…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 Queenanliterary 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.


5 responses to “Ignorati

  1. At first I was getting ready to write a impassioned defense of the young. I imagined that you were going to take the side of these sophisticated wits.

    In the end you circled around to an opinion that was much more reasonable to my ears.

    Robert Greene wrote in his blog (I can’t find the post now) that American society has broken into ghettos, and subsections of society are splitting up into myopic enclaves. Disconnecting people from reality. To be powerful it is important to break through to the underlying situation and get in touch with the people.

    Those examples of elitist criticism could be nothing but cynical power plays by established writers. In their cultural sphere they are consistent, but they dismiss the other with pride. It is much easier to criticize than to opine on something.

    Tyler Cowen, in an interesting post, said that the value of the blogosphere, was debates among bloggers. A public discussion allows everyone to see how arguments hold up. He blogs on economic policy, among other things, and through the back and forth with ideology and reason, subtle points arise.

    Finally, originality is a false god. If you want to write, worry about creativity. Originality will be a byproduct of perseverance through your own development.

    ha, look at me, talking like some old man with a pile of advice. 😉

  2. I feel honor-bound to point out that what Doonan and Queenan were writing about doesn’t qualify in my view as elitist criticism. Maybe Queenan a bit, but his point was that the topics Jacobs was ill-informed on were in fact common knowledge to prior generations. And Doonan had a young assistant who hadn’t heard of Jacqueline Onassis, which enters gobsmacked territory for the fashion industry. For Americans, period. I think these writers are more exasperated than anything else. I understand their respective POVs, but I’m ambivalent about their methods.

    Interesting points of reference you brought up above. You gotta include links for me, though! I am much more likely to click a link than search, for I am lazy. Speaking of which, that argument about the internet making us stupid…the guy has a book out now. Have you heard about it? The Shallows…here’s Nicholas Carr’s blog: http://www.roughtype.com/.

  3. Part of the problem, is my above references would be difficult to find. To some extant I am paraphrasing a general trend instead of an actual post. of these people.

    I know I went a bit far rhetorically, but it seems like both of those writers fit image of an angry old man bewailing the folly of youth. I am usually skeptical when seeing such things, mostly because I don’t know how to put it into proportion with everything else. I want to study culture and history so that I can better evaluate the generational debate in our time.

    I found a podcast with Carr. I will have to look into it, but I am skeptical.

    BTW, There is a really good podcast by Tyler Cowen, that I think you would find interesting. It isn’t very long, and the topics would apply to your interests.


  4. Hey, I found a post on”The Shallows.” I may be overawed with Tyler Cowen, but I trust his judgment more than anyone else…


  5. I started to listen to that podcast, but they were just going on and on about Lost, which, as you know, I’ve never watched. And one of the commenters noted an audio problem that I experienced as well – the questioner is inaudible. So that was somewhat annoying. But I’ll try again later today after I get my offline stuff done and just plan on clicking ahead a bit.

    I think Cowan is with the majority on The Shallows. Still, though, I may read it at some point (but the to-be-read stack is really high), because the basic premise resonates with my own experience of multitasking/skimming info off the top of the internet vs. deeper and more focused reading. I’m doing both now for my novel project. Both modes have value, and maybe it’s not the binary that my (ironic) skimming of The Shallows press coverage suggests.

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