The academic cocoon

In the novel Enchantment, the main character, Ivan, gives a bitter assessment of his choice of an academic career, saying it was for “men who hadn’t yet grown up.”

The life he had chosen was a cocoon. Surrounded by a web of old manuscripts and scholarly papers, he would achieve tenure, publish frequently, teach a group of carefully selected graduate students, be treated like a celebrity by the handful of people who had the faintest idea who he was, and go to his grave deluded into thinking he had achieved greatness when in fact he stayed in school all his life. Where was the plunge into the unknown?

I don’t believe the author meant to imply that an academic career is necessarily so insular. In the context of the quote, Ivan says his father, also a scholar, “hadn’t stayed in the cocoon” but had taken great risks. But there is certainly the danger of living in a tiny world and believing that you’re living in a much larger world. Others may face the same danger, though it seems particularly acute for academics.

It’s interesting that Ivan criticizes scholars for avoiding the unknown. Scholars would say they’re all about pursuing the unknown. But scholars pursue known unknowns, questions that can be precisely formulated within the narrow bounds of their discipline. The “plunge into the unknown” here refers to unknown unknowns, messier situations where not only are the outcomes unknown, even the risks themselves are unknown.

One thought on “The academic cocoon

  1. I’m not an academic, but I think it’s lopsided to say that “scholars pursue known unknowns”. Many do, and often, but not always, and not everyone, just as in business, which is also long-tailed in distribution. For example, take computer science. The work done in the 1920s and 1930s that laid the foundations of computer science, was totally out there and was only possible in the daring freedom of academic fairy tale land. And I expect that 20 years from now, ideas and techniques in computing being explored only in academia this very moment by people laboring in relative obscurity will make it to the mainstream.

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