A Curmudgeon's Guide to The Curmudgeon's Guide

Today's article is a feature from Capital Commentary, a weekly current affairs publication by the Center for Public Justice. To read more, visit www.capitalcommentary.org

Thank God for Charles Murray, an honest curmudgeon, who has broken the curmudgeon code of silence with urgent advice for today’s young and aspirational. A serious sociologist at the American Enterprise Institute (AEI), Murray has written bracing and original research about the state of American society. His latest, The Curmudgeon’s Guide to Getting Ahead is essential reading for my (Millennial) generation. 

The book is about the transition from college to adulthood and the unwritten rules and conventions that can vault you into success or sandbag you into obscurity. Why care what curmudgeons think? Because any person in a successful role of authority is one. They didn’t get there by accident, and neither will you.

Admittedly, this short book reads at points like a laundry list of things that Murray finds obnoxious, perhaps because the average young person’s attention span doesn’t go much further than a bullet point. In fact, Murray argues that the best curmudgeon’s guide is Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, but he doubts that even college graduates will read his brief volume cover to cover. Of the subjects he lucidly expounds on: “excise the word like from your spoken English”; “on the proper use of strong language”; “stop ‘reaching out’ and ‘sharing’ and other prohibitions”; “office emails are not texts to friends”; “learn to love rigor”; and “get real jobs.”

Among the most important is what I call “decorum” or “etiquette,” a combination of his eighth chapter ( “negotiating the minefield of contemporary office dress”) and his second  (“don’t use first names”).

For whatever reason, the academy seems insulated from the rules of professional dress in a way that constantly baffles and alarms me. Faculty roll in looking the part of a vagabond, and we call this diversity or chuckle about absent-minded intellectuals, and then we rail in outrage when nobody takes us seriously. Here’s an idea: stop showing up in short-pants and ironic internet t-shirts, and your ideas might take more weight than those of the average binge-gaming teenager.

Murray urges following “the lead of senior people of your gender regarding dress,” (Murray, 34) and he tells this memorable story:

A few decades ago, I had dashed into the office just to pick up something and leave. I wasn’t going to be in the building more than ten minutes, so I arrived wearing a flannel shirt and jeans. As I was standing in front of the tenth-floor elevators waiting to leave, one of those elevators opened and out stepped Irving Kristol, AEI’s most revered scholar. Irving was a warm and unpretentious person and a good friend. But there was no warmth in his eyes as he deliberately looked me up and down, said “Well, what have we here?”, and walked away without another word. From that day until his death, long after it had become customary for AEI scholars to work in shirtsleeves, I never arrived at AEI in anything except a coat and tie (Murray, 33).

Another distressing trend in the academy, especially religious colleges, is the use of first names. Christian communities suffer several overlapping egalitarian theologies that are quite fashionable in the modern moral order. We are anxious to express sameness and homogeneity, highly suspicious of hierarchy or “putting up boundaries.” This, as Charles Taylor says, is one way of being equal, the special fetish of the Secular age. This fetish insists on “first name” camaraderie, even among senior people who abhor hierarchy (even as they steward it). Gone are proper titles like “Doctor” and “President.”

Taylor calls this the “cult of authenticity,” a pathological kind of individualism run amok. Another way of being equal is the fulsome recognition of heterogeneity, of mutual service made harder, not easier, by this fixation on “equality.” How can people in authority serve you by keeping you accountable, helping you upgrade your skills, or see your mistakes if you have the casual relationship of drinking buddies at the poker table? Titles matter because they denote responsibility, on both sides. When students call me “Doctor” in the classroom, they are reminding me not only of my role as facilitator and master of the material, but also of my responsibility to serve them. The title, in effect, calls me to account as much as it calls them to some form of (limited) obedience. It recognizes the essential pluriformity of authority, of the responsibility of office, as David Koyzis puts it in his important new book.

This flattening of social relationships is deeply worrying, not only institutionally, but also theologically. When Jesus is “my BFF” and my prof is a “cool friend,” it’s hard to imagine a tough talk about sin and misery, about the serious discipline of our desires, and the difficult trial and error necessary for a solid education. I like my students (and some of them even like me), but I still hand out A’s and F’s afterward. I almost never do this with my poker buddies.

What more to say, but tolle lege Murray’s guide to manners, thinking, writing, and the good life. You may not like it, you’ll almost certainly disagree with it, but that’s the beauty of Murray’s clear-minded curmudgeonly code: it doesn’t matter. Like it, love it, hate it, don’t even read it, you’ll still be judged by its standards. Yard sticks may seem old fashioned, but the curmudgeons of the world, whether they admit it or not, all have one. Here is an essential look at it.

-  Robert Joustra is a Fellow with the Center for Public Justice. He is assistant professor of international studies at Redeemer University College and editorial fellow at The Review of Faith & International Affairs.