Are Academics Naive?

I’ve always disliked the word academic which brings up the following picture. Middle-aged men (mostly) are in their offices at home, surrounded with bookcases, making their reputations for being learned, and frequently arguing with others in their field by phone, or at meetings and conferences. My image is antiquated, of course, but so am I. That impression came long before digital communication. The latter is nicely explained in this tutorial from Powel Software, about upgrading our approach to office work.

I graduated from Penn State (1957), and after some changes in ‘majors’, I thought teaching might fit. For example, counseling at Boys’ Club camps had felt natural. But good teaching requires study and learning  beyond the usual fare of education courses. What could I teach, and how could I find the best way to do it? I love the out-door world. Should I take engineering like my brother? I started there,  and got a lot out of a course in land surveying – far beyond taking measurements! But that desire broadened into a love for world travel, where other people’s ways of thinking and acting can be learned, in face-to-face conversations, observation and research. To be honest, I’m probably an academic also, earning an MA and ABD at a couple of schools of higher learning. Trades and technical specialties are good choices too, taught well at the community college where I ended up. I respect those options, but society fails to serve them well in our declining public educational systems.

Today my taste for adventure is frustrated by old-age issues, e.g., loss of hearing, health, strength, memory, confidence, etc. It’s curious that my mother, born in 1897, knew many foreigners, through letters, conversations with visitors, and a lot of reading, but she didn’t travel to foreign lands. In fact she never travelled in a plane or long-distance train. It wasn’t fear that stopped her; she was very courageous. She just didn’t see any need. She was a knowlegeable, skilled, devoted and welcoming home maker. Though she never learned to drive, family and relations took her around. The longest trip was about 200 miles for family vacations.

In my young years we often went from Bryn Athyn – our home in the hilly ‘exurbs’ north of Philadelphia – to the environs of Woodstock, N.Y. (yes, that Woodstock, but a whole lot earlier! The festival brought a crowd of 400,000 attendants. Alas I missed it).

My aunt and uncle had a summer home in the Catskills. A wealthy uncle in Bryn Athyn had a stable just up the hill from our house, so Mother could ride a horse! She did it well, too, but always sidesaddle, as real ladies were meant to. It was probably the wish to ‘escape’ my parents’ religious, political and social conservatism that moved me to seek an adventuresome life.

Let’s return to the topic of the alleged naivete of academics. For interest’s sake I looked at Google’s Quora and this question caught my eye: ‘What are the traits of highly intelligent people?’ There were many comments. I skimmed through hundreds of them. Here’s one answer I like, from Jatin Rajput of India. (BTW, he says his post was banned by the Indian Government! Yet another country whose freedom of speech is often effectively hindered, as it is here.) I found the whole discussion interesting, with some people suggesting depression is the source of the question, others that the question is too complex to answer, and others giving encouragement.

An obviously young man asks ‘Why do I question everything in life and ruminate about what is really happening?’ Serena Sun responds ‘Because you are a deep thinker and suggests what might have led to developing that quality.

On the question ‘Why do people only believe what they want to believe’, Johan’s Work says, ‘They don’t always do so, though what they chose to believe is a complicated process up to the age one has reached.’ I find this claim particularly interesting, since Emanuel Swedenborg has much to say about our intellect’s relation to our beliefs. I follow Swedenborg’s theology. He frequently says that people who are governed by earthly thinking and want to have everything their own way can easily use intellect to support (‘prove’) whatever their emotions or feelings (desires) want to believe.

The character of Academic people coincides with a talk that Carl Sagan – a real scholar and academic – gave in 1987 on the importance of critical thinking for Civil Liberties. It was updated  in Quillette Mag, July 1, ’22. Civil liberty is also a topic discussed by Swedenborg. We need such liberty to fulfill our duties to our neighbors, to our country, and to the truth whose ultimate source is the Lord God.

Swedenborg says true reasoning goes from causes to effects. This idea goes directly against modern scientific method which works from effects to causes, but demands that hypotheses and their discoverable effects must be ‘falsifiable’. The latter view is explained by Karl Popper in his 1934 book The Logic of Scientific Discovery. For modern scientist, his method will be repeated, and refined endlessly, in the search for ‘Laws’ (which are never perfect, and change over time). So far, scientists aren’t optimistic about finding the so-called Theory of Everything (TOE).

Swedenborg’s point is that truth originates in the spiritual realm, which is very real. But a ‘nature-bound thinker’ rejects any religious belief in a Creator, who is in ‘the heavens’ (Our Father), whose Essence is Love and Wisdom. He is the ultimate explanation of everything in the natural and spiritual realms – ‘the All of Everything’.

People who mention religion, and true love of our neighbor, are often ridiculed for being unrealistic and idealists. It’s better to be ‘pragmatic’ – to use ‘practical thinking’. ‘Practical’ in today’s world almost always reduces to money-making, e.g., to justify wars, while ignoring who pays the most (the poor, needy, and underserved). Are ‘Public Good’, and ‘Liberty and Justice for All’ only empty words to utter at political rallies? That question is a common theme of radical thinker Christopher Hedges. In very strong terms, he advocates freeing ourselves from the love of money and those who control it. Hedges often gives interviews on KPFA 94.1, Berkeley CA, about these questions. It’s part of Radical Free internet radio, which is also covered by TuneIn radio.

Let’s try then to love our neighbors and benefit them, even if it’s hard. Let’s not help them hypcritically when we believe it will benefit us to do so. Eventually, I believe that our worldly self can come to match perfectly our innermost character that is from The Divine, but only if we try to be genuinely good neighbors. If Swedenborg is right, the benefits outweigh the costs beyond our imagination.