I’ve written about “pirates and farmers.” Here is Jack Miles, on the difference between an academic and an intellectual:
Academics are farmers. They have fields, and they cultivate their fields well. 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. Hunters cannot replace farmers, or vice versa; but if liberal learning in America, hitherto mostly a farm culture, becomes progressively a hunt culture, there will surely be consequences. By the standards of farmers, what hunters do seems reckless and undisciplined, but hunting has its own interior logic, the logic of an agenda that is individually rather than collectively determined.
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.
The agricultural revolution did not occur for no reason. Hunters are more likely to go hungry than farmers. If academics, 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. Only time will tell — but less time, if present trends continue, than we might think.
A few thoughts:
- You may be puzzled, as I was, by the word “quarry” — you might’ve thought of it as in a stone quarry, or a site of excavation. It actually refers to prey, or game, something sought or pursued, such as “game hunted with hawks.” (I almost misread it as “query,” which I like even more — the intellectual has a query, which they seek out, “across as many fields as necessary, often losing sight of it altogether.”
- If we go with the hunter/farmer metaphor, what about trappers? A trapper is a kind of hunter, but a specific one. You could argue that a blog post is a kind of bait, or trap set.
Sara Hendren, who alerted me to Miles’ piece in the first place, maps these modes of operating to “generalists and specialists”:
[S]pecialists tend to embody the disposition of farmers, while generalists tend to embody the virtues of hunters. Both are necessary, and both need each other. The careful tending to a field whose needs are more or less known, protected, and nurtured further, on the one hand. And the more landscape-crossing, round-the-next-bend pursuit of the not yet known and its promised nourishment, on the other.
Just the other day it occurred to me that, duh, one of the reasons I’m probably so interested in this “cowboy vs. farmer” distinction is that I am a cowboy/farmer hybrid — my mom grew up a farmer’s daughter, and my dad grew up wanting to be a cowboy — shoeing horses and riding in rodeos.
(Again, I would like to be a pirate gardener.)