Ear­li­er this week, Ilan Sta­vans asked: Is there a Jew­ish lit­er­ary renais­sance? He will be blog­ging here all week for Jew­ish Book Coun­cil and MyJew­ish­Learn­ing.

Some­times when I’m con­grat­u­lat­ed for writ­ing well, the praise comes with a sense of theft, as if some­one like me who has spent decades in acad­e­mia — I start­ed teach­ing when I was just out of col­lege — should be expect­ed to say things in mud­dy, incom­pre­hen­si­ble ways.

I under­stand the qualm. Aca­d­e­mics are known for their pedan­tic style. This is par­tic­u­lar­ly the case in the human­i­ties, where, giv­en the uni­ver­sal top­ics, one would expect the oppo­site. Schol­ars for the most part write obscure­ly for a small audi­ence — minus­cule, real­ly: less than half a dozen peers. To show off, they become con­vinced that argu­ments need to be labyrinthine and the lan­guage unin­tel­li­gi­ble.

This awful mode is learned in grad­u­ate school. Unfor­tu­nate­ly, judg­ing by the sam­ple of the lat­est crop of schol­ars, there does­n’t appear to be an end to this edu­ca­tion to obfus­cate.

Truth is, it isn’t a mat­ter of style. The prob­lem, in my opin­ion, is the fear to be hon­est, to say what one thinks ele­gant­ly and per­sua­sive­ly when the occa­sion prompts. In oth­er words, this hand­i­cap is relat­ed to the fear of speak­ing one’s mind. Grad­u­ate school, again in the human­i­ties, is a hin­drance: it teach­es future teach­ers to hide behind cum­ber­some the­o­ret­i­cal frame­works. The plea­sure to read, to write, to think is sab­o­taged by the oblig­a­tion to align one­self behind a doc­trine.

Yes, I’m con­vinced aca­d­e­mics are tim­o­rous peo­ple, I’m not sure if more or less than every­one else, but in our case it shows because of the priv­i­leged posi­tion in which we find our­selves. Giv­en the extra­or­di­nary oppor­tu­ni­ty to speak out, they bur­ry their head under­ground. Aca­d­e­m­ic free­dom is wast­ed on aca­d­e­mics.

Feel­ing suf­fo­cat­ed, I have sought role mod­els out­side acad­e­mia as well as in the lim­i­nal zone where the class­room and the out­side world meet: Edmund Wil­son, Lionel Trilling, Irv­ing Howe, Hen­ry Luis Gates, Jr., Mor­ris Dick­stein… That is, I have tried to fol­low fig­ures capa­ble of simul­ta­ne­ous­ly speak­ing to two audi­ences, the one with­in and the one out­side cam­pus.

Each of them has respond­ed to the needs of his time. What they’ve shown — to me, at least — is that the divid­ing line between insid­ers and out­siders is noth­ing if not arti­fi­cial. The two audi­ences exist only in our mind. When we exile them from there, these become one.

To write well is to express one­self with clar­i­ty, pre­ci­sion, and con­vic­tion. And to be hum­ble: one must irrev­o­ca­bly assume the read­er — all read­ers — to be our equals. To think oth­er­wise is an exer­cise in solipsism.

Ilan Sta­vans is Lewis-Sebring Pro­fes­sor in Latin Amer­i­can and Lati­no Cul­ture at Amherst Col­lege. His most recent books are the col­lec­tion of essays Singer’s Type­writer and Mine: Reflec­tions on Jew­ish Cul­ture (Uni­ver­si­ty of Nebras­ka Press, 2002) and the graph­ic nov­el El Ilu­mi­na­do (Basic Books, with Steve Sheinkin). 

Ilan Sta­vans is the inter­na­tion­al­ly-known, New York Times best­selling Jew­ish Mex­i­can schol­ar, cul­tur­al crit­ic, essay­ist, trans­la­tor, and Amherst Col­lege pro­fes­sor whose work, trans­lat­ed into twen­ty lan­guages, has been adapt­ed into film, the­ater, TV, radio, and children’s books.