The Last Oppressed Minority
Bill Long 12/26/04
Really Smart, Interdisciplinary-Oriented People
We live in a day of liberation movements. Ever since Chief Justice Early Warren penned the terse "It is so ordered" at the end of Brown v. Board of Education of Topeka, KS in 1954, America has opened itself to the rhetoric and demands of groups long ignored or oppressed in American life. Women, Blacks, Gays, Children, Native Americans, Chicanos and a host of other groups have made use of the liberation paradigm and applied it to their lives in order to paint a picture of epic struggle of disadvantaged groups against huge odds and fearsome foes.
And, for the most part, things are changing. The popular way to address the issue today is to say that "major strides" have been made but that we must "keep up the fight" in order for "full equality" to be realized. Blacks still underperform Whites on standardized tests; women still earn 68 cents of men in comparable positions; corporate offices and boards are still too "vanilla." The "struggle" must go on. Thus, the 2005 "bottom line," which speakers will charge you thousands of dollars to tell you, is that "progress has been made" but that "a lot of work still needs to be done." If you want just to send me the check and get on with your lives, I will only charge you 50% as much as the "experts" who will tell you this....
There are some groups that don't fit as sympathetically into the liberation struggle. Fat people, for example, don't seem to carry much weight in our society. But I think that the most overlooked, underappreciated and oppressed people in America today are really smart people whose intellectual inclinations don't allow them to fit into the specialization--oriented culture of today. As a result, we are cast aside, underutilized, unappreciated and shunned. There is no place for us in the university, in law, in business or in religion. Though we can fill what Rita Dove calls the "incredible longing [in people] to find something that really matters and that really helps us in our lives," no one looks to us to provide this insight. We are the modern lepers, the unpretty people, the ones who are ignored and dicarded. It hurts us to be so treated; I don't know if those who treat us this way are likewise hurt.
How can I, for example, possibly fit into the world? I want to write hundreds of essays on a web site, but this is not publishing things in a "refereed journal," which is beloved of the academy. Indeed, I think that the reason why things have to be "refereed" is that, in general, people do not know what to believe when they read it; they have little feel for quality or for what might be true, and they need to be told by other people, whom they are supposed to trust, that something is "OK" to read.
So, even though I put out more than one book a month in essays, these will not generally be accepted by the academy, I believe, because of their insecurity about what constitutes knowledge. After all, they are in the knowledge business--to accept something that someone says who is circumventing your system doesn't bode well for your claim to be able to mediate and manage knowledge for the world.
But there is something more at stake when dealing with the academy. The academy requires you to have a specialization. Maybe after you have been teaching in your focused field for 20 years you might be able to branch out into other areas of academic investigation, but generally if you do this, you have to submit yourself to the guides in those fields and only humbly read and gently comment on their works. But what if the nature of one's life is to want to study and write about the Book of Job on Sunday, Shakespeare on Monday, classical rhetorical terms on Tuesday, obscure vocabulary words on Wednesday, art history on Thursday, legal history on Friday, and gems on Saturday, for example? What if I can write skillfully and eloquently on several topics, and that I know I can stimulate thought in people on all of these subjects? What if I want to speak about grief and humor? To probe the way that people were brought up and relate their stories to the stories that I study?
The answer is simple. There is no room in the academy for this. Having multiple interests confuses deans and search committee members. They want "coverage" for courses that "come up in rotation." They really don't want someone who ranges across the intellectual terrain, trying to relate items from several fields to a felt reality in another, trying to ask about the felt reality in a legal text or fact pattern.
How about law firms? No, I have tried this too. They, rightly, want someone who is fully committed to the client's concerns. How about organized religion? No, I have tried this too. There is not much tolerance for a person who wants to weave intellectual stories, to explore the outer reaches of some theological banks, frankly to confess ignorance and disbelief in the God of the Bible. And business? By no means. Business exists to make money; it isn't particularly open to those who just want to think about things and to struggle to find language to deal with some of the teeming realities of life.
What To Do?
I have lived my life like Shaq trying to fit into a 42R jacket. I not only try to conform my conduct to the requirements of the law but I attempt to live within the realities of the institutions that have paid me a paycheck over the years. But the latter simply doesn't work. Specialization, client-centered work, administrative commitments, desire to make money--these are the watchwords of the culture we live in.
But is there anything wrong with that? On one level, none at all. Specialization "works." Client-centered lawyering and other professional service is the cornerstone of our system. The entrepreneurial spirit in devising a better widget to ease life's chores is basic to who we are.
But who cares about the ones of us who truly can absorb, digest, interpret and explain vast amounts of material? Who is concerned about those who can bring historical insight? Who cares about the truly gifted of us who, like Plato's philosophers, can't seem to manage our way around the world so easily because we have seen the dazzling light of the sun and are confused by the darting figures in the semi-darkness all around us? Who is to speak for us? Who is to lead our liberation movement?
Alas, I fear that there will be no interest in understanding, much less accommodating or encouraging interdisicplinary geniuses. We just don't fit into what the society is trying to do. It is best that we are ignored or, if someone is particularly gracious, genially tolerated for a while. But our society cannot truly afford to listen to people like me. I just might raise too many questions--and specialization and money-making does not have much time for too many questions.
Copyright © 2004-2007 William R. Long