John Faithful Hamer reflects on being disappointed with today’s “intellectuals”.
“When I was in business, colleagues and associates talked about arts and literature; when I became an author all they talked about was money; in academia where I am now all they talk about is rank and power. Business (as a barbell with plenty free time on the side) has been the purest way to engage in intellectual life.”—Nassim Nicholas Taleb
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.
Be that at it may, many of the most intensely intellectual people I know aren’t profs; they’re:
- medical researchers
- systems administrators
- stay-at-home moms
- reclusive mapmakers
- house painters
- disaffected journalists
- small-business owners
- unemployed carpenters
- retired railway workers
- civil servants…
…pretty much anything BUT academics.
Which leads me to suspect that the root of the problem isn’t to be found in the flawed characters of the people who become academics, but rather in the nature of work itself (as presently constituted). If this is true, it would corroborate something a wise herpetologist told me when I was 12-years-old. I went to him because I knew exactly what I wanted to be “when I grew up”: I wanted to be like him: I wanted to be a herpetologist. He kindly and generously agreed to chat with me, and we did so for the better part of an afternoon. But when we were done he told me, in no uncertain terms, to NOT pursue a career in herpetology. Why? Because, he reasoned, dissecting all of those beautiful sacred creatures, reducing them to Latin names, working long hours in the lab, and putting up with all of the tedious, petty, stupid shit that comes with any job . . . well, these things would kill my love for the subject, sooner or later. I was saddened and confused and disappointed when I left his office. But now, at 40, I see the wisdom of his words.
What work so often does to passion is sort of like alchemy in reverse: golden things are transformed into worthless shit.
—John Faithful Hamer, From Here (2015)
This article originally appeared on Committing Sociology.
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