Why academics annoy people

Academics annoy people. There’s just go getting around it. We can be smug, self-righteous, know-it-alls. We don’t mean to. But it happens anyway.

I’m sure we do this in lots of little ways that I never notice. But I think one of the more common mistakes is when we forget that what might be common knowledge to those with our particular research interests may not be (i.e. almost certainly isn’t) common knowledge to everyone else. So we make some off-handed comment about something that “everybody knows,” unintentionally making everyone around us feel stupid because they have no idea what we’re talking about.

I was reminded of this when I ran across a quote from Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine. Now I enjoyed Defending Constantine and wrote a fairly positive review some time back. But here’s the quote that got my attention.

Every schoolchild knows that shortly after his victory over Maxentius, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving freedom to Christians to worship as they pleased.

Statements like this come from losing touch with that the average person actually knows. And this quote makes it worse by claiming that these are facts known not just by your average adult, but by your average schoolchild. Let’s count all the facts in this one sentence that are not in fact known by your average schoolchild.

  1. They have no idea who Maxentius was. They’ll probably be able to figure out that he was a Roman, but only because his name sounds like the guy from Gladiator.
  2. They probably don’t even know who Constantine was. They may have heard the name, but good luck getting any details.
  3. From the sentence, they’ll be able to figure out that Constantine defeated Maxentius, but they won’t know why or how.
  4. They’ve never heard of the Edict of Milan, so they have no idea what it was or what it supposedly accomplished. And, if you’re talking to schoolchildren in America, there’s a good chance they won’t even know where Milan is.
  5. I think your average Christian schoolchild will know about the persecution of the early church. So they’ll probably be able to figure out from the reference to “freedom” that the Edict of Milan has something to do with that. But I’m not sure that your average non-Christian schoolchild has heard those stories.

That’s pretty good. In one short sentence, Leithart has managed to insult quite a large number of people because they don’t know as many as five different things that any schoolchild should know. This is why I think it’s important for academics to interact regularly with those outside their field. We need to be familiar with the “average person” (as if there is such a creature) so we can work to connect our research with their needs and interests. Instead, we routinely imply that they’re not very smart simply because they don’t happen to be experts in our particular fields of interest.

No wonder we annoy people.

About Marc Cortez

Theology Prof and Dean at Western Seminary, husband, father, & blogger, who loves theology, church history, ministry, pop culture, books, and life in general.

Posted on November 28, 2011, in Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. 22 Comments.

  1. Good example. The thing that annoys me more about academics is their innability to admit they were wrong about something or shouldn’t have said something they did (and then come up with some lame defense). But then again that annoys me about everyone.

  2. Most school children think Constantine is a comic book character or a movie starring Keanu Reeves!

  3. Give him a break, Marc. Surely he meant “every [Logos Schooled or classically-trained Moscow Idaho] schoolchild.” I hear the air is different up there.

  4. Even among theolog’s Leithart is an egg-head! And he likes to make annoying statements! But ya got to like him anyway, if you read him? 😉

  5. Even though the example fits your post, that’s not the typical Leithart. He’s very in touch with the church and non-experts. I would consider that a slip rather than the usual

  6. Btw, surely Leithart’s book: Defending Constantine, etc. should be required reading for pastor-teachers today! 😉

  7. @Fr. Robert – Yes, I like Leithart’s stuff quite a bit and generally find him to be well worth reading.

    @Jordan – Thanks for pointing that out. I didn’t mean to single Leithart out here (I agree that he’s far better than most on this point); his quote was just such a good illustration that I couldn’t pass it up! I think this is something that all of us who live in the academic world struggle with. So even the best slip on occasion.

  8. Wasn’t Constantine on American Idol a few years ago? Btw, nice meeting you at the Bloggers meet-up at SBL in San Fran!

    • Without question one of the highlights of this year’s conference was connecting in person with people I’d only known online before. Great to see you there!

  9. Marc-I think this is why I feel the urge to comment on your blog…to inject a bit of the random annoying “average person”. 🙂


  10. hehe. I appreciated your post, and then scanned right and saw the poll about church mothers. I needed an ‘I have no idea; I’m more ignorant than an average schoolchild’ option :p

  11. I was so annoyed by your title posted by one of the masses on Twitter that I skimmed this essay and wanted to further register my annoyance here. We live in an annoyance-rich environment when Sturgeon’s Law (that 90% of anything one encounters is bound to be crap) truly applies; thus, we should be fearless about being ourselves and annoying the hell out of everyone. Seriously, wouldn’t you rather be insulted by people who at least know what they are talking about rather than live in a society where everyone tried to be accessible, never stretching beyond assumptions that one would find in the New York Times? And it isn’t wrong to tell an undergraduate they aren’t truly educated until they read….Harold Bloom? OK, that’s overboard, but just a curmudgeonly thought. Thanks for the essay.

    • I actually enjoy annoying people very much. So I’m glad I succeeded in annoying at least one person today!

      Seriously, thanks for the comment. But I do think there’s a difference in stretching people beyond what they know, calling them to something more, and implying that people who don’t know what you know must not be very smart/educated. So this post is intended more as a call for us all to just be a little more careful with our language, without in any way suggesting that we should pull back from what we’re trying to do.

  12. Funny, I learned of this post at John Fea’s blog, “The Way of Improvement …”

    My only comment is that the “average” person is not likely to read *Defending Constantine,* so is not likely to be put off by the quote you cite. It seems unlikely that anyone would read the book without some initial pre-judgment of Constantine’s historical significance (or by way of academic assignment!). If Leithart is being condescending, it is to provoke us out of our lethargic acceptance of the received wisdom to reconsider the imperial legacy. So I take the quote as audience appropriate

    I do also take your point as good, to wit, we need to be audience appropriate.

    • This is the whole point with our people and professors like Marc, who is a teacher for our upcoming pastoral people! 🙂 To challenge them to read and think, and sometimes this means thinking outside of the box. And certainly the man and ministry of a Leithart is a challenge here! Having read ‘Defending Constantine’ by Leithart, he challenges the church today to move above the past thinking (Yoder, Hauerwas, etc.) of Constantine. And note Leithart says the book is rather “old-fashioned”, and asks “the traditional” “Constantinian questions” that historians have long since tired of answering.” So if the church and ministry today is going to dent postmodernity, let us be challenged!

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