THE CURSE OF SCHOLARSHIP
In every Garden of Eden there is a snake; in each jar of ointment a fly. In mathematics, it is the irrational number. In politics it is the maverick and in religion, the iconoclast. Every enterprise has its dirty little secret. But when it comes to scholarship, the serpent is far more insidious. It is a scourge that erodes the very foundation of the research and subjects the scholar to ridicule. And what is this nefarious dark side to scholarship? Humor.
One of the sad facts of life is that scholars have a well-earned place in the Curmudgeon Hall for Fame. They do not think anything is funny. They are engineers of the social science world; if it’s funny it must be in error. After all, scholarship is serious stuff. It should be treated with respect. We are talking about critical issues here, earthshaking matters like the Essex Junto, the freezing temperature of a colloid and how much wood a woodchuck would chuck if, indeed, it would chuck wood.
As someone who is both a humorist and an historian, I have never ceased to be amazed at how dull my contemporaries can be. While they might be jovial gals and fellows at an informal gathering, the moment they don their educational robes they become academic drones. They use lecture notes decades old, require texts they have not read, pass out tests they will not read and discuss research they never seem to have time to do. That’s the good news. The bad news is that students and learning less and less from the very people who should be inspiring them to learn more.
As a humorist, I find scholarship a barrel of laughs. Look at the textbooks. While the hard science books may have some facts correct, the American history species is a hoot a page. As a small example, take George Washington. In most of the texts that get stuffed down students’ collective throats, Washington was the first President of the United States, was a gentleman planter and was chosen as Commander-in-Chief of the Revolutionary forces because of his military experience. Well, George Washington was not the first President of the United States. John Hanson was. George was the 8th President, the first seven being under the Articles of Confederation — and you will be hard-pressed to find even a college text that even lists the first seven Presidents.
But let me continue. George was not a gentleman planter. He was a poor surveyor who married the richest widow in the colonies. Her deceased husband had been the planter. George, proverbially, just slipped into his shoes, income and bed. Further, I have yet to find a single text that indicates what George’s crop was. It wasn’t cotton; it was hemp, what we now call marijuana. Then there’s George’s military experience. Huh? What experience was that?
Being the viper in the apple tree of scholarship, I view humor as a necessary part of the scholarship. If you are a scholar and do not have a sense of humor, then you should not read the rest of this article. [Pause.] That being said, one of the types of writing I like to do is called ‘absurding.’ It’s where you start with a solid idea and then see how far you can pull the reader into absurdity. It’s a sophisticated kind of humor, I admit, but it requires a straight face. Some of my better stories have centered on giant crabs that forage on land, ‘mortar termites’ that collapse lighthouses and a phantom German torpedo that is occasionally seen in the shallow waters in Eastern North Carolina.
The biggest complaint I hear from other scholars is that I am a disreputable fellow because people will confuse my absurding with actual fact. Well, I respond, first of all, the people who are reading my work already have a background in history. If they didn’t, they would not be reading history. Second, if the reader is so gullible as to believe a story that has more holes than golf course, then it really will not matter whether I tell the whole truth, a fib, a tall tale or try to sell them swamp land because it’s ‘on the water.’ Third, and most important, if they do not have a sense of humor, they deserve to be taken to the intellectual cleaners.
As a scholar, voter and citizen, I firmly believe that a solid understanding of history is critical to both quality writing and better government. Scholarship creates intellectual capital, to coin a current buzzword. More is definitely better. But there is a dark flipside to this concept. No scholarship is better than bad scholarship and the worse place to get any scholarship is from a textbook. Because of those textbooks we have a nation full of people who have a distorted view of the past. This makes them dangerous because they are going to force the rest of use to stumble into the same historical tiger pits our fathers and mothers have already climbed out of. If Americans are so stupid as to repeat the mistakes of the past over and over again, I feel I am smart enough to make money on them. Now, have I told you of the Great Frisco Eel Grass Mattress Swindle? No? Well . . .
[Steven Levi’s mysteries can be found at www.authormasterminds.com. His other books are available from Kindle and ACX.]