A new intellectualism?

20 05 2010

I have a liberal arts degree, and I consider it about as useful as a dowsing stick in a bayou. I spent most of my classes at U.C. Berkeley trying to master the art of forgetting all that I had learned the moment finals were over. In my life, what I learned in the classroom had little to do with my actual education. My real education took place in the public library as an adolescent, in my reading breaks at work, and in conversations with lots of interesting people (including my dear wife) through the years. If this blog is even a little interesting, it is more because of that experience, and not due to any formal training.

I once asked a middle age friend of mine, a doctor of theology, why he had never married, never raised a family, and never really settled down into a profitable job. His answer was that he had questions that he wanted answered, and that was more important to him. I am not sure that those questions were answered, judging from the state of his life now, but for me that seemed such an incredibly sad response. We have become so obsessed with specialization, so entranced by advanced degrees and who wrote what when, that we feel that the only way that someone has anything worth saying is if they have jumped through the appropriate academic hoops. Really, my own experience expresses the complete opposite.

Recently, I ran into an article in the New Atlantis entitled Science and the Decline of the Liberal Arts. That article enforced many of the prejudices I have against academia. In spite of the praise of a few professors who would have liked for me to go on to graduate school, after my FINAL final exam, I felt like running away from Berkeley as if it had the plague. (I didn’t run far. I still liked breaking into its library with my expired student ID). The article goes into why I would feel this way: the technocracy at the heart of the humanities, the pressure to produce papers that essentially say nothing, the ultimate subservience to the utilitarian interests of society, and so forth. Studying the treasures of human wisdom cannot mimic the specialization that astronomer, engineers, and medical doctors are expected to have, and doing so can only distort the subject that one seeks to study.

I have argued in the past on this blog that I dislike the idea of making money off of theology or any other area of learning. I don’t want to knock anyone’s hustle, but such things always make me profoundly uneasy. On the one hand, I share the sentiments of my hard sciences doctorate-holding wife who thinks that the humanities at the university are a total waste of time. Really, what are you paying for, and could those resources be better deployed? But more importantly, the question has to be asked concerning what benefit does it serve human wisdom to have a cadre of specialists who are under pressure to produce written material and live off of the profits gained from it? Socrates wrote nothing, and had to live a life just like everyone else. St. Paul was the greatest theologian ever, and he was a tent maker. Even the great lights of the Church were either pastors of souls, preachers, or lived in monasteries where they no doubt had other duties. None of these people were by any means professionals in our sense of the word.

Really, in my own life, in the preciously brief amount of time I have to read and write, I find a very satisfying discipline. Yes, I have a job, and I have to do my job, and there are days I would rather not do my job, but where would the human experience be in that? I think there is a great economy that has to be practiced to be a man of the world and write at the same time. It is immensely satisfying that I can, in a sense, have my cake and eat it too. But it also takes me out of the pettiness that I fear academia would instill in me, and allows me to write and study whatever I want. The limits of not being a perpetual student are really benefits in my eyes.

Yes, you don’t have the time or the resources to study what you want. Yes, you don’t have the benefit of publications (which nobody reads) or peer-review (from peers you barely respect). But I do it all because I have questions that I want answered. I just don’t see the contemporary academic world as the holder of all of these secrets. If I could do it all over again, I would probably try to study Greek, take a few anthropology courses, or even a philosophy class or two, but I don’t think that I am any poorer because I didn’t do these things. My stance is if you want an education, you have to fight for it, and it is not necessary that you have to jump through the appropriate institutional hoops or incur a six figure debt in the process.

And maybe that is where the new intellectualism lies: not in the halls of a dying humanities academia, but in ordinary people wanting to learn new things. In a world in which leisure is becoming increasingly rare, perhaps the real struggle lies in employing that leisure towards things that are most important to us. And what is most important is wisdom and not information, virtue and not fame, and living a life of contemplation without having to worry about publication deadlines or the intellectual fads of marginally important people.



18 responses

28 05 2010
Ian Wolcott

I enjoyed that. For years I regretted not going to graduate school (my BA was in English and Philosophy). But freedom of inquiry is to be cherished and, frankly, it’s not easily found in academia anymore. When I talk with grad students in English or other liberal arts fields, I’m often shocked at the limitations they obliviously toil under. There’s a whole damn world out there, after all, and some of the best thinking is being done outside the ivory tower these days, in my opinion. As with the world of book publishing, I think some of these academic disciplines may have to die the death before they can be fruitfully reborn (among the “unqualified”) as healthy intellectual pursuits.

23 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

Okay, I am not a great fan of the Church making money either. But readers of this blog will know I am not a fan of the clergy in general. But read my stuff again, please. Laypeople before Vatican II could not preach. The fact that they can now and some make money off of it is an abuse just like Communion in the hand and lay Eucharistic ministers. That sh*t ain’t right. That the clergy are corrupt and make money is bad, but at least preaching is their office. And no one marketed it back in the day as: “If you read my book/attend my talk/invite me to speak at your parish, you will understand X better (and thus be a better Catholic).” Last time I checked, the Redemptorist preachers who came and did Hell-fire-and-brimstones missions didn’t charge anything and made everyone feel worse about themselves.

Let me put it to you this way: if I buy a plastic rosary from the local Catholic bookstore, I am getting something I need/want, and if the person who sells me this is an ignoramus or a glue-sniffing porn freak, that is neither here nor there. Say, however, that I see an ad to buy the same rosary from a “seer” who claims to have seen the Virgin Mary, and thus marks up the price of her rosary since it has received a “special blessing”. The issue is not one of people selling goods: it is one of people selling themselves and their “charism”. At least the clergy preaches “ex officio” and we for the most part get it for free. What we have in some places is the emergence of lay simony; and if you like it, I have a bridge in Brooklyn I want to sell you.

Botanicas are a good example of this phenomenon. You can get religious imagery and candles in these places, but they will also try to “up-sell you” a “consultation” where they will read your palm or do some other form of divination. And the more powerful curanderos are in the most demand. Are these people charlatans? In many cases, they are. And I put them in the same category as the people spoken of above. But at least they are trying to do things like fix your love life or get rid of a preternatural illnesses. They make no claims to make you a better Christian. Caveat emptor.

23 05 2010


I agree, too. It’s a nightmare. I just don’t get why Arturo sets his sights on a couple of lay apologists as the greatest villains in this and ignores clergy who run bigger empires and have, by virtue of their clerical status, bigger pedestals and fewer questions asked about them.

And it’s not “trinkets” I am talking about – it’s that no one gives crucifixes or statues of the Sacred Heart away (although there are many apostolates that *do* give rosaries away, plus you can make them yourself fairly easily). You have to pay, and those who sell them make a good profit on a 50% markup, just as in any business. It’s not books that keep Catholic bookstores afloat, it’s First Communion gear and crucifixes.

I think, ideally it should *all* be given away! But in a world in which it costs money to print books and produce crucifixes, what is one to do? And, my basic question is, why is one worse than the other? What’s the hierarchy that makes a guy selling a book on apologetics to people who were never taught the basics by the clergy and religious ordained and vowed to teach them so much more devilish than the entrepeneur who’s glad he got a good deal on pietas from his Chinese vendor so he can make a bigger profit?

22 05 2010
Henry Karlson


I think turning the faith into a capitalistic enterprise is a problem. Though I agree that many “trinkets” are also shabby, it is worse when ideas – and beliefs – are sold.

22 05 2010

This takes the tenor of the conversation down from its lofty plane, I know, but I have never understood why, Arturo, you are so contemptuous of a lay person who sells a book about apologetics that they wrote but you have no equivalent critique for lay people, who, say, make a living off of selling rosaries or crucifixes, marked up to 50% so they can make a profit or for priests (and there are many) who peddle their wares, their speaking abilities and their personalities for a *very* hefty fee (read: Corapi; Martin, etc.) and do not (trust me) piously give all the proceeds to their communities.

Why don’t they give their rosaries away for free? Why do they profit from charging people $40 for images of our suffering Lord?

I think it’s more scandalous to make a living off of charing 30 bucks for a rosary than ten bucks for a book about Mary or somesuch.

22 05 2010
Henry Karlson

“Those who have to benefit from their ‘celebrity’, beg for their family on the Internet, or those who seem to feed off people’s prejudices or ignorance are the ones I have little respect for. ”

Trust me, things like that get to me as well. It’s one thing to say “this is my vocation” and it might very well be. But then it is another to say “and there should be no cost to my discipleship.” One thing I and others like me know, we don’t go into this for the money. Those who do treat it as a business one day, and “look at how great I am” the next. It’s not just this — it is also the self-glorification I see from many of these people, with all kinds of “blog awards” going around that says more about them than they know. Yes, it always feels good to be appreciated; but there is appreciation and there is self-glorification.

Hans Urs von Balthasar said the only way to be a theologian is on one’ s knees. The point of course is that humility and poverty are needed. Again, it is not for everyone — and it is not easy. But if one takes up the cross, they must know it is a cross — they must not say “look at me, I picked up the cross, now you carry it for me while I get the kudos.” Alas, do people get it?

22 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

I can appreciate where you come from, to some extent. The one reason that I didn’t continue as a seminarian is because I don’t really have a pastoral disposition. The reason I didn’t continue as a monk is because I joined an insane-ass monastery. But I fault myself for that: those monks can’t help being who they are. I don’t pretend to say things like, “it wasn’t my vocation”. More that it wasn’t in the cards, or I didn’t want to do it. God, in a sense, had nothing to do with it; or rather, He allowed this stuff like He allows car accidents or crop failures. I have learned to own up to my own actions, and not pretend like I am trying to read God like a bunch of tea leaves at the bottom of a glass.

Desires and talents from youth can change. Ask me about it. It’s part of growing up.

I suppose I shouldn’t be knocking what others do for a living as long as it gives them a decent paycheck. Those who have to benefit from their “celebrity”, beg for their family on the Internet, or those who seem to feed off people’s prejudices or ignorance are the ones I have little respect for. I know a man who works in immigration law and helps all sorts of people get their green cards and fulfils their dreams of immigrating to the U.S. Do I think him heroic because he does his job, even if it seems more altruistic than, say, a stock broker or IRS agent? No, because it is a job, and he gets paid for it. So why should I respect someone who does the same thing, only with God thrown in? Once they start giving their books away for free and waiving their speaking fees, maybe then I will look up to them. But then again, many in the Church have always seen Catholicism as a cash cow, including many in mitres. And they never realize how big of a turnoff that is to people standing on the outside.

I don’t care if you have to make a living. Make a living off of something else.

21 05 2010
Henry Karlson

I should also add, it is not “they are the only things I can do well,” but the call has been there all my life. Even as a young kid (and still a baptist), I would carry a Bible with me, and read it during break times at school. I’m not saying I am a good follower of this call, for I fail it badly, but it still is obvious it’s been there all my life.

21 05 2010
Henry Karlson

Just some of my own thoughts on the matters addressed, as they come to me.

First, I would rather be married and have a family and a career than to hold a doctorate — but, I also find that sometimes we have a vocation and a calling, directed to go a certain way whether or not it is our desire. I also think it is possible to be married with a doctorate in theology — I know many who are — but again, for me, God has not graced me with my hearts desire here. On the other hand, God has continued to direct me in theological studies.

Now, I’m not your typical person involved in theological studies. I really dislike academia. Sure, there are elements of it I like, but so much of it — I dislike. I dislike the publish or perish push, the “create new thoughts” push, the scholarly conferences (I really hate them), etc. It’s not that I think there is no room for speculative study and work (I do a lot of it) but I also think making it what academia is about, and the designation of good academia is dangerous, especially in the field of theology.

Instead of writing for journals, I prefer to write for blogs (as you know). I prefer engagement, of sorts, with people, and not just intellectual hubris. I do like, to an extent, teaching, only because it helps connect me with others, though I also like more dialogical processes in teaching than the lecture circuit.

So why am I in academia? It’s in part because I think my voice within could do more good than without — even if it silenced and ignored often. We shall see. Plus, theology/philosophy are about the only things I can do well — my chronic fatigue hurts me in areas of manual labor. Why am I not a priest? Because, as I said above, my desire, hope is for marriage (which doesn’t preclude becoming a priest later), but also beyond that, I just don’t see myself as too pastoral. And while I appreciate liturgy, I also have a love-hate relationship with it; I appreciate its beauty, but it is often is one of those difficult things for me that I do out of faith, but if there were less obligations, I would probably go less often (not completely stop, but probably 3/4 of the time) — being a priest would be difficult with such a disposition.

21 05 2010
Arturo Vasquez

People seem to be mistaking the ideal for the real here. I would read the article that I linked to. The issue is not so much that people shouldn’t make money off of translating Homer or studying the sexual lives of Amazonian tribesmen: it is that the pressures on the modern university and the evolution of modern man’s concept of learning will make these impossible. The modern university system emerged from the G.I. Bill after World War II. Perhaps then, people still had some concept of “liberal arts” as a luxury of the former landed gentry that should be coveted by all. That means reading sonnets, learning Greek, learning history, and so forth. Thus, people would pay for that stuff. But that has changed, and people are legitimately asking what purpose do these subjects serve in our late capitalist society.

I don’t think it’s ideal. It’s just the reality. If you expect to try to make a middle class living studying theology for a living, be my guest. I just would not want to be in your shoes.

21 05 2010

As dysfunctional as they are, I think we need the liberal arts at univerisities at least until we have more monasteries again.

They are not totally devoid of truth. As an undergraduate philosophy major in Boulder , Colorado I was confronted with St. Anselm, and was converted from my atheism, even though the professor who introduced him to me was not a believer. My life has not been the same since.

20 05 2010
The Western Confucian

During my Ed.M. course in T.E.S.O.L. (Teaching English to Speakers of Other Languages), I quickly came to realize most of what was purported to be “research” in the field was nothing but unabashed scientism, trying to make a liberal art look like a natural science.

My three “mentors” were in their 60s, 50s, and 40s respectively, and all unmarried without families. I decided to go no further, take what I had gotten, get a job, start a family, and learn what I like on my own.

20 05 2010

Have you forgotten the anti-staretz’s criticism of the autodidact?

20 05 2010
Alice C. Linsley

Arturo, your experience with real learning and mine are very similar. I have learned what matters most by living, not in the formal classroom. I had 2 teachers who were masters at connecting the dots beyond their narrow disciplines. I now regard this as remarkably lucky. Some have never even had one such teacher.

For me, the most useful means of self-education has been the public library. Much of my 32 years of research on Genesis has been done through the inter-library loan system. It matters little that this research is not “peer reviewed” because frankly, I have no peers in this labor. Most anthropologists think Biblical Anthropology is a disguise for evangelism. or bad science (like young earth creationism). They regard Genesis 1-11 as mythical or irrelevant. That’s what I’d have to put up with if I returned for a Ph.D, which I have no intention of doing at age 60. : ) Let them read the book, assuming that I can find a publisher!

20 05 2010
A Sinner

I wouldn’t deny the usefulness of a TEACHER. But perhaps what he’s saying is that this is no longer what “professors” are primarily in the humanities. They’re these “researchers” who keep trying to squeeze “new” knowledge out of texts thousands of years old by selectively quoting them or making vague connections with other texts or modern theoretical frameworks that for the most part never prove anything conclusive. I remember a visiting professor once telling us that “In the 1980’s, we thought this text was from this century; now that theory is almost totally discarded based on the argument of Dr. X and we know think that it was from this century”…I can only imagine that in another 20 years we’ll be back to the 1980’s stance or in some other century entirely based on whatever sophistic argument some egghead can make, whatever New Clothes some “professor” can sew for The Emperor.

20 05 2010

Well, I would agree with much of what you say, especially in regard to the humanities.

However, what do you say about the reality that your own intellectual explorations (at least judging from the reflections here) seem to be inspired by the work of professional academics in the humanities? Where would you be without them?

20 05 2010
Sam Urfer

Having gone through Medieval Studies at Cal, I can say that I learned things that would have been very difficult without the student-teacher relationship, such as how to read Middle English or Welsh out loud. Yeah, an intro Rhetoric class doesn’t give a whole lot that couldn’t be gotten by reading Plato and Aristotle in a library, but for literary, linguistic and historical studies, having a mentor can be of incalculable worth.

Then again, after two semesters of studying Philosophy in Graduate School, working as a janitor seems like a decent way to go. Have to deal with less garbage that way.

20 05 2010

Much of what you’ve written here resonates with me. I’m taking an MA from UT Austin and calling it quits, when I was originally accepted for a PhD in History. I was disgusted with the intellectual sloth behind every -ism and theory, not to mention the uselessly complex hyper-Latinate terms crafted for their own sake.

At the same time, I think we risk emulating the victimists when we look at universities as completely useless, or as if it’s inevitably heading that way. Even though the worst academics tend to get the best press, there are significant numbers of unnoticed yet excellent professors whose work, both pedagogic and academic, contribute to a real capacity to learn and teach oneself.

But even if those kinds of professors aren’t easily found, I don’t think we’re to default to a weird folk version of “aude sapere” intellectualism, because intellecualism, as an -ism, is the problem. Some of the most winsome professors and the most capable academics don’t come across as hopelessly intellectual. Intellectualism is almost inherently a sophistic stance that pretends to possess knowledge while denying other important elements of human experience. There’s a mess of it inside the academic scene, but I don’t think it’s appropriate to value a mess on the outside as well.

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