Daniel Patrick Moynihan told us that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” While the latter clause is certainly true, is the former? Are there no prerequisites to having an opinion? Perhaps, one might argue, the late senator was referring only to informed opinions. But what does “informed” really mean? And—to take this series of questions to its logical end—can everyone have original ideas?
In our current political culture, it seems that not only can everyone have an opinion, everyone does—and you are expected to listen to it. What else explains the rise of hot-take punditry on both sides of the aisle? Moreover, this pressure to have original ideas and share edgy opinions has made its way into education. Many of my professors in graduate school stress that they want to hear more from students. They encourage us to share our opinions and novel ideas on our subject matter. Indeed, I have lost participation points in some classes for too often quoting renowned experts and scholars rather than offering up some original thought.
But should young scholars like myself really be encouraged to share their own thoughts rather than comment on the wisdom of others? I think not. Students need to be told that while they need to think for themselves, they cannot truly think without first paying homage and deference to those giants who came before them.
In his lovely little book How To Think Like Shakespeare, Scott Newstok records how before the turn of the nineteenth century, people had a different sense of what was considered original and what was deemed plagiarism. It used to be that “being ‘original’ meant wrestling with your predecessors, your ‘authors,’ your sources of authority. You even called them your ‘originals.’” He elaborates:
This is the opposite of how we now conceive of “creativity” in today’s schooling. “Imitation” sounds pejorative to us: a fake, a knockoff, a mere copy; at best, derivative drudge work. As a result, there’s an indifference to the still-valid practices of emulation (and repetition, and memorization), which are purported to quash independent thought. This is a loss. If anything, creative imitation—a dynamic intermingling of reflection and practice, thinking and doing—has been the hallmark of art and industry since one Homo faber copied the chip off another’s block.
Jewish tradition teaches that one should “let thy house be a house of meeting for the Sages and sit in the very dust of their feet, and drink in their words with thirst.” In the original Hebrew, the word that means “sit” here, mitabek, has a root that also means “wrestle.” Picking up on this textual nuance, the great eighteenth-century Talmudist R’ Hayyim of Volozhin notes:
We, too, have access to the wisdom of the greatest teachers of previous generations through the many books that have been published. By purchasing these books, we turn our homes into a meeting place for the Sages. We are required to ask, challenge, and debate their teaching—to wrestle in their dust…However, we must remember that we sit in the dust of their feet—that our understanding is but a drop in the ocean of their vast knowledge—and approach the discussion with proper respect. It is entirely possible that our strongest questions might simply result from a lack of comprehension of the author’s logic.
As Newstok explains, this deference and humility does not proscribe one from writing new works. Indeed R’ Hayyim of Volozhin wrote The Soul of Life, which revolutionized all of Jewish mysticism for centuries to come. In my field of military strategy, the same man who wrote a chapter titled “If Thucydides, Sun-tzu, and Clausewitz Did Not Say It, It Probably Is Not Worth Saying,” Colin S. Gray, became arguably the most prolific English-speaking strategist of the past generation.
There is no contradiction between deference and creativity. We respect these scholars precisely because of their displayed humility. No one likes a haughty professor, who demands you pay homage to his truth or so help your grades. We admire scholars who not only think about things, but are keen to think with the authors and texts whose work they build upon. It is this type of scholarship—one that recognizes that though their authors are dead, the texts of giants are still alive—that ought to be the aim of a liberal education.
Matthew Crawford has similarly described this approach to learning as “empowerment through submission.” A musician only has so many notes to use, but through his submission to the limits of his craft, he is empowered to be creative. It is his “membership in a community” that serves as a “prerequisite to creativity.” Music written without a mind to the rules and structures, without a care given to the tradition the composer is heir too, is ghastly to the ears. So it is with scholarship.
One wonders whether the encouragement my peers and I receive to offer “original” thought is merely a reflection on the state of my generation, one that pays no deference to anything that proceeded it. My generation cannot think with the past. It is much easier to completely rewrite and ultimately cancel all of American history than grapple with the complexities and nuances of the founders. It’s even easier to tear down their statues. Armed with the language of deconstruction, phallogocentrism, and critical theory, my generation of students actively seeks to craft not only novel opinions and thoughts, but new ways of Being in the world, divorced from any previous learning. In a bitter twist of irony, such a way of living and learning is inherently regressive, not progressive. We ought to stand on the shoulders of giants, not amputate them.
Please God, there will come a time when my ever-growing library has a new, crisp binding with my name on it. Undoubtedly it will come after years of sitting at the feet of the giants whose works on my shelves have tattered and well-worn pages. The surest path to “creative imitation” and truly original ideas is through respect for our ancestors. Of course, past thinkers were not perfect. But we grow and become more perfect when we embrace the intellectual tradition that has given us our present moment. Only in this way can one become “more himself—or more than himself.”
Phillip Dolitsky is a graduate student at the School of International Service at American University.
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