Published: May 27, 2021

Mavericks and Paradox

An independent individual who does not go along with a group or party.
Merriam Webster

With Mr. Justice [Oliver Wendell] Holmes, I think that “there is nothing like a paradox to take the scum off your mind.”
Michael Kammen, People of Paradox (1972)


The Well-Trained Maverick:

Prepared for Paradox

In any and all walks of life, mavericks fare better if they have undergone training.

For people who have not completed (or even signed up for) their own maverick training, that opening statement is almost sure to activate the alarm in their Contradiction Detection Systems.

Doesn’t everyone know that mavericks are people who always insist on doing things their own way? Surely their devotion to their independence would make them flee from anyone who offered them training?

Well, no, that’s not who mavericks are.

A maverick, in my experience-tested opinion, is a person who sometimes feels a strong inclination to say, “Why do we always do things this way? I have been thinking about trying another way.”

Sometimes a maverick will act on that inclination and declare that it is time for a change. Just as often, a maverick will put the impulse on hold, waiting for a better time to unleash it.

Learning how to decide when to propose a change and when to keep quiet is, in fact, one of the main reasons why aspiring mavericks welcome the opportunity for training. A key feature of that training includes the acquisition of a Paradox Detection System, far better calibrated and much more trustworthy than the Contradiction Detection Systems favored by conventional thinkers.

With that detection system in operation, mavericks will have instantly recognized that the opening statement above—“mavericks fare better if they have undergone training”—is a paradox, and a comfortable and familiar one at that.

As experienced mavericks can testify, merely voicing their trademark question—“Why do we always do things this way?”—can set off storms of outrage and fury among loyalists to convention and conformity.

What to do next when encountering such a storm?

Review one of the core lessons of maverick training and set the concept paradox free to work its magic.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes summed up the timeless power of paradox: “There is nothing like a paradox to take the scum off your mind.”

As an established senior figure in the profession of history, I have been doing everything I can to make sure that young mavericks are positioned to challenge the establishment as effectively as possible. Beginning every day in the company of this paradox, I have never had to invest a moment’s thought in scum mitigation, remediation, or removal.

The support of the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation has permitted me to make the mentoring of mavericks—with a focus on the “repurposing” of the academic skills of younger historians—into my major line of work. And so the Applied History program of the Center of the American West has generated stories aplenty of young people making carefully considered choices between courage and caution as they shape their careers in difficult times for higher education. The concerns of confidentiality keep me from telling any of those stories here, but confidentiality does not prohibit me from saying why these stories matter.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said the smartest thing ever about the power of paradox.

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes, who said the smartest thing ever about the power of paradox.


Paradox and Persuasion

Let’s say that you are a maverick who dreams of securing the support of a group of people who are ready to take up the role of antagonists rigidly opposed to the very idea of change.

If this scenario is unrolling on Planet Earth, then we know that the group of incipient opponents you want to persuade carries the usual human allotment of mixed-up and scrambled principles and convictions. Moreover, a canyon (or at least a shallow valley) probably separates the group’s actual conduct from their high-minded beliefs.

If you want to give persuasion its best shot, should you refer to the group as​​

  • a) People of Contradiction?
  • b) People of Inconsistency?
  • c) People of Hypocrisy?
  • d) People of Paradox?

If you want to lose the audience you would like to persuade, choose Contradiction or Inconsistency. And if you really want to seal the deal on your audience’s alienation and distrust, then Hypocrisy will make that happen—irreversibly.

But People of Paradox opens the door to conversation. At the very least, it will make your audience ask what you mean by that.

And that’s easy to answer.

In a dramatic contrast with contradiction, inconsistency or hypocrisy, when you encounter a paradox, you will soon find out that the features that initially seemed to be opposites actually coexist on terms that approach harmony.

“People of Paradox,” you may have noticed by now, is actually a synonym for “human beings.”

Embracing paradox is an under-recognized—and certainly an under-utilized—way to respond to the fraying of civic trust in the third decade of the twenty-first century. If we continue to play the sport of pouncing on each other for inconsistency, contradiction, and hypocrisy, we remain stuck in polarization. But if we recognize ourselves and others as People of Paradox, we might be able to experience curiosity, take in new information, and begin to figure each other out.


Indebtedness Acknowledged and Celebrated

If I had tried to be an Applied Historian and if I had not had the help of the energetic and accomplished American historian Michael Kammen, the scale of opportunities I would have missed in life is scary.

Michael Kammen coined the phrase, People of Paradox, and his book with that title won the Pulitzer Prize in 1973. If he hadn’t written that book, there is no reason to think that I would have awakened to the power of the term paradox. Instead, I would have stumbled around, tripping over the words contradiction, inconsistency, and hypocrisy, until I fully noticed that those words were undermining my efforts and making me irrelevant.

Dropping them from my rhetorical repertoire would have been a positive and smart move. But finding the word to put in their place would have been a struggle. In a recent message, Michael’s widow Carol told me how he and she performed this struggle on our behalf, trying out different words and then settling on the winner.

“I remember we talked about paradox,” Carol said, “and then began seeing it everywhere.” Hardly a day goes by when I do not replicate that experience.

Another round of personal indebtedness geared up in the early 1990s, when Michael Kammen invited me to give the Carl Becker Lectures at Cornell. With that invitation and with the spirit-lifting remarks he made to me during that visit, he played mentor to my maverick. I drew courage from the time I spent in his company, and the force of that infusion of borrowed bravery has never diminished.

Michael Kammen was a consummate historian, and an intense and moving speaker and writer. When he represented our profession, historians were putting their best foot forward. As Douglas Greenberg and Stanley N. Katz wrote in a tribute, Kammen left “a legacy of humanity, warmth, and humor that all who knew him seek to emulate.”

As evidence of how well I have been served by his influence on me, I present to you an observation that Michael, placed in People of Paradox, selecting (as he always did) exactly the right quotation:

“Humorists are serious,” the writer and critic Mark Van Doren remarks, “they’re the only people who are.” “Happiness is a very solemn, serious thing,” Van Doren insists. “Joy is the most solemn thing on earth. You express it with tears.”

Thinking about Michael Kammen’s death in 2013, I am ready to demonstrate the unending truth of those last five words. And every time I use the word paradox, my indebtedness to him is renewed.

 An Inquiry Concerning the Origins of American Civilization by Michael Kammen


Why All Professions Need Mavericks, but Why the Academic World’s Need May Be the Most Acute of All:

A Big Concern that Gets Periodically Aired, but Then Rapidly Evaporates

No profession or occupation has ever escaped the fate of being knocked for a loop by the passage of time. In every field and enterprise, the reigning group of accomplished and established figures has to find a way to bring in the young recruits who will keep the system running when the established cohort has yielded to mortality. In bringing in reinforcements, the elders have to figure out a way to empower the young to carry on the work of the profession and the occupation, while also restraining the young so that they do not get carried away with the power allotted to them.

The exhortation, “Welcome to our world,” issued by the elders to their juniors, comes with an implicit but unmistakable cautionary remark, “but don’t expect to change our world too fast or too much.” Built into the welcome are incentives and even requirements for deference to the arrangements that the elders have put in place.

Professional pressures to submit to orthodoxy and conformity are by no means unique to higher education.

But these forces look particularly paradoxical in the academic world, and maybe especially in the field of history.

Historians, the boilerplate summation of professional practice has long proclaimed, study change over time. A naïve newcomer might misinterpret this to mean that historians will be distinctively agile when it comes to changing over time themselves.

On the contrary, like any people trying to navigate in the currents of time, historians are susceptible to an unexamined loyalty to the customs and assumptions, the demands and the prohibitions, that set the terms of their own professional training.

Meanwhile, in contrast to many other professions and occupations, the domain of the academic humanities hums with earnest declarations celebrating the value of fresh approaches and original findings and interpretations. Even as these declarations proliferate, the processes of training, hiring, promoting, and granting or denying tenure steadily direct novices and apprentices to concede to conformity, trim the sails of originality, and defer to the tenured faculty who are unmistakably the gatekeepers to whatever might be left in the way of tenure-track jobs in universities and colleges.

And now for a venture in the extreme sport of honesty: higher education is structured by an unconcealed hierarchy, and by a directly related fear, among the young, that the holders of power in this hierarchy might turn punitive if challenged or threatened.

Paradoxically, that last statement pairs overgeneralization with understatement.

A significant cohort of established and tenured scholars genuinely encourage and welcome the appearance of mavericks. But an equally sizable cohort of established and tenured scholars can be counted on to resist change, defend their turf, and demand deference. These folks can land hard on the people they cast as dissidents, rebels, and mavericks.

In four years in the Refuge for Mavericks called the University of California, Santa Cruz, and several more years of finding a surprising tolerance for eccentricity at Yale, my faith—in the proposition that the academic world was a distinctive arena of human life in which free expression did not face penalty or punishment—registered at 100%. And my acceptance of my obligation to respect evidence, accuracy, and reasoned interpretation also registered—and still registers—at 100%.

I cannot recall any teacher, professor, or mentor ever saying to me, explicitly or implicitly, “You are too independent and defiant of authority,” or “You should try harder to conform to tradition and orthodoxy,” or “You must do things my way.” Not a one of them ever made the slightest effort to rein me in.

My elders had performed well as mentors of a maverick.

As a result, I never expected conformity to be such a powerful force in the academic world.


An Intergenerational Lunch with an Uncomfortable Serving of Reality

Many years ago, a group of us—two tenured professors and three untenured professors—cooked up a plan to gather for a monthly lunch. We would read each other’s writings and offer useful commentary, while also reserving time to part from the agenda and just talk. Since the two of us with tenure had agreed that our work would be fair game for critical discussion by all, the usual workings of academic hierarchy were pleasantly unsettled.

I remember with joy an occasion when four of us, in a cross-generational alliance, pointed out that an essay written by the other tenured professor had switched its argument and even its subject repeatedly, without once putting on the turn signal. This led the tenured professor to confess to us that, through a successful career, he could never even guess what he really thought until he had written a confused and contradictory first draft, like the one we had all just read.

This confession was empowering and encouraging to young and old.

As the young faculty became completely comfortable with critiquing the work of their elders, good will and freewheeling discussion set the tone for our gatherings. This made it possible, at one of our gatherings, for the young scholars to describe the contrast between the relaxed atmosphere of our lunches and the nervous atmosphere of official faculty meetings.

“We know that we had better hold ourselves back at departmental meetings,” the young professors told us. “We know we have to keep a close watch on ourselves when we speak, and some of the time, we know we had better not speak at all.”

This honest confession placed me in the path of a flood of sorrow that has waned a little over the years, but has never departed.

“Oh, young people,” I had wished I could say, “please do not rob me of my dream that universities are places where people speak freely without fear of penalty or retaliation. Please drop your guardedness and self-restraint! Please plunge right ahead and jeopardize your chances of a majority vote for tenure by speaking freely at department meetings.”

But these were sensible and realistic young people. In a proposition equally true in any workplace governed by hierarchy and gatekeeping, they recognized that if they challenged authority in the academic world, unhappy consequences could come their way fast.

In hierarchical institutions, conformity and orthodoxy are forever sweeping in like a tide, reclaiming the areas where they might have seemed to retreat. It takes constant vigilance—which is to say, it takes the constant effort of mavericks—to hold back that tide.


Darkest Before the Dawn:

The Best Paradox of All

You may have thought this blog post was headed to a glum conclusion.

Now you can cheer up.

In my experience, mavericks are indeed at risk of condemnation, but that condemnation is likely to be poorly aimed, feverishly overstated, and correspondingly ineffective. And so, in a wondrous pattern, the tables often get turned in a very satisfying way, and the mavericks come out OK.

I was a recent arrival in the University of Colorado’s History Department when I encountered the iron fist of authority that can suddenly flash into view in a department hallway.

I had invited a visiting professor—an expert on Indian treaties—to give a talk hosted by the department. I had gone through all the proper channels to clear the time and date with the department chair and the administrative assistant.

And then it turned out that a CU tenured full professor of History had a plan to give a talk himself at that time and date. So it was entirely clear to him that he could and should tell the untenured assistant professor—me!—that his plan would overrule mine.

But to his surprise, the department chair and the administrative assistant stuck by their commitment to me, and the tenured full professor had to find another date.

When we next met in the hallway, the tenured full professor said to me, “You had better watch your step.” And, somewhat gratuitously, he added the remark that no one would be interested in attending a talk on Indian treaties.

Perhaps telling me to watch my step was his idea of mentoring a young scholar, showing her the ropes, and helping her to get better acquainted with the allocation of power in the new world she had entered?


But it sounded like a threat.

Fortunately, I was already far down the road as a well-trained maverick. I knew that I had been offered, at best, an invitation to mudwrestling, an invitation that one should always turn down, even when it is tempting.

And, as it turned out, keeping quiet—and simply sticking with the plan to host the speaker I had invited—turned out to provide me with one of life’s happiest moments.

When the time came for my guest speaker’s presentation, the room was packed to the gills: another professor had assigned the students in her class to attend this talk. With this hearty turn-out, we had to migrate down the hall to a bigger classroom.

This gave providence a chance to be very kind to me.

The power-wielding full professor—who had told me to watch my step and who had assured me that no one was interested in Indian treaties—came out of his office just as our crowd swept down the hallway.

“Hi,” I said to him, in the congenial manner that only a well-trained maverick can adopt without smirking or seething. “It turns out that a lot of people want to learn about Indian treaties, so we had to move to a larger room.”

And it gets even better.

Right at the time that my senior colleague told me to watch my step, I was putting heart and soul—and nearly every waking hour—into following exactly the opposite strategy. At the time that he spoke to me, I was mid-way through the manuscript that became The Legacy of Conquest: The Unbroken Past of the American West. As a direct challenge to the establishment of Western American history, the publication of this book will probably hold the standing of my lifetime peak performance as a maverick.

Here’s yet another paradox: I didn’t have tenure, and I was challenging the orthodoxy in an entire field.

I really didn’t have time to watch my step.

When I wrote Legacy of Conquest, my belief in the promise of academic free expression was still at 100%. In another “Not my First Rodeo” blog post, I might try to figure out how that percentage is now closer to 50%. But I will also try to figure out how I can get it to climb again.

Back to the cheerful ending.

When an enforcer of orthodoxy tells a well-trained maverick to watch her step, it is likely that the maverick’s next step is going to be all the more forceful, made with a strategic calculation of courage and caution.

In maverick training, this is the best paradox of all: the moment when the enforcers of conformity believe that they are going to prevail could turn out to be the moment of the maverick’s greatest success.

one smiling face in a crowd of unhappy faces


Patty Limerick's Signature
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Photo Credit:

Smiley Face Image courtesy of: Illustration 8138791 © Dmitry Sunagatov |

Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes image courtesy of: Wikipedia

People of Paradox book cover image courtesy of: Amazon