and browse the books for grade school children. You will certainly find there a lot of other books, especially manga versions, that are written and edited by leading Japanese scholars. These scholars are mostly truly elite academics. They have confidence in their academic abilities, a love of their research that motivates them to want to share it as widely as possible, and a sense of obligation to everyone else, including grade school children.

An elite academic, such as Sahara Makoto in archaeology, cannot be imitated and certainly cannot be faked. Elite academics are first of all elite humans. The "elite" is something that comes from the heart, and that reflects the heart as much as or more than the academic. And it is the heart that really separates the truly elite from the elitist.


After I submitted this paper, the editor asked for a photograph of me in the dirt, and he said, "That 'heart' theme cries out for supporting stories about the good folk one meets in a hole in the ground." So I have added photographs of the good folks who really contributed to the 300-million-yen excavation at Hamura -- my mentor Shiono Hanjuro guiding some visitors and the middle-aged housewives and old men who did the work (I was only the director of the project). And I am sure the readers can add the examples of people they know who do their work from the heart. (I am also sure the readers can add examples of people they know who work mostly for money, reputation and fame -- and also some they know who are ready to lie to get that money, reputation and fame.)


  1. The Story of the Excavation of the Yamanesakaue and Haketaue Sites in Hamura, available at:

  2. At that time, Kobayashi Tatsuo was only in his middle 30s but already the Tokyo prefectural archaeologist. He went on to be a leading archaeologist in the national Cultural Affairs Agency, and later a full professor at Kokugaku-in University, his present position.

    This paper was the core of the discussion of settlement archaeology in a general book edited by four of Japan's top archaeologists in the 1970s: Egami, Namio, Serizawa Chosuke, Otsuka Hatsushige and Mori Koichi (eds). 1976. Kokogaku Zeminaru (Archaeology Seminar). Tokyo: Yamakawa. (in Japanese)

  3. This monograph has 19 pages of text (typed in 12 point Courier font at 1.5 spacing with extra blank line between paragraphs), 2 pages of references and 20 pages of illustrations. It is equivilant to a short journal article with abundant illustrations.

    Despite its short length, this monograph has been used in many important publications. For example, it was used as the base for the text and illustrations for the Palaeolithic section in a major work on Japanese history, edited by seven of Japan's leading archaeologists and historians: Takeuchi, Rizo, Inoue Tatsuo, Esaka Teruya, Kato Shinpei, Kobayashi Tatsuo, Sakazume Hideichi and Sahara Makoto (eds). 1982. Nihon Rekishi Chizu (The Historical Atlas of Japan), vol. 1. Tokyo: Kashiwa Shobo. (in Japanese)

  4. This paper was published in a peer-reviewed academic journal for anthropology because the non-peer-reviewed archaeology journals would not take it. And it is the only detailed, scientific-academic paper ever published criticizing the Early and Middle Palaeolithic finds in Japan that were finally exposed as a 20-year, 186-site hoax in 2000 (Zen-Chuki 2003: 601, 604). No one ever published a detailed response to our criticisms. And the only other detailed paper ever published criticizing these finds was not published until 1998, and it was so poorly written and so unscientific and so unconvincing that I trashed it even though I agreed with the general conclusions (the names of the people I criticize are irrelevant to this essay).

    A discussion of this hoax is available at:

  5. Kodama Kota is also a past president of Gakushuin University.

  6. The entire text of Japan's Bunkazai Hogoho (Law for the Protection of Cultural Properties) is available at: