Tuesday, February 12, 2008

Silver and Gold and Ivory Towers

A few days ago my friend Terry (happy birthday Terry!) handed me page 53 photocopied out of a book called "The Nature of Earnestness" and I knew I was in for either a ludicrous example of bad theology or an interesting take on something we'd talked about before or perhaps never considered. (Those are generally the reasons we pass stuff like this around.) What I got was the latter. His explanation to me later was that he thought it might interest me since I'm a) prone to rambling off about the evils of hoarding weatlth, and b) fairly engrossed in academia right now. Here's the paragraph:

There are a few things more important than the right appreciation of learning. There are some who spend their whole lives in acquiring it, in amassing hoard upon hoard; as if it were the object of life to try how much may be got in a given time; not how much good may be done with it, or to what uses it may be turned as it is acquired. It is get, get, get; all getting and no giving. This is of a piece with the mania by which some are possessed in the mercantile world, the mania of money-making: with whom life's problem is, how they may die rich, how much they can be worth in the world, before the moment comes when they must leave it.

There is one material difference between the two cases; and, strange to say it is in favour of the rich rather than of the learned man. The rich man leaves his amassed treasures behind him; so that, although to himself they have been of little use while he lived, and now are of none, they are not lost; others may use them, and use them well. But he who has been acquiring learning all his days without expending it in its appropriate uses, leaves nothing behind him. He carries all with him. There is no bank for deposits of learning, as there is for lodging silver and gold. So far as his fellow-men are concerned, therefore, the money-hoarding miser does most good.

I don't know who the author is and apparently the book isn't all that good, but it was an interesting thought, so I thought I'd share it.

Of course, I disagree with a great many of its suppositions (which I will post in the comments, if you want to read them), but still, a decent idea in there somewhere, so I'll leave the post at that.


jon said...

Alright, I can't help commenting on this exerpt.

First off, I don't think most of our riches are hoarded, they are already spent.

Likewise, the "learned", or whatever you might call them, don't generally just soak stuff up like a sponge, rather they soak and filter and spew. The question is often whether anyone cares to listen or read or talk about what they're thinking about. So it becomes a question of its value or contribution. Fair questions, but I doubt very many just "hoard knowledge". In fact they generally will deeply desire to share (or spend) what they've been thinking about.

The question does become, however, what are you doing with what you have?

Thing is, I think it is a stereotype of academia that they are just amassing intellect for their own IQ scores. Most higher academics I've met seem either excited to talk about what they've been thinking about or frustrated that no one seems to give a crap. It perplexes them if no one seems to think it that important. The dude thinking about the string theory to the guy writing a thesis about bulls and goat in the book of Daniel are both at the same time humbly aware of the obscurity of their studies and extremely excited about the importance of what they are discovering. They have to remind themselves constantly that no one cares or else they come off as know-it-alls or they get blank stares in conversation.

Thing is, I think it is worth talking about what you are learning and it is worth hearing what others are learning. But there are a few problems that keep the ivory tower idea going. One is that people are intimidated to just enter into a conversation with someone who has made that one issue their life's work (or a portion of their life anwyay). The other is that we assume no one will care or that we'll make no sense or be rejected by blank stares and so we don't make the effort to communicate.

Its really too bad.

But, granting the usual levels of human pride, I really don't think most academics are looking to hoard knowledge. I used to think that, actually, but now see that the best academics (and there are lots of them) are those who see themselves as part of a large conversations (with people past and present) about the issues behind our existence (be that world issues, church issues, both, or what have you). They see themselves as making a small contribution (often extremely small) to an important dialogue.

I have a lot of respect for those people, because you can bust your butt for two years solid to think the crap out of one minor issue from one book just so that half a dozen people will read it and perhaps it can benefit the collective growing understanding of that issue. It definitely takes a certain kind of nerd to stick with soemthing like that, but I disagree with the sentiment that I used to have (in self-condemnation) that it is entirely selfish. It is very very hard work often with little to "show" for it, however you quantify that. But it can be very important, at least for who it affects.

And the thing is, the stuff that is happening in the universities trickles into culture (and Bible colleges into churches) eventually, sometimes even quickly, so the dialogue is important. The best academics are the ones trying to help it along with their best efforts and love.

Dave McG said...

I must say that the excerpt included above seems incredibly short sited, and your response quite appropriate. To me it sounds like the perspective of someone who has had a brief brush with academia and prematurely passed judgment upon it. These sort of ideas can be very frustrating and offensive to encounter because they just dumb everything down to the lowest common denominator. Maybe it is similar to those who question the value of art that is not geared directly towards saving souls.

Tony Tanti said...

I agree with your comments here Jon. Wealth is spent almost completely the vast majority of the time and I've never met an academic who didn't actively pursue avenues to share their knowledge.

There may be some academics who are frustrated with nobody caring and so they "hoard" their knowledge and there are certainly some wealthy people who do not spend their money and leave it to good causes. I would suggest that each of those are the exception though.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

What we really ought to do is stop eating, stop sleeping, stop enjoying the warmth of family and friends, give away all our money, donate all our organs to the needy, and devote every single remaining moment of our lives to convincing the world they need Jesus.

"More of Him and less of me."


I hate this line of reasoning. Allow me to quote the poet Charles Bukowski:

"beware those who either detest poverty
or are proud of it."

I'm glad you (Jon) didn't buy into this guy's crap.

Excuse the outburst, but this excerpt from "The Nature of Earnestness" frustrated me. It epitomizes the sort of trashy logic that pushed me away from Christianity.

jon said...

yeah, i agree with you. i guess at first it gave me a gut check on my potentially imbalanced obsession with learning. But even as i posted it i was seeing the crap being shoved around and i agree with the sentiments you are each sharing.