FROM THE PRESIDENT
William M. Chace
Hold the Anchovies
We do not seem to be running out of attacks on university life. My reading recently brought me another, this one by Alan de Botton, a British essayist, who asks, with clever malice aforethought: "What is Academia for?" and then answers by saying, "for academics and not for anyone else."
His procedure employs the preemptive strike. Of university teachers he says: "they are really a bit odd. They often have large foreheads, old-fashioned footwear and high-pitched laughs. Something about their intelligence seems to interfere with their ability to deal with aspects of ordinary existence. Mastery of the details of agrarian reform under Tiberius or of Greek imagery in Keats' letters leaves them ill-equipped to apply sun cream or order a pizza."
What they are equipped to do, he says, is to generate books of no general interest to anyone, for they have been born at the wrong time: "the heroic age of scholarship (which started in about 1810) has in many ways ended: most letters have been catalogued, most texts deciphered, most lives written up conclusively. Scholars-still urged to produce books by their departments-merely resort to writing pedestrian commentaries which neither appeal to the general reader, nor make any ground-breaking advances in their field."
We now exist, he says, in "a culture of quotation," for scholarship has become, in our fallen state, just "writing books about books." The real object of real scholarship, he says, with a surprise allusion to Friedrich Nietzsche, is "life and action. . . . We want to serve history only to the extent that history serves life." After such a bold call to action, I knew that the author would reveal the identity of the culprit thwarting this profound human desire for meaningful writing: "no wish is more regularly frustrated and implicitly ridiculed by those in charge of universities."
As someone who, on a good day, is under the impression that he is in charge of a university, I have a duty to respond to such attacks. They seem to ask for rebuttal, for they are frequent and often attractively energetic; the authors get a lift of the heart when pillaging the academy. And frequently they conclude with a populist call for action, for "the people" to speak. De Botton believes that those offended by obscure and lifeless academic writing can take hope from the market forces pressing on higher education. Students' "ability to direct funds to certain institutions and withhold them from others means that their boredom will have important repercussions."
At last the threat is revealed. End the obscurity; serve "life;" stop the boredom . . . or "repercussions" will follow: no money for tedious scholarship and tedious scholars, the funny folk who do not know pepperoni pizza from a sunburn.
All of this is, of course, good fun in the spirit of traditional anti-intellectualism. But the argument breaks down with its fundamental assumption that there are no more letters to be catalogued, texts to decipher, or lives to write up.
Fact: The letters of W. B. Yeats, one of this century's most powerful poets, have never been properly collected and assembled; an Emory scholar, Ronald Schuchard, is now involved in that task.
Fact: The Dead Sea Scrolls, one of the most significant archaeological finds of our century, still largely unpublished fifty years after their discovery, are being interpreted by such scholars as Carol Ann Newsom of the Candler School of Theology.
Fact: While a life is never "conclusively" written up by anyone, an Emory scholar, Dan Carter, has recently written the best life of former Alabama governor George Wallace.
"Heroic ages" never really existed, but the romantic desire for them to have done so never tires out. Scholarship today, at Emory and elsewhere, is more sophisticated, supple, and adventuresome than it ever has been. It probably is not heroic. It is, instead, powerful, exacting, and challenging. And its self-directing and self-monitoring disciplinary power-its desire to erect and maintain the highest standards of accuracy-means that it will not easily fall victim to populist calls for "relevance" and an end to "boredom."
Many things in modern life are not "boring." We can see as much as we want of them on nightly television. Scholarship at the great universities represents something else: patience with the facts, precision of mind, response to the infinite complexity of all human events, and an understanding that everything in life is subject to revision. That is why scholarship continues-because to be human is not to get it right the first time yet to desire to get it right at last. That is what goes on, day in and day out, at Emory.
And: I like mine without anchovies.
President William M. Chace
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