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304 pages, Hardcover
First published October 11, 2011
It was mid-November and the few remaining leaves rattled on the trees. I welcomed the winter chill, since ice air helped keep my mind off the nausea. I breathed it carefully one day as I waddled over to William James Hall (known to the intelligentsia as Billy Jim) to attend a class. I arrived a few minutes early and decided to use the extra time to visit a friend in the Psychology Department, one floor above the Sociology Department, where my class was held. My friend was in her lab, conducting an experiment that consisted of implanting wires into the brains of live rats, then making the rats swim around in a tub of reconstituted dry milk. She told me why she was doing this, but I have no memory of what she said. Maybe she was making soup. Whatever the reason, she had put the rats and the milk in a children’s wading pool, the kind you fill up with a hose so that toddlers can splash around on a hot summer day. The tub was decorated with pictures of Smurfs. Smurfs, for those of you who are not culturally aware, are little blue people whose antics you may have observed on Saturday morning cartoons during the 1980s. I personally feel that the Smurfs were cloying, saccharine little monsters, but Katie adored them.
After chatting with my rat-molesting friend for a moment, I excused
myself and headed downstairs for the seminar. There were seven or eight other graduate students in attendance, along with a couple of extra professors who had come to hear the latest twist on established theories. I felt the way I always did when I walked into a classroom at Harvard, that I had just entered a den of lions---not starving lions, perhaps, but lions who were feeling a little peckish. The people in the room were fearsomely brilliant, and I was always terrified that I would say just one completely idiotic thing, make one breathtakingly asinine comment that would expose me as a boorish, politically incorrect half-wit.
“Ah, Martha,” said the course instructor, “we’ve been waiting for you.”
I blushed. I had stopped at the rest room to blow a few chunks, and had been hoping that the class would start a bit late. I did not want to be the focus of attention.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I was upstairs in the Psych lab, watching rats swim around in a Smurf pool.”
“I see,” said the instructor, “Yes, I believe I’ve read about that.”
A professor, one of the visiting dignitaries, chimed in. “How is Smurf’s work going?” he inquired. “I understand he’s had some remarkable findings.”
“Yes,” said a graduate student. “I read his last article.”
There was a general murmur of agreement. It seems that everyone in the room was familiar with Dr. Smurf, and his groundbreaking work with swimming rats.
It took me a few discombobulated seconds to figure out that everyone at the seminar assumed a Smurf pool was named for some famous psychological theorist. I guess they thought it was like a Skinner box, the reinforcement chamber used by B. F. Skinner to develop the branch of psychological theory known as behaviorism. Comprehension blossomed in my brain like a lovely flower.
“I think,” I said solemnly, “that Smurf is going to change the whole
direction of linguistic epistemology.”
They all agreed, nodding, saying things like “Oh, yes,“ and “I wouldn’t doubt it.”
I beamed at them, struggling desperately not to laugh. It wasn’t so much that I wanted to mock these people. I was giddy with exhilaration, because after seven years at Harvard, I was just beginning to realize that I wasn’t the only one faking it. I had bluffed my way through many a cocktail party, pretending to know all about whichever scholar or theory was the current topic of conversation. I had always wondered how I survived among the staggeringly intelligent people lurking all around me. Now I was beginning to understand.
“He’s a good man, Smurf is,” said the instructor solemnly.
And thus I learned that at Harvard, while knowing a great deal is the norm and knowing everything is the goal, appearing to know everything is considered an acceptable substitute.