Occasionally here and elsewhere I get accused of living in an ivory tower. I’m an academic after all. I got myself a lil ol’ Ph.D. and I teach at a real for sure college that’s accredited and all that. Of course throwing out the term ivory tower is mere ad hominem, the bottom-feeding level of argument, akin to “commie” and “fascist.” On the other hand, there really are commies and fascists, and there are in fact some ivory-tower academics. Most memorable for me was my grad school prof who, in response to a paper I wrote, sneered at the concept of property rights…mere days after she’d closed on buying a home. Or my friend who said sincerely that she “didn’t want to be one of the rich,” and insisted that she wasn’t, despite having grown up as the child of a high-level Phillip Morris executive who knew both that she’d inherit a substantial amount some day and that she could always turn to Mom and Dad for financial support in a crisis. She didn’t, then, grasp that the fact that she was barely scraping by and hadn’t turned to her parent didn’t mean that she wasn’t in fact richer than people who were barely scraping by and didn’t have that safety net.
But I sincerely believe I don’t really live in an ivory tower, and at the risk of stimulating, “Methinks he doth protest too much” responses, I’d like to defend that belief. For the record, my brother can verify most of the autobiographical information here.
I did not grow up elite. We lived in an old house in a small farm town, and were relentlessly middle class. My mom worked in a factory. When I was little, she worked third shift so that she could be home with me during the day. After I was in school–public school–she was able to move to a day shift, and my siblings and I were latchkey kids before we’d ever heard that term. When we traveled, we camped. Hotels were not in our budget, and motels were reserved for emergency situations. Fortunately we all liked camping, and I’d still rather put put up a tent than stay in a hotel.
I went to a non-elite college, my church’s religiously affiliated school. After I dropped out of there I moved, following a desperate desire to get out of the small town I was in, to San Francisco, where I shared a rather dirty apartment with three other people, and worked, variously, as a shuttle bus dispatcher, receptionist, limo driver, cabbie, and bike messenger. (Actually, being a bike messenger is an elite job, just not of the kind of elitism that matters here. After twenty years, I’m still a gravy dog at heart.) I picked up a couple of classes at San Francisco City College, then a couple at Golden Gate University, where I worked as a receptionist (and could take classes for free).
I married a non-elite girl who was the child of immigrants who came here for better economic opportunities, and through hard work at low-level jobs, managed to succeed. My wife was only the second in her family to earn a B.A., which she proudly accomplished just a couple of years ago, after going–like me–to multiple colleges and then following me around while I got my career started. She’s not dumb. Far far from it. But nobody was paying her way to college, so she had to work her way through (until she could finish for free, courtesy of my employment at a college).
When we bought a house here in Adrian, we didn’t look around for the primo neighborhoods. In part it was a reluctance to spend too much on a mortgage, as we’d rather have that money so we can travel (which still means I flew back from L.A. on the redeye Spirit Airlines flight because it cost only $50–although I did splurge $75 for the seat upgrade that time, in the (vain) hope of being able to sleep on the flight). But also we didn’t want our kids to grow up as snobs, so we didn’t want them to grow up in a snobbish neighborhood. I worry sometimes that we went too far down, as our neighborhood contains more apartment houses, with revolving tenants, than I am entirely comfortable with. But most of the people in the neighborhood are salt-of-the-earth blue collar folks. Two doors down is a guy who works in the auto parts factories, loves his hog, and invites us over every time they have a cookout with all their Harley riding friends. I don’t exactly fit in, to be sure, but they don’t seem to mind, and I enjoy talking with them. I don’t, as it turns out, turn up my nose at drinking beer and chatting with a tattooed guy who’s spent time in prison for drug running. He’s really just like many people I grew up with.
As to my academic friends, the great majority of those fellow academics I get along well with are those who actually “worked for a living” at one time in their life before completing their Ph.D.s. They are in fact more well-grounded, it seems to me. I often have a hard time really relating to those who went straight to college from high school then straight to the Ph.D. They do seem disconnected from the real world in a way that my friends and I do not seem to be.
I didn’t go to an elite graduate program, and it wasn’t at an elite university (although they now have an elite football team–Go Ducks!). I did have the privilege of having a few teachers who were truly elite in their field: Bill Mitchell, who coined the term “public choice,” and helped define the intellectual approach I most strongly identify with (and which I would argue is the most well-grounded, least ivory tower, of all the conceptual approaches in my area of the social sciences); John Orbell, one of the most frequently and widely-published political scientists of our era; and–during my post-doc–Lin Ostrom, who is indisputably the most widely respected person in political science, and who recently won the Nobel Prize. These, along with a couple of special profs in my undergrad years, taught me how to think and focus on analysis rather than mere advocacy, an idea I now teach my students, but which too many political scientists still fail to grasp. (Like any self-selected discipline, it suffers from self-selection bias, which in this case is towards an interest in solving the world’s problems, which is all well and good if you analyze them correctly, but not so well and good if you don’t have patience with doing the analytical work, and focus entirely on normative approaches).
I don’t teach at an elite college (although U.S. News and World Reports lists us as a top “up and coming baccalaureate college’). It’s in a dwindling industrial town in the rust-belt. Many of my colleagues prefer to commute, so they can live in or near Ann Arbor, a true university town. I complain that our town of 20,000 is too big (my wife laughs at me a lot), and kind of wish we’d bought a house in one of the small flyspeck towns nearby. I recently had the chance to meet the eminent biologist Richard Alexander, and was delighted to sit in the kitchen of his old farm house, where, in his 70s, he still manages a horse raising farm. I identify with early Public Choice theorist James Buchanan, who grew up in rural Tennessee and always felt looked-down on by the academic elite from “better” families.
One of our readers, at least, likes to mock the social sciences, in preference to philosophy. I find this interesting, because philosophy seems far more ivory tower to me. It can be done well simply sitting in an office surrounded by books, with no human contact whatsoever (part of academia’s problem is that it self-selects for those who are comfortable foregoing human contact for long periods of time) and without ever considering actual data from the surrounding world. The social sciences, done properly, involve close observation of the real world around us. There are, of course, social scientists who are effectively philosophers. I would include constitutional law scholars in that–they are very much like religious scholars studying ancient and abstract texts. (I don’t mean that as a criticism: good con law scholarship is no simple task.) And of course there are bad social scientists who think they are observing the world around them, but do so through such an ideological lens that they get only a very warped picture. Rightly or wrongly–and we should always beware that we might be deceiving ourselves–my libertarian ideology both developed as a consequence of my social scientific observation of the world and is tempered by it (which is why I’m only a moderate libertarian, and shudder at some of the beliefs of more deeply committed libertarian ideologues).
My idea of a good time, in addition to reading novels (I’m currently re-reading Catch-22, I have read all the Master and Commander series at least twice, probably thrice, except for the last book which I’m hoping to get for Christmas, and I’m a big fan of Cormac McCarthy), is doing renovation work on my house. To the extent possible, my wife and I do it ourselves, instead of paying someone. We don’t think we can afford to pay someone to do it, and we’re not afraid of rolling up our sleeves and getting dirty. This summer I built a shed to house my kids’ bikes–not from a kit, but from scratch (because it was cheaper, and because I could then boast about having done so). My wife is currently in the process of scraping and caulking, so she can repaint one side of our house, after which I will have to learn how to hang new gutters. In the past I have replaced the old cast-iron plumbing union with new PVC, and rewired approximately half my house (with another half to go). I say that contrast myself with the guy discussed here, who surely has a more solid claim to be living in an ivory tower than do I. We haven’t yet replaced the vile carpet in our living room, because we have more important uses for the ~$1500 it would cost (I don’t do carpet–I try to know my limits), haven’t yet begun to renovate the kitchen or bathroom, although both need it desperately, and I’m trying to decide whether my next project should be to rewire our dining room and kitchen or build the deck that will solve our untameable weed problem in that particular spot in our yard. Whichever it is, you can be sure we won’t be soliciting bids, because it’s going to be all our own labor.
What does all this mean, in the end? I wrote this in the context of the recent debate on same-sex marriage that I stimulated on this blog. In the end, my support for same-sex marriage does not come from any elite status or some supposed ivory-tower disconnect from the real world. It is simply the application of a homely concept I learned as a child in a farm town, both in my public elementary school and my conservative protestant church:
Do unto others as you would have others do unto you.
I don’t think any secluded, detached, un-realistic, ivory-tower academic has ever topped that sentiment.