There is a museum uptown, in a park near Inwood, called The Cloisters. It is built from the bones of French abbeys and monasteries, where, centuries ago, barefoot monks would spend their days in seclusion from the iniquities of common society.
I stood there, one afternoon, examining the great marble columns of one of its quadrangles, hues of eggshell and coral mingling like oil and water within the stone, capitals adorned with scrolling leaves and strange, two-bodied creatures; a decadent home for such self-righteous ascetics as monks. Looking down the arcade of pillars, I was reminded of Low, and of Butler. Each time I walk these “hallowed halls” of Columbia, I realized, I am flanked by pillars on all four sides. And then I heard my father’s voice.
“Well… what are you gonna do with that?”
I was sick and tired of the question. Beleaguered by it for two years, and yet, answering still: “I want to be a research professor, Dad.” I conceded to him that the highly technical nature of my major in biological anthropology, if I am to make any use of it, leaves me with little choice. Yet, I tried to reassure him that academia is where I belong—that I love my field, that I would be good at it, and that “Professor” would be a respectable title to affix to my name. With each justification, I meant to satisfy him, but, with each, and especially the last, his mouth twisted slightly tighter.
Eyes lightly rolling, he sighed, “Well, if it’s what you love.”
My parents didn’t go to college. But my father “dug ditches” his whole life to get me here (as I am perpetually reminded). They see my academic success as a path to self-betterment and, unabashedly, to a life that is materially better than their own. I, on the other hand, have always seen my academics as an esoteric pursuit—learning for learning’s sake.
My parents love to boast about my Ivy League education, and they never fail to remind me of how proud they are; but, when I come home from a long semester, eager to show off, to expound the intricacies of social behavior in cichlid fishes or saddleback tamarins, I am met with cordial indifference, and the subject is quickly changed. They understand that I’m a nerd, that the actual content of college courses, as distinct from the diploma, interests and excites me. Inwardly, however, they struggle to see the real worth of the Academy and its teachings. To them, it is a place where overpaid Ph.D.s spend their days basking in the pleasant languor of vacuous philosophy and obfuscatory jargon.
Actually, it’s worse than that. To them, intellectuals are eggheads—arrogant wastes of space who dodged the Vietnam War, nested up on college campuses, and embarked on a mission to inculcate American youth with the virtues of communism, atheism, and political correctness. For some time, I attributed their vitriol to their lack of education, and therefore their lack of experience in these very same institutions.
I was wrong.
“I overheard you talking to dad earlier,” my mom said to me later that night, with a knowing look.
“You know, before you were born, your dad was working a job at the College of the Desert. He was down in a ditch, busting his ass with a couple of other guys, when some old weeny, probably a professor, walked up and peered in.” I imagined my dad anchoring his shovel. His eyes sting with sweat and dirt, but he looks up toward the lean silhouette, eclipsing a brutal sun.
“You know what the guy says to them?” She cocks her head back and says, with pity, “‘Wow, life must be so simple for you.’”
I could just imagine the cardigan-ed prick quite literally looking down his nose at my dad. The thought of it made me furious.
Fast forward to fall of junior year and I’m sitting in a lecture hall with 200 of my peers. The professor, who had by this point referred to herself as a “public intellectual,” pauses from her scattered lecture on urban theory and surveys the crowd.
“Who here knows the name Walter Benjamin? Raise your hand if you have read Walter Benjamin.”
Very few of us, perhaps three or four, raised our hands; either we were genuinely unfamiliar with the name, or, as in my case, were afraid of being interrogated.
“Wow. Really? I am stunned…” She paused for a moment, as if to consider her next words, but went on. “I’ll just say it. I am stunned at the level of ignorance in this class. You know, you really must know the name Walter Benjamin if you ever expect to get by in intellectual circles. You know, at fancy dinner parties and such.” She giggled a bit, perhaps shocked by her own audacity, and then continued her lecture.
That’s when it hit me. Attending dinner parties where one must blend in while hobnobbing with the “intellectual elite” and teaching undergraduate lectures to students who don’t even understand the significance of these cerebral circle-jerks must constitute the travails that make life as an intellectual so “un-simple.”
I realized then and there that I no longer wanted to go into academia.
In the coming weeks, I will seek answers to the question: Is academia today just another kind of cloisters? An isolated and exclusive elite, clad in cap and gown and priding themselves on the labor of their minds? Are the people whose incomes our parents fund engaged in a service to and dialogue with the community around them, and to society at large? Or do they pass dogma between themselves and judgement on the “simple” folk beneath them?
In a sense, what I mean to do is put academia on trial. And to put myself in the uncomfortable position of taking my parents and their qualms with the “intelligentsia” seriously. For so long, my highest aspiration was to be a member of this elite, and, perhaps, in the course of my investigation, I will rediscover why I was so drawn to it.
But, for now, the pillared walls of Columbia don’t appear to be porous. For now, I feel cloistered.
Ian Hewitt is a Columbia College senior studying biological anthropology. He works as a teaching assistant and research assistant in the department of Ecology, Evolution, and Environmental Biology. He hasn’t done “The Twitter” since high school and so cannot be held responsible for anything tweeted by @ian_hewitt. The Cloisters runs alternate Wednesdays.
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