The Self-Justification of Elite Nerds

A bunch of academic bloggers have been talking about the American Scholar essay by William Deresiewicz. The always-perceptive Timothy Burke offers some insightful comments about the general problems of elite education.

Burke is also a lot kinder to Deresiewicz than I'm inclined to be. Because, frankly, the piece pisses me off, from the very first paragraph:

It didn't dawn on me that there might be a few holes in my education until I was about 35. I'd just bought a house, the pipes needed fixing, and the plumber was standing in my kitchen. There he was, a short, beefy guy with a goatee and a Red Sox cap and a thick Boston accent, and I suddenly learned that I didn't have the slightest idea what to say to someone like him. So alien was his experience to me, so unguessable his values, so mysterious his very language, that I couldn't succeed in engaging him in a few minutes of small talk before he got down to work. Fourteen years of higher education and a handful of Ivy League dees, and there I was, stiff and stupid, struck dumb by my own dumbness. "Ivy retardation," a friend of mine calls this. I could carry on conversations with people from other countries, in other languages, but I couldn't talk to the man who was standing in my own house.

He goes on from there about how elite colleges and universities unceasingly reinforce their elite status, and flatter their overly-entitled students. I'm not going to claim that this doesn't happen-- Lord knows, I went to college with some people who sport an impressive sense of entitlement, and I've taught more than a few since becoming faculty.

But really, talking to plumbers has nothing whatsoever to do with education, elite or otherwise. It's entirely a matter of personal choices-- if you find yourself unable to make small talk with someone in a blue-collar job, it's because you have chosen to be the sort of person who is incapable of talking to people in blue-collar jobs.

I mean, as Scott notes in Tim Burke's comments, if nothing else, baseball would seem to be a pretty obvious place to start, assuming you've already exhausted the topic of all this weather we've been having. And really, it takes a significant effort to live in Massachusetts and not pick up enough about the Red Sox to be able to fake your way through the obligatory five minutes of idle chatter with your plumber.

You're not expected to be able to carry on detailed conversations about the merits of copper pipes vs. PVC, or different brands of tools. Small talk is just that-- small. It's idle chatter about topics of general interest, and it takes work to put yourself in enough of a bubble to have absolutely no common cultural reference points.

Deresiewicz's anecdote isn't representative of any general trend in academia, elite or otherwise, save for the tiny subset of people who make a virtue of their isolation. Sadly, the professoriate is absolutely crawling with them. You know the type, the ones who manage to smugly work the fact that they don't own a television, let alone watch television, into any conversation, who won't cop to watching a movie that doesn't come with subtitles, and who profess absolute ignorance of popular music after about 1920.

These people are also depressingly prone to long laments about the shallowness and lack of character of kids these days (though they would never be so declasse as to use the phrase "kids these days"). And they annoy me to no end.

They annoy me in much the same way that self-justifying nerds do (see also the Making Light discussion): because I used to be one of them, and now I see how wrong I was. People at elite schools aren't incapable of interacting with hoi pollloi because of their excessively elite education, any more than nerds are unpopular because the other kids are envious of their brains. In both cases, their social failings have the same source: either by choice or through inexperience, they are unable to see that the things they are interested in are not the only things worth being interested in.

When you get right down to it, that's the one and only secret of making small talk with people from other classes or other backgrounds. It helps if you actively share some interests, but that's not a necessary condition. All you really need to be able to carry on a conversation with another person is a willingness to accept that their interests are worthy of discussion.

You don't have to be a big sports fan to talk to someone who is a sports fan-- you just need to accept that sports are a reasonable topic of conversation, and refrain from changing the channel when the sports news comes on. You don't have to like baseball, you just need to have enough of a connection with mass culture to know whether the local team has been winning or losing recently.

This applies to all sorts of areas-- you don't need to watch "American Idol," but you should have the minimal pop-culture awareness to know roughly what it is. You don't need to listen to rap or hip-hop, but you should at least be able to recognize the bigger names. You don't have to go to the latest Will Ferrell movie, but you should at least be aware that there's a guy named Will Ferrell, who makes movies that are allegedly funny.

And if all else fails, you can even turn ignorance to your advantage, provided you're willing to listen to a lecture about the virtues of whatever the person you're talking to is into. "You know, I've never understood how this points business works in NASCAR..." is a perfectly good conversational sentence, provided you can smile politely while the other person explains the scoring.

This may sound like a low-class version of "How To Talk About Books You Haven't Read," but ultimately, that's what incidental social interactions are about. You're not expected to have a deep, searching conversation with your plumber, you're just supposed to chat for a few minutes to indicate that you see them as more than just a robot who snakes out your drains on command.

The only way to make yourself completely incapable of talking to your plumber is by both deliberately cutting yourself off from mass culture and being unable or unwilling to even feign interest in what they are interested in. That's a conversation-stopper all right, because it sends a very clear message: "You are so far beneath me that I won't even pretend that you're worth talking to."

As I've said in the past, when I read that "Nerds" piece, what I hear is myself at age 13, trying to justify to myself the fact that nobody in my junior high class liked me. The problem wasn't with them, though-- they weren't jealous of my brains-- and it wasn't my innate superiority-- my interests were not so deep and mature as to be beyond their comprehension. The problem was that I hadn't learned to play the game of social interaction-- I took a perverse sort of pride in not being interested in cars, or sports, or much of popular music, and didn't hesitate to let my classmates know that.

My social life improved dramatically when I learned that many of those topics are perfectly valid topics of conversation. I developed an interest in sports and pop music, and while I never got into cars, I at least learned to keep my mouth shut when other people were talking about them, rather than saying "Cars are stupid," and earning myself another verbal beat-down.

Deresiewicz is at least putting a different spin on the tired old "fans are slans" line of argument, recognizing that the problem is with him, not with the rest of society. He's still engaged in annoying self-justification, though, by trying to pass the blame for his behavior (and that of many of his students) off onto the elite educational system.

What I hear when I read that opening paragraph, and the rest of the piece, is not a genuine expression of concern over a real problem with the university system. What I hear is someone who was forced to confront the fact that he's an asshole, and is trying to find someone else to blame for his asshole behavior.


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Perhaps Deresiewicz doesn't know anything real world useful. Uncle Al passed high school Wood Shop without incurring Mr. Tribeck's displeasure. More than three decades later a wooden gate appeared from raw wood and nails via a ruler, pruning saw, and piece of paper used as a square. Mr. Tribeck had all his fingers.

The left tail of the bell curve should be allowed to prosper by its own appetites, without intervention. The middle hump is useful and must be coddled. The future resides way to the right. A rich mine averages one gram of diamond in a tonne of rock. The gram not the tonne is important - and then only after obtention and grading.

The thing is, even your rant is still predicated on the same kind of condescension about the plumber. "You're not expected to have a deep, searching conversation with your plumber, you're just supposed to chat for a few minutes to indicate that you see them as more than just a robot who snakes out your drains on command." Wow... or you could have actual interest about other human beings on the planet and what they do. Even worse, there is no excuse for a hard scientist not talking to a plumber. Most of us both deal with equipment on a daily basis, and in fact, I've had some really interesting technical conversations with repair people and often they are very experienced and with some great insights into what they are fixing. Good repairpeople have an enormous technical knowledge as well as being pragmatic. Why on earth would I be talking down to them? Why are earth are you just half-assing it by feigning interest? We are all just human beings. Sometimes the refridgerator isn't any less interesting than a scientific instrument. Not to mention, many old academics are one-trick ponies and hothouse flowers, happy to be exploited by academia, as opposed to the plumber who has a viable self-run business and has been fixing and installing complicated jobs for decades.

How about - "How did you end up becoming a plumber? Do you like the job? Should I recommend it as an option for my nephew who likes to work with his hands?" How about "What's the weirdest thing you've found blocking a pipe?" Or, I don't know, whatever you talk about with someone you meet anywhere else? Kids, sports, local issues, traffic, TV, your brother who drives you nuts, your favourite hobby, whatever.

The plumber might read Proust at night. Or not - but neither do most elite types. Maybe he prefers Tom Clancy or has finds movies more his thing. This plumber is a human being who has family, friends, hobbies, opinions, and so on, not a representative of his class.

(OK, sorry, ranty, but I found the article just as irritating. Education doesn't take away, and every Ivy League college has loads of people on campus and around it that are not students or alumni. All it takes is a moment to notice them.)

well stated 'um..'

As I've said in the past, when I read that "Nerds" piece, what I hear is myself at age 13, trying to justify to myself the fact that nobody in my junior high class liked me. The problem wasn't with them, though-- they weren't jealous of my brains-- and it wasn't my innate superiority-- my interests were not so deep and mature as to be beyond their comprehension. The problem was that I hadn't learned to play the game of social interaction

This seems like a misreading of Graham to me. He pretty explicitly says that he doesn't believe it's an issue of jealousy over smarts. His central point matches yours: nerds do not devote the same emphasis to learning how to interact well that other teenagers do. He also clearly believes that this is probably a good thing in the relatively meaningless context of high school. One can debate that - maybe high school popularity skills are transferable to adult social functioning - but generally I think it's a really good essay. Most of his stuff makes for interesting reading. Some of it has almost gotten me to the point where I'm curious to learn Lisp just to see what's so awesome about it.

#4 - Yeah, there are all kinds of other people out there. I think what Deresiewicz is complaining about is that the Ivy League culture is such that it dissuades people from doing that noticing. I agree that the bits about the plumber and inability to interact ring false, but I do think he raises a couple of interesting points in the essay. In particular, the dynamic of second chances vs. rigorous deadlines that he brings up as a contrast between Yale/Cleveland State seems dead on to me. I'm pretty sure had I gone to a state school either my ass would have been busted or I would have learned my lesson and gotten my stuff a little more together. That almost certainly would have been a good thing for me.

In talking about his miseducation, Deresiewicz reminded me of one of my gripes, which is the idea that the onus is primarily on the educational institution to educate its students despite themselves. The relationship should be, in my opinion, one of facilitation. The school is there to provide a good environment and useful tools to help you educate yourself, but if education and not accreditation is what you're after, there's really no substitute for doing it yourself. Occasionally people would complain at college about how the college was failing to educate them properly and it would drive me up the wall. I wish I could remember more of their specific charges.

But really, talking to plumbers has nothing whatsoever to do with education, elite or otherwise. It's entirely a matter of personal choices-- if you find yourself unable to make small talk with someone in a blue-collar job, it's because you have chosen to be the sort of person who is incapable of talking to people in blue-collar jobs.

This is absolutely correct. I have spent my entire fucking life in elite academic and non-academic institutions. I not only have and enjoy casual conversations with all sorts of different people regardless of whether they themselves have had similar educational/professional histories, but I have many close friends who have had very dissimilar "non-elite" educational/professional histories.

In my experience, all you need to do to form a connection with someone is express genuine interest in them as a person. You wanna connect with the plumber who's in your kitchen, and you can't think of a motherfucking thing to say? Ask the dude about that interesting tool he is deploying under your sink.

The other day I passed some dudes drilling a hole in the street near my house. I asked them what the fuck they were doing, and ended up in a half-hour conversation pursuant to which I learned the basics of core sampling for soil engineering.

Any elite-educated individual who can't carry on a decent conversation with a plumber is just an asshole, plain and simple.

Or, one could take the spotlight off one's own brilliant self, and listen for a change instead of stretching the old pie hole.

Or you could even politely fake an entry-level interest in plumbing, if you don't think it's too far beneath you. God forbid you should stuff more useful knowledge into your already overcrowded brain. Heavens, you might even be able to troubleshoot your plumbing issue yourself if it happens again and be able to speak knowledgeably about it to the plumber when you call.

I work in IT software support and training for a major multinational engineering company. I have two kinds of manager users, those who are too busy being lofty department managers to soil their hands on the electronic paperwork, and those who listened in class when I described how to report common user issues. The first kind submit help tickets that say, "Something is wrong with my machine. Please call me." The second kind send screenshots, error messages, and what happens when they try to do a task, and they say things like, "Please send me the instructions to run the configuration." Guess whose issues get fixed first.

By speedwell (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

You don't have to do a damned thing but accept that the person in front of you is worth every bit as much as you. It's not about shared interest or popular culture or where you went to school, it's about accepting people as human beings, no matter what they happen to do for a living or how much money they make. Or, for that matter, what color they are.

There's plenty of people in academia who don't make virtue an isolation but still manage, without intentionally doing it, to live in tiny bubbles completely cut off from the rest of the world. They aren't smug or self-congratulatory about it (often because they aren't even aware of it), that's just the way it is.

In short, I question the assertion that this only occurs because people are doing it because they're proud of being elitist.

By El Christador (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

um.. @ #3: one can not want to engage in small talk for many reasons. Off the top of my head, there's being extremely busy, preferring that the person wielding scissors near your face concentrate on where the sharp pointy things are being placed, and being uncomfortable at the way the other person is invading your personal space.

or you could have actual interest about other human beings on the planet and what they do

Sure, in general. But why try to chat with the guy fixing your sink or whatever? He's there to do a job that you're paying him for. Acknowledge his worth as a person, sure. But it strikes me as much easier on everyone if you just let him do his job in peace.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

um..: The thing is, even your rant is still predicated on the same kind of condescension about the plumber. "You're not expected to have a deep, searching conversation with your plumber, you're just supposed to chat for a few minutes to indicate that you see them as more than just a robot who snakes out your drains on command." Wow... or you could have actual interest about other human beings on the planet and what they do.

What I was stating was the absolute minimum requirement. Obviously, it would be better to actually care about your plumber as a human being, but Deresiewicz has already demonstrated through his inability to talk to the plumber that he doesn't actually care. Faking it is the next best thing.

Also, as Mike Bruce notes at #13, even if you do respect the worth of your plumber as a human being, he (or she) is primarily there to do a job, not have lengthy conversations. A little conversation is a social good, but too much conversation gets in the way of their need to earn a living by fixing pipes.

Wow. I haven't read the original article, but Chad, that was one of the most enriching blog posts I've read this year. Thanks for taking the time to do it.

Chad, While I give you that his plumber point was much more complex than he makes it out to be, do you think there's anything to the argument that there's a cost to rewarding "hoop jumpers and teacher pleasers?" I think there's a lot in the article, if you can get past the first part, that shapes an interesting conversation about the American K-12 and higher ed system, i.e.:

If so few kids come to college understanding this, it is no wonder. They are products of a system that rarely asked them to think about something bigger than the next assignment. The system forgot to teach them, along the way to the prestige admissions and the lucrative jobs, that the most important achievements can't be measured by a letter or a number or a name. It forgot that the true purpose of education is to make minds, not careers.

My point was that, your 'rant' inadvertently betrayed that on some level you have the same discomfort as what was originally being discussed, and the same distinction of 'otherness'. "Blue-collar job", "play the game"... it's still a technical approach to dealing with and categorizing people that betrays underlying discomfort.

Also, for regarding some of the comments about 'paying to talk', or 'bothering people', there are plenty of cases where one can talk with plumbers or many other people and not 'pay' for it or distract them. I'm also not saying you have to have an in-depth discussion with every person you meet, and you people seemed to have turned this into an either/or proposition: ignore them or talk their ear off. Sorry but that's not my point. The last conversation I had was with a dishwasher repairman, and it was 'free' because it was a fix for a recall, so I paid nothing. I learned some interesting things about dishwasher wiring, and he was not bothered by the conversation because he continued to initiate conversation and to share information with me. Again, the point is not about feeling obligated to make small talk with a repairperson. It's about having the interest, and making the effort, to make an actual human connection with another person, even just for 5 minutes, something many people in academia suck at. Which I acknowledge was still Chad's main point.

But seriously though, some of the comments here just reinforce the original points being made about out-of-touch academics. Is it really the end of the world to talk to someone? Is that extra 5-10 minutes you 'paid for' really such an expense? Might it just be also that people do a better job on their work when they feel valued and that they are doing it for someone who isn't a dickhead? My experience has generally supported this.

I think that making small talk comes much more naturally to some of us than others, and I grant that the social environment you are in greatly affects what topics will come easily to your mind. Most of us want small talk to be a semi-autopilot skill (e.g., we know the plumber wants to be able to do her job).

I agree small talk is worth learning, though I don't buy the "just talk about sports" advice. Talking about sports requires some specialized knowledge, and when I've observed people seriously talking about sports, I'm always amazed at how much detail (and sometimes how many stats) they retain.

I'm really interested in plumbing, but I know absolutely nothing about it, and I've always been a bit too intimidated to talk to my plumber about it. The last time I talked to my plumber I think we only talked about his kids (who I invited in, and who were totally adorable).

I don't think I fail the "treating people like people" test, but I think I utterly fail the small talk test.
I don't know. I think of sports, plumbing and Proust all to be equally potentially-incomprehensible.

Becca, I don't see how you 'failed' at small-talk. The plumber came over, and you were kind enough to invite his kids in, and you talked about them. That's all it takes to make a human connection.

I find that most people love to share about what they do for a living. Which brings me to my last point: if you want to make an easy connection with anyone, as someone else mentioned, none of this really even requires talking, it just requires LISTENING.

Often, I've found that many people who I have made small talk with (cab drivers, hair dressers, etc.) actually are more interested in talking to me about physics than anything else. Some of them want to know what I think about string theory, or something else that they've read about in a magazine or popular book. And a lot of them are interested to hear about the education process (I just graduated from undergrad). So you may be surprised; that person might just be interested in hearing about something YOU are interested in.

hm. No TV? Check. Proud of it? No, relieved is more like it. Frankly the things baffle me. Can't make small talk? Check. Don't know anything about popular music made after 1920? Check. Don't know anything about popular music made before 1920 either. Won't cop to watching a movie that came without subtitles? No. While I see very few movies (about 1 a year) most do not have subtitles, and were made in the US. As for sports, I find them boring. Now... can you guess where I grew up and went to school?

I am one of these "non-elite" working people being referred to here. I don't work with my hands, however; I've been an administrative-support person for roughly 15 years. I am college-educated, scientifically literate, and able to chatter on socially about topics from hockey to geology to healthcare reform. I can (re)assure the academics in the crowd that there is nothing in Professor Orzel's post that is particular to academics, and I can also attest that it is, indeed, the mark of a grade-A asshole when one can't be bothered to dredge up at least a few seconds of feigned interest in someone who is not only helping you, but in my case, is more than likely doing a lot of things on a daily basis that make you look like hot shit in your business endeavors.

Truly, it's not too much to ask a question now and again relating directly to the "support" person you're dealing with. (For my part I'm amazed when anyone asks me anything other than "If you went to college why are you doing this?") I also agree, however, that faux interest is better than no interest, unless one is so dreadfully bad at faking it that it would only make the situation uncomfortable - in which case, that's more the other person's problem than mine.

And at the base level this is nothing to do with "elites" or any other social's just a matter of knowing how to treat one another with humanity and respect.

Just say, hey dude, don't you agree that all work is honorable, and be surprised when he quickly tweaks your appendages with a pipe wrench.

(1) My father was Valedictorian in high school, and graduated Harvard cum laude, but was no "nerd." He'd been captain of his high school baseball, foootball, and basketball teams. To him, "The Game" was the annual Harvard-Yale football game. Though he also watched the Army-Navy game with interest, and the World Series. Seems to me that many Ivy League schools have intense sports fixations. So why not ask the plumber: "Are you a Red Sox fan?" and be willing to share your peak Ivy League sports experiences and his non-Ivy league ones?

(2) My wife and I enjoy talking to the postman, the plumber, and other blue-collar workers who come to our home. One sure-fire conversation option is to ask about their children. Sometimes those children are going to Ivy League schools!

That someone would be so socially clueless as to show us how socially clueless they are is, at least, a point for consistency. But how lonely, how sad!

My advice is: next time you're on line at a bank or a grocery line, turn around and talk to the person right behind you. That's tactically better than the person right in front of you, in case the person in front of you gets called forward by the teller or cashier.

PRACTICE talking to people you're around, at other than your place of work. Without practice, how will you ever get better at it?

I find that most people love to share about what they do for a living.

Yes. Definitely.

I'll admit to being an ignoramus on the subject of pop culture. No TV: Check. I average less than one in-theater movie a year (living in a town with no movie theaters doesn't help). Pop music and I went our separate ways around 1993. I haven't been following sports too closely either.

In spite of this, I can still manage small talk with contractors by asking about what they are doing. They know I make my living as a scientist, and they are always willing to explain what they are doing and why. Just like in physics, the problem can be hard the first time you encounter it, but the solution is obvious once you've seen it. After a while, they'll start to share their "war" stories. In the process I have learned quite a bit about my house, and it's been helping me to prioritize the various major projects a 40-plus year old house needs.

By Eric Lund (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

I was told that the three things a person must know before becoming a plumber is: feces flows downhill, pay is on Friday, don't bite your nails. And when I started running pinball machines in bars (as a hobby business), and I found I needed to make small talk with bar owners, I began following baseball. Sports is insidious and should be avoided at all costs. It's like getting hooked on watching a soap opera.

By Carl Brannen (not verified) on 18 Jun 2008 #permalink

Vos Post,

A good idea, in an idealized world. A really bad idea in the one we live in. I was in the grocery store today after a full shift. I don't want someone trying to chat with me in line, unless it's someone I already know and am comfortable with, when I'm mentally exhausted already.

I was a building contractor for about a decade. When conversing with clients, I longed for the opportunity to slip in the fact that I had a degree in biochem. But those opportunities were rare.

Is it that bloggers and their commenters are mostly people who can talk to their plumbers, but they find talking to certain academics difficult? I refuse to respect and be interested in an academic who can't do anything except his job, but I will respect and be interested in the plumber fixing my drains, who I sincerely hope can do their job?
It's possible to be a good researcher without being obsessive, I guess, but learning how to balance whatever degree of obsessiveness we have with talking to the plumber -- or is it that I apply my obsessiveness to my relationship with my plumber? -- is something that I still find a challenge.
I'm not sure whether I can get annoyed at the academic who hasn't yet discovered the downside to being aloof, when the upside to being aloof -- Tiger Woods style? -- is sometimes pretty clear. Or if, having discovered the downside, they decide to keep with the aloof for the upside, I might like their determination or hate their pigheadedness, depending on exactly how they play it. On the whole, if I call someone aloof it's because I don't like the way their personality works overall, if I liked their obsessiveness in their context I would use a different word. The obsessive personality is, I think, prone to fitting people into boxes as yet another manifestation of gross generalization (qv).

About sports, TV, American Idol, pop music and movies...

The people I've known who advertise the fact that they avoid them all were mostly students, not professors. And yeah, I was one of them once.

What I figure is that most people get the "meaning" in their lives from their work and their families. What they do for fun -- sports, movies, whatever -- is just that, fun. But when you are a student, with few responsibilities (except to yourself), no job or spouse or kids depending on you, you may seek more meaning in your leisure time activities. Everything has to be great art, or a great message, or a community-building endeavor. Your leisure activities are the only things that distinguish you from all of the other students, doing the exact same homework... But hopefully you eventually find work and relationships that are more demanding and more rewarding, and you learn to enjoy harmless fun for what it is. Not that you can't still enjoy deep, too, but not everything has to be deep.

Also, I like this relevant comic strip...

But I did think the parts of the essay about hoop-jumping teacher-pleasers made some good points. I'm glad I didn't go to an Ivy, in retrospect, because I like hanging out with laid-back, lazy people.

But seriously though, some of the comments here just reinforce the original points being made about out-of-touch academics. Is it really the end of the world to talk to someone? Is that extra 5-10 minutes you 'paid for' really such an expense?

That isn't what I was trying to say with the "he's being paid to be there" comment. What I mean is: the nature of the relationship between you and the plumber is a commercial one. He didn't drop by to hang out with you. You're not buddies. That doesn't mean you treat him badly, or disrespectfully. If he's a talkative person, sure, you don't brush him off, and you engage with what he's saying. That's just basic person-to-person stuff. I'm just saying there's no need to initiate conversation if you're not the kind of person who likes talking to strangers.

By Mike Bruce (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

Mary: What are you on about? My favorite way to kill time as a student was Tiny Toons and Animaniacs. The last thing I wanted after spending time doing stupid programming or math tricks was more shit that required use of my brain. Many a midnight was spent watching American Gladiators or Tales From The Darkside on the couch with a beer.

There's nothing wrong with being oblivious to TV, or ignorant about popular culture. Sure, you'll miss some interesting TV shows--and the occasional Red Sox World Series victory--but there's nothing wrong with that.

However, if you don't watch TV, you're not in any position to be condescending about it. Maybe there's some genuinely good shows hiding in all those cable channels. How would you know, if you don't watch TV?

Of course, ignoring popular culture might make you a stranger in your own country. But that doesn't prevent you from having meaningful conversations with people--you just need to be genuinely interested in their lives.

After all, it's perfectly possible to have interesting conversations with people in other countries, who generally have very different popular culture. Really, it's just a matter of being interested in people.

What a nice "welcome back" rant!

I suppose he mostly indicates what sort of person ends up chosen to teach English at Yale.

I've learned a lot talking to tradesmen. The guy doing maintenance on the heat pump showed me exactly how the hot and cold sides of the system get reversed when you switch modes. (It's in the plumbing.) A telephone repairman fixing lightning damage to a neighbor's house told me two excellent stories that make a good teaching tool regarding potentials and the paths currents might take.

Wow, William Deresiewicz is a wanker. Talking with someone outside your social group or area of expertise should be a joy. Got a plumber in the house? Ask him about PVC vs copper and actually learn something!

Whether or not you talk to someone is irrelevant - The English professor and the plumber are both people, and should respect each other on that basis. The fact that the professor sees their difference in IQ/formal education/interests as being more important and disabling than their shared humanity (in the literal sense) - that's the problem. Assuming that both are morally decent people, then neither one is superior! If it was his education that taught him he was superior (and no doubt it played a part), then his education has serious problems.

As a father to a very bright kid with Asperger's syndrome I can attest to the fact that some human beings are decidedly handicapped when it comes to social skills. Granted this is quite different from deliberate effete snobism.

By Fernando Magyar (not verified) on 19 Jun 2008 #permalink

And what kills me even more is the inherent assumption by some of these intellectual snobs that people like plumbers and secretaries and the such are not as smart as them. In fact one of the single smartest people I know is a secretary. I'm also reminded of a lobsterman up here in Maine who has a degree from Princeton (and famously tossed his degree into the ocean).

Jamie Bowden @ 33: Well, you probably aren't the kind of person who has trouble talking to plumbers either. Like all right-thinking people, you can bond over Animaniacs.

Pop culture gives almost everybody something in common. But NPR-listening latte-sipping sushi-eating Volvo-driving Democr-- Ivy League student elitists cut themselves off voluntarily from that culture sometimes. (For some reason these "elitist" charges stick to Dems more, even though all the Republican candidates come from the same backgrounds and are if anything more out-of-touch.)

Why do they cut themselves off, is the question. 'Cause it seems shallow to them and they need more out of their entertainment. Like, um, Jack Black in High Fidelity, if you've seen (or read) that. He's a music snob, but really all kinds of snobs are the same way. They look down on culture that's not "important" enough. But like I said, I think that's something you can grow out of, as your priorities shift and your entertainment becomes less defining for your identity.

But maybe this Deresiewicz guy has a point, to the extent that in the Ivy's, it might be harder to grow out of that kind of snobbishness, because you only ever meet people from the same sub-culture, with the same upper-class ambitions.

Wouldn't it be ironic to find that the plumber can't abide baseball, likes to listen to Handel's Water Music while working, and has an intense interest in the latest Proceedings of the American Physical Society ?

Mary: I wouldn't go so far as to call me right thinking, I'm pretty odd, but I have named all the machines on the network at home after various Animaniacs characters and have the DVD releases that are out so if only Tiny Toons would get released...and Daria.

In any event, yeah, I can chat with the plumber. Electricians are generally more interesting though. You get some really strange but cool people working with electricity for a living.

I think everyone in the world knows things I don't know.

On the other hand, in lunch table conversation, a colleague who was redoing his house made the comment, "Why am I, a professor of medieval English literature, instructing you, a carpenter, on how properly to install this beam?"

By Jim Thomerson (not verified) on 20 Jun 2008 #permalink

"tiny subset of people who make a virtue of their isolation. Sadly, the professoriate is absolutely crawling with them"

If they're a "tiny subset," how can the professoriat be "crawling with them"?

By johnshade (not verified) on 20 Jun 2008 #permalink

I wonder if plumbers sit around and discuss whether they should bother to make small-talk with academics?

Steve Martin joke follows.

Ok, I don't like to gear my material to the audience but I'd like to make an exception because I was told that there is a convention of plumbers in San Francisco this week - I understand about 30 of them came down to the show tonight - so before I came out I worked-up a joke especially for the plumbers. Those of you who aren't plumbers probably won't get this and won't think it's funny, but I think those of you who are plumbers will really enjoy this...

This lawn supervisor was out on a sprinkler maintenance job and he started working on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7" gangly wrench. Just then, this little apprentice leaned over and said, "You can't work on a Findlay sprinkler head with a Langstrom 7" wrench." Well this infuriated the supervisor, so he went and got Volume 14 of the Kinsley manual, and he reads to him and says, "The Langstrom 7" wrench can be used with the Findlay sprocket." Just then, the little apprentice leaned over and said, "It says sprocket not socket!"