“Our university is not a supermarket!” read one of the fliers I saw posted up around the University College London campus while there to attend a conference this past week. It seems that early November is now the official occasion for militant discontent over austerity and higher education, at least in England. Arriving for the same annual conference a year ago, I’d made my way through streets crowded with students demonstrating against budget cuts and privatization, amidst police who were prepared (so a newspaper said the following morning) to use plastic bullets if the crowd got rowdy, as it had during the huge protests against a proposal to lift the cap on tuitions in November 2010.
Fifty thousand people had turned out for that event -- more than twice as many as even the organizers expected – and a few hundred of them decided to occupy the campaign headquarters of the Conservative Party, which they left considerably worse for wear. Elsewhere, another crowd menaced the Prince of Wales and Duchess of Cornwall in their Rolls Royce, which was paint-bombed and its rear window smashed.
That was 2010. Nothing so A Tale of Two Cities-ish took place during the November 2011 march through central London. As for next week -- who knows? The National Union of Students has called for a march through central London on November 21, scheduled to coincide with the weekly questioning of the prime minister by members of the House of Commons. Complaining that the government has been “slashing undergraduate teaching funding, increasing tuition fees, introducing draconian restrictions on international students, cutting funding for post-graduate students, [and] hiking fees for adult learners looking to gain basic skills,” the NUS also points to another worsening situation: nearly a million people in England between the ages of 16 and 24 are currently unemployed. (The International Labour Organization, a United Nations agency, projects rising joblessness among youth to continue as a global trend over the next five years.) The police will probably have their plastic bullets ready next week, come what may.
As slogans go, “Our university is not a supermarket!” impressed me as one that wouldn’t work as a rallying cry in the United States. While Charles Eliot had many sober and lofty reasons for introducing the electives system at Harvard University in the late 19th century, its near-universal adoption throughout undergraduate education in the U.S. surely has more to do with the principle that it’s a good idea to give the customers what they want. (That was a running complaint in the late Jacques Barzun’s reflections on American education, discussed here last month.) It seems that we like our supermarket universities just fine here.
But that's just too cynical, and these are times when we should be ashamed of cynicism rather than proud of it. While writing this, I've gotten word from a philosophy major at Howard University that he and other students will be occupying Alaine Locke Hall on Thursday, November 15, to protest "tuition rates, administrative mistreatment of janitorial staff, and program cuts." These are not the demands of disgruntled consumers, and the protesters are very deliberate about their timing: Thursday is World Philosophy Day.
If their occupation goes on long enough, the students should read a recent volume called What Are Universities For? by Stefan Collini, a professor of intellectual history and English literature at Cambridge University. His Absent Minds: Intellectuals in Britain (Oxford University Press, 2006) is as trenchant and far-flung a work of cultural history as anything I’ve ever read, and some of its qualities also come through in the occasional pieces he has been writing about higher education since the 1980s, many of them gathered in the new book. Published this spring by Penguin, it is available as a paperback in the U.K. and Canada but not in the U.S., though you can order it to read on Kindle.
Much of it is quite specific to British debates over the reform and restructuring of the country’s university system -- and a few of the older pieces (including one called “Bibliometry,” from the late 1980s, on the use of citation statistics as “performance indicators” for scholars’ work) are now period pieces. But his response to the rise of corporate thinking and management-speak in academe is acerbic in ways that have aged well. “I work in the knowledge and human-resources industry,” one piece begins. “My company specializes in two types of product: we manufacture high-quality, multi-skilled units of human capacity; and we produce commercially relevant, cutting-edge new knowledge in user-friendly packages of printed material….Let me put that another way. I’m a university teacher. I teach students and I write books.”
What is there about education and scholarship that gets lost in this sort of "mission statement"-ese? Collini's book is a sustained engagement with that question, but one passage stands out as a memorable formulation of what distinguishes the university from any other institution:
“A university, it may be said, is a protected space in which various forms of useful preparation for life are undertaken in a setting and manner which encourages the students to understand the contingency of any particular packet of knowledge and its interrelations with other, different forms of knowledge. To do this, the teachers themselves need to be engaged in constantly going beyond the confines of the packets of knowledge that they teach, and there is no way to prescribe in advance what will and will not be fruitful ways to do that. Undergraduate education involves exposing students for a while to the experience of enquiry into something in particular, but enquiry which has no external goal other than improving the understanding of that subject matter. One rough and ready distinction between university education and professional training is that education relativizes and constantly calls into question the information which training simply permits.... [Learning of that kind] can only be done through engagement with some particular subject matter, not simply by ingesting a set of abstract propositions about the contingency of knowledge, and the more there already exists and elaborated and sophisticated tradition of enquiry in a particular area, the more demanding and rigorous will be the process of requiring and revising understanding."
Not written with a student demonstration on World Philosophy Day in mind, of course, but it seems fitting.
Given its history of losing faculty members in bizarre and distressing ways – amidst circumstances only whispered about in dread and confusion, the details never to be gleaned from the public affairs office’s laconic press releases -- Miskatonic University has never been a magnet for outside research funding. Observers have long wondered how the institution keeps its Arkham, Mass., campus open, much less populated.
The answer may be found, as it happens, as close as the shelves of any bookstore dedicated to marketing wares to the undiscriminating reader. More than 30 years ago, in a transaction conducted with its usual aversion for publicity, the Miskatonic administration contracted with a New York publisher to issue a mass-market edition of the jewel of its library’s rare-books collection. This was the sole known copy of the Necronomicon, a grimoire compiled in the 8th century C.E. by Abdul Alhazred and translated by the polymath John Dee, official astrologer to Queen Elizabeth.
The book’s reputation with nonspecialist readers has come primarily from a handful of references by the American speculative fiction author H.P. Lovecraft, in short stories concerning the ancient beings who lurk beneath the sea and in higher dimensions, waiting to reclaim Earth and to continue their pursuit of cosmic ends that are incomprehensible to the blinkered human intellect, though no doubt unspeakably horrific.
One may well doubt the wisdom of Miskatonic’s licensing arrangement. To publish a guide to the blasphemous necromancy that would summon creatures both pestilen and cyclopean to manifest themselves on the plane of an all-too-fragile reality would be a questionable decision even if the text were only available in an Elsevier journal, rendering access too expensive for most of mankind. How much more irresponsible, then, for it to be released in paperback edition readily shoplifted by teenage Satanists who perform the rituals after huffing paint thinner. (They account for roughly 67 percent of The Necronomicon’s current readership.)
But given Miskatonic’s difficulty in attracting donations from alumni – or, in many cases, even finding them – the Necronomicon royalties have been a godsend, if that is the word one wants. Certainly the venture has gone better than the institution’s recent experiment in distance learning, a mere hinting reference to which, it is said, drives survivors into a fury of shrieking madness.
Now, only a little of the above is, strictly speaking true. Miskatonic University does not actually exist. (It does have a website, however.) John Dee was indeed a formidable man of learning and Her Majesty’s sometime astrologer, but he did not translate the Necronomicon in the 16th century for the very good reason that Lovecraft only made it up in the 20th. That a paperback edition of what purports to be the cursed book has been published is true, though not the statistic about two-thirds of its enthusiasts being inhalant abusers. There, I’m just guessing.
The significant thing about the Necronomicon isn’t just that a nonexistent book can generate so much fascination that someone decides to write it; that’s just the sign of a publisher savvy enough to follow up a good tip. No, the interesting thing is to trace the subsequent history of the manifestly bogus paperback. Enough people have convinced themselves is an authentic work of occult knowledge that there is now a milieu dedicated to practicing its rituals, and to defending its integrity as an ancient document. Lovecraft only thought he was writing fiction, you see, because the Old Gods were using him as a mouthpiece. Prove they weren’t!
A paper appearing in The Irish Journal of Gothic and Horror Studies covers the phenomenon in sufficient detail for most readers, though it looks like the tip of the iceberg next to The Necronomicon Files, a study of the whole murky saga that debunks the cultists’ claims and rationalizations with great thoroughness. Which won’t make much difference, of course: the will to believe is a hardy vine, with deep roots. But The Necronomicon Files is a more serious work of scholarly detective work than might have seemed possible, given the topic, and I’ve been meaning to bring it up in this column since discovering the book.
Shorter and less outré, but tackling another case of imagination and reality getting tangled up, is Georges Minois’s The Atheist’s Bible: The Most Dangerous Book That Never Existed, published in France three years ago and now available in translation from the University of Chicago Press. In broad outline, the stories look analogous. The condensed version has it that in the course of a 13th-century test of strength between sacred and secular authority, Pope Gregory IX claimed that, among countless other sins and blasphemies, Frederick II had either written or caused to be written a work called De tribus impostoribus -- “On the Three Imposters” -- referring to Moses, Jesus, and Muhammad. Something to offend everyone, in every place the Crusades had reached, as if that hadn't been enough.
The title was so appalling that church authorities naturally wanted to make sure it was destroyed, once they’d read it themselves, just to see how great a danger it posed to others who might be lead astray. And they surely would have held quite a bonfire, had anyone actually published the work -- or, indeed, written it. The fact that the book did not exist made it difficult to find, of course, while also firing the imagination in transgressive ways.
“Repeatedly,” Minois writes, “people would think they were on the point of uncovering it, of knowing who was the author, and each time it was only an illusion. It was an effective scarecrow, because its title alone created fear…. [yet] people were curious to know the contents: what revelation would it contain? what arguments might it develop? The church tracked it to destroy it, while heretics and atheists chased after it to read and make use of it, and still others sought it out of simple curiosity. Every time hope was dashed, curiosity grew.”
Something like a prototype of the Necronomicon phenomenon, then -- if more historically consequential, and altogether less silly. (I love Lovecraft, but the thought of living within a belief system extracted from his fiction is ghastlier than anything in it, and he almost certainly would have agreed.)
Once established in the public's imagination, Imposters became a reality. It took longer -- centuries rather than decades -- but a couple of books purporting to be the unholy treatise were eventually published. The one that appeared in France in 1768 was, for a while, in as much demand as a couple of pornographic novels of the day. (The titles of the novels were fair advertisement of the contents, and would set off every web blocker ever invented.)
Success, of a kind, then, but fleeting. By the 18th century the arguments for agnosticism or atheism were well-established (as were the responses from the faithful, and the replies of the doubters) and it’s not surprising to learn that the fascination wore off after that. But for more than five hundred years, The Three Imposters menaced the faithful and inspired the skeptics, and earned its modest place in history. We should all be lucky enough to write a nonexistent book with so long a shelf life.
Writing about the late Jacques Barzun for Inside Higher Ed is awkward. This is an online journal, while Barzun was product and exemplar of a very different cultural order. The index to his last book, From Dawn to Decadence: 500 Years of Western Cultural Life, 1500 to the Present (2000) has no entry for “Internet,” though a few terse sentences on the topic can be located by looking up “computers, internetted.” (I am not about to put a “sic” after something by Jacques Barzun, but that’s what it says.) That is really the least of it, though. The problem, rather, is that Jacques Barzun did not think very much of education, higher or otherwise.
In a generous mood he indicated that it was difficult -- all but impossible -- to say anything meaningful on the subject. On other occasions he explicitly questioned the value of education, and even treated it with contempt.
The point is admittedly difficult to square with the man’s career, which included service as dean of graduate faculties at Columbia University, as well as almost a decade as its provost. With the literary critic Lionel Trilling he had a hand in shaping the school’s undergraduate core curriculum, and taught legendary courses in it. So it might clarify things (if it doesn’t make them worse) to say that while dubious about education, he thought highly of teaching.
But the distinction was Barzun’s, and he insisted on it over the course of several decades. We may take it as a given that -- as someone whose feeling for European and American cultural history was both broad and exact -- he was not being light-minded or clever about it. A few quotations will illustrate what he had in mind. How applicable they remain to the scene he departed last week, at the age of 104, I will leave it to the reader to decide.
His first book on the matter was Teacher in America (1944) -- written and published after Barzun toured dozens of colleges and universities during a sabbatical year. It was also a response to the previous three years’ worth of fretful newspaper and magazine commentary on “the shortcomings of the schools.” With postwar life just barely visible on the horizon, the author and his audience shared an urgency of concern: Barzun notes that the book was composed in about five weeks, “as if under dictation.” Whether or not the feeling of inspiration continued during the Cold War and beyond, public anxiety over the state of American education did. Barzun returned to the topic in a few books and countless articles and lectures, which seems all the more noteworthy given the opening sentence of his first volume on the matter: “Education is indeed the dullest of subjects and I intend to say as little about it as I can.”
He used the word in three senses, two of them expressing profound discontent. “Education comes from deep within,” he writes in a rare instance of using it with approval; “it is a man’s own doing, or rather it happens to him – sometimes because of the teaching he has had, sometimes in spite of it.” It is in this sense that Henry Adams could write five hundred pages of an autobiography called The Education of Henry Adams while devoting, in Barzun’s estimate, about thirty pages to his schooling. The other two uses of the word refer to distinct things that nonetheless tend to blur together. One is an ideology: a cluster of beliefs, hopes, and worries. The other is education as a field of study.
In The House of Intellect (1959), he suggests, education is regarded in American culture as an almost mythological force, if not a magical cure-all. We need more education, better education, in up-to-date form -- and if we don't get it, we're bound to fall behind Soviet education. (The book appeared in the wake of Sputnik. The exact concern may change, but not the overall point -- see the current administration's intense campaign to return the United States to the top of international rankings of the most-educated populace.) “Education in the United States is a passion and a paradox,” he says. “Millions want it and commend it, and are busy about it, at the same time they are willing to degrade it by trying to get it free of charge and free of work. Education with us has managed to reconcile the contradictory extremes of being a duty and a diversion, and to elude intellectual control so completely that it can become an empty ritual without arousing protest.”
Barzun’s examples, at the end of the 1950s, include high school courses in dating and driver education. More generally, Barzun has in mind a tendency to regard almost any subject, experience, and medium as “educational” -- life as an “educational process” both endless and all-encompassing. Clearly he was identifying a real set of tendencies in U.S. culture. If we aren't worrying about curriculum, we're hoping that video games are inculcating valuable motor skills. As of 2000, as you may expect, Barzun was aware of claims for the educational potential of internetted computers, and not impressed.
“That a user had ‘the whole world of knowledge at his disposal,’ ” he writes, is “one of those absurdities like the belief that ultimately computers would think -- it will be time to say so when a computer makes an ironic answer. ‘The whole world of knowledge’ could be at one's disposal only if one already knew a great deal and wanted further information to turn into knowledge after gauging its value.”
But in that regard, the emergent digital culture impressed Barzun as less an influence on colleges and universities than a fulfillment of the tendencies within higher education at the end of the last millennium. To quote From Dawn to Decadence once again: “From photography to playing the trombone and from marriage counseling to hotel management, a multitude of respectable vocations had a program that led to a degree. On many a campus one might meet a student who disliked reading and had ‘gone visual,’ or be introduced to an assistant professor of family living.”
As for education in the sense of a discipline or a field of research, Barzun remarked in Teacher in America that doctorates in it “cover such a wide range of indefinite subject matter that they have been repeatedly and deservedly ridiculed.” His opinion did not improve over time. The remarkable thing, he goes on to say, is that “in the midst of the vacuum certain fine minds have been able to survive, to think, and to make their mark in a most useful fashion as trainers and inspirers of teachers. Whether they are happy in their invidious and Ovidian exile, I shall not undertake to say.”
Teaching, however -- or “instruction,” as Barzun also sometimes called it -- well, now that is another matter. It is the opposite of education in the senses that bother him. Education is vague and inflatable. Teaching is an encounter of a specific kind, among concrete individuals, to an established end. The teacher knows something in particular and the student does not. The process of transmitting it is delimited and one-way. It implies dependency and insufficiency on the part of the student, and does not shrink from acknowledging them. The authority to determine whether the student has absorbed the skills and concepts rests with the teacher. The goal is ultimately to make the teacher no longer necessary for the student. (By contrast, the notion of an “educational process” is murky, and open-ended to the point of being interminable.)
We never have enough good teachers, Barzun says. At the same time, there are more kinds of good teachers than we normally recognize. But the problem runs deeper than that. As he puts it in Teacher in America, the very title is suspect, even somewhat disreputable
“I notice that on their passports and elsewhere, many of my academic colleagues put down their occupation as Professor. Anything to raise the tone: a professor is to a teacher what a cesspool technician is to a plumber….. ‘What do you do?’ – ‘I profess and I educate.’ It is unspeakable and absurd.”
Ouch. A curmudgeon? The patron saint of the curmudgeons, even? No doubt, and one fighting what was, in the 1940s, probably already a lost cause. In academe, the fetishism of professionalization is by now so far advanced that expecting people to apply the same term to themselves as people working in primary and secondary schools is a hopeless wish. But a lecture from 1947 suggests how comprehensively Barzun understood teaching as a calling, and how inseparable from scholarship, and his closing remark is a point to end on:
“If the scholars with a knack for organizing materials will freely turn to writing textbooks; if those having the gift of accurate rhetoric will deliver the classroom lectures and radio broadcasts; if the generalizing minds will produce the broader syntheses; if the ready pens will enlighten the public with vivid restatements of important truth; if the bibliophiles and antiquaries will staff libraries and museums and facilitate, as they already do, every branch of study and research; and if the versatile will combine two or more of these activities at choice … [then] we shall be in a fair way to fulfill the destiny which every scholar takes as his privilege and his justification.”
The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday heard oral arguments in a case that explores whether re-sellers can hawk cheaper versions of textbooks, produced for students overseas, to U.S. students. The case, the second the court has heard in two years involving what is known as the "first sale" doctrine, could have major implications for how much publishers charge for their textbooks, both in the United States and abroad. Accounts in The New York Times and Wall Street Journal of the court's hearing in Kirtsaeng v. John Wiley & Sons, Inc. described justices divided over the arguments made by publishers and by the former graduate student whose resale of foreign-made textbooks earned $1 million in sales a year and brought the wrath of the publishers. (Note: This item has been updated from an earlier version to correct factual errors.)