Curmudgeons: An Apologia

In the give and take of any healthy community, you’ll generally find the curmudgeon, the grumpy one on the fringe of the circle. Though we often laugh at their witticisms, we just as often fuss about their cynicisms. “Can’t she see the good in anything?” we say. “Doesn’t he ever do anything but tear down?” But where would we be without the grumpy ones?

Bandwagoners abound. Trained by advertisers and public relations professionals, most of us are willingly herded into one dubious venture after another. We nod agreement even before the sentences are completely uttered. Go along. Be nice. Perhaps we need the spoilsports who decline membership in the club. Perhaps we should elevate them to consultants of the first order.

My heroes are usually those who say no. I admire Annie Dillard, for example, in part because she said no to the “The Phil Donahue Show.” I admire Eudora Welty, who left her public relations job in New York City during the depression, because “It seemed too much like sticking pins into people to get them to buy things they didn’t need or really much want.” And I admire Robert E. Lee who, penniless after the awful war, nonetheless said no to Hartford Life Insurance’s $50,000.00 offer for the use of his name. I’m even proud of the Salvation Army for saying no to lottery cash.

It is simpler to be agreeable. Who needs a reputation for grouchiness? But the cantankerous have saved us from time to time. Although they are generally flawed folks, like the rest of us, full of contradictions, they manage to stand up when it counts. Remember Elijah, who said no to all the prophets of Baal and brought down fire from heaven, only to cave when Jezebel mustered the troops? He was a mess of a man who, despite himself, offered a fine example of voting against the status quo.

Academic institutions seem to attract more than their statistical share of curmudgeons. Maybe that’s why the college experience is sometimes suspiciously viewed as immersion in cynicism. Despite the trickiness of having sometimes to turn their grumpy gazes to themselves, and despite their too-frequent Elijah-like watery knees, they soldier on. I admire that. They teach their classes even when the studies seem increasingly marginal to the real business of the place. I once gave a final exam on the same day that a success seminar was setting up shop in the corridor outside the classroom. Departing students left via the “Dress for Success” exhibit. I wondered what Thoreau and Tolstoy would have made of that. I muttered my way back to my room by way of the “How to Order Wine” kiosk.

At my school, curmudgeonly colleagues have questioned everything from speed bumps to chapel construction. We have had demurrals from the fringes on curricula, pedestrian overpasses, Christian school rules, and conference centers. Sometimes the objections are well-informed and useful. Sometimes not. Sometimes the protests tell us more about morale at the college than about any particular issue. Admittedly, the grousers seldom make any difference. Most institutions require extraordinary weight against the rudder to alter direction even slightly. Nay-sayers are categorized, tolerated, and ignored more than they are cultivated and heeded. Prophets are okay for passing in the hallway. Nobody wants a long car ride with one. Our loss.

Thomas B. Phulery is a pseudonym for an English professor at a Christian liberal arts college.