As an academic, I fall into that class of people often accused of being eggheads; ivory-tower; bookwormish; all theory and no practice. You know, I can talk, but can I get anything done?

I’m still trying to get over an article I read in Sunday’s Wichita Eagle. It was about the importance of technical schools in our area to provide qualified workers for the various industries. That point is completely legitimate. What got me was a comment made by the president of one of those technical schools. He said that he was the “poster boy” for going to college and getting a degree and then not being able to find a real job. College: what it’s good for?

I, myself, also don’t like the ivory tower mentality. I’m so skittish about the term “scholar” that I often tell people that I’m really a “blue collar scholar.” I love academics, but what I’m really interested in is how scholarship helps life actually to work.

I confess, however, that I wish people paid more attention to what academics generally call for: the discipline of thinking carefully, seriously, and thoroughly. Political campaigns always cause me to think that way (and in this day of the perpetual campaign, our calling for careful thought seems even more timely). Economic crises do also. When the pressure is on, even smart people do and say stupid things. There’s some twisted force within us that causes us to dispense with the measured, the careful, the sensible.

When I see it take place, it makes me ask, what in the world are we doing? When Nancy Pelosi can’t resist sticking her finger in the Republican party’s eye in the very speech she is making to try to win their support for the “bailout” legislation, what is she doing? When Sarah Palin tells the world that she can handle foreign policy because she wakes up every morning and can see Russia, what does she think she’s doing? Can thinking people really swallow these demonstrations? And worse, the partisan sound-bites, the tortured, goofy rationalizations that follow make we want to pull my hair out.

All of a sudden, I sound like the snooty academic, don’t I? Yes, mea culpa. I work with young people (college students) every day. In times like these, I’m acutely aware of the practical value of serious, sustained, careful, nuanced thought. I want my students to practice asking, what are we doing here? What’s going on? I want them not to get jerked around by irrational, partisan politics, nor do I want them to perpetuate it. I want them not to get swept away in anxiety by either alarmist or reactionary language of any kind. I want them to recognize good thinking from bad thinking. Skill in thinking gives confidence in acting, just like it does in practicing and using any other skill.

So, just what are we doing these days? What is happening? What is going on? Does anybody know? We’d better. We need to think about it.

What Are We Doing?

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