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Don’t Be a Dombey

July 12, 2012

Dickens’ Dombey

Many of us have read–or at least heard of–A Tale of Two Cities or Great Expectations.  Dombey and Son is not so well known, perhaps for good reason.  But despite not being Dickens’ greatest work, this relatively obscure novel offers a cautionary tale that applies to the sharing and growing of ideas both in and out of the university.

Mr. Dombey is a hard man, a typical Dickens character; he is unreadable and cold, loves his only son and neglects his daughter, and suffers for his pride and arrogance.

Dombey is so keen to have a son to fulfill the “And Son” role in his firm that, when the boy is finally born, Dombey is jealous of every affection the boy shows for anyone besides himself.  In his pride, Dombey is mortified by the love his boy shows others, particularly his nurse.  Embittered because the boy doesn’t automatically love his father best, Dombey takes the first opportunity to fire the nurse so as to have the boy to himself.  As a result (in true Victorian fashion), the already weak son becomes ill and fragile, then dies.  Dombey has literally killed his son by begrudging him sustenance from any hand (or body) besides his own.

Ideas Need Sustenance, Too

Like the poor little Dombey boy, our ideas need sustenance to survive.  And they need it from many places, not just the repetitive actions of our own minds.  While an idea that springs into existence through our own inspiration or reading or hard work often starts out strong and vigorous, nursing it in silence within ourselves forever without sharing deprives it of needed nourishment.

In the academy, for example, it is so imperative that every scholar be working on a unique idea–that everyone “find something no one else is doing”–that we tend to hold our ideas in ourselves, secreting our best thoughts until they have been fleshed out in full article (or at least conference paper) form.  This may be more true in some areas of the university than others, but it seems to me too true in all areas.

Only through open interaction with other minds, other minds stocked with different ideas, different connections, different knowledge of books and concepts and histories, can a good idea become truly “fleshed” out into health and vigor.  Just like a child develops immunities not only through its early milk nourishment but also by being exposed to other children in infancy and early childhood, so too do our ideas develop strength through interaction with other ideas, even oppositional ones.

Moreover, if one of the goals of writing and thinking about ideas is to argue for them, to send them out into the world to do work and not be instantly slain by criticism, we must submit them to be handled, even roughly, by those around us.  An idea that has been tumbled about from one mind to another, subjected to the workings-over of both proponents and opponents, is one that will survive its harder journey through the larger world of scholarship.  And this is true for ideas in the world outside the academy as well: an idea that has been harbored by a single mind, jealously guarded from any other human’s touch, will fare as poor little Paul Dombey did: it will be weak and may not survive.

I Learned This The Hard Way

Early in graduate school–the beginning of my second year, I think–I was engaged in an email conversation with a new friend, an older grad student in another department whom I looked up to and admired.  When she asked me what I might be planning to write my dissertation on, though, I suddenly felt threatened.  Without quite realizing it at the time, I felt that if I “gave away” this idea, I would either lose it or never have another.  So I wrote back to her and said, “I don’t want to say what I’m writing on until I have it better fleshed out.”

I’ll never forget her reply.  She said that she’d found that people who were afraid to share their ideas didn’t have as many, that sharing was how to GET ideas, not to lose them.

Out of pure shame, I didn’t email her for months.  Fortunately, she wasn’t one to say one thing and do another, and she sought me out again later when she had a project she thought I’d be interested in.  We worked together, and I got to watch her share her ideas far and wide, with anyone who would listen and comment.  I saw that she got feedback that improved her projects, that she made connections with people who furthered her goals, that she added value to others’ lives while receiving value in return.  She had overcome both the isolation of grad school and the fear of “never having another good idea” through a simple rule: share, share, share.

Because of her, I began to make connections all across the campus.  Because of her, I found myself involved in projects that were outside the bounds of anything I would have thought of simply sitting by myself with my books.  And because of her good advice, I now share my ideas with others (for example here in this blog).  And the return has far outweighed the effort.  I’m no longer an Idea Dombey, starving my best thoughts by stifling them with a combination of pride and fear that doesn’t nourish.

Ideas, like children, flourish in interaction and thrive in a community.  Don’t keep your best ideas to yourself; share them, let others critique and add to them, build them up to be strong and viable through the push-and-pull of debate and teamwork.  Don’t be a Dombey!

  1. Don’t be a Dombey! What a great phrase! This is also true in art: it belongs to everyone! I went to a conference at the National Gallery recently that talked about a new community center art space in Queens. That seems like movement in the right direction!

    • Thanks! I almost put “Don’t be an Idea Dombey,” but I wasn’t sure whether the fact that it sounds like “Idea Zombie” was a good thing or a bad thing . . .

      Thanks for the neat link; I find I’m more interested these days in what has been called “informal” learning (learning in museums, camps, libraries, and other self-taught spaces, as well as some kinds of on-the-job learning) than in formal, university-based learning.

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