Monday, February 14, 2005

"The best scholars see the world as children do."

Jeffrey Nesteruk was a "deep thinker." Then he had a daughter and things changed.
My den at home was always my intellectual sanctuary, the place to which I withdrew to write and, as my wife says, "think lofty thoughts." The change is the way those lofty thoughts now mingle more easily with the mundane ones.

Today I write with the door to my den open, something I never did before my daughter was born. She often wanders in while I'm working for a hug or a laugh or a quick spin in the big leather chair that sits in the corner. Though she's getting better at avoiding the carefully arranged stacks of books around my desk, she's knocked more than one weighty philosophic tome from its comfortable perch.

The increased commingling of the lofty and pedestrian that my daughter brought to my life has changed my writing. Slowly -- at first, imperceptibly -- both my scholarship and writing have become more personal, more revealing. I tell stories along with arguing doctrine. In making a philosophical point about the nature of obligation, I'm as likely to disclose how my wife and I share the washing of dishes as I am to cite a Supreme Court ruling.

I also say things more provisionally. I let more of my uncertainties onto the page. I'm less interested in winning an argument than in starting a conversation. . . . More than I did before, I want to give everyone, especially my critics, their due. As my daughter has taught me through her own initial refusal to fit neatly into my life, those who don't conform to your preconceptions about the world can teach you the most. . . .

The best scholars see the world as children do. They share with children an openness and wonder that too often fade in the course of an academic career. They are able to consider anew the unwitting assumptions that often guide our thinking. At some level, even the youngest kids recognize this, knowing that when they meet a genuine scholar they have found a kindred spirit. My daughter has discovered one in my colleague Kerry, an accomplished political theorist. The last time he stopped over, she did several laps around the house, screaming with delight.

Each day both my writing and my daughter take me to the edge of what I thought I knew -- and then push me over, sometimes gently, sometimes not. But, having survived the unsettled stacks of books in my den, I take my own toppling more in stride, too. I've learned that being knocked off a comfortable perch is the best education a scholar can hope for.

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