A Student’s Frustration and Confusion

In my recent studies, I have been dogged by a concern that I have had from the start of my undergraduate years: why is it that those who have presumably learned the most—those with PhDs or other intellectually high positions—seem incapable of writing or speaking in a manner comprehensible to plain persons? Rather than continue to let this question bore through my (admittedly thick) skull, I am going to attempt a written exploration of that question in this paper.

The best place to start is with our definitions and our givens: I define “those that have learned the most” to be those with PhD’s in subjects in the humanities. These would be philosophers, political philosophers, literature critics, poets, scholars of poetry, and theologians. I consider these people to be those that have learned the most partly because my experience in academia is exclusively of these sorts, and partly due to these fields all touch on or are rooted in a wholistic approach to nature, man, and the cosmos which the STEM fields have lost touch with. Further, most of my experience with this sort of person is with the writings, speeches, and class lectures of philosophy PhD’s, most of whom either specialized in political philosophy or were heavily inclined towards it. As such this account will be skewed in that direction. In short, I am speaking of those thinkers immersed in the humanities and great books, and I take as given that these thinkers are “those that have learned the most” because of the wide-reaching and wholistic concern of the humanities.

I take as “plain persons” the kind of people who, though not quite rustic, have a kind of disregard for the intellectual, precise, and subtle. They could be as rustic as ranchers in Wyoming or as cultivated as Bob from Accounting. They are simply those that do what they do not because it has ever been presented to them in terms of virtue or even goodness, but simply because it is what is done. They go to work, balance their accounts, keep their promises, and take care of themselves and their own in a healthy but uncontemplated manner. This is, of course, a generalization, much more than my previous definition, but I think it is the best I can do. These are the people I find myself across from at bars, bus seats, or picnic tables; those sat next to in planes, trains, and automobiles. When I open up the usual can of philosophical worms—What do you mean by “good”? What do you mean by [term]? What is the “good” life? Are you sure that is the case? What certainty can you have about that subject?—these people often do not lack the ability to pursue the questions. In the normal flow of conversation, these questions can usually be explored, though admittedly not often to their terminus. I have also found that it isn’t that difficult to move high concepts into simple ideas. Metaphor and analogy can get you a long way, and simply cutting out “bullshit”—technical jargon, wrote platitudes, insincere best wishes, etc—coupled with a little irreverent humor can take you down the rest of the currently accessible road. What is at the end of that road is uncertain, and I have yet to find it for anyone, let alone myself. My concern, as a teacher in these kinds of scenarios, is trying to figure out exactly what obstacle makes the end of the road for that individual inaccessible. Are there roadblocks set up by an authoritarian parent? Is there a bogey or otherwise personified threat blocking the way, such as an abusive relative or traumatic memory? Is it an overgrowth of anxiety choking the road and making progress difficult? Or has the road, or any hint of a way forward, simply disappeared into the dark wood? This, of course, is where teaching breaks down into psychology, which is an uncomfortable place for your average student of the humanities to find himself, ironically enough. This is also an aside: what I am trying to illustrate here is that in most particular examples it is not difficult to move high concepts into low language, as long as the burden of complete truth is not foisted upon each and every conversation. We will not reach each and every person that we talk to, but we most definitely can start their feet on the road which can lead out of their own cave. Yet I still observe a lack of even this starting effort on the part of those have learned the most. So there are two questions: what does that lack of effort look like, and why does it exist? 

What this lack of effort looks like is easy. It is the masking in jargon, platitudes, and stock phrases concepts which are not ultimately inaccessible. It is the writing of dense texts, cluttered with footnotes and allusions, presumably for the benefit of others of a similar rank at the expense of those who could benefit the most from the ideas presented. It is the constant crossing of author with author to bring to light new interpretations, without any discussion as to what particular help these abortive unions serve to plain persons. It is the lack of the question “So what?” That question acts similarly to paint-thinner. It strips the veneer off the institutions who spend their time entirely in research: people stringing words together to prolong their employment long enough to receive tenure, then to write things influential enough to prolong the stream of donations and students needed to keep the doors open. But does that question expose the “why?” Let us examine different answers.

For a start, it could simply be the economic forces in our culture that keep teaching dense, jargon-y, and unhelpful. I believe this to be the most cynical explanation. Teaching is unhelpful to plain persons because the teaching is not meant to help plain persons. It is meant to encourage lucrative sentiments, get books published, keep grant money coming in, and the doors open. Playing to public concerns is also dangerous. Were institutions to become too concerned with plain persons, they might themselves lose their identity as bastions of high learning (and high tuition) by becoming mired in the idiotic concerns of the over-entertained, over-stimulated, over-fed masses. Institutions wishing to avoid this fate therefore must maintain a high bar of entry, not simply to being a student but to even being a comprehender of the particular truths that it speaks. Charity in teaching—the unqualified, frank, open beckoning from the mouth of the cave into the dark—is then abandoned for fear of being re-consumed by the cave. Rather than an easy, joyful proclamation of a the good one has found in the truths of the western tradition, this fear produces a charming, elusive, cocktail-party learned-ness which does not frankly refuse but simply declines to reach back into the cave. This puts the occupants of the cave in a new light—perhaps it would be more fitting to call it a new shadow—where instead of poor souls trapped in the dark (a distinctly Christian vision) they are vicious lepers whose hands shoot out, like a cold hand from beneath a bed, to clutch those at the mouth of the cave and drag them back in to be consumed. If those immersed in our mass culture appear as such to those immersed in our aristocratic/great books culture, it is no wonder that those more advanced in the second seek to hide their real truths from those in the cave or, at the very least, veil them so that only those who truly seek to leave the cave will find them.

Here I find that I have come through the economic reason into the higher reason. The unapproachable manner of speaking, teaching, and writing in higher education is an intertwining of fear and covetousness: fear of the lower classes who are not intelligent enough to understand the truth of things and are therefore hostile towards the philosopher, and covetousness of the aristocratic life which this veiled speech keeps away from the majority. I also hold back judgement in this case, because it is abundantly clear to me that that mine and others rejection of this exclusivity is based in a Christian idea of universal salvation, rather than a pagan or “rational” idea. It was clear from Plato and Aristotle’s writings (the Republic and Rhetoric, specifically) that there is a tension between philosophy as the highest pursuit of humanity and the city arising the fact that the majority of people are not capable of subtle understanding or are too firmly chained in their biases and tribal ideals to allow such a radical open-ness to the good. Christianity unifies the two halves: it allows the salvation of all through the sacraments, yet acknowledges that philosophy, were Christianity not, to be the highest human pursuit. So it is clear that if one is not fully Christian—does not act and think in accord logos and instead seeks fulfillment in the human things—then one is compelled to treat those in the cave as sub-human, and to speak obscurely to them. Yet, to the Christian, these kinds of aristocratic souls appear not outside of the cave but merely just out of arm’s reach of the mouth, their eyes straining back into the dark and looking for bogeys and their own mouths speaking riddles while the Christian plays in the sun.

2 thoughts on “A Student’s Frustration and Confusion

  1. Good one. You’re starting to peel back the lid on something that particularly irks me: intellectual snobbery. It’s worth noting that my distaste for what I perceive as such might just be envy. I’m open to that explanation. But I suspect that the truth lies more along the lines you’ve drawn: that those who are more educated have a responsibility to maintain their connection with others. In other words, even if they don’t always exercise it, they ought to be able to bring others along the path of knowledge that the more educated man has already carved out.

    That’s kind of a bold claim, and it’s not a hill I’m willing to die on. Is that a genuine responsibility, do you think? If so, why? Who cares if others can do the specific type of gene editing (for instance) that I can? Why should I bother attempting to explain it to a ‘commoner’? (The man you describe as still being in the cave). All that matters is that I’m performing my specific function. I know I’m playing devil’s advocate here, but I’m not quite sure how I would respond.

    Finally, what practical steps would you recommend to intellectual elites so that they maintain their ability to communicate with those who are less educated?


  2. The academics about which you write so eloquently and frankly are just the “coolest” shadow watchers who delusionally think they’re the “good” puppeteers casting holy and beneficial shadows from way beyond the cave. They’re more firmly ensconced in the cave than anyone. Learned idiots.


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