Academics love to talk about excellence.  You can bet that as terms start all over the country in the next month, convocations and lecture halls are going to be full of people proclaiming its importance and its connection to the education tasks being embarked upon.

Yet even if we agree to the silly distinction that used to be made between “liberal arts” and “vulgar arts,” and look at just the liberal arts, that which one would think would be the province of academics, even if we look at the century (the 20th) where American higher education reached its pinnacle, what do we find?

The greatest American poet of the twentieth century was an insurance man.*
The second greatest American poet of the twentieth century was a family physician**.
As to poetry coming out of the academy? Sell, can one say obscure, pedantic, self-absorbed?  Even, ahem, boring as hell?

And the greatest 21st century American philosopher?   He was a longshoreman***.

The smartest, most creative person I’ve ever known was a plumber who never went to college****.

Four is too small a sample to generalize upon.  But you’ have to admit, they’re three examples to get you wondering.  If higher education is not the place where the best of the best are to be found, should it be the place that we look to when we seek to credential “excellence”?


*Wallace Stevens
**William Carlos Williams
***Eric Hoffer
****My dad


3 Responses to “Greatness”

  1. David says:


    I don’t know any of these people. I do know, or know of, Adam Smith, Milton Friedman, David Friedman, George Selgin, Larry White, and Wade Shilts, all in the academy. So it’s definitely got some excellence. :-)



  2. Tom says:

    The commencement address at my high school graduation spoke about Wallace Stevens and, in particular, “The Man With the Blue Guitar.” At the time, I thought the speech was quite silly. Now, more than 30 years later, I remember the speech topic and the poem. That’s powerful!

  3. Crasty says:

    I really like your blog and i respect your work. I’ll be a frequent visitor.

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