I once had a colleague who fancied himself a shrewd politician. As he was neither powerful nor popular, he had plenty of time to evolve theories and tell them to me, a man even less shrewd, powerful and popular than himself. There was something ludicrous about this Machiavelli manqué sententiously yarning in the dim office of his even dimmer junior colleague, but it seems to me he that he did have a certain theoretical understanding of campus intrigue and machination. He was simply a failure when it came to practical intrigue and machination.
He was like a critic who could not write a novel to save his life.
The impracticality of professors is, of course, something of a standing joke. It is not unreasonable to wonder why professors in the business school are not richer, or why professors of developmental psychology so often have maladjusted children. The explanation of these ironies is, of course, the chasm that separates theory and practice.
I once played on a very mixed softball team. Athletes played beside duffers, and we generally had a good time. One of our players had the not uncommon misfortune of being a theoretical athlete trapped in the body of a practical duffer, and he was therefore frustrated by his own failure, and by the way his practical failure crimped his authority as a theorist. And he was, I daresay, no mean theorist. He was no mere poser or windbag, but actually knew a great deal about the techniques and strategy of softball.
But he could not play the game. Not to save his life.
You are, no doubt, familiar with the expression, “those who can, do; those who cannot do, teach.” This is true enough, and goes some way towards explaining my Machiavellian colleague, those unliterary critics, those impecunious professors of finance, those developmental psychologists visiting their children at the Juvenile Detention Center, and the egghead whiffer on my old softball team. But the truth of this phrase obscures the fact that even teachers who are “all talk” do teach something.
Their example teaches students how to talk, and when their example is a good one, it teaches students how to talk intelligently.
When I teach geography, for instance, students see how to talk intelligently about a topic that intelligent people are sometimes expected to talk about. I am capable of many, many hours of intelligent talk about geography, and a student who has listened to me should emerge from my class with an ability to hold up their end of a geographic conversation. This ability is not without practical value.
“Here I must observe to you, that as geography is a science to which rational conversation, as supported by gentlemen of breeding and education, most frequently refers, the least ignorance of it is continually liable to detection, and, when detected, subjects a man to the most mortifying ridicule and contempt.” Donald Campbell, A Journey Over Land to India (1796)
Advocates of “practical education” often fail to see that young people have an interest in avoiding “mortifying ridicule and contempt,” and so have an interest in overcoming their ignorance of a great many subjects that have no “practical” utility. Most young people fail to see this as well. But talking intelligently is a practical skill with practical value, albeit not so high or obvious a value as those who wish to teach it would like.
My old colleague was a failure at practical politics, and this was largely because he talked about it far too much, often in the wrong places, and then with too much evident relish. Instead of actually machinating, he expounded theories of machination, and this gave people the mistaken impression that he was a very crafty and devious fellow. The truth is, he was harmless and “all talk.” The fellows who are truly crafty and devious keep their stratagems to themselves.
The memory of this failed politician discoursing in my dim office sometimes haunts me when I type out posts for this blog, for I, too, am “all talk.” I hope what I say is not devoid of intelligence, but my practical prowess in the world I talk about is of a very meagre sort.