I’ve often been shocked by how utterly boring and anti-intellectual a lot of academics are. They’ll happily gossip about their colleagues for hours, but if you start talking about ideas at the dinner party they invariably give you this exasperated look and say something akin to “Do we really have to talk shop tonight?” Why anyone who finds playing with ideas so tedious would choose the academic life is a mystery to me. After all, it’s not like we’re curing cancer or saving starving children. Nor are we making the big bucks. So what are we doing this for? Well, to my mind, the only good reason to pursue this life is because you find it inherently rewarding.
Many of the academics I know can’t remember the last time they read a serious book cover to cover. Sure, they keep up with reviews of serious books (thanks New York Review of Books!), but there’s nothing particularly intellectual about their leisurely pursuits. Is this not grounds for dismissal? Should they not be defrocked? After all, writer’s block is excusable. Sometimes you just don’t have anything to say. Or you can’t find the words. But a prof who doesn’t read is like a preacher who doesn’t pray.
I wonder if the increasing popularity of cheap moralism and formulaic ideologies amongst academics is really just a sneaky way of hiding the fact that they’re not reading like they used to. After all, who needs to read when you already know everything? Who needs to read when your pre-fab grad-school ideology has a ready-made pigeonhole for everything new under the sun? Why be curious when you can be outraged? Why be right when you can be righteous?
There are phobias which preclude entire professions. For instance, it’s hard to be a good surgeon if you’ve got a serious fear of blood (haemophobia). As such, if you wanna be Gregory House when you grow up, you’re really gonna have to get over that fear of blood. Likewise, you’re probably not going to be a particularly good herpetologist if, like Indiana Jones, you’ve got a serious fear of snakes (ophidiophobia).
The values inculcated by certain subcultures can preclude professions in a strikingly similar fashion. For instance, the Amish man from rural Pennsylvania and the Mennonite woman from rural Ontario who wanna be Navy SEALs are going to have to first overcome the Christian pacifism that’s been drummed into them from Day One. Likewise, a red-diaper baby, raised by hippie communists to believe that rich people are evil and property is theft, might find it hard to be a good investment banker.
Ethical education of any kind is, to some extent, about the concerted cultivation of phobias. When the phobias cultivated during your years of training dovetail nicely with your chosen vocation, all is well (e.g., the medieval knight who learns to fear a dishonorable death far more than he fears death will probably be a pretty bad-ass knight). Problems arise, however, when there’s a major mismatch between what the job requires and what they teach you in school. For instance, many of the PhDs I know developed a deep aversion to simplification when they were in grad school, and they refuse, as a consequence, to dumb things down for anyone. All to the contrary: they’re comprehensive and precise at all times, regardless of the context or the audience.
As the great sociologist Max Weber made clear in Science as a Vocation (1918), this scholarly value system has much to recommend it. Sadly, however, it pretty much guarantees that you’re going to suck as a teacher and as a writer—not, I hasten to add, because you’re incapable of having an intelligent conversation with people outside of your narrowly-defined field, but because doing so makes you feel like you’re doing something wrong. If it’s true, to paraphrase Yeats, that the worst of us in academia are full of a passionate intensity, it’s equally true that the best of us lack all conviction.
Philosophers and People with PhDs in Philosophy
At some point in the mid-20th century, people with PhDs in Philosophy decided that “philosophers” were really just people with PhDs in Philosophy. What’s worse, they seem to have concluded, at more or less the same time, that the only truly legitimate form of philosophical writing is the jargon-laden article, written by and for the specialist, and published in an obscure academic journal. Everything else that a philosopher writes is, at best, a clumsy attempt at outreach or a watered-down version of the real thing. This development has been, on balance, bad for philosophy.
Thinkers who traffic in serious ideas are probably freer now, in the 21st-century West, than ever before. And yet there’s a playfulness in the genre-defying writings of philosophers like Plato, Nietzsche and Rousseau, a playfulness that’s noticeably missing from the intellectual life of our day and age. We love to make fun of Kant for being so unbelievably uptight; but, stylistically speaking, he was far freer than we.
Expressing a serious idea in a poem, a song, a dialogue, or an op-ed in a newspaper like the New York Times wouldn’t have seemed shockingly unorthodox to Kant, nor would the notion that straightforward, jargon-free prose can communicate profound philosophical truths to curious citizens who know how to read. Our ancestors needed to be reminded that the great in their midst were mere mortals; we need to be reminded that mere mortals can be great.
Burnt Offerings to the God of Talk
If we’re going to philosophize, it’s going to involve walking or wine—fresh air, sunlight, and sky—laughter, gossip, and small talk. Sure, we’ll talk about God, Death, and the Human Condition, but also that outfit she wore last night to the Oscars. Sure, we’ll talk about Injustice, Impermanence, and Imperialism, but also blue butterflies from Baie-d’Urfé, purple tomatoes from Santropol Roulant, and red boots from Fluevog.
Truth be told, there’s nothing we won’t throw on the campfire of our conversation, nothing we won’t sacrifice on the altar, nothing that won’t be offered up as a burnt offering to the God of Talk, a deity who delights in frivolity and fanfare, a deity whose Holy of Holies can be found wherever people gather to tweet like parakeets, and groom each other like chimpanzees, a deity who can see the beauty in the pointless privileged prattle of a Jane Austen novel.
—John Faithful Hamer