Handing Higher Ed to the Cripples: On John Williams’s “Stoner”

by Jason Peters on October 26, 2010 · 33 comments <span>Print this article</span> Print this article

in Writers & Poets

Stoner

Rock Island, IL

In a very fine revaluation that appeared in this summer’s edition of the Sewanee Review Mel Livatino, a professor of English retired from Truman College, admits he didn’t read John Williams’s novel Stoner (1965) until thirty-three years after it was published. He came to it “in a singular way—through the tears of a rigorous literary critic.

“In 1998,” he says, “I looked up at the man under whom I had studied romantic poetry a quarter-century earlier. I remembered him as an incisive and demanding literary critic. The second time we met over dinner he asked me if I had read Williams’s novel Stoner. I hadn’t, so he began laying out the story.”

I am not going to lay out the story here, or say anything more about the very moving episode in which Professor Livatino relates his being enjoined by his mentor to read this fine novel. Both the novel and the revaluation are available to anyone who cares to procure and read them. And as for the reading of them both I can only say that doing so merits my meager endorsement.

What I am going to do is add my voice to those who have recommended this novel and then say something about a scene in it that I haven’t been able to shake from my sight, a scene that bears upon the contemporary university if anything does.

So, briefly, the recommendation: Stoner is a serious and somewhat elegiac novel about an academic life that stretches between the two world wars. Its title character is one William Stoner, a poor farm boy who to his own great surprise discovers in college that he is called, as it were, to teach English literature—and to do so in circumstances that are neither glamorous nor distinctive.

And yet Stoner is a novel of astonishing power and erudition, a book that succumbs to none of the irony or savagery of later campus novels that, given the current state of the university, probably call for irony and savagery. Rather, it treats of the university as if it does in fact matter; it treats of the humanities—indeed, of English literature—as if they do in fact matter.

But that Stoner should be so little known is utterly baffling. I myself did not read it until forty-five years after it was published, or about a week after I read Professor Livatino’s revaluation, which was only the second reference to the novel ever to penetrate the thick granite of my skull. And even then the first had occurred only a few months prior: a friend of mine, an editor, mentioned it to me in glowing terms, though he himself was only part-way through it.

So to conclude part one of what I am going to do here: Read Stoner.

Now to part two: there’s a scene in the novel that gets at this treating of the university as if it does in fact matter, about which I will now offer a few remarks that could get me in trouble. But then good university men rarely say anything that doesn’t get them in trouble, so here goes.

Stoner is an examiner at the orals of a graduate student, Walker, whose continuance toward a Ph.D. hangs upon his passing. Walker has already demonstrated himself to be a fraud—or, to be more precise, a bullshitter—in one of Stoner’s seminars. He also happens to be a cripple, as is his sponsoring professor in the orals, one Lomax.

Walker does a very impressive job of answering Lomax’s examination questions, in which, of course, Walker has been primed and prepped. Stoner himself is impressed and, it should be noted, pleased.

The second examiner is an untenured member of the department, and his first question leaves Walker uncomfortably speechless until Lomax reframes and enlarges the question, at which point Walker embarks upon a blustering answer that gets him through but that worries his second examiner and confirms in Stoner’s mind that Walker is the poser Stoner originally thought him to be.

By the time Stoner’s part of the examination begins, Stoner is reluctant to do what he knows he must do, which is, by questioning, expose Walker as a fraud and, in doing so, make the case against his continuance.

The dismantling of Walker is marvelously drawn. It begins with a question about Anglo-Saxon versification, which, of course, Walker cannot answer, and ends in the easy territory of Walker’s own professed specialty, which, like the Anglo-Saxon, Medieval, and Renaissance periods on which Stoner questions him, turns out to be a literary terrain with which Walker is entirely unfamiliar. He is a specialist—that is, an idiot—a fake of the first water. That he should be an heir to Stoner’s strict discipline clearly horrifies Stoner.

After the examination Walker is excused so that the examiners may deliberate. During the deliberations Lomax triumphantly announces that Walker has clearly passed; the second examiner timidly declares the performance unimpressive, and Stoner insists that Walker be failed. There’s an impasse, and the decision is deferred. But during the deferral Stoner learns that Lomax will soon be appointed the next department chairman, which means that his, Stoner’s, refusal to pass Walker will have lasting career implications, which, indeed, it does. (Read the novel to find out how and why.)

During the deferral period Stoner reminds a friend of his, then the acting department chairman caught uncomfortably in the middle of this departmental—but also moral—battle, of something a mutual friend of theirs, one Dave Masters (who died in the Great War), had said long ago:

“The three of us were together,” says Stoner, “and he [Dave Masters] said—something about the University being an asylum, a refuge from the world, for the dispossessed, the crippled. But he didn’t mean Walker. Dave would have thought of Walker as—as the world. And we can’t let him in. For if we do, we become like the world, just as unreal, just as … The only hope we have is to keep him out.”

In other words, Dave Masters was saying: guard the tower.

Stoner works here, as does his creator, John Williams, with an old literary archetype: physical deformity is a sign of moral deformity. Walker is not just a cripple. He is a moral and an intellectual cripple, and so is Lomax.

Now it should be noted that Stoner acknowledges Lomax to be, by professional standards, the “star” of the English department, notwithstanding Lomax’s deformities both physical and moral. But by other standards, of course, by higher but professionally unsanctioned standards, Lomax is a moral and intellectual villain sponsoring another moral and intellectual villain.

Or perhaps it is more precise to say that Lomax and Walker are moral villains whose moral villainy sanctions their intellectually fraudulent behavior. Moral weakness excuses intellectual slovenliness.

And what happens when the moral villains, who are necessarily intellectual frauds, are admitted to the asylum—that is, to the University?

I will not belabor the point. Nor will I suffer any obtuse reader to accuse me of saying that cripples are necessarily moral scoundrels. That is not the point.

At stake here, at this signal moment in the novel, is the soul of the university. Will it be handed over to those whose hands are withered and useless, or will it be given to those with the intellectual and moral dexterity to govern it?

Noting who knows what is tricky business, and there is great danger in supposing that everyone must know what you know. But Williams’s novel makes one thing clear. Bluster–intellectual sloth and dishonesty–won’t cut it.

And if there’s one thing we have in higher education today it’s a superfluity of bluster, a veritable surfeit of bullshit.

The temptation is to say that this applies more to the humanities than to the sciences. And maybe there is some truth in that. But then I found myself in the uncomfortable position once of having to explain to a pretty competent scientist that Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different men who lived in different centuries—and who, indeed, inhabited different worlds.

As William Stafford once put it: the darkness around us is deep.

{ 31 comments… read them below or add one }

avatar Steve K. October 27, 2010 at 2:26 pm

I had never heard of the novel, now I will be sure to read it. Sadly though it seems the battle has been lost to the Lomaxes and Walkers some time ago, not everywhere but they call the tune. There are still some hero professors out there, and some few (and small) excellent schools that buck the trend, but they are rare. Of course I say this as someone from outside academia, but those are my experiences.

Recently I read somewhere on the internet, I can’t remember if it was here or elsewhere, a professor who was long in the tooth and who was regretting the loss of the academic culture that reigned when he was a student. He remembered all the eccentrics and oddballs, gifted teachers but some of whom couldn’t really function outside the academy, and how he’s noticed that their type is largely vanished, replaced by a slick technocratic and careerist professoriate.

avatar ARicketson October 27, 2010 at 2:27 pm

I don’t think there’s much risk of bullshitters taking over the university. A good bullshitter can make big bucks practicing finance or law, so there isn’t a whole lot to attract them to academia. And then there’s the whole peer-review system, where academics (at least in the sciences) constantly present their ideas to an audience that is trained to spot bullshit (and gets some pleasure in identifying it).

I also don’t think that department chairs have a lot of power, at least in today’s science departments. If the chair were to make things too difficult for a good researcher, that researcher would likely move to a different department/university, where they will be happy to have someone who can help pay the rent (i.e. get grants funded).

avatar ARicketson October 27, 2010 at 2:46 pm

“But then I found myself in the uncomfortable position once of having to explain to a pretty competent scientist that Roger Bacon and Francis Bacon were different men who lived in different centuries—and who, indeed, inhabited different worlds.”

The funny thing about traditions is that a person can embody the tradition without having to understand exactly how it developed. In fact, knowledge of the Bacons is irrelevant to the continuation of the scientific tradition, since it wasn’t even a tradition at that time. Any ideas that the Bacons had about doing science have since been re-evaluated, refined, and expanded. THAT is the tradition that scientists need to concern themselves with, not the biographies or ideas of men who lived several centuries ago, before modern scientific institutions were established.

It’s silly to expect a scientist (and apparently, ALL scientists) to be familiar with this topic that has no direct bearing on their work. It’s as if scientists are expected to know everything. Apparently it isn’t enough for a scientist to advance his own research (which requires constant study of new fields of research), teach graduate students, teach undergrads, evaluate the research of his peers, and help run his institution, but he also has to be a layman expert on the history and philosophy of science…not only does he need to know the gist of the history of science, but he needs to recall the names and ideas of individual contributors.Since those sorts of details are generally forgotten within a few years of studying a topic (e.g. in a college survey course), I suppose that scientists are expected to regularly review the entire history of science. I guess it’s not enough to occasionally read a history of some debate of the 19th and 20th centuries.

If that weren’t enough to do, plenty of commentators (here and elsewhere) would rake scientists across the coals if they weren’t keeping up on classic and contemporary literature, advancing their pedagogical skills (e.g. studying teaching theory and psychology), taking time to explain modern science to the general public, and living up to the regular social obligations of a human being.

avatar Steve K. October 27, 2010 at 3:07 pm

Who knew scientists had such heavy crosses to shoulder?

avatar ARicketson October 27, 2010 at 3:44 pm

By itself, being a university professor demands a lot of time. A lot of other jobs are more stressful, but the issue here is one of time. Where is a professor supposed to find the time to meet all of these arbitrary demands such as the ones presented in this article (that scientists be layman experts in the history of science)?A lot of the authors at this site (and among conservatives in general) seem to feel free to judge professors as being inadequate in one way or another despite their obvious ignorance of what the job entails, while they wouldn’t dream of making the same judgment of people doing other jobs.

avatar CMadden October 27, 2010 at 4:50 pm

“The funny thing about traditions is that a person can embody the tradition without having to understand exactly how it developed.”

I would like to offer a very brief response to Mr. ARicketson’s objections. I think the above statement is precisely the concern. The alarming problem is not professors that only know some of their tradition, but professors that know not-a-lick of their tradition; “specialists” who lack historical–or any–context for their work. Many of the disciplines pre-suppose themselves too confidently: the methods of discourse for a particular discipline are incontrovertible.

I do agree that time certainly is an issue; however, I don’t think Mr. Peters would suggest that ALL professors need to have an “expertise” in the history of their discipline, as nice as that might be. Instead, it would be appropriate for them to have some general, and therefore historical, context into which their discipline fits. Doing so would mitigate the current academic tendency to produce work in isolation of other disciplines. Doing so would cultivate an academic ethic that transcends the limits of a particular Art or Science.

I think we have to be very careful about suggesting that aspects of our past are no longer relevant. I’ve heard it put thus: if we can hope to conjure a desirable future, we have to work in the present; and the only way to make proper sense of our present is to know our past. And that might be the only way to minimize bluster.

Thank you, Mr. Peters, for a thoughtful piece and an enticing novel; thank you, Mr. ARicketson, for some important responses.

avatar JD Salyer October 27, 2010 at 5:21 pm

My thanks to Professor Peters for adding to my must-read list.

Erwin Schrodinger — whose grasp of the scientific endeavor might have been almost as formidable as that of ARicketson — seems to have thought that there is indeed a responsibility to study scientific tradition and the evolution of ideas.

At least that’s the impression one draws from *Nature And The Greeks*.

avatar ARicketson October 27, 2010 at 5:26 pm

Lest my objection to the closing sentiment of this review be taken as a dislike for the entire review, I would like to thank Mr. Peters for bringing attention to this novel. As Mr. Peters indicates, by setting a realistic drama in a university setting, this novel may help to purge the illusion of the university as being somehow above worldly concerns. Academic departments are human institutions, and are subject to all the political, economic, and psychological pressures as other institutions.

I don’t know if the university was ever as pure as the myth makes out, but today it is definitely part of mainstream society, for better or worse.

avatar ARicketson October 27, 2010 at 6:21 pm

Thank you for sharing those thoughts Mr. Madden.

I did not mean to suggest that we should all forget about the early history of empirical science. I only meant that it should be treated as just one aspect of “broad knowledge”, and each individual will at best posses a tiny portion of this broad knowledge. Perhaps it is best for a scientist to get his “breadth requirements” in something related to science (such as another field of science, or the history and philosophy of science, or some craft related to his science), but alternatively, his intellectual development may be best served by studying an art, craft, or academic topic that has nothing to do with science.

As for whether Mr. Peters was made uncomfortable literally by the fact that his friend was not familiar with the Bacons, or whether that topic was just brought up as an illustration of total historical ignorance, I cannot say.

Regarding over-specialization, I agree that it exists in many individual scientists, but I don’t think that this fact is indicative of the direction of Science as a whole. First, my own field (biology) has undergone a radical unification over the past century, and it continues today. For instance, biochemistry and genetics used to be separate fields of study, and now they flow seamlessly between them. Today, molecular biology is increasingly incorporated into ecology and evolutionary biology. Even when each individual scientist focuses on some specific problem, the distinctions between fields are evaporating.

Part of the reason for this evaporation is that the greatest prestige goes to those scientists who do something new, and doing something new often involves breaking down the barriers between fields, so that the tools and theories of each field become accessible to the other. Granted, there are many scientists who simply do “more of the same”, and you can make a career of that if you are productive enough…and you may even stumble upon something very interesting and earn some fame. However, this type or researcher rarely gets a position at the top research institutions, and rarely gets invited to join the National Academy of Sciences. They can make a living at it because their work often has the most immediate practical applications, but they don’t shape the future of the field.

Finally, “interdisciplinary research” is the big new buzzword, both at universities and funding agencies. There is also the common occurrence of researchers trained in one field flooding into another field because that’s where the interesting problems and grants are (e.g. physicists and statisticians coming into biology). There is also a long tradition of academic researchers drifting among different fields of study as they pursue answers to a particular question, or simply become bored with the topic that they’ve been studying for the past 15 years.

avatar Aaron Schroeder October 28, 2010 at 6:54 pm

So, this reply seems to have misunderstood the whole point of Peters’ review. If those entrusted with the keys to the university are bullshitters, then what gets praised and published in the university will, likewise, turn up bullshit. It’s not clear, then, how you aren’t just begging the question against Peters (et al), since his position seems to (pretty obviously) entail that the peer review system can be bullshitted as easily as can the university, itself, and you want to use peer-review as the bulwark against bullshit.

avatar D. W. Sabin October 28, 2010 at 9:18 pm

Oh, I don’t know, intellectual sloth and dishonesty seem to be doing quite well these days. Swimmingly in fact. Inside or outside the Ivory tower.

avatar Thomas McCullough October 28, 2010 at 9:53 pm

Here is a snippet from some old television show wherein people are discussing something shady about the local state university and, I think, sports. Someone says something like, “Why should we expect the university to be more accountable than any other corporate body?” “Because they’ve got those stone arches with “Seek ye the Truth.” and such all around.”

The University asserts a moral superiority and a moral purpose and we have a right to expect and demand that it do and be that. (Curiously in the post-modern denial of the reality of purpose or morality, it is at its most arrogantly moralistic.)

avatar Matthew Milliner October 28, 2010 at 10:19 pm

There are some wonderful things afoot in the academy. Tasteless as it may be to reference my own article, I tried to record them here: http://www.firstthings.com/onthesquare/2008/06/the-state-of-higher-desperatio

avatar Rob G October 29, 2010 at 1:03 am

I read ‘Stoner’ not long after reading that appreciation in the Sewanee Review. It’s important to note that it’s a great novel period, not just a great novel about academia. Also I’d advise that if you get the NYRB edition pictured above, skip the introduction until after reading the book. It is loaded with spoilers.

avatar Anonymous October 29, 2010 at 11:34 am

But was it not always thus? I know that’s a constant refrain of mine, but go back and read college narratives from just about any period. And I mean ANY period. Even the classic works on composition and rhetoric have some scathing things to say about the academy. Harrumph, indeed.

Take any field at any given time. Medicine. Business. Advertising. Crematoriums. Most of them will be filled with a few hard-working folks complaining about the charlatains. Each and every person you ask will claim to be part of the former group, of course. This is not to say that the academy isn’t full of nonsense. Of course it is. But that’s how it is and forever shall be. Teachers these days!

Far scarier to me is the recent trend towards “character education” on campus. I know California University of Pennsylvania has mad a huge ad push with it’s new motto, “Building Character. Building Careers.” Strike one… Strike two… If I have the money, I hope to one day commission a study to actually see whether people who graduate from there have more “character” than other folks.

I would rather have my kids worship at the alter of bullshit than head to campus to soak up character in the faculty lounge.

avatar Rob G October 29, 2010 at 2:20 pm

~~Far scarier to me is the recent trend towards “character education” on campus.~~

Can’t say I’ve heard of this, but I’ll bet that the “character” being promoted is of the redistributionist/diversity & tolerance/let’s-all-go-green variety. What makes one’s character, IOW, is how much one is in intellectual alignment with the various causes deemed “important” by the faculty. Thanks, but no thanks.

avatar Anonymous October 30, 2010 at 6:00 am

Steve K.’s reference to the “technocratic and careerist professoriate” describes the state of things well. These days, who writes a scholarly book or article without tenure or promotion in mind? Maybe it has always been so, but it seems that knowledge for its own sake is the last thing that anyone on campus has in mind.

The overwhelming volume of scholarship that is churned out daily by professional academics is certainly no reflection of a wiser, more thoughtful, and more knowledgeable society. It is the product of thousands of people frantically trying to publish their way up a career ladder.

Were things better in the past? Some people seem to think so:

http://100rsns.blogspot.com/2010/09/5-graduate-school-is-not-what-it-used.html

avatar Joshua Lore October 30, 2010 at 11:35 pm

Well, I would say that while your diagnosis certainly bears some general validity — nay, a lot of general validity — I wouldn’t be so quick to concede the point altogether. Just look at our representatives of this professoriate here on the Porch. There is, as there has always been, burning a small flame of real warmth and color, asserting a scoche more than an inchoate of something against the abounding sea of darkness and that pathetic livid voice within it ever thundering that all is nothing. That flame burns strong in inconspicuous places — and this little web board is only a concocted, reified testament of that. Lord knows, it ain’t perfect, but I’ll take it.

As to the past, we are as foolish to romanticize it as we are to despondently presume it holds no remedies to our present ailments. That it didn’t get certain core things right that we are getting blunderingly wrong. Be gracious with my next suggestion, for I am admittedly a simple-minded, ignorant young man, and have much to learn. But I’m not of those who insist no age was ever any better or worse than any other. I believe there are times when goodness, at the very least, has found a firm foundation here and there in the halls of men, and I believe there are times, this being one of them, when darkness and corruption seem to have taken nearly all of the formidable ground and have so cunningly infiltrated those institutions which should be our beacons of hope that even the light they cast is false. When even the good are want to find a way to ‘be’ good. Times are always ugly enough, to be sure. But we are in a uniquely hideous time. Hideous because we have, as a race, so viciously turned from God (from our ancestors and our children as well) and onto ourselves, and have so effectively obviated the potential for self-criticism via our frictionless campaign of “freedom” and “tolerance.” We are Babel, and we are, I’m afraid, long overdue a period of exile. But to quote another pleasant little book on academia, this one by Louis Auchincloss, “things were not always this way, and today is not forever.”

I see some wonderful things happening in places like Villanova, which James Matthew Wilson has discussed here and elsewhere. I see wonderful things happening as well at my alma mater, Eastern University, and under the guidance of such wonderful former professors of mine as RJ Snell. There are enough promising things happening in our academic institutions to convince me they are not worth giving up on quite yet. The same must be said of the Church.

avatar ARicketson November 1, 2010 at 3:36 am

Academia has definitely changed over the past century. It has shifted from being a luxury of the elite to being a technical school and advanced research facility. Professors used to be aristocrats or monks. Now they are professionals. The students used to be blue bloods preparing for their pre-ordained roles at the top of society. Now they are working class kids hoping to do something that is interesting and will provide a bit of financial security.

The fact that people are trying to make a living doesn’t mean that they’ve abandoned all professional pride or self respect. But it does mean that they are going to focus on productivity and effectiveness, rather than some self-indulgent quest for intellectual purity.

avatar ARicketson November 1, 2010 at 3:37 am

The motto of my alma mater was “my heart is in the work”.

avatar ARicketson November 1, 2010 at 3:48 am

“Character” is a fall-back for schools that cannot claim to have the best academic departments. It is one of the gimmicks used by the schools that need to advertise.

FWIW, it’s a theme in the ad campaigns for a couple of the Catholic schools in my area.

avatar ARicketson November 1, 2010 at 3:58 am

Well, I guess that’s another item for my reading list (I can only find the first page of the transcript online).

I wonder if thought that this sort of knowledge was essential for all scientists, or just thought that it was interesting. It is often said that the history and philosophy of science is the purview of retired scientists (Schrodinger was ~68 when he delivered that lecture).

Regardless of what Schrodinger said, it’s possible that his opinions are not terribly relevant to today’s science–there is probably much more need/pressure to specialize today than in his day. First, science plays a much bigger role in economic development programs (public and private), and consequently there are many more practicing scientists. Second, modern science is much more removed from everyday experience today than it was in his day (in part thanks to his own work!), meaning that it takes more work for a student to reach the cutting edge of theory so that he can conduct meaningful research.

Anyway, I happen to like the history and philosophy of science, so I’ll read his lecture.

avatar Joshua Lore November 1, 2010 at 4:08 am

Words like “productivity” and “effectiveness” are far too nebulously defined to offer any real substance to the claim that these are the guiding principles of modern academics. Taken as they are generally defined today, it seems that you’re suggesting we can hope to act no better than solely on terms of economic self-preservation, besides perhaps garnishing it with some half-serious notion of solidarity. That a love or pursuit of anything higher is nothing more than a self-indulgent quest for intellectual purity. This is simply far too reductive a dichotomy.

In a Godless world your point may be sufficient, but most of these academics, despite their valiant efforts, have yet to prove we inhabit such a world, and there are always those whose lives show there is a vast area of substantial ground between the “productivity and effectiveness,” (as they are so defined, always allied with myopic conceptions of “growth” and “progress”) and “self indulgent quests for intellectual purity.”

avatar ARicketson November 1, 2010 at 4:10 am

“The alarming problem is not professors that only know some of their tradition, but professors that know not-a-lick of their tradition; ”

I do not know a single scientist (with a PhD) who knows “not a lick” of their tradition. At the least they know how to collect and interpret data related to their dissertation project. They know how to design experiments and exclude standard confounding examples. That is the day-to-day life of the tradition. Can they step into a different field of science and interpret the data there? If they can’t then they get shunted to one of the menial roles in science. If they are going to get a faculty position at a research university (where they grant PhDs), they will have to continue as Post-doctoral student, where they study something fairly different from their doctoral research. If they cannot effectively transfer/generalize their research skills (e.g. critical thinking, literature review, etc.) then they will not progress.

Likewise, every successful scientist knows the relevant history of their field. They will know the history of the theories that underlie their own research, as well as the history of theories that they teach in their classes. There is a huge distance between the Bacons and a modern researcher; a lot has happened between then and now that is a higher priority for study and review.

avatar Jeff Polet November 1, 2010 at 3:17 pm

Well, finally some modesty from someone in the sciences, if only in the form of a complaint that we expect too much of them. In point of fact, I don’t. But if you’re not going to familiarize yourself with the philosophy of science and with the tradition, then I would hope you would be similarly modest about the research claims that you make and recognize that scientific “knowing” is not, properly speaking, knowing.

avatar Steve K. November 2, 2010 at 6:10 am

Ricketson, based on your explanation here, I think you should teach at vocational school, where you clearly belong, and not at a university. You have no conception of education beyond learning a trade. Not that there’s anything wrong with trades (to the contrary!) but that’s not what a university is about.

avatar Steve K. November 2, 2010 at 6:10 am

Ricketson, based on your explanation here, I think you should teach at vocational school, where you clearly belong, and not at a university. You have no conception of education beyond learning a trade. Not that there’s anything wrong with trades (to the contrary!) but that’s not what a university is about.

avatar ARicketson November 2, 2010 at 7:16 pm

Let the people who participate in the universities decide what they are about. There is plenty of room for universities to distinguish themselves based on their culture and curricula (e.g. technical schools, liberal arts schools). Also, within most universities there is room for individuals to decide whether they want to pursue broad or focused studies.

avatar ARicketson November 2, 2010 at 7:27 pm

My main point is that the nature of modern universities needs to be examined in the context of the outside pressures that act on the universities, such as student demands and outside funding sources.

A lot of people seem to enjoy these stories about how our venerable institutions have been hijacked by the scum of the earth, but such stories rarely provide any perspective that would help us to build good institutions. In fact, these stories rarely even identify what is wrong with the institutions, they just harp on how evil the elite are.

avatar Joshua Lore November 2, 2010 at 8:38 pm

The University however, as opposed to the trade school, is imbued with the unique responsibility of holding the society up to standards which would rarely be met without the unique sort of formation undergone within a university. In a university, unlike the free-market, the customer is not always right. This is why at one time such institutions weren’t afraid to place the word “Veritas” above their gateways. We don’t go to the university to have it our way, we go to begin the long process of learning the “right” way. The very fact that such words as “truth” and “right” sound so boldly impudent may be testament to how far down we’ve come…

We would be kidding ourselves of course if we claimed that a university is not vulnerable to and need not attend the demands of outside pressures, but to what degree they can, universities are concerned primarily with holding accountable the arbiters of those pressures to a certain set of standards long go agreed upon, if not simply by forming individuals with an appropriate sense of their human obligations — to speaking against them when they lend themselves over to the devices of narrow ideologues and to encourage them when they rise above the visceral cant of animals.

In that way, we should be infuriated when these institutions prostitute themselves to the highest bidders and become mere for-rent laboratories for the interests of anyone capable of “putting their money where their mouth is” — even if this has been happening all along. They should also have the tenacity to refuse intellectually slothful PhD.’s the freedom to take lee in their places of tenure.

Yes, in reality perhaps the university has rarely met these standards — I doubt many here are under the illusion they have — but such standards should still be aggressively defended.

avatar JD Salyer November 3, 2010 at 9:39 pm

My impression from Schrodinger’s writing is that he questioned a lot of fundamental assumptions regarding the role & nature of science — assumptions common to his time and ours. I’m quite certain, anyhow, that Heisenberg would have disagreed with the claim that the studying philosophical works such as Plato’s Timaeus is an activity one should postpone till retirement.

That there is too much pressure on scientists to specialize — and hence be unaware of any greater historical, philosophical, or social significance to their work — is precisely the point I would argue. If scientists are so pressed with the task of probing secrets of cosmic forces that they don’t have time for the humanities — that is, the study of what it means to be human — then perhaps they should slow down.

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