All Talk

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.

7 thoughts on “All Talk

  1. My students are so averse to knowledge, so lacking in curiosity, except concerning the social-media items on their cell phone text-queue, that I find myself increasingly unable to talk to them. What do you say to “students” in the classics-in-translation course who refuse to read? And who have no notion, by the way, of geography. I give two or three lectures on the geography of the Mediterranean. I then put up an un-annotated map of the Mediterranean and the adjacent lands. I ask the students to identify the places. They have NO IDEA. When I say, “Italy” to them, it is so much noise, as if I were to explain Kant’s antinomies to my dog. But no — my dog would probably intuit the antinomies better than my students grasp simple geography. I once — in some course the identity of which I forget — put up on the projection screen an un-annotated map of the St.-Lawrence River valley and asked the class-members if they could identify where they were, at that moment, on the map. It baffled them. And they were living in the confluence of the St.-Lawrence River valley! Did you know that Stockholm is the capital city of Germany? Neither did I, but it is apparently so.

    Ask the same students about “gender issues” — and they can talk, talk, and talk. They can’t shut themselves up.

    I take no pride in being “an English professor.” My co-English professors are blithe talkers, as you describe. My friends, the regulars from the bar, are by far better educated, more experienced, and wiser than the full range of professors and administrators at my “workplace.” (What work do any of them do?) The REAL PEOPLE talk of REAL THINGS, which means that they actually talk, as in converse.

    There are telescreens everywhere on my campus. They disseminate a constant stream of “talk” (i.e., BS) about how wonderful the PC regime of the campus is. And there are posters everywhere, and large displays, telling passers-by how qualified and experienced our administrators are. People who praise themselves in pretentious advertisements are narcissists and prevaricators. No healthy institution advertises itself. A healthy institution merely functions.

    Question: How many college administrators does it take to screw in a light bulb?

    Answer: We will be constituting a special committee to investigate that question…

  2. I find the same communication gap opening between me and my students. Some of this is the usual generation gap, some is the change in the zeitgeist. I have spent much of my life finding answers to questions I had when I was 19 years old, but by the time I found them, no one else was interested. The general collapse of conversation is astounding, although not really surprising. Just as we should have known that cars would make us fat, we should have known that electronic entertainment would leave us dumbstruck.

    This university is also very big on public relations, although advertisements directed at people who are already in the institution need another name. It’s as if Ford Motor Company sent me more advertisements after I bought their car, in the hope it would distract me from the defects of the car I just bought. I suppose we might call this “domestic propaganda,” or “Our Very Own Tokyo Rose.”

    I quote poetry and novels in my classes, just as you point to maps, and with similar success. I say something like, “Some of you may have read Robert Lewis Stevenson, author of Kidnapped and Treasure Island . . .” and then look out at a sea of apathy and incomprehension. I keep telling myself that I was pretty clueless when I was 19, but believe we have entered uncharted territory.

    • “This university is also very big on public relations, although advertisements directed at people who are already in the institution need another name.”

      BIG BROTHER — or rather BIG SISTER — or rather GREAT MOTHER.

  3. 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.

    I am very much mistaken should it come to light that I am the only one of your regular readers who both recognizes and places a high value on the humility and self-awareness displayed in those two sentences, Prof. Smith. It pours forth in virtually all of your entries to one degree or another; and if I can see it, most anyone can I should imagine. Which is of course not to say that most anyone will see it, but that is a slightly different topic.

    Don’t sell yourself short, sir. Your (theoretical) musings are almost always helpful on this end of things where putting certain of our shared ideas to practical application happens to be one of my specialties, if I may speak more boldly than I am generally wont to do.

    I tend to think we’re all big “wind bags” in some way or another, and to some extent or the other. Yet, the older I get the less inclined I am to believe true humility necessarily involves self-deprecation or selling oneself short in areas wherein he happens to excel. Within Traditionalist circles we do not of course hesitate to point out that “I am better than you in some things, and vice versa.” I often get a chuckle at how quick our adversaries are to condemn a statement like that, as though the “vice versa” part automatically flies right over their heads.

    When I was a youngster I wasn’t a horrible athlete by any means, but I am a lot better coach than I ever was an athlete in any case. I have a younger brother who was and is the exact opposite. That fact has always intrigued me because my kids tend to be very good-exceptional athletes, whereas my brother’s kids not s’much.

    • Thanks for the encouraging words, Terry. I try to avoid self-deprecation in areas where I’m actually above average, because I know it is really a thinly veiled form of boasting, and it can be especially wounding for people who are actually below average in those areas. Imagine the Homecoming Queen deploring her own looks in front of the class Frump. Coaching is a unique skill. It is not only knowledge of the sport, but knowing when to be soft and when to be hard.

      • Agreed. “Humility is the sincerest form of bragging,” and all that. You’re right about coaching, btw; I tend to be pretty good at it (above average) but not the best. I do what I can to learn from “the best” while making sure I don’t come off as thinking myself ‘below average,’ which would be an insult to those who know better. It’s a tough gig!

  4. Pingback: Cantandum in Ezkhaton 03/17/19 | Liberae Sunt Nostrae Cogitatiores

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