Occasionally I find myself in groups populated by business people, technologists, consultants, people who work in nonprofits, practitioners of various kinds — and academics. Such groups gather to figure out how to respond to certain major social problems. Because the participants come from various professional worlds, it can sometimes be difficult to discover a common language, but one theme is always quickly settled on: It’s totally fine to talk about how useless academics are — especially academics in the humanities.
I’ve experienced this so many times over the years that I have to make a point of reminding myself of how curious it is. I mean, why invite people to a gathering only to tell them that they have no contribution to make? But I never respond to the dismissal and mockery; I just sit there and smile. I am only tempted to reply in one situation: When people say that academics “have their heads in the clouds.” Or that we humanists are always taking “the view from 50,000 feet.” That’s when I want to say: No. We’re not taking the view from 50,000 feet, we’re taking the view from ten feet underground, and from long long ago.
Once there was a man named Jack who owned a nice house. One day, though, Jack noticed that one end of the house was a little lower than it had been. You could place a ball on the floor and it would slowly roll towards that end. Jack was a practical man, so he called Neil, another practical man he knew, who worked in construction. Neil said that he could jack up that end of the house and make everything level again. Jack agreed, and Neil got to work.
Jack had a neighbor named Hugh. Hugh was interested in many things, and watched closely as Neil jacked up the low end of the house. With Jack’s permission, he looked around the basement of the house. All this made him more curious, so he walked down to the town’s Records Office and got some information about Jack’s house: when it had been built, who had built it, and what the land had been used for before. Hugh also learned a few things about the soil composition in their neighborhood and its geological character.
Hugh paid Jack a visit so he could tell Jack about all he had learned. He stood at Jack’s door with his hands full of documents and photographs, and rang the bell. But when Jack answered he told Hugh that he didn’t have time to look at documents and photographs. He had a very immediate problem: that end of his house was sinking again. In such circumstances Jack certainly couldn’t attend to Hugh’s ragbag of information and discourses about ancient history. After all, Jack was a practical man.