The Professing, They Hear Not
I found this blog essay by David D. Perlmutter to be a delightful read, in particular this insightful–and self-introspective–comment:
To take a more charitable view, professors love professing and assume everyone else loves what they have to profess.
Exactly so. And I think this may get close to the heart of
what may be a disconnect between the view college professors’ have of academia and the corresponding view held by the general public. It seems to me that, roughly speaking, college faculty view the purpose of college to be the creation and furtherance of scholarship. Many in the general public wouldn’t necessarily disagree with that, but a good number would, as some survey data suggest, place a greater explicit emphasis on the job outcomes of a good college education. The response from the professoriate would be that “learning for learning’s sake is good and noble and beautiful, in and of itself.” To which the “average Joe” would naturally respond, “sure, if that’s the way you want it for you, more power to you, but I have far more practical concerns in my life to worry about.” Besides, it’s not strictly true that professors are motivated solely by a noble love of learning rather than some more mundane interest in earning a living; after all, faculty are paid to teach and research, to engage in scholarship. While I certainly think it is appropriate to pay college faculty (and I would not advocate that we cease to do so), I will hazard a guess that no college professor would willingly forgo all compensation as a way to demonstrate an unfaltering fealty to the noble cause of learning.
Is the response of “average Joe” to the faculty one that is fundamentally anti-intellectual? Perhaps, but it is dangerously hasty to jump to that conclusion. Rather, could it not be that the real undercurrent to the general public’s dismissal of scholarship is really nothing more than the (somewhat obvious) observation that a lot of scholarship has more or less zero effect, practically speaking, on the lives of most people? How many people really care about, for example, whether yawning is contagious with the red-footed tortoise (I mean other than those awarding the Ig Nobel Prize). What I suspect happens with a good many people in the general public is that they don’t give a
lot of scholarship a second thought not because they think it’s garbage (though some do think that of a lot of research) but because they simply do not have the time (they have jobs to attend and families to look after and other means of leisure) or, more importantly, do not see how much of the scholarship has much, if any, relevance to their lives. And that’s not, as I see it, a failure on the part of the general public; in many ways, it’s actually the fault of those inside the Ivory Tower for not giving attention to making the public case for the importance of scholarship. Rather than thumb our noses on the vast, uneducated plebeians, a much better course would be to take Perlmutter’s caution humbly to heart and realize that just because other people lack a keen interest in the same research field as we do, it by no means necessarily means that they are anti-intellectual. Then proceed to build a convincing case (from the point of view, not of the one making the argument, but of the one who needs to be convinced) that this research is indeed important. If we want to raise the public out of an anti-intellectual stupor, let’s first treat them as fully capable of doing so.