Academics annoy people. There’s just go getting around it. We can be smug, self-righteous, know-it-alls. We don’t mean to. But it happens anyway.
I’m sure we do this in lots of little ways that I never notice. But I think one of the more common mistakes is when we forget that what might be common knowledge to those with our particular research interests may not be (i.e. almost certainly isn’t) common knowledge to everyone else. So we make some off-handed comment about something that “everybody knows,” unintentionally making everyone around us feel stupid because they have no idea what we’re talking about.
I was reminded of this when I ran across a quote from Peter Leithart’s book Defending Constantine. Now I enjoyed Defending Constantine and wrote a fairly positive review some time back. But here’s the quote that got my attention.
Every schoolchild knows that shortly after his victory over Maxentius, Constantine issued the Edict of Milan, giving freedom to Christians to worship as they pleased.
Statements like this come from losing touch with that the average person actually knows. And this quote makes it worse by claiming that these are facts known not just by your average adult, but by your average schoolchild. Let’s count all the facts in this one sentence that are not in fact known by your average schoolchild.
- They have no idea who Maxentius was. They’ll probably be able to figure out that he was a Roman, but only because his name sounds like the guy from Gladiator.
- They probably don’t even know who Constantine was. They may have heard the name, but good luck getting any details.
- From the sentence, they’ll be able to figure out that Constantine defeated Maxentius, but they won’t know why or how.
- They’ve never heard of the Edict of Milan, so they have no idea what it was or what it supposedly accomplished. And, if you’re talking to schoolchildren in America, there’s a good chance they won’t even know where Milan is.
- I think your average Christian schoolchild will know about the persecution of the early church. So they’ll probably be able to figure out from the reference to “freedom” that the Edict of Milan has something to do with that. But I’m not sure that your average non-Christian schoolchild has heard those stories.
That’s pretty good. In one short sentence, Leithart has managed to insult quite a large number of people because they don’t know as many as five different things that any schoolchild should know. This is why I think it’s important for academics to interact regularly with those outside their field. We need to be familiar with the “average person” (as if there is such a creature) so we can work to connect our research with their needs and interests. Instead, we routinely imply that they’re not very smart simply because they don’t happen to be experts in our particular fields of interest.
No wonder we annoy people.