It was a seminal moment for an 18 year old Donald. It was my third day as a college student, my first in this class, and before anyone could strike with the collegiate version of giving your teacher an apple (“what should we call you, Professor?”), he made an announcement.
“You can call me Professor, teach, Tony, Mr. Garcia – anything except dickhead or asshole, I hear enough of those already.”
Tony was the quintessential college prof – tweed coat, overalls, and a tie with his slacks and dress shoes. Oh, and he swore in class and let his students call him by his first name, a grand no-no of pre-university education. That irreverence towards his title though, that’s what stuck out about him. Between the lines, it communicated a genuine understanding and acceptance of who he was and what he was all about. I maintain that you could have called him dickhead or asshole, and it still would not have mattered to him.
Fast-forward roughly 4 years to my first year teaching. Rife with ideas about teaching, I quickly learned that there is a rigid line separating theory from practice, especially in the complex atmosphere of a classroom. While I still held to many of my beliefs and ideas on how teachers (including myself) could do things better, I focused my energies on becoming a repository of others’ insight. It was then, during the winter of 2011, that I heard it first.
“Oh you’re still an idealist. Just wait.”
Though I don’t recall what the context of this comment was exactly, I remember taking offense to it. The reason, of course, is that being an idealist is mutually exclusive to being a pragmatist; I couldn’t hope to maintain ideals and still be effective in the real-world. An idealist is euphemistic for someone who invests too much into their own delusions. There’s a rigid line, remember? I would go on to be referred to as an idealist in various ways for years to come, the title never sitting any more comfortable with me.
Fast-forward to a few months ago, Nina Munk publishes a book that shines a light on various critiques and criticisms on the work of economist Jeff Sachs, a man whose vision, passion, and clear-headedness has made him a man I greatly admire. (If you aren’t familiar with Sachs, the paraphrased bio is that he is a renowned economist who, after successfully advising the stabilization and development of free-market economies in various countries, has since dedicated his life to eradicating extreme poverty in Africa). Chief among Munk’s critiques is that he is an idealist – it’s the title of the book. The suggestion being, to me at least, that no flaw is so great as being idealistic.
Let’s slo-mo for a second and break that down. If idealism, having convictions to ideas deemed too grand to be possible, is the ultimate flaw, then conversely the ultimate good would be what? Having no ideas? Blind compliance? Refusing to entertain different ideas? I couldn’t say – ask Nina Munk, or the teacher I worked with.
Pause. No more fast-forwarding, we got the now to live in (I know my fellow millennials can nod to that). I forsook the obligatory “New Years Resolutions” post for this because, aside from weighing on my mind, I think this fits neatly into that paradigm anyway. That is, I contend the notion that being called an idealist is a bad thing. Suffice it to say, I don’t automatically divorce the notions of idealism and pragmatism. It just takes a balance is all.
Sans one’s allotted time, ideas are the most important commodities. As an unapologetic humanist, I think the measure of a man, the value of a person, is a direct reflection of the originality and integrity of their ideas. Ideas fuel the actions that change the world. In the same way that ideas are useless without action, actions are meaningless without ideas embedded in them. Idealism and pragmatism aren’t in conflict – they need each other.
So here’s my overarching resolution: to be an unabashed idealist. Better yet – to be a pragmatic idealist. More idealism is needed, if anything, so long as it’s rooted in an architecture that moves it toward action. Isn’t that what it means to have goals?
I invite any faux-criticism that bestows upon me the title of idealist. It beats being called dickhead or asshole, and I hear enough of those already.