Wednesday, February 23, 2011

On The Petty Academic

The worst symptom (and most pitiful victim) of contemporary academic specialization is the petty academic—the specialist who fails to see the limits of his own specialization. There are few sights so pathetic as the professor who thinks his political opinions “educated” simply because he has spent many years studying some academic subject (it matters not to him what subject) and a few hours a week watching cable television news programs, listening to the radio, or reading the paper. The former has taught him to believe that he is an elite whose opinion should be listened to, while the latter has furnished him with, if not his opinion itself, the shallow terms in which his opinion is framed.

The petty academic does not—perhaps cannot—engage in either serious thinking or honest conversation about politics. Serious thinking about political matters would require him to step beyond the rhetoric he has learned from CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, his blog of choice, or whatever supplier of contemporary political language (which so awkwardly manages to be at once uninteresting and exaggerated) he chooses. Honest conversation seems equally difficult for him. When among fellow ideological believers he knows only the smug mockery of them: the "other side," who are obviously wrong and are presumed either ignorant or irresponsible. While among those on the "other side," he is accustomed either to avoiding politics altogether (usually to his and everyone else's relief) or to a debate, in which his goal is to "win" by convincing a third party he is smarter (which, of course, he hopes they are foolish enough to think means he is right).

All this adds up to a rather sad sight—a man who would demand long, careful study to support the simplest claim made in his own academic discipline is all too willing to buy into the most foolish of popular political rhetoric. To see an educated man so easily excited by an Obama or a Bush, is as disgraceful as seeing such a man excited by a Britney Spears or a Justin Timberlake.

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