Saturday, August 29, 2009

Into the Ivory Tower

At left you see All Souls' College--apparently the one research-only university at the University of Oxford--and its "ivory towers". Although the phrase may originally have been used to denote honour, it is now most commonly pejorative; a put-down. In 1911 H. L. Bergson's used it to say that each member of society "must be ever attentive to his social surroundings - he must avoid shutting himself up in his own peculiar character as a philosopher in his ivory tower."

Wikipedia describes the ivory tower as "a world or atmosphere where intellectuals engage in pursuits that are disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life . . . . [including] esoteric, over-specialized, or even useless research; and academic elitism, if not outright condescension . . . . the implication being that specialists who are so deeply drawn into their scientific fields of study often can't find a [common ground] with laymen outside their 'ivory towers'. Moreover, this problem is often ignored and instead of actively searching for a solution, some scientists simply accept that even educated people can't understand them and live in intellectual isolation."

Well, I love the ivory towers. I think there is a time and place for intellectual isolation. People ought to take a monastic retreat at some point in their lives (be it spiritual or intellectual or both). Some people, as a matter of fact, ought to do it fairly often---for intentional periods and purposes.

I am quite thankful for the time my sinus specialist spent at medical school. I admired the many degrees and certifications on his wall for a good 20 minutes before he walked in the room, said hello, and stuffed metal objects into my head through the nostril. I'm thankful for the time he spent in "intellectual isolation."

Of course, we realize we need specialists. We are glad to have places where people go to think about particular things. In most cases we are largely uninterested in doing it ourselves, and are glad someone is willing to go do it. We'll pay them well when they come out. We'll pay them not to use their big words on us, of course, but we're glad they know their stuff, and are comforted to hear at least a few big words before we cut them off with "give it to me in English doc". We'd rightly say it more often to our auto-mechanic too, if we weren't so disoriented by the pin-ups on the wall, the Aerosmith on the radio, and the menacing invoice printing off loudly from the urine-yellow computer on the counter.

But then there are theologians and philosophers. I'm not sure we know what to do with them anymore. I mean, you can get what sounds like decent theology and philosophy pretty much anywhere you want, it isn't hard to find what you are itching to hear, and you can usually get it quite readily from someone who someone else thought worthy of the title "doctor".

Besides, hasn't everything been thought over enough? What is the relevance of one more doctor? One more professor? One more guy in grey hair holed up in an office writing books that will only be read by other guys in grey hair holed up in their offices? "What's the point of that?" I used to ask myself, and still do, but more often back when I was still denying the part of me that desperately wanted to be that grey-haired guy one day.

Well, there's plenty to say about that I'm sure, but suffice it for now I'll say three things and then give a personal reaction:

1) Even if it was just that, it would be worth it. In the information age and the age of rapid change, perhaps more than ever, we need at least a few people who are out of it enough to be able to stop and think about it half clearly. Even if it is just going over old ideas with a fine-toothed comb, I find comfort in knowing that some people are doing it. And if that's my fate too, well, I'll accept it with honour and dignity and give it all I've got. Even if nothing of value is unearthed, or if something is and is never heard about, it'd still be a worthy vocation.

2) Yes, one should avoid "sheltered and unworldly", but one should also remember that one's study might only be "disconnected from the practical concerns of everyday life" precisely because everyday life's practical concerns might not be all there is worth thinking about! As a matter of fact, many of them may upon further thought be seen as totally wrong-headed!

3) Having said both of those things, it also needs to be said that one who is too out of it won't know what to think about, or may even misinterpret the trends (as so many modern Christians do with postmodernism). One has to be with it too. The goal of any sort of "disconnection" from everyday life should be to reconnect; to have an impact, to have something worth saying, or questions worth asking, in context. The accuracy of one's interpretation of one's own time and place, as well as one's application, impact and relevance, will be related to the amount one has "remained attentive to one's social surroundings."

I'll admit that this is one thing I'm nervous about. I'm nervous on two fronts (and I'm not fishing for "go get 'em Jon" comments here, really): 1) That I'll be able to keep up with the technical language and know-how of the specialists I will be studying under and with, and 2) That I'll be able to do that and "keep it real", even find a way to communicate what I'm thinking about, with my family, friends, church, and society.

I'm afraid I might be naive. I do realize that I'm going to give an inordinate amount of my next three years to all-out research, writing, reading groups, and other very nerdy and intellectually isolating things. I realize that this is all gearing up to the production of one long book on one narrow topic which may be read by next to no one. I can take a certain joy in that, actually. But I also intend fully to be a good dad and husband, to enjoy football, music and film, and to every step of the way ask myself what difference it makes and try to talk openly about it. (How soon and in what capacity I get back to blogging again, you'll understand, remains to be seen).

Of course there will be some sacrificial demands on time and attention, as well as labourious days of footnote-scouring which should not become the segue from my four year old's dinner-table story about goldfish.

Then again, maybe it would be worth a try sometimes. Otherwise what hope is there of ever connecting? After all, isn't some of the fault with whatever went wrong with the ivory tower with the people who started chalking up all heady talk to "academic elitism" and "outright condescension" just because some of it is? (I realize that is no reason to make my kids the victim of dictionary games, but you get my point.)

Certainly there will be many many days spent on tedious things that only build to something potentially worthwhile. That's work. That's fine. I enjoy that. But ultimately I want whatever I go and bury my head in at University to be relatable and useful. My prayer, in fact, is that it will be in service to the church and the world (even if my particular contribution only touches a minute corner of it).

There may be no better challenge in this regard than the one that comes from the subject of my studies itself. After all, I am heading off to study God as revealed in Jesus of Nazareth. By grace I have as my subject the Creator who so loved creation that He gave Himself to it in freedom, that it might love Him in freedom! Thus, contrary to the way wikipedia put it, in this case one might actually hope to be "so deeply drawn into their scientific field of study" that the gaze is moved perpetually from self-loving isolation to self-giving love for the world, along with it being reconciled to God in Jesus Christ.


Stewart said...

That is the best discussion of the "ivory tower" thing if have ever come across. Keep in mind your community of friends and family will help keep you relevant as you seek to be totally immersed in your field of study. I continue to look forward to what comes out of your mind and into this blog (and other venues of communication). "May God bless you and protect you. May the Lord smile on you and be gracious to you. May the Lord show you his favor and give you his peace." (NLT)

Anonymous said...

Great post, Jon. Two thoughts: 1) who's to say what "every-day" life is anyway? Or that the academic does every day is less every-day than what the tradesman, or the doctor, or whatever. A thing's utility is not the sum of it's worth.

2) of all the contemporary scholars I've read who's been able to build the kind of bridges between ivory towers and non-ivory towers, N T WRight has done the most eloquent and incisive job of it I've ever seen. I'd rank John Stott and David Guretzky up there, too. Let guys like this give you hope!

Dale Harris

Stewart said...

i gotta read more NT Wright...and David Guretzky too.

Anonymous said...

I often wonder what *is* worth thinking about. One day, while walking through a row of books at work, I stopped because I realized I had been thinking through how to finish my working tasks all morning, but hadn't thought of art, my family, or my husband at all. I stood there frozen for a moment, and then moved on, opened the workroom door and went inside.

I guess what I am hoping to achieve by relating this is, that I am coming to find immersion in tasks that are not intentional harmful. In contrast, immersion in intentional tasks usually works out to goodness - even an unselfish inward gaze can be sustained for periods of time without detriment. In your case, in study and art, I think immersion is not harmful, but quenching even if it is inward focused at the same time. Why? because of your reasoning behind it. You have intentionally set out a thought process to guide you, to accompany your family and study.

Even so, maybe it is worth verbalizing concerns that *are* worth thinking about either wholly, or partially. For me, these might be: the ones that sound like alarms (like at the library), the ones that make your mind freeze in awe when watching a film, or seeing a light cast against a lonesome face, the feeling of a head on your shoulder, the call to prayer, the call to learn and decipher, the call to walk silently through the streets and bring nothing with you.

It is a difficult thing, to embark on any absorbing task, whether you are a library assistant, a student like you are, or a mother at home...something will be cut out at every turn of the day. This is good, and necessary but also the challenge. When you are breaking ground on a studious thought, you may not think about the way your son looked at you that morning. The good thing is, however, that he will be there when you return. Your ultimate goal was defined early on - for your thoughts to include him.

The opportunity for reconnection is - as you already noted- to have a diverse life. To make questionable segue's at supper, to think about football while you are reading a manuscript (just for a moment), and to ensure that indulgence in art never goes too far, so far that you are alienated from the task you set out to achieve in the first place. Your task seems to be humanity, the world, the place you have been set - it will be hard to go too far with that..

I think about how Tarkovsky wrote in his journals, things that would imply his separation from the world. his art would imply that as well. Regardless it has been proven over and over, that somehow in this world, it is possible to create Rublev, and at the same time be intent on fixing a roof, miss a loved one, drunkenly shave off a mustache, or notice deep illness in one's self.

In contrast, Tolstoy's Ivan Ilych noticed nothing, not even the most blatent alarms. Tolstoy imagined the whole world living in Death, regardless of their task. The fault? total immersion in an unintentional task - a task accepted and acted upon as an unthinking reaction to surrounding society- an involuntarily controlled beating heart, inside a body that is brain dead.

Before I end, I would like to say that I really love your note that long days will be spent creating something only potentially worthwhile. What a common feeling, about life entirely. Even about this post I am writing right now. It is nice to know for sure though, that there are things that we do every day that *are unquestionably* worthwhile. I can think of some right now, and I know you can too.

Jon Coutts said...

i wish i had time to reflect in print, but don't, so til next time i will just say for your comments: bless you.

Matthew A. Wilkinson said...

Just now, finally, got around to reading this.

It's so, so lovely. I'll echo Stewart's sentiment that this is the best discussion of the ivory tower thing I've come across.

What more to say?

I've found consolation and, to some degree, community on thissideofsunday, so I'm sad to think it might be fading away. But it's like my Mom told me when I moved out at 18: "I'm sad but I'm glad."

I really need to read those Tarkovsky journals.

Becky said...

Sigh. This is all too good to read. Thank you everyone, especially Jon. This is just what my overwhelmed brain and heart needed just now. I like this "community". Thanks.

Jon, Angie, boys: I'm sorry I didn't get to bid you farewell. I'm glad the internet exists so that I can somewhat stay connected to y'all, whether you know it or not. :) Blessings to you all and to the family (particularly grandparents) back in Canada. This is hard, but definitely worth it.

Jon Coutts said...

Hey thanks. The internet is hard to come by these days but stay tuned, thissideofsunday will be back . . . and feels like it has lots of stories to tell already . . .