In the opening pages of Worlds Made by Words: Scholarship and Community in the Modern West (Harvard University Press, 2009), Princeton historian Anthony Grafton evokes the Huguenot Hellenist Isaac Casaubon (1559–1614), an ascetic, seemingly solitary scholar. Despite his preference for a life alone with books, Casaubon wrote enthusiastically to a friend about finding himself in the company of fellow scholars on a visit to Oxford’s Bodleian Library in May 1613: “You would see many scholars there, eagerly enjoying the feasts spread before them. This gave me no little pleasure.” Grafton closes his book evoking another library, urging the digitally astute scholar to pry himself away from the screen to “take the narrower path that leads between the lions and up the stone stairs” (323) of the New York Public.
Worlds Made by Words is an amiable gathering of Grafton’s essays centering on the Republic of Letters—both the social movement that flourished in Europe from 1500 to 1650 and its more fractious modern version in the lives of contemporary scholars and intellectuals. The essays are threaded on the theme of humanists thriving in association with one another, or in some cases failing to. The penultimate chapter recalls the unsuccessful efforts in 1963 of Grafton’s father Samuel, “an eminent journalist,” to publish an interview with Hannah Arendt. After she had stirred enormous controversy among American Jews with her New Yorker essays on the ordinariness of Adolph Eichmann, the mass-market magazine Look commissioned Grafton to plumb the story. At first Arendt answered his questions, but then took umbrage at having a Jewish reporter interview “only people who had already spoken out against me” (282). The essay died unpublished, leaving Anthony Grafton to lament that they “missed their connection,” and “neither could respond with the wisdom and perception that the other deserved” (286).
Worlds Made by Words might best be thought of as wisely and perceptively recovering many connections. Grafton portrays the Renaissance art theorist Leon Battista Alberti, for example, calling on his friends to help him edit and improve his writings. Alberti made his mark by taking concepts from classical rhetoric and applying them to the new style of Florentine painting. He was performing this feat, however, for a hyper-critical community of observers who “registered the symbolic meaning of apparently small choices in wording with the precision and sensitivity to shock of earthquake meters” (41).
Worlds Made by Words meets up with figures we know such as Johannes Kepler, and some who are more the province of specialists such as the fifteenth-century Benedictine monk Johannes Trithemius. He wrote an important history of France and Germany as well as a treatise on cryptography, long banned by the Church under the misimpression that it described magic. Trithemius also made the unhappy prediction in 1492 that books printed on paper will “like paper, quickly disappear.”
Comforting the Comfortable
Grafton’s evocation of the intertwined lives of scholars is among the most winsome portraits of the life of the mind I have come across. Lest we succumb to surfeit of agreeability, let’s turn to Jonathan Cole, quondam provost and dean of the faculty at Columbia University, who has delivered a six hundred-page monument to the self-importance of The Great American University: Its Rise to Preeminence; Its Indispensable National Role; Why It Must Be Protected (Public Affairs, 2009). I spent a few hours trying to swim this Manhattan–sized book before realizing I was better off dipping in at random intervals. On that basis I’d say Cole has achieved remarkable consistency of tone and subject. The tone is vainglory. The subject is the stupendous importance of our favorite institution. Without the great American university, we would live in a technologically backward society, steeped in prejudice, clogged with misconceptions, and ruled by Republicans.
Cole spends many pages reading a roll call of the wonderful contributions of the great American university, often in a manner suggesting that he is explaining the situation to a six-year-old: The transistor, the result of fruitful collaboration between physicists at university labs and physicists at industrial labs, transformed the world of electronics… (260)
The transistor, the result of fruitful collaboration between physicists at university labs and physicists at industrial labs, transformed the world of electronics… (260)
He is full of portentous admonitions: European nations…could present a formidable challenge to American excellence. (452)
European nations…could present a formidable challenge to American excellence. (452)
And is a master of the vacuous laudatory bromide, as when he explains that the social sciences and professional schools “shape our understanding of the human condition,” and have given us insight into many areas of human life, sometimes influencing policy debates and decisions. (330)
have given us insight into many areas of human life, sometimes influencing policy debates and decisions. (330)
The book picks up a little in the later chapters, where Cole unleashes his animus against President Bush and others who he believes have impeded the progress of the great American university. For instance, the Ford Foundation now asks that its grantees “not promote or engage in violence, terrorism, bigotry, or the destruction of any State” (416) or make sub-grants to those who do. Cole sees in these restrictions an intolerable intrusion: “Ford is pressuring universities to compromise some of their most fundamental values of free inquiry and discourse” (417).
He also devotes a chapter to those who foster what he calls “distrust of scholarly and scientific work” and warns that their actions “can begin to seriously erode the structure of knowledge production that has made our universities the finest in the world” (419). Who are these miscreants? He is thinking, for example, of Dr. Leon Kass, the bioethicist who chaired President Bush’s Council on Bioethics and lent his weight to Bush’s decision to restrict federal funding for embryonic stem cell research. That decision in turn “reawakened a streak of anti-intellectualism that is older than our national identity” (427). But Cole’s list of distrust-inducing anti-intellectuals doesn’t stop there. He mentions critics of the idea that “humans are causing disruptions in the Earth’s climate” (429); those who have impeded efforts to educate young people about condoms (434); and those such as Daniel Pipes and Stanley Kurtz, who have complained that some of the federally-funded Title VI programs that promote the study of foreign languages and cultures have become engines of anti-American agitprop. Cole scorns all such critics and fears; should their voices prevail, “our universities will begin to wither” (449). As for Bush himself, Cole is relieved that his nightmare is over: There is hope on university campuses that the damage done over the past eight years by the Bush administration will be quickly reversed by president Obama. There surely is a sense that a new political enlightenment about universities and investments in innovation is at hand. (503)
There is hope on university campuses that the damage done over the past eight years by the Bush administration will be quickly reversed by president Obama. There surely is a sense that a new political enlightenment about universities and investments in innovation is at hand. (503)
Cole comes across in these pages as a man of perfected conventionality, a Ramada Inn of the mind, where the soap is wrapped, the ice machine purrs, the channels click, and there are no surprises. To the extent that American higher education in general and the American research universities in particular are enraptured with their own noble purpose and comforted by the idea of their own indispensible social role, Cole is their ideal bard. He has mastered every conceit; applauds the official icons and hisses the dastardly villains on cue; and strikes the approved admonitory tone that all could be lost if…if…if…we don’t spend more on universities to “train teachers who will teach physics or chemistry to our young people” and “fund laboratories” (510) and so on.
If you wander by mistake into the florescent-lit corridors of The Great American University, you might be in need of some fresh air. I recommend Don’t Sleep, There Are Snakes: Life and Language in the Amazonian Jungle (Pantheon, 2008), by the missionary-turned-linguistic anthropologist Daniel L. Everett. It is a lively memoir of Everett’s decades of research on the Amazonian Pirahã (pee-da-HAN), who have vaulted to academic celebrity because their language apparently defies basic principles of Chomskyian linguistics. Much of the book is set in Pirahã villages, but Don’t Sleep is also about controversies within the university. Everett’s jungle-ly account of how these rain forest hunters have unsettled the linguists is a good antidote to the excesses of institutional self-congratulation that can make universities oddly suffocating. The only danger of suffocation in this book comes from a giant anaconda that rears up out of the waters of the Rio Madeira and nearly capsizes the boat on which Everett and his family are traveling.
Mary Burgan, formerly general secretary of the AAUP, worries that faculty members are losing clout within the university. What Ever Happened to the Faculty? Drift and Decision in Higher Education was published by Johns Hopkins University Press in 2006, but somehow drifted past us at the time. No anacondas here, although there is a Task Force on Teaching. Burgan chaired it in spring 1990 at the University of Indiana-Bloomington, and it set her on the serpentine path to this book. The National Association of Scholars merits a cursory mention (on page 64) as “an organization that backed the Bennett-Cheney critique of the post-1970s curriculum.” This is not meant as a compliment.
Burgan’s outlook has this to say for it: it isn’t Cole’s. Where Cole expatiates with pleasure on the research university, Burgan generally whines about the decay of academic freedom. They of course share the conviction that conservative critics are a menace, but Burgan is even more exercised by the rise of the managerial class on campus, of which Cole is representative. Burgan’s book is above all a pitch for a more empowered faculty. But it has its moments, such as the anecdote about the silver toilet seat conjured out of Faulkner’s “A Rose for Emily” (57). The moral of the anecdote is that “any text I could think of could be alien to one student or another” (58). Burgan’s ideal for a curriculum is that it be “exploratory, provisional to achieve clear purposes, [and] illustrative of a range of creative options” (76). This has the pleasant air of a ramble in Arcadia. Some might say a college curriculum should be a little less exploratory, provisional, and creative and a little more oriented toward helping students to come into secure possession of actual knowledge, engaging the pursuit of truth, and distinguishing worth from triviality. It is even arguable that the faculty’s loss of authority, which so vexes Burgan, has something to do with its extended Arcadian vacation.
Pecuniae Obediunt Omnia
James Garland, on the other hand, could perhaps benefit from a sojourn in Arcadia. He is a former physics professor, dean of Ohio State’s College of Mathematical and Physical Sciences, and president of Miami University from 1996–2006. In Saving Alma Mater (University of Chicago Press, 2009) he adds to that very abundant genre, reflections-by-a-former-college-president. This version sports the subtitle A Rescue Plan for America’s Public Universities. Garland is a man much preoccupied with revenues and budgets, and his book is a Gradgrindian consideration of “reforming the economic model of public higher education” (xviii). The obstacle? In my experience, university communities, their faculties in particular, are apprehensive about having change agendas imposed on them by governors, state legislatures, governmental task forces, or even their own campus administrations. (xviii)
In my experience, university communities, their faculties in particular, are apprehensive about having change agendas imposed on them by governors, state legislatures, governmental task forces, or even their own campus administrations. (xviii)
He observes, somewhat ruefully, that to fix the “economic model” he has to tackle the “culture of academia” (77).
Garland’s critique of public universities centers on their reliance on government subsidies. He proposes to replace appropriations for campuses with a system of state “scholarship awards to students” (199), which would force the campuses to compete with one another for the student dollars. His argument for this is lucid and worth some thought, though it seems unlikely to be adopted any time soon. I am more arrested by one of the paving stones on his path: a seven-page chapter titled “What Price Shared Governance?” which contrasts the efficiency of private enterprise with the languor of the professorial life. “Time is money,” but the faculty are spendthrifts. An hour of faculty time at Miami University in 2004 cost $87, and by adding in support costs the university “ended up spending $112 for every minute the University Senate met, or about $13,400 per meeting” (101). The answer to Mary Burgan’s question, What Ever Happened to the Faculty? appears to be, in Garland’s account, that they have preened themselves into irrelevance. He generously concludes not that shared governance should be abolished but that it should be “modified in a way that enhances efficiency and reduces costs but also preserves the essential principles of faculty freedom and collaboration” (103). Miami University, for example, could have cut the 4,233 faculty committee members in 2004 to 3,000 members, “thus permitting hundreds of professors to spend more time advising students, writing books…” (103). Something tells me that Professor Burgan wouldn’t see this as an actual improvement in the role of the faculty.
More shared governance? Less? Writing in the March 13 Wall Street Journal, Hoover Fellow Peter Berkowitz argues that higher education has a deeper problem, “intellectual vice.” In “Climategate Was an Academic Disaster Waiting to Happen,” Berkowitz traces that instance of scientific misconduct to the enervated spirit of “intellectual virtue” among both faculty and administrators. People pretend to “knowledge they don’t have,” invoke personal authority, trade the curricular core for “boutique classes,” and “reject the common sense idea there is a basic body of knowledge that all students should have.” Scholarship too is corrupted by this intellectual vice, which turns peer review into back-scratching and scholarly publication into logrolling. Moreover, “professors and university administrators are inclined to indignantly dismiss” such concerns as “calling into question their good character.”
Oddly, Berkowitz’s article sparked a fair amount of indignation along just those lines.
Into the Waves
This issue’s item of academic interest: the mammoth new two-volume Historical Thesaurus of the Oxford English Dictionary. With its 797,000 entries arranged in 236,400 categories, this is not the tool you need when searching for a synonym of “green,” though it can be handy if you need to find a mildly obscure euphemism. “I ploitered all afternoon on my essay,” has a touch of the laborious that is just missing from, “I idled all afternoon on my essay.” This thesaurus weighs too much for those not in training for shot put to handle with ease. I call it to attention by way of noting a small felicity that could otherwise go unnoticed. Among those 236,400 categories (each numbered in a digit-and-dot code) is 03.06.07: “theories of education.” But turn to the actual listings, and 03.06.07 is a mere vacancy. I don’t know whether this is an error, but I prefer to think that the editors sized up the “theories of education” and decided that, on the whole, a discreet burial at sea would be the better course.