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Back to School

I am not convinced that the average confidence man knows that he is a confidence man. Perhaps none of them know it, for self-knowledge seems the first thing that confidence trickstering takes away.

By contrast, I have (over time) met several learned men, including published writers, who are under the impression that they are frauds. This is a source of bother to them, for they do not admire frauds. One I know – let me call him “Jim,” only – was afflicted by self-comparison to a colleague who was frequently dismissed as “an idiot.”

Envy came into this. The “idiot” in question would never boast, and it is usually through a man’s boasting that we discover what his qualifications are. He might be telling the truth when he drops hints of his degrees, his travels, the famous men he has met. He may actually have won the claimed prizes. Much is checkable, though seldom checked.

But one would have needed access to the personnel files to learn anything at all about this “idiot.” He had nothing to say about himself, no breeze to shoot on any other topic, and when he did speak, it was never to the point. It was as if to some other point behind that.

It wasn’t that his views were controversial, although they were; rather that they failed to engage with the “memes” of his university department. He was, as it were, provocatively irrelevant. And he did not seem to care what people thought of him, even though he lacked tenure.

He was a poor teacher, given very low grades in his student assessments. Apparently he’d spend the whole ninety minutes of any lecture-room session shyly reading out notes that no one could hear – some of which were apparently in Latin or Greek, if not Sanskrit – without having provided print-outs. Or maybe they could hear, but his voice was such a tedious monotone that it was impossible to listen. There were no visuals; he had no idea, it seemed, how any technology worked, or even that it existed. The teaching assistants made fun of him, for his habit of colliding with desks and doors.

Then one day the man quit his job and disappeared; without bothering to explain himself. “A complete idiot,” was the consensus in the faculty lounge.

As I say, Jim was afflicted with the suspicion that this “idiot” had been the only teacher in the department (himself included) who was not a fraud. He discerned, darkly, that the man was very learned. Whereas Jim thought he was himself, usually, teaching things he did not really understand, and would never understand. And yet some of his students were in awe of him. Why?

Because, he thought, he was a natural performer: “I may not know my subject, but I know my lines. And teaching today is a dramatic genre.”

Yet Jim has Latin, and a little Greek. He is properly accredited, reads constantly, and I have noticed when drinking with him that he is a fund of apt quotations. Which turn out to be accurate; and his anecdotes, too: not once have I caught him “faking it.” True, he is charming and entertaining. But I’ve never been inspired to hold this against him.

His fear that he is, himself, some sort of “con man” thus came as a surprise. I thought, however, it is proof that he isn’t.

Whereas, everywhere I look – in that academic world, and elsewhere – I see men (and women, these days) who do strike me as masters of imposture, possessed of no humility at all. Or sometimes they have mastered it poorly, but the intentions are clear enough.

This is an aspect of our culture that, I think, could be more discussed. It tends to be politicized. Rightwing people, for instance, spot leftwing impostures, and vice versa, but no one is looking for impostures, per se. Our skepticism is thus itself an imposture.

Nor would the notion be traveling about that it is worse to be conned by a friend than an enemy: to be “set up” believing assertions of fact, for instance, that are simply not true. It means that even upon reasonably secure foundations, one is building not with bricks but with sugar cubes.

In my (dim) understanding of the Socrates of Plato, there are two related ways to con yourself, en route to conning others. One is to pretend that you know what you do not know. The other is to pretend not to know what you do know. Often one is hoist on both petards.

As a sometime professor-ess of philosophy has put it to me from England (I think she has herself retired early from the trade), our modern academy “prioritizes” critical thinking, but doesn’t know what it is. She saw this in the feedback from her students:

Even when they have received a tolerably good education, students come away with the idea that there is some virtue in being able to pick apart an argument, and not necessarily systematically, just being able, to say, “Yeah, but. . . .” They level criticisms like they’re head-butting a massive mountain-like bouncer outside an exclusive club: it’s futile and is likely to end them in trouble, but they persist in flinging themselves against their target until they draw blood, and then declare they’ve won, even if the barely-bloodied Goliath is still standing there with a quizzical and annoyed look on his face.

In short, they are self-unaware con artists, having been trained to that game through, I would guess, all of their previous formal education.

And this is the aspect of fraudulence that is most rife, not only in the academy. It is, as the lady explains, a skepticism not founded upon sound and tested principles. It amounts to a denial, a failure to acknowledge, large, impassable, highly visible things.

“Who you gonna believe, me or your lyin’ eyes?”

It is the attitude of a con man.

David Warren is a former editor of the Idler magazine and columnist in Canadian newspapers. He has extensive experience in the Near and Far East. His blog, Essays in Idleness, is now to be found at: davidwarrenonline.com.