Eccentricity of the intellect

Anyone who, like me, has studied or worked in Trinity College Dublin over the past half century is familiar with the historian R.B. McDowell. Let me say right away that I’m not suggesting we all know anything, even in outline, of what McDowell taught or researched, but we know what he looked like and how he appeared on the campus.

Robert Brendan McDowell died just over a year ago, having very nearly reached the age of 100. He was instantly recognisable: in all weathers he crossed the campus wearing what looked like three or four layers of coats and a battered hat (all of which looked like they had seen better days). He was constantly talking or mumbling, even when nobody was with him. He always walked fast. At dinner he would wear an old gown that was stained and torn in several places. However, if you were sitting near him you would hear a never-ending flow of comments and anecdotes, many of them highly amusing.

About 25 years ago McDowell and another TCD Fellow wrote a history of the College. I remember sitting next to him at Commons (dinner) at the time he was writing this, and in explaining his work he remarked to me that one of the sad discoveries he had made that there were no longer any eccentrics in academic life. I bit my lip.

Of course to many in the outside world the academy is all about other-worldly eccentricity. To many observers this makes old professors endearing, but also emphasises their remoteness from ‘real life': academics are thought sometimes to inhabit a world in which the normal laws and customs of human behaviour and relevance don’t need to apply. I confess I find this a difficult concept to address. Eccentrics are endearing, but more importantly, an eccentric approach to knowledge can open up new ways of thinking, or facilitate important discoveries. I understand the desire to protect and preserve this aspect of academic life. On the other hand, universities should not be presented chiefly as places in which harmless eccentrics pursue daft ideas, some of which may by some fluke turn out to be important.

Certainly academic freedom should, amongst other things, allow and nurture some degree of intellectual unorthodoxy, which may present to some as eccentricity. But universities are now increasingly institutions that need to answer some quite direct questions posed to them by society, and other-wordliness may not be the response primarily sought. This is a hard balance for universities to get right. But whatever your university might be, I do hope that there will still be some room in it for a person like R.B. McDowell.

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8 Comments on “Eccentricity of the intellect”

  1. Vince Says:

    I think the one great error of the current academy in most countries is it’s lack of acceptance of the eccentric for they were the visual manifestation of it’s willingness to defend. Or to slightly re-state, your, you’d better hang together or you’ll hang separately.
    Eccentricity and its first cousin whimsey are the core of the endeavour for otherwise there is nothing beyond a slavery to a unsatisfiable master and where the end game is annihilation. Without the realization of those two we are nothing more than specks in an organism bent on it’s own destruction.
    Again to put it another way. The eccentric is your Standard, the flag to which you rally. Otherwise you are nothing more than something for sale. A bit like the destruction of Lismullen henge, a core part of the Tara Complex, showed FF and the Greens had little soul.

  2. Kate Says:

    I whole heartedly agree and indeed, this is very true of many sectors or industries, my own included.

    Sadly now, we do not embrace ‘individualism’, but rather ask everyone to conform to meet the goals/objectives/KPIs of an organisation. As such, the eccentric nature of important individuals such as your McDowell, are sadly lost.

    In my own sector I have found the same. The characters I worked for – who were slightly eccentric in my mind – are slowly but surely retiring or being phased out of mainstream organisations. I don’t see anyone event capable or even worthy of taking their place, but perhaps I’m biased. I believe this is in part, due to the inability of ‘new blood’ to embrace and see their amazing value, because it hasn’t been taught or outlined in the management course or text book. They don’t have the time, patience and often the understanding to see the value either.

    Whilst I appreciate this sounds very pessimistic and it isn’t the same for all, I have seen an overwhelming change. We are at risk of losing all our eccentrics and their way of ‘thinking’, (as you put it). If we don’t embrace this soon, I believe we are at risk of losing the remainder of our great academic, industrial and entrepreneurial spirit in this country.


  3. Eccentricity is regarded as a label not far – if at all – short of insult status by the zeitgeist in Ireland. Despite the banal, uncontroversial, finding by the three reports into our Crisis that “groupthink” was an important factor, the consensus has not changed. (Yes, irony). I myself was labelled “a nut” by a not unimportant media figure because of my perceived reluctance to accept “official” versions.

    I am proud to be an eccentric, a “crank” even. (No, I do not claim that that makes me the equal of RB McDowell).

  4. Anna Notaro Says:

    There is a very nice passage in the Chronicle’s piece linked up to this post, when the author (who interestingly uses a pseudonym) writes:
    ‘Eccentrics represent an approach to knowledge that is not disciplined, or even interdisciplinary. It is based on pleasure, love, wisdom, and other humane qualities that don’t translate easily into productivity charts or black-and-white parables of good and evil, progressive and conservative.’
    This is the key aspect: an in/disciplined conception of knowledge (which in the view of French semiologist Roland Barthes was what true inter-disciplinarity was ultimately about), a conception that, sadly, is increasingly difficult to pursue in an academic environment. This is particularly ironic at a time when ‘creativity’, ‘innovation’, ‘thinking outside the box’ are highly praised as drivers of economic and cultural growth. So, thinking about eccentricity in an academic environment implies much more than musing about odd habits and funny clothes but it brings us to ask important questions: what kind of ‘approach to knowledge’ are we cultivating in our universities? Is our first imperative to comply to the requirements of an audit culture gone mad or to the needs of our students to ‘learn outside the box’? This might be a hard balance to struck, and yet it is worth remembering that academics themselves are often too ready to adjust to a culture of compliance and conformity, perfectly reflected in the fashion code (grey suits for men and black jackets & skirts for women).
    The unwritten code of how a serious academic should behave and look like is a hard one to break, even using social media might automatically qualify one as being a bit ‘eccentric’. At a recent event I was illustrating the academic potential of Twitter to a colleague whose only comment was: ‘Funny you should say that!’ Funny indeed…

    • no-name Says:

      “…even using social media might automatically qualify one as being a bit ‘eccentric’.”

      Do you really mean to suggest that using social media is eccentric? To read this blog one could more readily infer that the odd one out is the person who eschews Facebook, Twitter, mobile phones, etc. Is it not the case that in the preceding blog post here most agreed with the author that we needed to embrace social media, and some were desperate to inform us just how integral Facebook is to PhD supervision, for example. One who lacks a mobile phone is typically reacted to as a dodgy customer on failing to be able to provide (setting aside merely being unwilling to divulge) a mobile phone number for contact details.

      • Anna Notaro Says:

        Sorry I have to break the news, however being a social media enthusiast, in most academic contexts, is far from being mainstream, no matter whether one is a university leader or an early career academic. What constitutes ‘serious’ academic practice is perceived as alien to the world of Twitter and/or Facebook, this is due to several factors, not least a mistaken conception of seriousness as solemnity. To my mind there can be no innovation and creativity without intellectual eccentricity, the capacity to embrace the unlikely, the serendipitous, what better than social media to do exactly that?

  5. MunchkinMan Says:

    Eccentricity,defined as unconventional and slightly strange (OED[Concise]),is an amusing and largely harmless behavioural trait, which is doled out to most humans in one degree or another. I’ve seen many intellectual eccentrics in the university where I work, and by and large they are charming. I agree with Ferdinand – we need this trait in terms of its contribution to the frontiers of knowledge. However, we also need it in many other facets of university life, including management, vision, inspiration, and in our general humanity, ‘cos what we’re heading for is hard-nosed CONFORMITY, UNIFORMITY, and a kind of SMOOTHING of the human persona, you know, like the kind of statistical manipulations that one does to iron out those annoying data blips that are SO ANNOYING to one’s experimental expected outcomes. So it is with university life (at least where I work). There is a growing attitude of caution (wariness? unforgiveness?) in university senior management ranks towards anyone who expresses an ‘unconventional’ manner/behaviour/comment. This suspicion extends even towards those whose professional/academic/workplace stature is acknowldged and recognised as being beyond reproach. I’m reminded of that Gary Larson (The Far Side) cartoon depicting a crowd of motionless anonymous penguins, out of which one penguin reaches up with the words to a song ‘I gotta be me, I just gotta be me…’

    Let’s just be ourselves…however eccentric (and harmless) that may be…


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