fake fruit?

Imposter Syndrome is described at Chronicle, but really it’s the ensuing discussion in the reader comments that I found interesting. The initial article essentially claimed that most young academics feel like frauds, and these authors are helping them to build confidence. The comments that followed looked into some of the more interesting areas of inquiry though – do we feel more like frauds now than at previous points in history? That could be because current education is limited in so many ways that actual PhD’s may in fact not know very much about the basics of their field. You can have a PhD in literature without ever having read Chaucer, etc.

Part of this is that there is just so much; how do you decide what “counts” as core curriculum and what is ok to have missed? But most of it is the contemporary notion that there needn’t be a core curriculum at all, that it’s just cultural arrogance to consider any one text more important or insightful than another. And in a way this isn’t wrong, in my opinion, as of course there is something arbitrary about the value of aesthetic work. But in a way it is wrong, as we can recognize that instability and subjectivity without rejecting all respect for the works which have continued to inspire through the ages. Some shared foundation, a pool of history we can refer to, is a benefit to a field, even if that shared foundation is somewhat arbitrary, so it seems as if we should attempt to lay claims to “great works” of some sort, even if we disagree over which ones ultimately belong (as we surely will). Of course, the potential down side here is the idea of students who merely read what they’re told is “great” without ever really ruminating on the content themselves in a meaningful way.

Which brings me to another point: perhaps the idea that most people will feel fraudulent is inescapable, because the majority of people in any field are just not going to be that good. Basically, the best work will be done by the – let’s say the top 5-10%, though that is probably generous – so over 90% of the community will be not living up to that. On top of which, we compare ourselves to an ideal (real or imagined) we can’t quite match, because in academia, there isn’t really a set standard. SInce it’s more of a creative enterprise in the humanities, one can’t look at a product and know whether or not it’s “worthwhile”. We even disagree to this day over the worth of the writing of philosophers of the past – was Schopenhauer a genius or a cloudy headed mystic, barely a footnote in history? Did Hegel explain reality, or just use pompous language to impress and confound? Even philosophers like Kant, who almost no one would write off, are loved and hated – Kant can’t be written off because his influence was too great, but some think that’s the ridiculous error of European philosophy, not evidence of his brilliance. So if we can’t even agree on the worth of those who are remembered, how can we expect to have a standard of worth for us commoners?

Another possibility, of course, is the classic issue of personality – there may be those full of confidence and self-assurance whose work others find uninteresting, and others constantly doubting their ability to contribute, whose work is seen as exciting or insightful. So perhaps in the end it’s just another case of neurosis, which there is always room for in the modern world. We always have time to analyze ourselves and ask whether we’re good enough. But as Nietzsche said, perhaps we should just produce the fruit we’re capable of producing, and give it to the world, without worrying over how it’s received. You are what you are, you do what you do – “whether you like them, these fruits of ours?–But what is that to the trees! What is that to us, to us philosophers!”

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2 Responses to “fake fruit?”

  1. Richard Gay Says:

    I’m guessing that new Ph.D.’s find themselves thinking, “Gee, I don’t *feel* like a pompous ass… wonder when I’ll grow into it?” Maybe they’ve dropped that from the curricula.

  2. andrew Says:

    this was a wonderful post & article… I read it all with a “wow, been there” feeling.. and it’s odd, as I was in the Ivory tower for years, and although I never personally felt like a fraud (I felt like I was growing some tasty fruit), I saw this neurotic behavior all over the place…

    oddly enough, I’m now in the world of athletes (where I am now) & life is measured by the stopwatch/electronic eye (I do one of those individual sports).. and there is NONE of the above feeling like a fraud.

    You might not be good enough, you might train twice a day for years and still not achieve what you set out to do the day of Olympic trials, but in the final analysis, there was a number attached to your name, it’s objective, and no one had anything to do with it but you.. a whole pile of choices all add up… and there you stand on race day…

    no matter if race day is good or bad, you feel a wild rainbow of lactic-acid seared emotions, but never being a fraud…

    maybe this is why I love sports, tremendously enjoy the company of fellow athletes, and found the Ivory tower a bit of an asylum…

    certainly, there are a few athletes who are pompous asses, but there is a crucial difference.. they earn that right through loads of pain & empirical evidence..

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