Am I An Intellectual?

You might think that anyone with a Ph.D. who claims to write novels is suspect, but it’s important for me to say that I’m not an academic who writes novels but simply a writer who eventually got a Ph.D. I did it to study people and culture more deeply (my subject: Social Philosophy) and maybe even get a job where I could teach higher-level students and have more time to write. But the fact is that I never had an academic career.

            I taught a class or two or a one-off seminar at the universities of Washington and Oregon, Seattle University, the Wright Institute in Berkeley, U.C. Davis and others. I was never a full-time faculty member—my degree was multi-disciplinary and no department would claim me—and instead I was always “picking up the crumbs that fell from the table,” as one colleague described it. Only when I taught at Pannasastra University in Phnom Penh five years ago for a couple of years was I a bona fide faculty member—and a full professor at that. (Pannasastra is the “Harvard” of Cambodia but is actually more like “South Chattanooga Community College.”) Every other job I’ve had since the early 1980s has been teaching English as a second language—something I fell into in Japan. I found the work easy and enjoyable—every class was a social hour, it seemed to me, and an education—and I always had the time and the energy to write.

       The one book where I did put my academic background to work was The Meanings of Love, the non-fiction book where I really felt I had to fully substantiate my position. The book itself isn’t academic in style, but I relied on my considerable study and research to make my case (to my own satisfaction). But the real foundation of the book is my understanding of the subject—my own knowledge, backed up by research.

           Aside from that book, I think I use my formal education as a “reality check” when I do my writing. That is, my subconscious mostly writes the books (as I explained earlier) but I use my conscious mind to “keep it real.” My research background prevents me—I hope—from writing what might be considered naive fantasy. Maybe this is why I keep saying that I stand so strongly behind what I’m trying to say: I write from the heart but it’s backed by solid knowledge of the real world.

           Exactly what is my academic background? For the doctorate, I took courses in the departments of Anthropology, Sociology, Philosophy, and Education. My dissertation was on using thought categories from the German sociologist Jurgen Habermas to analyze the content of social thought conveyed in national education curriculum packages. If you’ve never read a book by Habermas, I can tell you you’re in for an adventure! Moreover, of the four members of my dissertation committee, one had a Ph.D. from Harvard and one from UC Berkeley, and two others got their doctorates from the University of Oregon. They thrashed me almost to the point of bleeding over every chapter I submitted for their approval. So although it may not be what one would call a sterling background, I feel confident that it was more than sufficient to guide me in what’s real and what’s merely wishful thinking in my writing. That’s what I mean by “reality check.” Moreover, my own private reading in history, economics, biology, astronomy and other fields has reinforced this.

           So back to the question: am I an intellectual? The answer is no. Above all, I’m a man of feeling. I trained my mind—eight years at university—for the purpose of complementing and balancing that orientation. I’m not sure one can understand life by being a specialist, either of the mind or of the heart; your chances are better if you’re an “informed mongrel” out there in the streets, following scent trails, knocking over trash cans, pissing on various people’s property to gauge their reactions. You’ve got to taste everything, love everything, suffer everything, if you’re going to have any inkling at all of what the human drama is all about.  

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