The Amateur SpiritWhen I learned that historian and Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin was giving the commencement address at my university graduation, I couldn’t have been more thrilled. People around me in the audience expressed disappointment it wasn’t someone like Bill Cosby or Bono. But Boorstin had long been one of my intellectual heroes, and I had read everything of his I could get my hands on. The theme he chose to speak on was “Leadership and the Amateur Spirit,” a theme he also explores in chapter 18 of his book Hidden History.

He pointed out that ‘amateur’ has become a dirty word to many people, to their discredit. Boorstin writes,

The true leader is an amateur in the proper, original sense of the word. The amateur (from Latin amator, “lover”; from amare, “to love”) does something for the love of it. He pursues his enterprise not for money, not to please the crowd, not for professional prestige [JSB-I highly recommend people explore the etymology of that word as well; prestige may not seem so, well, prestigious anymore] or for assured promotion and retirement at the end–but because he loves it. If he can’t help doing it, it’s not because of the forces pushing from behind but because of his fresh, amateur’s vision of what lies ahead.

He points out that democracy is uniquely dependent on amateurs to govern and lead it, and this, too, is a good thing. He writes, “The progress–perhaps even the survival–of our society depends on the vitality of the amateur spirit in the United States today and tomorrow.”

I was thinking about this as I was attending the FAIR Conference, which was organized, staffed, and even largely presented by passionate amateurs. People made presentations almost solely out of love of the topic (though many wouldn’t have minded if you bought whatever book or DVD they had for sale. But even there, I know something of LDS publishing, and there is very little margin for much pecuniary motive in LDS publishing.) We could probably say this about other conferences as well, but it was particularly in evidence there, and I found it both impressive and touching.

In the Church as a whole we have a need for a similar amateur spirit, because we have a largely lay clergy.

Boorstin points out, however, that the American spirit, and democracy itself, is threatened by two forces that Boorstin identifies as the professionals and the bureaucrats. “Both are by-products of American wealth, American progress. But they can stifle the amateur spirit on which the special quality and vision of our American leaders must depend.”

We might wonder if the Church could be threatened by these same forces. Of professionals, Boorstin writes,

Professions, as we know them, are a modern phenomenon… [Originally] professions included, besides the clergy, only law and medicine–and gradually too, the military… By 1820 an outspoken Englishman could complain, “Of the professions it may be said that the soldiers are becoming too popular, parsons too lazy, physicians too mercenary and lawyers too powerful.”

…American colleges, universities and training programs… have spawned professions without precedent [so that] today the list of our professions is endless… The result is the professionalization of almost everybody…

The spread of the professions brings with it the professional fallacy. George Bernard Shaw may have gone too far when he called every profession “a conspiracy against the laity.” But latent in the organization of every profession, unspoken in every professional creed is an article of faith: The profession really exists for the sake of the professionals. Specifically this means that the law exists for the sake of lawyers, medicine for… doctors, universities for the sake of professors, etc. The professional temptation goes everywhere… [and beneath it] lies the confident axiom that the customer is not competent to judge.

He is puzzled by the professionalization of business, which he fears marks the fall of a significant bastion of the amateur spirit. “Who can be trained to be a seeker of opportunity, an unspecialized man of enterprise? What professional curriculum can teach a man to be self-made?”

An equal threat is posed by the bureaucrats:

The bureaucrat’s aim is to keep things on track, to keep themselves on the ladder of promotion, on the clear road to a fully pensioned retirement. Bureaucrats who rule us are themselves ruled by the bureaucratic fallacy. This was never better announced than on a sign over the desk of a French civil servant: “Never Do Anything for the First Time.”

Boorstin concludes,

Can we continue to breed leaders who draw on the expertise of professionals without suffering the contagion of the professional fallacy, who enlist the loyalty and industry of bureaucrats without being paralyzed by their caution? Only leaders informed by this amateur spirit can prepare us for the one certainty in history–which is the unexpected.

I suppose we bloggers (the electron-stained wretches of the new century), along with the obsessive amateurs who designed and built the world wide web (more for love than profit, as true now as ever), are carriers of that amateur spirit. But we amateurs can fall prey to our own lesser angels; as degenerated amateurs we become the troll, the crank, and in the Bloggernacle, the gospel hobbyists and the DAMU grinding their endlessly dull axes.

P.S. Two places on the internet which discuss Boorstin’s ideas of the amateur spirit are here and here.

P.P.S. The best live blog notes of the conference can be found at Life On Gold Plates and Bryce Haymond (who has had some notoriety at Mormon Mentality recently) at Temple Study here and here.