I have spent thirty years in academia as a teacher and as a scholar. If you count the embarrassingly long periods I was a student, it adds up to much more time. After retiring, I am full of thoughts and ideas about academia. I feel almost no remorse at all but there is a lot of regret in my heart. It’s regret about what I did not do, mostly. Much of it is regret about the times I kept my mouth shut. I also feel retrospective curiosity. Strangely, the curiosity is growing with the years from my last day in academia. Much of the curiosity is about the following issue:
Why do very intelligent, cultured, well-informed people do and say strikingly stupid things?
Before I spout off anymore about academia, I must make clear my position about Sasquatch, the elusive, giant northern American forest ape. It’s sometimes quite unscientifically referred to as “Bigfoot,” or “Big Foot.” Worry not, the two lines of pondering in this essay will soon merge, I can assure you. At any rate, I think there is no Sasquatch. I am sorry that is what I think. I hope I am wrong. I would be glad to turn on a dime on that one, as soon as the evidence warrants.
I have a former colleague, a man younger than I who is a full professor in the best school of one of the best universities in the world. The man is pretty much an academic star. By the way, I am well-placed to know that his stardom is well deserved. It’s not always true of academic stardom. Some academic stars have skillfully manipulated themselves into their reknown on the basis of absurdly inflated modest intellectual achievements. Often, it’s absurdly inflated, thin achievements associated with a super-normal capacity for being seen at academic conferences. (I could name names but this time around, I won’t.) I can’t resist a digression here: It used to be said that Stalin became dictator of the Soviet Union because he would stay after the meetings to sweep the room when the Bolsheviks were illegal. The very fact that it’s possible to fake scholarly star quality at all is a potent sociological commentary on academia in itself.
In any case, I am well able to judge my former colleague’s real capacity, the soundness of his stardom, because he is also a former co-author. He and I produced something fairly difficult together which was published in a fairly good journal. Now the relationship between co-authors is one of the most intimate that there is. It reveals the other guy’s personality faster than does the married state, for example. When you collaborate with another scholar, you witness his hesitations, the unsuspected gaps in his knowledge, his lack of culture, his hesitancy, his inability to make decisions, sometimes his intellectual cowardice, often his private frivolousness. It’s a lot like seeing someone at 7 am after a night of drinking and smoking strange substances. Fortunately, co-authorship is also a front row from which to observe intellectual creativity unfolding.
So, I know for a fact my former colleague and former co-author. Prof. X, is an exceptionally bright person. His mind is full of surprises; his resources are bright and varied. He possesses research imagination, not a trait to be taken for granted, by the way. Unlike most academics in the disciplines with which I am familiar, he is also a man of broad culture. (This may come as a surprise but academics don’t seem to be willing to read except for a specific, instrumental purpose. Few of the academics I have known read novels, for instance. Even fewer read history.) Since he is an immigrant like me, his awareness of the wider world is much above the academic average. In his home country, he is a kind of aristocrat. Naturally, Prof. X is bilingual. (I keep insisting it’s like having two brains; that’s an exaggeration, perhaps but there is a kernel of truth to it.) Judged by normal academic standards, my former colleague’s record of scholarly productivity probably puts him in the top 5% worldwide. He is a predictable liberal like, I would guess, at least 95% of his colleagues at the university where he exercises his talents, also like 90% or more of American academics.
On that day, a common friend, another academic, has invited us to dinner, possibly driven by unhealthy curiosity. My former colleague, whom I had not seen for more than a year, greets me with taunts about Sarah Palin, the conservative ex-governor of Alaska and about Glenn Beck, for more than a year a political commentary star on the cable network Fox News.
This is a strange beginning for several reasons. First, Prof. X has no reason to believe that I am a devotee of either of these two tribunes of the plebe. He knows me well enough, and he knows my scholarly work well enough, to be able to guess that I am conversant with the more sophisticated exponents of conservatism and of libertarian ideas. He must know that I am in contact with high-brow conservative think tanks like the Cato Institute and the Heritage Institute. I am pretty sure he is at least peripherally aware that my stories and essays have been published several times in the libertarian periodical “Liberty.” A single random dip into Liberty would show him that that publication is not itself short on intellectual sophistication.
What I am witnessing here is a mild form of instantaneous insanity: A man who knows me very well addresses me as if he were talking to someone else, perhaps to high-school student (and failing) Jacques Delacroix. He has not made the effort of imagination to consider the possibility that someone may be intelligent, well-informed, even fairly sophisticated, and yet subscribe to conservative ideas, libertarian wing. He could have entertained the thought during the drive over to the dinner party. I hope I may just be seeing simple laziness. I am not sure.
The second reason Prof. X ‘s greeting is disconcerting, you might have guessed: You could safely bet that he has heard very few words from Sarah Palin’s mouth, if any. You can be even more certain that he has read no words she has written. All the information he has about the sometimes-shrill, often aggravating ex-governor is second-hand or worse. The likelihood that he has any direct experience of Glenn Beck’s hectoring lecturing is even slimmer. Refined Prof. X simply does not have the patience to spend even one minute listening to the bombastic, grand-standing, usually exaggerating, chronically over-reaching, self-taught man so beloved of the great unwashed conservative masses with high-school diplomas (and shotguns hanging across the rear-windows of their pick-up trucks!)
Prof. X is made so irrational by the very idea of meeting conservatism in the flesh that he runs the serious risk of getting caught red-handed by someone whose esteem he probably values (me). After all, I might have asked him to repeat any statement, any statement at all ,Governor Palin has ever made, to replicate any of Glenn Beck’s key didactic affirmations. He would have failed both tests. Why take the risk to get busted, I wonder?
Later, at dinner, I ask Prof. X a few pointed questions about the economic achievements of Pres. Obama’s administration. I expect responses of the following form:
“OK, it does not look good but you must consider…..”
Instead, every loaded but simple question I advance triggers a longish and mostly irrelevant speech encompassing much more than one could reasonably consider relevant to the question. Prof. X wants to change the subject every time. He acts as if he believed that I could be distracted, like a child, from my own questions.
Overall, Prof. X, who has confronted many daunting intellectual challenges in his career, is not acting like a resourceful, intelligent man ready to face another intelligent, resourceful man of contrary political disposition. Instead, he behaves like a small child with a trembling lower-lip observing a bully in the school yard. The panic accounts for the inadequacy of his actions, an instance of the mystery I am trying to explain to myself: Intelligent people acting and talking stupidly.
The best explanation for this grotesque behavior I have right now comes straight from the conservative grab-bag: Competition works and pretty much nothing else works. This principle also applies to the full array of individual competences. Prof . X spends all his time ensconced among liberal and progressive academics. Probably he does not take the trouble to expose himself to material that would disrupt in the least his perspective. I am not thinking of the newsletter of “Almighty God Northwest White Militia” but of the Wall Street Journal, for example, that he could receive free of charge every day for the price of a phone call. Nothing ever challenges his liberal world-view. That leaves him incompetent before a challenge and, since he is intelligent enough to perceive this incompetence, it leaves him discombobulated, even fearful.
Even what I am tempted to call Prof. X’s “natural rationality” does not survive the anxiety of being challenged on unfamiliar ground. It runs out, it falls apart; so, it turns out it’s not that natural, in the sense of innate. Rationality too may depend on the presence of frequent contextual challenges. One may be rational in areas that are subject to periodic mental challenges and not be rational anywhere else at all. This, by the way, would explain the survival of ridiculous and childish beliefs in astrology among otherwise hard-as-nail Indian businessmen.
One week before this encounter with Prof. X, out of idle curiosity and immature hopefulness, I had driven twenty minutes to visit the Bigfoot Discovery Museum. It’s located among the redwoods, in Felton, California. It’s contained in a tiny house filled with exhibits. The owner, his wife and possibly, a part-time worker staff its map-covered tiny counter.
The owner-founder greets me. I don’t know what his educational background is. He expresses himself simply but clearly. He makes no mystery of the fact that he believes the Sasquatch tribe, the Bigfoot family itself, roams the Santa Cruz Mountains in fair numbers. For years, he has been collecting what he takes to be supportive evidence. More interestingly, he has taken the trouble to rate the evidence for credibility. I ask him several unavoidably skeptical questions. The man keeps his cool perfectly. He gives sensate answers to all my questions. He anticipates several of my objections and provides me with thoughtful counter-objections. I do not come out a convert but believing that there are some unanswered questions about Sasquatch worthy of more study. I would gladly contribute a small amount of money to such study. Mostly, I leave feeling that I have had a conversation with a knowledgeable adult who happens to have a disposition different from mine but who cares about facts as much as I do. I think of the Bigfoot museum director as a man who respects our common human rationality.