Tuesday, May 26, 2009

On Being a "Popularizer"

In academia, one of the most derogatory comments one can make about a colleague is to label them a "popularizer." This is pretty much akin to being labeled a Democrat on FOX News. The irony, of course, is that almost all scholars are engaged in the profession of teaching which is, by its very nature, the art of a certain kind of popularization.

I was reminded of this recently while reading Saul Bellow's Ravelstein, his very thinly-veiled take on Allan Bloom. (I still hope to post some notes on this over at What I'm Reading.) In the story, Ravelstein (the Bloom-ish character) finally writes a "popular" book which encapsulates the core of the philosophical vision he's been disseminating to students for 30 years. The narrator observes:
To his own surprise, Abe Ravelstein then found himself writing the book he had signed up to do. The surprise was general among his friends and the three or four generations of students he had trained. Some of these disapproved. They opposed what they saw as the popularization, or cheapening, of his ideas. But teaching, even if you are teaching Plato or Lucretius or Machiavelli or Bacon, is a kind of popularization (p. 22).