Saturday, December 20, 2008

"Children of Professors"

So their parents are smart, way too smart. But not about all topics. Their emotional intelligence may be lacking, just as it is for others. Let’s say they read lots of books. They talk about ideas. Is it bad to have smart parents? It depends on what other traits they have. If they are absent-minded intellectuals in everyday life, it may be an obstacle to overcome. If they don’t talk about money, one has to learn the capitalist culture elsewhere, or reject it. I never was schooled in capitalist culture in the sense of thinking of ways to make money; thinking about ways to get ahead at work; thinking of schemes with money to advance one’s standard of living. We were not hungry by any means. Both of my parents worked and they bought a home in Manhattan and a vacation house on Long Island before both areas were gentrified.

Smart parents who are intellectuals have a tendency to eschew the consumerism and material values of the middle class. I am a child of a bohemian, intellectual world. Very successful people who are outsiders in critical ways. Professors often do not fit easily into the larger society. The intellectual life is always on the margins in an intensely capitalist society.


In Ithaca, the children of the Cornell professors were often a mess, according to my father who taught at Cornell in the early 1960s. The children of the faculty he knew did not do well as adults. At least some of them had problems, which surprised him. Cornell professors make lousy parents back then? Their high mindedness in the classroom may extend artificially to their families, and their kids feel the pressure and crack-up or rebel away from educated success. I know, it is hard to define what a “success” means in America? For some, it is about amassing wealth. “I am not a success unless I make $100,000.” For others, success means becoming famous or well known in the society – gaining popular or professional recognition. For professors, it means having a rich intellectual life, with a lot of energy focused on scholarship.

I once told my mother that I valued a balanced, enlightened life. I look down on lousy people. If these lousy people are achievers in intellectual life, it only raises their value modestly from my perspective. “Enlightened? That is a different model than the ‘life of the mind.’” She is right. By balanced, I mean with work, family and eight hours for what we will. In vernacular, it is okay for intellectuals to lift weights or work out the gym. As I tell my son, “Work hard and party hard.” Combine the two. My smart son rejoins, “Dad, that is what the Greeks said.” Yes, a balanced life, which includes diverse activities and perspectives. When I repeated my philosophy – “work hard and party hard” – to my mother, she replaced the word party with play. “Don’t you mean work hard and play hard?” I say, “No there is a difference between party and play. I want Andy to experience partying hard. But I repeat to him, ‘Don’t forget to work (study) hard.’”

Not all intellectuals are Ph.D’s, like professors. There is a big difference between a Ph.D. intellectual and a non-Ph.D. intellectual. There is a certain rigor in methodology that Ph.D.’s learn, which other intellectuals often lack. I’m not saying that non-Ph.D.’s are inferior. Their particular training and learning may produce first-rate minds of originality and distinction, but they never went through doctoral training, which is a very particular experience.

To what extent should professor parents “teach” their children? If they treat them as students, it is negative. Show some love! Teachers never show love to their students. I hope professor parents know the difference between their students and children.

Some professors are very standoffish toward their students. They may condescend toward them. They treat the students as inferior because they are not yet smart enough. If the professor as parent treats his children in this inferior way, it is negative. Now, smart students get more attention from the teacher. What if a professor’s kid is not smart?

I write from a dual perspective. I have been the child of a professor. I also have been a professor with students and a child. I know a lot about the subject matter. People may disagree with me, but I never fake it. One boss remarked to me that I am a very good teacher, showing solidarity with the students, because I am displacing my love for my son, who at the time lives far away, across the nation. I smile at him. He is a smarty pants History Ph.D. on his own, who helps to coach his son’s baseball little league.

Should professors show off their high intelligence to their children? Should they tell their kids about the fact that they are publishing articles and books. “Here son is my latest book. I partly dedicated it to you.” If you do that, it may create too much of an impact. Kids are not supposed to know too much of their parents’ lives away from home, and that includes professors.
What does my son know? This is an important question. I do not only control the flow of information to him. The ex-wife tells him about me in ways she denies to me. I am not talking about lies necessarily.
(Oct. 2005)

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