Tuesday, February 28, 2006

Academics as parents

3quarksdaily has a readable posting reporting Lindsay Beyerstein's experience of being bought up (as we say here) or raised (as she does) by two academics. She says: "My parents met in Berkeley in the 1960s while my dad was doing his PhD. Being raised by academic hippies is like being raised by wolves--you can rejoin human society, but you can never integrate seamlessly." She goes on to say: "I remember the day in kindergarden when one little boy announced that he had a baby brother. How did that happen, someone asked. The kid said something about God. Other kids were floating theories about angel-storks. I felt I had to set the record straight. Many children cried. My mom was called in for a parent-teacher conference. The teacher was very upset. "Did she tell the truth?" Mom asked."Oh, yes," the teacher said, "In great detail.""I don't think we have a problem, then," Mom said. " I remember a similar experience at primary school, no teachers involved in my memory, in which one girl was holding forth with great confidence that babies came out of the mouth as they (the babies) were too big to emerge from anywhere else. I felt constrained to correct her (though her rationale was impressive), but was outvoted by the belly-button contingent. See here for the full posting by Lindsay. It does not reveal the academic discipline of her mother but she says her father is a "physiological psychologist". Her parents are also, from the sounds of it, the opposite of mainstream in their attitudes and lifestyle. She's very positive about her upbringing. But that phrase "you can never integrate seamlessly" is telling. Of course I never could do any such thing and still cannot (though I was not bought up by academics I was bought up by people who admired that pursuit more than any other). Having thought about this for many years, I've concluded, perhaps banally, that what I feel is "just" the existential dilemma we all have: knowledge that we are mortal, and knowledge that making one choice limits others. Who does "integrate seamlessly into society"? And if you do, is that a good thing or not? People who don't are the people who drive progress (so the conventional wisdom has it) but aren't necessarily "happy" (conventional wisdom again). Philosophy 101. One thing is certain, though. Whether you "integrate seamlessly" is not directly and solely related to the profession and attitudes of your parents. Another certain thing is that there is no way to tell from appearances whether someone feels "seamlessly integrated" or not.