Following on yesterday's post about talkativeness, another issue related to communication skills involves the ability (or lack thereof) of academics to converse with non-academics. I suppose some would replace the word "academics" with "intellectuals", but intellectuals (sensu stricto*) can inhabit both academic and non-academic environments, and highly intelligent people are found in all social and economic classes.
There has been much discussion of this general topic, particularly this summer, owing to the publication of the article by William Deresiewicz in The American Scholar, "The Disadvantages of an Elite Education".
In the essay, there are statements with which I agree, e.g. that those who attend elite universities are not necessarily "better" people (or even smarter) than those who do not, and there are aspects of it with which I disagree, e.g. that an elite education renders one unable to converse with anyone who had a different educational experience.
So Deresiewicz is unable to converse with his plumber. I do not believe that that is because Yale brainwashed him to believe that he had nothing to say to plumbers because he is intellectually superior to such people. If he's right, though, I find it puzzling that his subsequent life experiences gave him no conversational fodder whatsoever.
In general, I do not easily converse in a chit-chat kind of way with people I don't know, whether or not they are professors or plumbers, but this condition pre-dates my elite college education. Even so, I am capable of talking about the weather, pets, or children if the situation requires. I am even capable, particularly under torture, of talking about Sports. I know nothing about how any team in any sport is currently doing at any given moment, but I can ask questions, thereby maintaining a semblance of a conversation. Again, this applies to conversations with academics and non-academics alike.
My ability to converse with non-academics also varies depending on the other person's conversational skills. A professor-plumber communication gap is by no means exclusively the fault of the professor. For example, I do not typically have good conversations with home-repair people who patronize me or assume I know nothing about electricity or other "guy things" (e.g. The electrician who was distressed when he realized that he had to talk to me instead of my husband, saying "Oh great, I don't suppose you even know where the fuse box is."). In contrast, I always enjoy chatting with a certain handyman who does random repairs on our house. He is a nice and interesting person (and he thinks my cats are beautiful).
I think that for most people, everyday communication is a complex process that has many variables related to personalities, mood, context, weather, and so on.
So far I have been discussing one's ability to converse across the academic/non-academic boundary. Another (related) issue is one's interest in doing so. I must admit that I avoid certain situations (in fact, two: haircuts and appointments with a particular dental hygienist whose conversation about her church and son easily adds 20 extra minutes to routine appointments) because I find the conversational aspects of them excruciating (literally so in the case of the chatty dental hygienist).
How is this different from Deresiewicz's inability to converse with his plumber? There may be some similarities stemming from an academic/non-academic culture gap, but any conversational shortcomings on my part are not because my educational background has failed me in some way. I think I can take responsibility for this all by myself.
[possible topic for next week: Deresiewicz's comments on the "indifferent bureauocracy" of non-elite academic institutions]
* Use of the Latin in this context represents an attempt at humor.
12 years ago