The Mark of a True Scholar

I think the mark of a true scholar is the ability to change one’s opinions. True scholars, I believe, are perfectly comfortable acknowledging mistakes or admitting they don’t know something. Smaller minds make snap judgments and stick to them no matter what.

I admire the great child psychologist Robert Coles, who said about parenting, “I learn a lot from my neighbors.”

I knew my doctor was the one for me when he said, “I don’t know. I’ll have to look it up.” You’d be amazed at how many physicians pretend to hold the sum total of humanity’s medical knowledge in their heads. They’re much more concerned with seeming to know.

That’s why I really enjoyed a recent article by Richard Conniff in the Yale Alumni Magazine about Vincent Scully, the patriarch of American architecture.

I always admired Scully’s insights and his ability to convey them to students (I took his course, like everyone else), but he really became a hero to me when I found out he wasn’t one of those stuck-up Boola ‘bluebloods’ like George Bush. He was a townie from New Haven, a scholarship student like me.

Anyway, in 1964 in Architectural Forum, Norman Mailer attacked the modernist architecture of Scully’s disciples, saying it “beheads individuality, blinds vision, deadens instinct and obliterates the past.”

Scully wrote a rebuttal to what he called Mailer’s “lazy pot-boiling paragraphs,” and asked, “Why couldn’t The Naked and the Dead have been another Chanson de Roland?”

“A little horseshit never hurt anyone,” he concluded. “Look at Mailer.” Both men seemed to be having fun with the controversy.

But Scully came away, Conniff says, “haunted for life by Mailer’s argument that the work of the heroic modern architect was leaving us ‘isolated in the empty landscape of psychosis.'”

He finally wound up denouncing “that cactaclysmic purism of contemporary urban renewal which has presently brought so many cities to the brink of catastrophe.” Conniff said Scully, now 87, shudders to think of the beautiful old buildings that were knocked down during the heyday of urban renewal.

It shows that the great man’s love of learning and truth was far greater than his ego, and it certainly seems to bear out Mailer’s statement about Scully: “He’s a better writer than me, but I know more about architecture.”