…kind of like cognoscenti, only different.
Nothing makes one feel stupid like age (and by “one,” I do mean me). Youth is a shining time in which all of one’s vast knowledge is fresh on the brain, easily produced to devastating effect during the construction of arguments and wielded with the unshakeable confidence of someone who’s only been exposed to, say, two sides of a six-faceted problem, and then only in passing.
The older I get, the clearer this is to me. It’s one reason I’ve generally become even more conservative about expressing opinions. To express an opinion is to flirt with the possibility of exposing one’s own bottomless stupidity.
Consider Simon Doonan’s reaction* to young people’s failure to understand the cultural provenance of a Thom Browne codpiece at a fashion show June 3 (courtesy of Jezebel). Or – also linked in the Jezebel article – the 2003 Joe Queenan “literary takedown” of The Know-It-All: One Man’s Humble Quest to Become the Smartest Person in the World by Esquire editor-at-large A.J. Jacobs (also author of The Year of Living Biblically—at least in that and his current book he’s moved on to constructing projects around an experiential process, which I’d argue is easier to present with authority than something tailor-made to expose shortfalls in one’s education).
These are both instances in which someone older and wiser wields his wit punitively. Is that satisfying? Oh, hell yes. But isn’t it also a little squicky? Reader responses to the Queenan review suggest as much.
Yesterday I interviewed an all-around-awesome economist and star teacher, who told me that he tells his students to jump in and write their papers for class as if they already know everything. How else, he said, will they be able to determine what gaps they need to research, fill in, and actually learn?
This is a soothing concept to someone who is willfully exposing – albeit under the guise of anonymity – her ignorance on a range of topics to the internets at large. Except that it’s not always clear to me where the gaps are, and therein lies the rub. I’m still struggling over an entry I’m determined to complete about artistic work ethic, inspired in part by my vacation reading stack (Warhol, Hemingway) and trips to the Picasso Museum in Barcelona and the Dali Theatre-Museum in Figueres. Warhol? Hemingway? Picasso? Dali? What do I know about these figures that hasn’t already been written about by people with actual authority, people who have studied their lives and work? What do I have to add to the conversation? Joe Queenan is in my head, asking these and other, even more pointed questions.
Working as I do in higher education, I have to wonder if the issue Doonan and Queenan identify in the young (or younger) is not stupidity per se but rather a side effect of what seems to me is the increasing specialization of degree programs. There are still great liberal arts schools out there seeking to give students exposure to broad knowledge in the humanities. However, and this is purely anecdotal, it seems to me that the marketplace is beginning to demand people with specific degrees or types of accreditation as opposed to my generation – who don’t often work in a field related to the degree earned – and perhaps this is creating a sort of educational myopia.
But this is – oh, I don’t know – maybe two sides of a six-faceted problem about which I’ve only been exposed to in passing. And, by my argument, shouldn’t those young people working for Doonan have the kind of specialized knowledge that would instantly connect the codpiece to 16th century portraiture?
Le sigh. The sad truth is that it’s more of a pain in the ass to formulate an opinion than to just have one. At least one thing is certain: that economist is right. Committing something to written form can be a great way to shed light on topics that demand further research. What does it say about me that I’m willing to publish this anyway?
Well. The simple answer is that there’s not much risk when so few people are reading your work.
*I realize the construction of these paragraphs suggests that I’m positioning Doonan’s reaction as bottomlessly stupid, but that’s not my intention. Doonan is such a wit. I wish he’d finished the thought with which he began the column instead of ending on (acknowledged) self-promotion. Or more gracefully integrated the two.