Ifs and Buts

Anyone whose examination of British poet Rudyard Kipling digs deeper than the Disney version of The Jungle Book will quickly stumble across the numerous portions of his biography that leave many contemporary critics recoiling in disgust. Chief among these is the rightfully notorious poem “The White Man’s Burden.” Other Kipling writings are only slightly less inflammatory when viewed through a 21st century sociological lens. “If-,” another of his poems, can be read as a narration of the enforcement of rigid gender norms – a series of demanding expectations for what a man must be and do to truly be worthy of having the last two lines be true for him – “Yours is the Earth and everything that’s in it/And – which is more – you’ll be a Man, my son!”

“If-“ sets the standards for true manhood dauntingly high. A man is expected to be able to walk a slew of emotional tightropes – “If you can trust yourself when all men doubt you/But make allowance for their doubting too,” “If all men count with you, but none too much.” When I’m not distracted by the glaring discrepancies between Kipling’s view of the world and, say, Judith Butler’s, I return in my thoughts again and again to one line in “If-“ in particular. It is “If you can talk with crowds and keep your virtue/Or walk with Kings – nor lose the common touch.” I see this as one of the foremost challenges (should one attempt to carry it out) of a life in academia, and in my opinion, it’s a challenge whose consequence isn’t invalidated by Kipling’s imperialism or by its location in a highly gendered poem.

From the perspective of a grad student (or at least this grad student), “virtue” can be thought of as intellectual heft, and the “Kings” are the faculty and, to an even greater degree, the prominent scholars in one’s field even beyond one’s home campus. I realize that referring to college faculty as “Kings” is sure to provoke some eye rolling, and it’s certainly true that the literal kings of Kipling’s era held powers that the contemporary sociology professor doesn’t come close to possessing and probably wouldn’t even want to possess. But even if my so-called kings – and queens – lack geopolitical power, they’re still, I suggest, somewhat removed from “the common touch,” and this removal is frequently framed as “virtue.” And it should! Being able to think critically about that which others blithely accept, being willing to tackle difficult interpretations, being willing to conduct research and look at evidence rather than always rely on one’s guts – these are, in my opinion, fundamentally admirable qualities. If I didn’t think so, I wouldn’t be in grad school.

Ultimately, however, pursuing these qualities almost inevitably entails divorcing ourselves from the crowds and losing our “common touch.” The break is certainly more fluid than it is clean, and of course it will take different forms for different people. But no matter what the specifics of any individual’s circumstance may be, some separation is practically unavoidable. To some extent this is true for virtually any pursuit one may take up in life. If you become a banker, you put yourself in a position to socialize with bankers to the exclusion of others and to think and talk about banking to the exclusion of other topics. If you join a basketball team, you put yourself in a position to socialize with other basketball players to the exclusion of others and to think and talk about basketball to the exclusion of other topics. I would submit, however, that the pursuit of a career in academia requires, or at least strongly encourages, a particularly profound and consequential separation. As academics or aspiring academics, we take up dual roles. We go on living our lives, down there among the crowds going through the same utilitarian and banal experiences that even academics can’t completely remove themselves from. (Even emeritus professors can sometimes get stranded on the side of the road with a flat tire.) But we simultaneously take up a position high in the clouds, looking down upon that world and staking a claim to an understanding of it – or at least one slice of it – that is worthy of recognition and engagement. Social life, in its varied forms, becomes, for us, fodder for ideas and knowledge claims.

Ideas don’t exist in a vacuum, of course; they become sensible and meaningful only in relation to other ideas. But how do we engage in that meaning-making process? We can try to carry it out down there on the ground with the people who are stranded with flat tires, but they may be hard pressed to reciprocate – not because they’re stupid or lazy, but because they’re preoccupied by the frustrations of flat tires, or minimum wage jobs, and because, it many cases, they haven’t been provided with the privilege or good fortune of having some degree of financial or physical or social distance from these frustrations in the way that many academics have. And so, as we search for partners with whom we can engage in the conversations and debates that give our ideas merit, we stay in the clouds. Besides, it’s nice up here. The clouds have nice restaurants instead of fast food chains. They have jazz and opera on the radio instead of Van Halen. And most importantly, they have conversation partners. We challenge ourselves to be worthy of conversation with kings and queens. It’s a worthy pursuit that I’m taking part in right now; a virtue I want to embody. But I worry about what I might miss if this pursuit leads me into a pattern of single-mindedness and myopia. Ultimately, I don’t just want to have my ideas be in conversation with those of the kings. I want to keep the crowd involved, both in terms of the conversation’s substance and the music in the background as we have it. “If-“ I can do those things, I may not be “A man, my son,” but I’ll be the scholar and the person I want to be.