Losing Conviviality

Edward Tenner laments the passing of a former professor and the values he represented.

April 17, 2019
Emile Karafiol

Emile Karafiol, a Cornell Ph.D. who left the University of Chicago history faculty to study law in the mid-1970s after receiving tenure, died unexpectedly in January at the age of 83. We shared many interests -- and the bond of having left college teaching and our original specialties in central European history. When I heard the sad news, I recalled a graduate student talk at the University of Chicago, where Emile was an assistant and then associate professor in the 1960s and 1970s, about his difficulties in revising his dissertation for publication. These doubts, rumor had it, were his reasons for giving up a hard-won tenured position -- awarded mainly for his excellence in teaching and advising -- for the risks of law school in his early 40s.

Whatever his reason for leaving, Emile excelled as a law student, received offers from at least two of the world’s leading firms and became an equity (profit-sharing) partner in one of them, Kirkland and Ellis. His son, P. J. Karafiol, recalls that it was in that senior role, helping structure complex private equity deals, that his father found his true métier.

The point, I thought, was that while Emile never had any regrets, it was a shame for academe to lose such an outstanding mind to the lockstep rigidity of the published thesis. Another of my teachers, the world historian William H. McNeill, answered my doubts about my own work by saying the dissertation is “only an exercise,” and reminding me he had never published his study of the potato in Ireland. Emile’s title didn’t, and doesn’t, sound equally promising: The Reforms of the Empress Maria Theresa in the Provincial Government of Lower Austria, 1740-1765. But now that it is available as a ProQuest PDF, it seems much less arcane. Lower Austria is the province surrounding and (at the time) including Vienna, and the efforts Maria Theresa made in replacing some of the traditional powers of the church and nobility -- responding to the threat posed by Prussia to the Habsburg dynasty -- began a profound transformation of society. It was a study in unintended consequences: Maria Theresa was a supporter of the traditional order, yet her reforms set the stage for long-term centralization and bureaucratization that would have upset her. It was a significant idea, and I’m sure Emile could have revised it for publication without undue difficulties if he had wanted to.

He certainly could write excellent shorter works. In his analysis of a famous privacy case brought by the former child prodigy William James Sidis against The New Yorker, written while he was still at the University of Chicago, he was "able to discern and explain nuances that others overlooked," according to Stephen Bates, an associate professor of journalism and media studies at the University of Nevada at Las Vegas and a recent author on the topic.

Thus, I am not sure that the dissertation itself was the reason for Emile’s decision. He seems never to have discussed it with his young son or any of his students. He may not have even been fully aware of his reasons for changing course.

I do have some idea of why he made such a clean break, why he didn’t choose an area like media law, in which he had published, or a career as a law school professor. It has to do with a defensive snobbery still so prevalent 15 years later that the distinguished Harvard dean and economist Henry Rosovsky could write about another (hypothetical) success on the nonacademic route:

[He] owns a quarter of Manhattan and is regularly consulted by the president of the United States. I remember him as a pretty bright young fellow. Too bad he wasn’t quite good enough to become a professor at Berkeley.

Rosovsky all but endorsed this viewpoint. I can confirm that it is not dead.

The problem, I now believe, is not with the salience of the revised dissertation and first book, but paradoxically with the improved standards of higher education that make life difficult for generalists at heart like Emile, whose real-world wisdom had so much to offer students and colleagues. According to the autobiographical note in his dissertation as microfilmed and digitized, he took time off from Princeton University in the mid-1950s to work as an insurance claims examiner in Toronto and an “office boy” in a London merchant firm. He always had a psychological distance from “the profession,” as some American Historical Association publications refer to what began as a community of academic and independent scholars: “You’d be surprised how many butter and egg men are in this business,” he once told me. As his former student, the economic historian John Komlos, put it, Emile was a mensch.

The loss of Emile was symptomatic of a broader trend. The price of genuine improvement -- more theoretical sophistication, more diversity and, above all, more productivity and the incessant conference travel that goes with it -- is the decline of the conviviality that colleagues and students appreciated so much in Emile. That conviviality included his ability to shed light on the most diverse topics: the persistence of old-style positivism among trendy historians, the social structure of the Montreal underworld, the contrasting career prospects of pianists and violinists, the mysterious disappearance of a professor of Russian history (Emile quoted the German playwright Georg Büchner -- “Man is an abyss”), the annoying crackling of wrappers of the throat lozenges distributed by the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to combat coughing when we attended a concert one evening, and so many others. And he was an unfailing guide to Chicago’s academic gossip. There were so many complex things he said he’d explain to me when we had more time. And time has now run out.

I’ve noticed, visiting faculty clubs over the years, how there are fewer professors dining together, fewer long tables (like the one in the Harvard faculty club where the polymath Alexander Gerschenkron held forth), less of the conviviality that -- I hope -- still exists in the senior common rooms of the Oxford and Cambridge colleges I visited as an editor.

Deploring all forms of nostalgia as historians are supposed to do, I still can’t help noticing that one of Princeton’s most prestigious lecture series is named for Christian Gauss, mentor of Edmund Wilson, F. Scott Fitzgerald and other early-20th-century luminaries -- someone whose publication record probably would not have earned him tenure today. (In fact, Gauss’s Wikipedia article remains a “stub,” the site’s jargon for a cursory placeholder.) What I miss most about Emile is his realization of the ideal of Woodrow Wilson when he founded -- by deficit spending of a kind inconceivable today -- the “preceptorial” program of small student discussion sessions that Emile experienced in its late heyday of the 1950s. Gauss was one of Wilson’s original preceptors. By the 1990s, Rosovsky could note that in letters of recommendation for tenure, “good in small groups” was code for “lousy teacher.”

It’s true that old-style conviviality sometimes went hand in hand with Anglo-Saxon homogeneity and intolerance. There was patriarchy aplenty, too. Even in the 1980s during my visit to the Berkeley faculty club, a humanities professor in his 40s referred to a table of older alpha-male grandees as “the buffalos.” But conviviality could be inclusive, too. Among the audience at Emile’s memorial service was a former student who remembered how much concern Emile showed for her as a young Mennonite woman from Kansas. Emile was also a generous supporter of Jewish studies, especially the Yiddish Book Center, which has rescued a once-endangered heritage.

I’ve been following critiques of higher education for a long time. They never seem to change anything and thus repeat similar points. It’s useless to deplore hyperprofessionalization, rankings and ratings. There’s no easy way to revive congeniality with institutions or architecture. Cafes were once places of animated discussion before they became laptop scriptoria. The local Starbucks in Princeton installed a communal table but it, too, is usually occupied by rows of MacBooks.

But I do have a suggestion for those lucky enough to have had a teacher or colleague like Emile. Cherish that friendship. A good mensch, as I’ve discovered, is hard to find.


Edward Tenner received his Ph.D. in history from the University of Chicago in 1972. His most recent book, The Efficiency Paradox: What Big Data Can’t Do, has just been released in paperback by Vintage Books.


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