Sitting in My Lawn Chair, Gazing at the Ivory Tower

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.


About J@m3z Aitch

J@m3z Aitch is a two-bit college professor who'd rather be canoeing.
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33 Responses to Sitting in My Lawn Chair, Gazing at the Ivory Tower

  1. Johanna says:

    Hey while you are doing all of this Ivory Tower gazing, I’ve been scraping paint. Somehow this doesn’t quite sound fair 😉

  2. pinky says:

    Ah, the life of a philosopher.
    My prediction is that you’ll outlive all your contemporaries.
    Keep up the good work.

  3. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Geez, you mean all this time my co-blogger was a prole? Quick, Buffy, my copy of the Social Register for a more suitable replacement!

    I think, by the way and although I’ve so far been holding my tongue on the point, that neither you nor the reader in question has a very clear understanding of what philosophy as it is practiced today by your fellow academics — at least those in university departments not shared by religious studies professors — involves. People I otherwise have a great deal of respect for, e.g., Richard Feynman, frequently dismiss philosophy on largely ignorant and erroneous grounds that make as much sense as condemning science because it includes a history of alchemy and attempted witchcraft. To be sure, philosophy (intentionally) isn’t science, but condemning a nonscientific pursuit for being nonscientific is condemning a cat for being an unsatisfactory sort of dog.

  4. stuartl says:

    Most of what you need to know about parenthood is contained in the fact that Feynman’s son Carl holds a Bachelor of Science degree in Linguistics and Philosophy. His genes did win in the end, he became a successsful computer engineer.

    And condemning a cat for any reason is always perfectly acceptable.

  5. James Hanley says:

    condemning a cat for being an unsatisfactory sort of dog.

    Being a dog-person, that is precisely my condemnation of cats.

  6. James Hanley says:


    Actually, I have a somewhat better idea of what’s going on in philosophy than I have let on here. Here I’m primarily responding to a couple of our readers’ beliefs that there’s something magically superior about philosophy, which they seem to equate solely with thinking about abstract ideas. (That’s not to say I care much for what academic philosophers are doing. If I did, I might try doing it myself.]

  7. D.A. Ridgely says:

    Being a dog-person, that is precisely my condemnation of cats.

    What? Not only a prole but a cynocephal, too? Oh noes!

  8. Matty says:

    First a serious question, if your mother worked in a factory wouldn’t that make your upbringing working class rather than middle?

    Second I’m told many universities struggle to choose between philosophy and social sciences. If they fund social science they have to buy pencils, paper and erasers. If they choose philosophy they can save the cost of erasers.

  9. Matty says:

    Oh and cats shouldn’t be condemned.

    They should be exorcised.

  10. D.A. Ridgely says:

  11. James Hanley says:

    if your mother worked in a factory wouldn’t that make your upbringing working class rather than middle?

    In the American context, working class (blue collar) is generally considered middle class. We talk about upper/middle/lower, and working class is just a vague phrase that’s used, but doesn’t really have a clear place in the classification scheme. If from your experiential perspective, it makes more sense to say working class, then I think it’s accurate enough.

    My dad was white collar most of my life, though, although not in any high-level positions. But he did lose the tip of his finger in a factory, and grew up on a farm. So I don’t know just how you’d rank him.

  12. AMW says:

    James & Matty,

    I think this may be a case of two peoples separated by a common language. From my experience with Brits, class lines are drawn largely on status and family. In the U.S., class lines tend to be drawn more on income and net worth. So in the American context, James’ family was middle class because they had a modest level of creature comforts and didn’t worry about where their next meal was coming from. In the British context his family would have been working class, due to the occupations of his parents and their relatively low level of prestige.

    In general, I find Brits to be very worried about status, while Americans are generally more worried about money. If you ask me, the Brits are chasing their tails: money spends a lot easier than status.

  13. James Hanley says:

    If you ask me, the Brits are chasing their tails: money spends a lot easier than status.

    Not that I don’t agree, but status has the advantage that it doesn’t always cost, whereas the things money buys always do. It seems as though the chase for things is never-ending, but there’s something endearing about the shabby landed gentleman without a farthing to his name. Or at least so British literature leads me to feel.

  14. Michael Enquist says:

    I try to avoid the epithet “class” completely, precisely because of folks like Dad Hanley, James Hanley and anyone else who spent most of their life working in blue collar jobs before getting a degree and becoming white collar. Or, someone like me who started in blue collar jobs, got a degree, worked in white collar jobs (I wore a lab coat), is currently working in a blue collar job and will be back in academia within the year to become a science and math teacher.

    Since, as noted, in America “class” level really subs for income level, then I just say it like it is: low income, middle income and high income. The term “class” has a connotation of a level of society one is born into and can never escape. Which makes it pretty meaningless considering America still has a high level of “social mobility.”

    The best thing about being an American is that we have no class.

  15. Scott Hanley says:

    I’ll vouch for the accuracy of James’s bio here, as he said I would. I was also going to interject on his use of middle class, too, since neither of our parents ever held a professional occupation and there were indeed (before James was born) periods where they were barely putting food on the table. Middle class covers a lot of ground, most of it far higher on the scale than our family ever attained. Two weeks touring New England with a rented pop-up trailer was the most extravagant vacation we ever had.

    But as he said, we grew up camping and that’s a wonderful gift to give a child. We also grew up in a boring but safe town, which we could explore to our hearts’ content from an early age. I recently spent a year living in an apartment complex where the children had nowhere to go but the central parking lot (and the management would complain about letting the kids run loose even there); I felt very sorry for them and the virtual prison yard they lived in. Also, we had a house full of books and, to crib from Robert Frost, that has made all the difference.

  16. Heidegger says:

    James Hanley,

    Oh no, now I feel terribly guilty–I think I was, shamefully, one of the people who threw the “ivory tower” accusation at you. Sorry. After reading your wonderfully expressive post, that couldn’t be further from the truth.

    Regarding the SSM/civil union subject, I was wondering–are heterosexual couples allowed to have civil unions in states that allow them for gay couples?

  17. D.A. Ridgely says:

    [carefully examines Heidegger’s eyes]

    Yep, brown.

  18. Heidegger says:

    “Don’t LOOK at anything in a physics lab.
    Don’t TASTE anything in a chemistry lab.
    Don’t SMELL anything in a biology lab.
    Don’t TOUCH anything in a medical lab.
    and, most importantly,
    Don’t LISTEN to anything in a philosophy department.”

  19. Heidegger says:

    James, despite DAR’s joke, my comments were entirely sincere.

    Considering my previous out-of-line comments to DAR, I certainly had it coming.

  20. James Hanley says:


    Regarding your question…I always hesitate to make blanket statements about state laws, because the variation can be so dramatic from state to state (and who has time to follow what all 50 states are doing on any variety of topics?). But I think the answer, cautiously, is, yes, in general heterosexual couples can get domestic partnerships and civil unions when they are available.

  21. James K says:


    Regarding the SSM/civil union subject, I was wondering–are heterosexual couples allowed to have civil unions in states that allow them for gay couples?

    That’s how it works in New Zealand.

  22. Heidegger says:

    Thanks so much for the reply, JamesK. By the way, you New Zealanders are the coolest, smartest, most thoughtful, well-mannered people on the planet–a total joy to be around. Who was that character who had the politically incorrect guts to tell the Islamic fanatics and Sharia nut bags to pack up and get the hell of the country? Loved that speech!

    Okay, sorry–have to ask. Does water in NZ flow in the opposite direction (clockwise) down sinks, bathtubs, compared to US and northern hemisphere countries (counter clockwise)? Have heard it’s a myth but have also heard people swear to its accuracy.

  23. James K says:

    You know, I don’t know who you mean.

    The water spirals down my sink clockwise, I don’t know what it does up your way. The Corliolis Effect is real, but it’s strength increases with the size of the spiral. It has a real effect on things the size of hurricanes, but the effect of Corliolis forces on a basin full of water are negligible.

  24. James K says:

    Ugh, naturally I meant the Coriolis effect. I spell checked and everything.

  25. Matty says:

    I think James K has the right explanation for my initial confusion. I should add though that for me working class, while technically the bottom of the social pyramid, carries an element of pride in working hard for a living and making sacrifices for your family and I saw something similar in your description of your upbringing.

  26. James Hanley says:


    So what would “middle class” mean in your context? Office workers? Or managerial?

    You know, we won that one war with you, sort of had a draw in the second, and then single-handedly saved you all from speaking German. You could thank us by just adopting our version of the language once and for all, you know. *grin*

  27. Chris says:

    and then single-handedly saved you all from speaking German. You could thank us by just adopting our version of the language once and for all, you know. *grin*

    You want him to speak Russian? 😉

  28. Matty says:

    My ‘defense of working class values’ there may have come across as more defensive than intended. Personally I like to think of myself as egalitatrian but I was trying to reflect how the terms are used around me. The definition of middle class is one of those fuzzy things it roughly implies a job you need paper qualifications to do rather than on the job training but can also change with context so an office worker might be working class compared to his manager but middle class compared to the plumber he hires.

    Actually the more I think about this the more it confuses me.

    Look I can’t link to youtube here but do a search for “The Frost Report – An understanding of Class” and you should get the general idea.

    Oh and Chris

    Кто победил в войне?

  29. Matty says:

    And how long have I had my own little icon? never noticed that before.

  30. James Hanley says:

    The icon thingy is automatically assigned by WordPress. I think I have the option of changing it so you would get some kind of monster-type thing. I assume that WordPress recognizes your email address, so assigns you the same one each time. If you register with WordPress you can upload your own icon or picture, and be just as cool as James K, DAR, and me.

  31. D.A. Ridgely says:

    As far as I can tell, in the UK still one can be rich but middle class and upper class but nearly broke.

    While, in a sense still in some parts of the US, particularly the South, that remains so, and while there is still a very small number of old money upper class families in the US that look down on new money (at least until it’s counted in the billions), wealth and class more or less mean the same thing here.

    But not entirely. A plumber may well make significantly more than Mr. Hanley ever earns as a professor but the plumber will still be perceived as not the social equal of the professor. In fact, universities have become the primary default social stratifying institution in the US. True, there are a handful of entrepreneur dropouts like Bill Gates, but university degrees come as close to titles of nobility as we get.

    Of course, our real nobility are rock stars and movie actors, many of whom barely have a high school education. But nobody said the system had to make sense or even that there was a system in the first place.

  32. ppnl says:


    Think of the Coriolis effect this way. If you place a pot of water on the north pole the Coriolis effect will induce a movement of one rotation per day as the earth spins the pot. This would be very difficult to actually measure against all the frictional forces and convection in the pot.

    As you move the pot toward the equator that rotation becomes slower and slower. By the time you get anywhere near the equator it is so small as to be undetectable.

    You can actually see the effect better with a pendulum than with a pot of water. The rate of precession of the pendulum will be proportional to the sine of the latitude.

  33. I’m a grad student in history, and my specialty used to be–and in some ways still is–labor history, and a lot of the aspiring labor historians liked to wear their “working-class roots” on their sleeves. (I now focus more on business and political history.)

    I was one of them, and for a while (when I was getting my MA), I liked to advertise the fact that my father was an electrician, and I was the first person in my family to go to college. All that was true, but at least while I was being raised, my family was financially quite well off. (It was probably a different story when my brothers and sisters were in the house. I have five older siblings, and I, the youngest, was born very late, so most of them were getting ready to move out by the time I came along. I can imagine raising five children challenges one’s finances more than raising one (me) did.)

    So, even though I was “working class,” I wasn’t “working class” in the same way other people were/are. I had a lot of the cultural/social capital that a lot of “working class” and even “lower middle class” people don’t enjoy, and I had a solid base of financial security.

    At the same time, I did have a lot of customer service jobs and fast food jobs beginning from when I was aged 16, and those jobs at the very least gave me an appreciation of what it means to work. They also put me in environments where I met all kinds of people from different economic backgrounds I otherwise would never have met. I feel I am better for the experience.

    Sorry for the long comment!

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