In Defense of Insubordination

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is not a greater virtue, nor a worse liability, among young scholars
at the modern university than insubordination. By "insubordination,"
I don't mean a reckless disregard for rules and legitimate demands.
A student who doesn't turn in his paper on The
Canterbury Tales
and raises the banner of insubordination
is serving a different connotation. The virtuous insubordinate practices
what Webster's says it is: "not submitting to authority;
disobedient." That is, a disobedience to the customs of authority
– a flagrant display of the student's knowledge and precocious

is the child of precociousness, although a separate trait. One can
be precocious without ever acting outside of the boundaries schools
establish for him. The insubordinate is the precocious mind who
wants to use his early-developing talents without waiting until
he passes the arbitrary mark, in some cases as simple as having
a certain accepted degree. In most cases, though, age is the contributing
factor. My case is of the most frequent sort, though highly unique.

am a proud insubordinate at my university – though most people know
me as a calm, mature student with a serious, reserved nature. But
not the faculty. Even my trusted advisor introduces me as a "precocious

of the faculty at my university just might call me some of the juiciest
expletives in the world, or they might complain about me to each
other. Some respect me, but of a few I am not sure – I imagine someone
here hates me (though perhaps I'm just being a self-important insubordinate
young man). My outspoken refusal to "act my age" and listen
to the supposed wisdom that emanates from the high-polished, MLA-approved
corridors of the department has landed me into all sorts of scrapes.
I will not be so silly as to fill this space with my complaints,
because I do not find them significant and I doubt that they are
particularly unique, if the case of Aline Baehler at Vanderbilt
is any measure. Dr. Baehler had the misfortune of not getting the
chairman of the French department to vote for her hiring. Thus,
nearly anything she did at Vanderbilt was thought of as being insubordination.

course, Dr. Baehler is an assistant professor. I am a student.

precociousness should be accepted without a fight – but few others
seem to want that. So, insubordination is the only remedy for the
dynamic mind to thrive without accepting the hindrances of the academy.
I behave as I do not to make the faculty crazy, or to rack up a
number of accomplishments so as to impress the world, but because
I have to act according to what is right for me. My mind is in constant
motion, and I have to tend to it. I must think, I must write, and
I must share my thinking and writing with others. If this means
expressing a deeper thought than the professor, or publishing in
a refereed journal as an undergraduate, so be it. Because few have
done so among the faculty at my college, does not mean I cannot
do it.

accomplishments seem to irk some of the faculty here more than my
behavior in class or at functions. Am I to stop because I have edited
scholarly papers as a student when someone older than I has never
been invited to speak at the Midwest MLA in his life? Am I not to
be a creative writer and a critical analyst, because no one else
has tried to work in both fields at once? The answer to these questions
in a resounding "no." I do not think that I know how to
do everything – I am quick to credit my instructors who teach me something
new. The conflict arises when someone cannot stand seeing a younger
person doing something she can't do. That envy is understandable,
but its absence would mean that there would be no insubordination
and resentment in the academy – only learning and acceptance of difference.

has not always been a conscious goal of mine. Often, I simply ask
a question that no one else my age has asked. Then, I'm "insubordinate"
when actually I'm in earnest. More frequently than not, what others
call insubordination merely amounts to the persistence of a more
ambitious person.

then is a great virtue in today's academic climate. It is nothing
less than the practice advocated by Thomas Jefferson in a letter
to John Adams when he asserted that a "natural aristocracy"
based on intellect is preferred for governing America's institutions
than an aristocracy based on ancestry or wealth. The university
would do well to engage Jefferson as well as dryly consider him,
as his concept would make for better stewardship of humanity's ideas
than the current ways in academia. This is not to oppose the traditional
tenure system, which does not pertain to intellectual rank.

if an assistant professor or a junior is more ambitious than the
department chairman, what of it? The insubordinate is only trying
to live up to her own ideal of self, and not trying to implicitly
insult the elder professors. To the contrary, the young upstart
would not try so hard to play a role in humanity's long debate if
she didn't want to improve the college. I know that I publish, write,
and strive in order to help my college become a better place for
discussion. I want everyone to learn something before I leave – preferably
how to deal with a precocious brat.

then, let me be insubordinate. Let me follow the advice of Giles
Hoggett in Anthony Trollope's The
Last Chronicle of Barset
: "It's dogged as does it."
I can't stop, because I'm in the middle of teaching myself.

11, 2000

R. Allen is editor of

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