Three traps of the intellectual life

Following Mao’s example in identifying three problems and then addressing each in turn, I have been pondering three traps of the intellectual life.

1. Institutional thinking. The institution – university, school, or whatever – becomes the all-encompassing horizon. Rules are studied assiduously, new directions pursued. The institution gives one meaning in life, so much so that every little, inconsequential happening looms large. They say this also happens in prisons.

2. Linear thinking. There is only one way to do things, the way mandated by the institution and most others. Busting to get some writing done? Then do it when everything else is finished. Ask for a grant, get time off, write. Need to go to a conference? Then apply for a travel grant. Want a promotion? Then tick all the boxes and put in the paperwork. Forget lateral thinking, since otherwise all sorts of opportunities might arise. Such as: use sick leave, do the things you don’t like badly, skip everything you can, use your ‘own’ money … there’s plenty of ways to do what you really want to do.

3.  I deserve it. A pay rise, a promotion, responsibility, recognition, a tiny bit of fame, your name up in lights … it’s well overdue, since you deserve it. After all, hard work should be recognised and duly rewarded. Intellectuals seem particularly prone to this vice, spending their lives believing that they have been hard done by. It seems to escape them that no-one deserves anything. In fact, the vast majority have far more than they ‘deserve’.

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4 thoughts on “Three traps of the intellectual life

  1. 4. Fantasising that one transcends institutional thinking and linear thought. One writes highly unlikely interpretations of obscure texts, and takes pride in the fact that nobody bothers engaging with them, treating it as confirmation of “out-of-the-box” thinking. To compensate for one’s increasing irrelevance, pretty soon one eschews the establishment with all its perks, privileges, promotions, and recognition – in the firm but deluded belief that one is pursuing the “high road”. Probably accompanied by taking up a quasi-academic post in Uganda or North Korea.

    1. That would be Nietzsche, I do believe. And look where that got him.

      Actually, another manifestation of institutional thinking is that when one reaches a certain age, one must take on ‘leadership’, aka administration. Obviously, universities need such people, who have usually run out of ideas, but it conveniently neglects the point that all that sweat, blood, and tears building up a program or a centre (how original) is simply torn down in no time.

      1. You need to think a little more laterally, but then again, I guess you need to experience the institution first hand to see how it works from the inside.

        But what a lovely bourgeois virtue, tolerance. It wouldn’t be the first time socialism was made illegal.

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