Saturday, April 25, 2009

`Superficially, If I May So Say, Omniscient'

Twenty-five years in journalism turned me into a professional extravert without touching my essential introversion. I can talk to anyone. Or rather, I can listen to anyone, as the lives of others are invariably more compelling than my own. The topic over lunch in the faculty lounge was Star Trek, a subject about which, as Charles Lamb writes, “I am a whole Encyclopedia behind the rest of the world.” It’s not the first time. I know nothing about television, sports, and the movies and pop music of the moment – the lingua franca of students and faculty. I would be found out immediately if I tried to fake a knowing familiarity with such matters, so I nod, smile, emit the occasional throaty laugh and think of what else Lamb wrote in “The Old and the New Schoolmaster”:

“Not that I affect ignorance -- but my head has not many mansions, nor spacious; and I have been obliged to fill it with such cabinet curiosities as it can hold without aching. I sometimes wonder, how I have passed my probation with so little discredit in the world, as I have done, upon so meagre a stock. But the fact is, a man may do very well with a very little knowledge, and scarce be found out, in mixed company; every body is so much more ready to produce his own, than to call for a display of your acquisitions.”

Don’t get me wrong: When the topic turns to something I know something about – children, for instance, or Zbigniew Herbert – I’m right there in the thick of it. Or when teachers turn to their other favorite subject (bitching about students, administrators and other teachers), or when students turn to theirs (bitching about teachers and “The Man” in general), I’m a fount of empathetic reciprocity. As Lamb goes on to say:

“The modern schoolmaster is expected to know a little of every thing, because his pupil is required not to be entirely ignorant of any thing. He must be superficially, if I may so say, omniscient.”


Rebecca V. O'Neal said...

That's the issue with being a specialist rather than a generalist - though I find some generalists to be mediocre at everything rather than exemplary in any one subject. Superficial omniscience sums it up perfectly.

Still, I haven't the first idea of where I'd fall on this spectrum... too many interests - not enough time. <-- which in itself reads like a device to explain away mediocrity.

"The indirect boast; for you are really proud of your defects... because you consider them as proceeding from a rapidity of thought and carelessness of execution, which, if not estimable, you think at least highly interesting." Jane Austen is correct - as always.

D. G. Myers said...


You have correctly identified the principle of Austenian infallibility. To revise JVC, it would not only be indecorous but badly mistaken to ascribe a fault to Austen.