This is true, but it's not terribly efficient about doing so. Much of it provides little to no useful return, and some of it actively harms the world we live in. If we wish to talk about the value of academics, we must honestly look at the whole balance sheet. Value isn't just about revenue, but costs, as well. And with rising tuitions and falling class quality, the ROI of a college education isn't as high as it used to be. For students and for society in general.
> the academic discipline with its rigor, criticalness, and policing against self-promotion is a kind of last-bastion for intellect in the West.
I'm really struggling to word this in a polite way without discarding facts (sorry if I'm rude), but, what kind of fantasy led you to believe this is or has been the standard for academia?
- Academic discipline is more about knowing how to file papers and abuse TAs and post-grad students for free work, rather than about following scientific processes. There's been truckloads of articles lately about insufficient scientific rigor on published papers - especially in the social sciences. The glut of students, professors and information has lead to more noise than signal. Self-referential theories get presented as fact, where papers reference other papers still in peer review. Student thesis subjects are encouraged to focus on the professors' work in order to increase citations and prestige. Controversial papers are encouraged instead of scientific papers, which has caused all sorts of problems in academic journals and the parasitic journalists who write clickbait from them. And then there's the ever-present massaging of data and discarding of any contradictory samples.
- Self-promotion is absolutely huge in academia and has been that way for decades. That's how "publish or perish" came to be a staple of the industry. Not to mention the prestige factor in selecting mentors and advisors, politics in academia between people at the professor level can get extremely vicious. Elite oligarchies are as fixed in academia as anywhere else. And if they can't teach, they just move into administration and promote themselves there. Administration is probably the worst part of a modern educational institution - full of waste and corruption. Like how Katehi got rehired at her chancellor-level salary after a year's vacation after that pepper spray incident at UC Davis. Academia is literally infested with bad actors. Not to say there aren't good ones, but the bad ones are especially well connected and hard to evict. There's no policing against it except against the people who get caught before they're successful at entrenching themselves.
- Critical thinking isn't even remotely a curriculum requirement anymore. Many classes actively discourage critical thinking, and instead encourage rote memorization or directed analysis instead. In some classes, if you dare to challenge the narrative presented, you might receive Title IX sanctions for your oppressive actions from students and professor. After which you'll then be brought before a panel, denied representation and judged by a biased group more focused on maintaining image and federal funding than on the truth. And this might be from something as small as questioning the statistics or the sample set from a study. Students are encouraged with safe spaces and other policies that prevent them from processing or even seeing opposing viewpoints. That is not "criticalness". It's pandering.
- Deceiving students in academia is also a thing. Once again, there's the whole problem with scientifically bad papers being encouraged, published and referenced without peer review. These things make it in to curriculum and don't get pulled out after a retraction. Some classes will teach you that you shouldn't critique at all. Class books are often written by the professor to supplement their income, and contain their own pet theories. They put out a new edition every year with minor changes just so you can't buy a used book. And you've obviously never sat through a lecture rant on the professor's pet grievances. Lecture after lecture on the evils of western civilization from a person who literally couldn't survive outside of it can really tire you out. And honesty about career applicability for degrees is at an all-time low. Partly because some of the people teaching you have limited career aspects themselves and don't like to stare the facts in the face. Dishonesty about the value of the information presented and its critical reception is kind of the worst kind of dishonesty when you're charging someone a year's salary to listen to it.
There are good things about a university education. And not every situation is this bad. But it is not the ivory tower you're perceiving, and likely hasn't been that way for the majority of your lifetime, if not all of it. The honest, naked pursuit of science and truth always been the ideal, but rarely the reality. We don't want to throw the baby out with the bath water. But we've got to be more honest and objective about problems in academia if we have any hope of fixing them.
Let me add one more point, and see if what I said merges with what you said. If not I'm completely wrong.
A lot of books, like The Idea Industry by Daniel Drezner and also Science-Mart by Philip Mirowski say that the cutting of university budgets since the late 60's has led to such an undermining of their stability that Academics have had to engage in a stupid, pointless, survival battle of numbers, conformity, and politics. I'm sure the politics was there beforehand, but they make a convincing case that critical thinking and independent research is much more possible when you're not afraid of losing your funding all the time / scared in general about your job.
An additional point to this is that a lot of individuals see the cutting in college funding as the GOP's revenge for the 1960's, because a lot of the behavior of that era was seen as coming from college campuses. UCLA was actually free up until 1967 when Governor Ronald Reagan began the process of charging tuition.
So in conclusion, academia does have a lot of terrible things about it, but I think say 60% of it is fixable simply with a better relationship and funding style between universities and the government.