Paul Gottfried on the Contemporary Academy

Over at the website of the John William Pope Center for Higher Education Policy, the redoubtable Paul Gottfried provides commentary on the squishy totalitarianism of the contemporary academy and on the bland and careerist mentality that sustains it.  Gottfried writes:

As a student, I noticed that most of my teachers were immersed in books and ideas. They were genuinely in love with their disciplines and would spend their evenings and vacations pursuing their studies full-time. In college I majored with one professor who was a multilingual scholar in intellectual history. One of his books, which my mentor was too modest to discuss, was a study of the effects of Impressionist art on the prose style of Marcel Proust.

By contrast:

Some professors [today] strike me as men or women simply holding down ‘jobs’ without a deep commitment to learning as practice (in the Aristotelian sense). Others seemed to be not quite fully grown-up adults burdened with personal and emotional issues—people who didn’t fit into a bourgeois moral world and who were looking for an environment that they could mold to their proclivities.

Paul’s article is well worth reading.

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3 thoughts on “Paul Gottfried on the Contemporary Academy

  1. That is a very good article. The difference in why people become and remain professors between now and fifty years ago is enormous. In my peer group, economists at research universities, I almost never talk to anyone who is interested in ideas, and I talk to guys who, on paper, look like very serious and successful scholars all the time. Even when they are in the act of “doing scholarship,” presenting their work or discussing others’ work, they are just going through the motions. Not going through the motions in the sense of a lack of effort but going through the motions in a cargo cult kind of way.

    They are doing things which outwardly appear to be scholarship; the successful ones are working hard and are quite smart; but nothing they are doing is advancing the cause of accumulating human knowledge. And if you talk to them, they freely admit that what they are trying to do is get their work published in good journals. They think that that, getting their work published, is their job.

    I managed to go through a fair amount of my career before I noticed that what was going on around me was a cargo cult. When it dawned on me that there was something off, I would probe at colleagues, trying to figure it out. I would say things like “I can imagine voting to tenure someone who has published absolutely nothing.” Or, “Our PhD program is costly and never produces any scholarship worth reading, why don’t we get rid of it?” I would ask things like “If you had a revolutionary but unpopular idea, an idea which would result in you never getting anything published again, but which would revolutionize your subfield and for which you would be famous after death, would you promote the idea?” Some people, and the older the more likely, at least grasped that there were right answers to questions like these and that the right answers were different from the conventional answers. Most just gave the conventional and wrong answers or blew me off entirely.

    Actual scholars are vanishingly rare. It is only old men (and not close to most of them, nowadays) and a few freaks—what Charlton calls free floating cogs. Everyone else is a careerist worker bee. But not really a worker bee, even, since the work they do benefits nobody. Sometimes I think they know they are purposeless parasites and other times I think they don’t. It’s very Invasion of the Body Snatchers.

  2. The relentless flood of academic articles in academic journals is testimony to what you say. Ninety-nine-point-nine-nine-nine of them might as well have been written by one of those online programs that churns out postmodern prose, and maybe, virtually, they were, even if a flesh-and-blood creature was the efficient cause. I read recently that the science journals have been plagued by hundreds of actually computer-generated “papers.” One journal had publicly to disavow some scores of papers that it had published over the last few years. Thank you for your thoughtful comment. I will call Professor Gottfried’s attention to it.

  3. Pingback: Trad linkage | Will S.' Miscellany

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