Academics are farmers, intellectuals are hunters


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“Academics are farmers. They have fields, and they cultivate their fields well,” Jack Miles writes in a superb 1999 essay on Three Differences between an Academic and an Intellectual. Miles, who is best known for his books GOD: A Biography and Christ: A Crisis in the Life of God, proposes that, by contrast:

Intellectuals are hunters. An intellectual does not have a field but a quarry which he pursues across as many fields as necessary, often losing sight of it altogether. . . . One cannot easily be either a farmer or a professor by avocation. The strength of these vocations is that they demand full commitment. Mirroring their strength, their great vulnerability is their inability effectively to reward and sustain partial commitment. By contrast, one may rather easily be a hunter or an intellectual by avocation. Like hunters, who join the chase when they can and leave it when they must, sharing the kill with the tribe when they are successful, so intellectuals study when they can and stop when they must, seeking ever to please themselves but sharing their intellectual pleasure, when they write, with their readers.

Miles also draws a distinction between academic-specialists, who have disciplined their curiosity to operate largely within designated areas, and intellectual-generalists who deliberately do otherwise.

The generalist assumes, as the specialist too seldom does, that he is writing for readers no less intelligent than himself but trained in other areas. . . . A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility. Popularization, which certainly has its place, conveys the specialist’s confidence but also his or her isolation. Generalization conveys the generalist’s diffidence but also his or her connectedness and openness to further connections.

If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more.

Miles’s essay was published in Cross Currents, which, when it published the essay, was a generalists’ journal on religion and related subjects. It has subsequently become a peer-reviewed academic journal, published by John Wiley & Sons. The essay’s subtitle is “What Happens to the Liberal Arts When They are Kicked off Campus?” Miles begins by noting students’ declining interest in humanities study. “[I]f the liberal tradition is not to die,” he proposes, “American culture may need to find another carrier for it.” He writes:

Is it possible to imagine the displaced academics of the country as internal refugees, analogous to the talented Jewish intellectuals who fled Europe for the United States when Hitler came to power?


For the monks who preserved and redefined the liberal arts in the Middle Ages, secular learning was an avocation rather than a vocation. If the liberal arts cannot be a gainful occupation for more than a few, then an American secretary of culture, if we had one, would want to know who might keep the tradition alive by pursuing it as an avocation.

In the concluding paragraph he writes:

Hunters are more likely to go hungry than farmers. If academics [i.e. in the humanities], reliably supported by their universities, are succeeded by intellectuals, only unreliably supported by the work they pick up here and there, the post- and extra-academic humanities will often go hungry and homeless. But hunting does not differ from farming only by being more hazardous and less reliable. Off campus, the liberal arts may, at least on occasion, enjoy a wild adventure and an extraordinary feast.

My Zeteo colleagues and I like to think of this online journal as engaged in such an adventure and seeking to bring, as to a potluck feast, some good, homemade dishes.

— Wm. Eaton, Zeteo Executive Editor



Illustration is from a blog post: “Why I Feel Hunter/Farmer Roles in Sales are Designed to Fail,” by one Bob Rollins, June 10, 2014.

One comment

  1. Daniel D'Arezzo

    Am I reading this correctly? “Knowing more and more about less and less [what academics do] tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more [what intellectuals do] tends to breed humility.” In my experience, academics tend to be humble and intellectuals arrogant. Susan Sontag was peerless in the arrogance department. Calling oneself an intellectual requires a certain amount of arrogance. An academic has credentials and a job; an intellectual has, as Oscar Wilde said, nothing to declare but his or her genius. In my case, I tend to know less and less about less and less. What does that make me? Old.


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