Ivory Towers & Gold Towers
Academics in general and philosophers in particular are often accused of dwelling in ivory towers that lift them out of the “real world” (which is, presumably, everything outside of academics). Being a philosophy professor, I do have some sympathy to this notion. After all, I do know professors who match the stereotypes of the ivory tower dwellers point for point. I also am quite well aware that it is very easy to let a clever thought lead one far from the surly bounds of earth and out into the stratosphere and perhaps to infinity and beyond.
In some cases, speaking of academics as ivory tower dwellers is a harmless bit of commentary on their eccentric ways. However, it can also be a fairly serious charge-that academics in general and philosophers in particular are operating in isolation from the real world and engaged in practices that have no use or merit beyond the confines of these towers. In the case of philosophers, a review of the professional journals and conference subjects will tend to lend credence to that view.
In addition to, as Socrates might say, the usual attacks on philosophers, there is also a strong current of anti-intellectualism in the West-most especially in the United States. Here in the States we have a rather influential political movement that regularly attacks experts, intellectuals and education. These folks often put forth the odd notion that experts are not to be trusted specifically because they are experts and that education somehow makes a person less capable in regards to “getting it.” Going along with this is also an anti-science current that embraces such things as paranoia about vaccines (that has, bizarrely enough, led parents to swap infectious lollipops by mail).
While on my morning run, I was thinking about these matters and also about the Republican primary in my state of Florida. Specifically, I was thinking about the charges against Mitt Romney that he is “out of touch.” For those not familiar with Mitt, he wants to be the Republican nominee for president. In terms of his being out of touch, folks have pointed to his passionate (well, passionate for him) claim that corporations are people, his offer to make a $10,000 bet with Rick Perry during a debate, the fact that he makes about $57,000 per day from capital gains, and his remark that he did not make very much from speaker fees (he made about $374,000). Romney has also been bashed a bit because he knows French.
As I ran, I thought about how often I have been accused about being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.” However, it struck me that the towers of gold provide far more isolation than the towers of ivory. After all, while I am a philosophy professor, my ivory tower is more of a small ivory shack behind my very non-ivory townhouse. True, I do go out into that shack and think about odd things. But when I am not engaged in philosophy, I live a rather down to earth life: I drive myself to work in a 2001 Toyota, I cook my own meals, clean my own toilets, paint my own house (with help from my friend), do my own laundry, and so on. By way of contrast, thanks to the budget cuts in education, my yearly salary as a tenured full professor is less than what Romney makes per day. As such, I seem to be very much in touch with the “real world” of bills, taxes, grocery shopping and toilet cleaning. Based on my own experience, many professors tend to be in the same situation (there are, of course, exceptions involving the academic stars).
By way on contrast, consider the politicians who claim to be “in touch.” In the States, our higher end politicians tend to be millionaires. As noted above, Romney makes about $57,000 a day from his investments. His main foe, Newt Gingrich, is a millionaire insider. President Obama is also a millionaire. As such, the idea that such people are “in touch” seems a bit odd-especially given that I am so often accused of automatically being “out of touch” in my “ivory tower.”
It might, of course, be argued that a person who is a millionaire and who owns multiple houses (as is so often the case with the higher end politicians) can still be “in touch” and “get it.” However, if such folks can gaze down from their gold towers and see the plight of the common folks, then those of us who are supposed to hang out in towers of ivory should also be able to do this. Unless, of course, the towers of gold provide a better view.