Saturday, August 28, 2010

Our unsung intelligentsia

Sometimes I wonder if the most educated people in the world are also the most hidden from view. The people I'm thinking of spend little time promoting themselves to the public and most of their time reading. And reading, and reading--deeply, broadly, and with an open mind.

Unlike your typical academic, what they read is unconstrained by specialization and publication pressures. Nor is it filtered through the prism of a prevailing Theory to which they must show allegiance, or the prism of a personal thesis that has become their professional badge of identity (and/or the centerpiece of a tenure application).

Their motivation for reading isn't to conduct a literature review within their specialization, or to mine for further evidence for their latest hypotheses or against those of their competitors. What motivates them, instead, is pure curiosity. 

The people I'm thinking may be "failed academics"--nth year graduate students or unemployed PhD-holders--or they may be people who opted against an academic career precisely because the narrow focus and commitment to prevailing theories didn't appeal to them. They may have trust funds, but most have day jobs; they tend not to have children or other commitments that would take time away from their precious hours for reading.

I suspect there are a lot of people out there who fit this description--full of knowledge and wisdom. Some of them would be happy to share it with the rest of us--though many of us may resent the intrusion by lay people into what we've claimed as our certified, professional areas of expertise. 

Most of this quiet, agenda-free, wide-ranging intelligence goes unnoticed--except, perhaps, here and there in the blogosphere. Wouldn't it be nice, somehow, to give it a broader platform?


gasstationwithoutpumps said...

I have met such wide-ranging intellects---they tend to be fairly common among engineers and computer scientists. They are also fairly common in academia, despite the stereotypes of narrowly focused experts who know more and more about less and less, until they finally know everything about nothing.

Amy P said...

I think you're right. The first example that comes to mind was a cabbie in Maryland who I talked to about 40 minutes straight during a ride on our shared love of books on tape. He was quite insightful and had a Jewish surname. He said he was dyslexic, which would partly explain why he was driving a taxi rather than working in the white color world.

My dad is another example. After he decided teaching math wasn't for him, he worked a mix of mostly blue collar jobs. As an empty nester, he started working on a biography of his grandmother, self-published it successfully, and has continued to write local history with his sister. At this point, he's pretty much a self-taught historian, and there are few other people who know his specialty as well as he does. As a kid, I would never have seen that coming.