There are two competing lines of thought, etched in my mind, oscillating back and forth, affecting the way I feel about myself and my work. When they are separated and speak univocally, they ring true, but too harsh. When they are taken together, as a whole, they verge on being boring and forgettably balanced or, even worse, contradictory.
I am allergic to credentialism, clericalism, and all easy appeals to authority. This is a reality I experience internally and externally. The former is the hardest. I don’t think I will ever be comfortable having a Ph.D. and I am certainly not an expert. Hence my shunning of the “Dr.” title. If you must, call me “Mr.” Or Don Samuel.
My only expertise is in being a non-expert. I should never be assumed to be credible simply because of my credentials, especially since my field exists in such a marginally respected place within the Academy and I am usually very confused about what I think about something I am trying to think about.
I also respect hard-earned stripes. The absolute authority that comes with doing the work and having something to say about it. I try to work hard and not be lazy and read as much as I can and listen to new music and practice and revisit the classics and so on. I’ve done extensive studies on certain topics: William James, Slavoj Zizek, the history of compulsory schooling, and more. I like to be shown respect when I know what I am talking about. Sometimes credentials carry their weight.
I am either disdainful of spineless credentialism or indignant about mindless anti-intellectualism. Usually both. This is not an outright contradiction, but it gets close sometimes.
Soon after joining Patheos, almost a full year ago, I befriended Max Lindenman, who soon thereafter became my writing coach. I agree with Max about many things, but I don’t entirely understand his insecurity about lacking credentials and, for that reason, being a fraud. Recently he wrote in to Salon, asking, “Am I a faker?” The truth is yes and no, but there is no escaping the poser feeling. Except when you are sure of that one little thing you’ve managed to mostly figure out, albeit to very little effect.
Stanley Cavell says that he got into philosophy instead of music (he was accepted to Julliard) because it was a place where he could put his sense of being a faker to some use. I can relate to that. I still have to convince myself that I belong at the front of the classroom when I teach. I adore the fact that Alasdair MacIntyre has no Ph.D.
Today I began reading my sons an abridged version of Moby Dick. I must admit, with serious shame and regret, that I’ve not read the book yet. I’ve only read Melville’s Bartleby and, predictably, am familiar with references to it. I have tons of excuses, but deep down I can accept none of them.
Much of my children’s education will be selfishly motivated by a desire to redeem all the things I’ve missed along the way. Their education is my chance for a redo. So we are reading Moby Dick.
The LA Review of Books just published a timely essay, “The Writer as Reader,” that terrified me. It asks,
How might Melville react to today’s writers’ conferences and creative writing workshops in which so many have no usable knowledge of literary tradition and are mostly mere weekend readers of in-vogue books? An untold number of Americans will finish a book manuscript this year, and the mind-numbing majority of them will be confected by nonreaders. How can a nonreader imagine himself an author, the creator of an artifact that he himself admittedly would have no interest in? Can you fathom an architect who’s not fond of impressive buildings, or a violinist who has never listened to music? The erroneous assumption among the multitude is that writing doesn’t demand specialized skills. In The War Against Cliché, Martin Amis offers this explanation why so many wish to “join in” the game of literature: “Because words (unlike palettes and pianos) lead a double life: we all have a competence.”
This makes me want to curl up and die. Am I a nonreader? I see all the holes in my readings, all the skipped pages and chapters. All of those early 20th century philosophers of whom I only know a line or two about. Spinoza. All the unfinished books. All the opportunistic excerpts. The uneasy sense that Woody Allen is missing something, that there is more to art than doing it over and over and over again at random. My lack of composition courses, bad grades, and poor grasp of grammar and syntax. Classes skipped. Writing from my gut feels shallow and now I am questioning what adjective I can use here that doesn’t sound too cliche and repetitive.
Maybe that’s what Max is so worried about. (Although he seem to be more worried about the ecclesial and religious side of the equation, which comes with its own baggage.)
But then I see the barrier that stands in the way of starting the hard work: credentialism, the new secular clericalism. The cult of professionals and wise guys. Blind faith in statistics and economists and how-to cook books and Dr. Phony. The mendicant surrender to a title or a credential, without qualifying the qualification. The abuse and fear and shame that comes with (not) having the power of a Ph.D. and a tenure-track academic position. The inner procedural hazing of tenure that is actually, at least in the field of education, something of a joke. The protracted, inflated process of schooling that never leaves us — even after we die, there is always paperwork to be filled out.
William James’ classic anti-credentialist essay, “The Ph.D. Octopus,” is a good antidote to this.
My advice to students come in the form of a mantra: “Lower expectations, raise standards.” For me, personally, this requires a high volume output, both in terms of time and productivity, with a steady intake of art and nonsense and surprises, with freedom to explore and the discipline to focus, edit, or repeat and follow a muse or refuse to pretend that muses are always necessary for serious work.
All of this combines my sense of the freedom, originality, and voice of any craft, unadorned with degree and titles, with the respectability and gravitas that comes from knowing about something all the way down to the intimate nuts and bolts and functions.
What emerges from all this is somewhat counterintuitive from the outside looking in, but absolutely true from the inside looking out: true credibility emerges from knowing that you’ve done enough — not everything, but enough — to deserve to say something and be taken somewhat seriously, and the simultaneous torture of knowing just how relatively insignificant that knowledge is when things gets really serious, but caring to make every little bit count.