In 1892, the president of Leland Stanford University, David Starr Jordan, managed to convince Ewald Flügel, a scholar at the University of Leipzig, to join the young institution’s rudimentary English department. Flügel had received his doctoral degree in 1885 with a study of Thomas Carlyle under the aegis of Richard Wülcker, one of the founders of English studies in Europe. Three years later, he finished his postdoctoral degree, with a study on Sir Philip Sydney, and was appointed to the position of a Privatdozent at Leipzig.
The position of the Privatdozent is one of the most fascinating features at the modern German universities in the late 19th century. Although endowed with the right to direct dissertations and teach graduate seminars, the position most often offered only the smallest of base salaries, leaving the scholar to earn the rest of his keep by students who paid him directly for enrolling in his seminars and lectures. In a 1903 Stanford commencement speech Flügel warmly recommended that his new colleagues in American higher education embrace the Privatdozent concept:
What would the faculty of Stanford University say to a young scholar of decided ability, who, one or two years after his doctorate (taken with distinction), having given proof of high scholarly work and spirit, should ask the privilege of using a certain lecture room at a certain hour for a certain course of lectures? What would Stanford University say, if – after another year or two this young man, unprotected but regarded with a certain degree of kindly benevolence […], this lecturer should attract more and more students (not credit hunters), if he should become an influence at the university? What if the university should become in the course of years a perfect hive of such bees? […] It would modify our departmental boss-system, our worship of "credits," and other traits of the secondary schools; it would stimulate scholarly life at the university; it would foster a healthy competition in scholarly work, promote survival of the fittest, and keep older men from rusting.
Unabashedly Darwinian, Flügel was convinced that his own contingent appointment back in Germany had pushed him, and pushed all Privatdozenten, to become competitive, cutting-edge researchers and captivating classroom teachers until one of the coveted state-funded chair positions might become available. He held that the introduction of this specific academic concept was instrumental at furthering the innovative character and international reputation of higher education in Germany. Flügel himself had thrived under the competitive conditions, of course, and his entrepreneurial spirit led him to make a number of auspicious foundational moves: He took on co-editorship of Anglia, today the oldest continually published journal worldwide focusing exclusively on the study of “English.” And he founded Anglia Beiblatt, a review journal that quickly established an international reputation.
Despite his formidable achievements, however, he could not secure a chair position as quickly as he hoped. Since he was among the very few late 19th-century German professors of English who possessed near-native proficiency, he began to consider opportunities overseas. Even the dire warnings from a number of east coast colleagues ("the place seems farther away from Ithaca, than Ithaca does from Leipzig"; "they have at Stanford a library almost without books") could not scare him away. Once he had begun his academic adventure in the Californian wilderness, he took on a gargantuan research project, the editorship of the Chaucer Dictionary, offered to him by Frederick James Furnivall, the most entrepreneurial among British Chaucerians and founder of the Chaucer Society. As soon as he took over from colleagues who had given up on the project, he found, in this pre-computer age of lexicography, "slips of all sizes, shapes, colors, weights, and textures, from paper that was almost tissue paper to paper that was almost tin. Every slip contained matter that had to be reconsidered, revised, and often added to or deleted.”
Undeterred by this disastrous state of affairs, he decided to resolve the problem with typically enterprising determination: Although grant writing was uncharted territory for him, he applied for and secured three annual grants for $7,500 and one for $11,000 (altogether the equivalent of at least $300,000 in today’s money!) from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching between 1904 and 1907 "for the preparation of a lexicon for the works of Geoffrey Chaucer," bought himself some time away from Stanford, and signed up a dozen colleagues and students in Europe and North America to assist him in his grand plan.
His and their work would become the foundation of the compendious Middle English Dictionary which now graces every decent college library in the English-speaking world and beyond. Beyond the work on the Chaucer Dictionary, the completion of which he never saw because of his sudden death in 1914, he maintained an impressive publication record and served in leadership positions such as the presidency of the Pacific Branch of the American Philological Association. When Flügel passed away, his American colleagues celebrated his "enthusiastic idealism" and remembered him as "more essentially American" than the other foreign-born colleagues they knew, an appreciation due to his entrepreneurial spirit.
I am relating this story to counteract the often defeatist chorus sung by colleagues in English and other humanities departments when confronted with a request, usually from impatient administrators in more grant-active areas, for at least giving grant writing and other entrepreneurial activities a try. There is no doubt that, compared to the situation in most other Western democracies, government support through the National Endowments for the Humanities and Arts is small in the U.S. Conversely, the number of private foundations, from the American Council of Learned Societies through the Spencer Foundation, makes up for some of the difference.
In my experience, what keeps the majority of English professors from even considering an involvement with entrepreneurial activities is that they deem them an unwelcome distraction from the cultural work they feel they have been educated, hired, and tenured to do. Most grant applications require that scholars explain not only the disciplinary, but also the broader social and cultural relevance of their work. In addition, they entail that scholars put a monetary value on their planned academic pursuits and create a bothersome budget sheet, learn how to use a spreadsheet, develop a timeline, and compose an all-too-short project summary, all grant-enabling formal obstacles many colleagues consider beneath the dignity of their profession.
In fact, many of us believe that the entire discipline of English and the humanities in general may have been created so as to counterbalance the entrepreneurial principles and profit motives which, from within the English habitat, seem to have a stranglehold over work in colleges of business, computing, engineering, and science. However, by making English a bastion of (self-)righteous resistance against the evil trinity of utilitarianism, pragmatism, and capitalism, English professors have relinquished the ability to be public intellectuals and to shape public discourse. After all, too many of our books and articles speak only to ourselves or those in the process of signing up to our fields at colleges and universities.
Ewald Flügel labored hard to remain socially and politically relevant even as he was involved in professionalizing and institutionalizing the very discipline we now inhabit. Recognizing that the skills and kinds of knowledge provided by his emerging field were insufficient for solving complex real-world issues, he became a proponent of a more co-disciplinary approach to academic study, a kind of cultural studies scholar long before that term was invented. Most of us would agree that he applied his formidable linguistic and literary expertise to a number of problematic goals, speaking to academic and public audiences about how the steadily increasing German immigration and the powers of German(ic) philology should and would inevitably turn the United States into an intellectual colony of his beloved home country. However, even if his missionary zeal reeks of the prevailing nationalist zeitgeist, I can appreciate his desire to experiment, innovate, and compete to make the study of historical literature and language as essential to the academy and to humanity as did his approximate contemporaries Roentgen, Eastman, Edison, Diesel, Marconi, and Pasteur with their scientific endeavors.
Perhaps his example might entice some of us to revisit and even befriend the idea of entrepreneurship, especially when it involves NGOs or the kind of for-profit funding sources the Just Enough Profit Foundation might define as (only) "mildly predatory" or (preferably) "somewhat," "very" and "completely humanistic." At the very least, Flügel’s biography provides evidence that today’s prevailing anti-entrepreneurial mindset has not always been among the constitutive elements defining the "English" professoriate.
There are encouraging signs that some colleagues in English studies have begun to abandon that mindset: George Mason University’s Center for Social Entrepreneurship (directed by Paul Rogers, a professor of English) and the University of Texas consortium on Intellectual Entrepreneurship (directed by Richard Cherwitz, a professor of rhetoric and communication), generate promising cross-disciplinary collaboration between the academy and society; English professors at Duke, Georgia Tech, and Ohio State, funded by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, are among the national leaders testing the pedagogical viability of the controversial massive open online courses (MOOCs); and Ellito Visconsi of the University of Notre Dame, and Bryn Mawr colleague Katherine Rowe created Luminary Digital Media LLC, a startup that distributes their "Tempest for iPad," an application designed for social reading, authoring, and collaboration for Shakespeare fans with various levels of education. I believe Ewald Flügel would find these projects exciting.
Richard Utz is professor and chair in the School of Literature, Media, and Communication at the Georgia Institute of Technology.
Just before the semester began I traveled to Beijing to deliver a lecture entitled "Why Liberal Education Matters" at the Institute for Humanistic Studies at Peking University. I didn’t quite know what to expect. It was intersession there, and I was told that there might be a dozen faculty and graduate students in attendance. Imagine my surprise when I entered a packed lecture hall. There were more than 200 faculty members and students present, despite the vacation.
In China there is increasing interest in liberal education, while here in the United States there is plenty of pressure on liberal learning from people who want our education system to have a more direct connection to the workplace. They seem to think that an education for "the whole person" is just too soft in this hypercompetitive technology-driven age. These folks want a more routinized, efficient and specialized education to train students for jobs. Yesterday’s jobs, I tend to think.
In the States, I spend a fair amount of time trying to show that this call for more efficient, specialized education is a self-defeating path to conformity and inflexibility – just the kinds of traits that will doom one to irrelevance in the contemporary culture and society. How would this message resonate in China, which has had an educational system that is even more test-driven and hyperspecialized? I decided to take a historical approach, showing how our modern notions of liberal learning emerge from currents of thought from Thomas Jefferson to Richard Rorty. Perhaps in the discussions after the talk I would learn about whether there were elements from Chinese traditions that would resonate with our history, and that would have lessons for our contemporary situation.
My translator, the excellent Liu Boyun was ready to leap in every few sentences, a daunting prospect given that I didn’t have a text to read but was going to "talk through" some key ideas in American intellectual history. I structured the talk using the concepts: Liberate, Animate, Cooperate, Instigate/Innovate. Of course, they don’t rhyme in Chinese…
With "Liberate," I talked about Jefferson’s ideas about education that led to the founding the University of Virginia. Jefferson was a man of the Enlightenment, and he thought that education would liberate us from what Kant had called "self-imposed immaturity." He was determined that students not have to choose their specific course of learning at the very start of their studies. You should discover what you are going to do through education – not sign up to be trained in a vocation before you know who you might be and what you might be able to accomplish. Sure, there would be mistakes, false roads taken. But, Jefferson wrote to Adams, "ours will be the follies of enthusiasm" and not of bigotry.
I pointed out, as you might expect, the enormous inconsistency in Jefferson’s thinking. He was a slaveholder who tied education to liberation. He was a determined racist who wrote of the importance of allowing young people to fail as they found their enthusiasms – obviously, only some people. Having good ideas about education doesn’t make one immune to scandalous hypocrisy.
With "Animate," I turned to Ralph Waldo Emerson’s notion that education is setting souls aflame. Emerson saw routinized education as a form of corruption, and he urged his auditors to throw off the shackles of imitation that had become so prominent in colleges and universities. Colleges serve us, he wrote, when they aim not to drill students in rote learning but to help them tap into their creativity so that they can animate their world. I sensed a strong positive response to this from the audience, many of whom want to move away from the regime of test-taking that structures Chinese secondary education (and is increasingly prominent in the United States). But what did they think of another of Emerson’s notions I talked about, that of "aversive thinking," the kind of thinking that cuts against the grain of authority?
With "Cooperate" I talked about three American thinkers associated with pragmatism: William James, Jane Addams and John Dewey. From James I emphasized the notion that "the whole function of thinking is but one step in the production of habits of action." Liberal education isn’t about studying things that have no immediate use. It is about creating habits of action that grow out of a spirit of broad inquiry. I also talked about his notion of "overcoming blindness" by trying to put oneself in someone else’s shoes. Seeing the world from someone else’s perspective without leaping to judgment was fundamental for James.
That notion of overcoming blindness toward others was also key for Jane Addams, whose idea of "affectionate interpretation" I stressed under the "Cooperate" rubric. Addams allows us to see how "critical thinking" can be overrated in discussions of liberal education. We need to learn how to find what makes things work well and not just how to point out that they don’t live up to expectations. For Addams, compassion, memory and fidelity are central aspects of how understanding should function within a context of community. These notions clearly resonated with the audience, and a few colleagues pointed out that Addams’s thinking in this regard had strong affinities with aspects of Confucian traditions.
My last thinker within the "Cooperate" rubric was John Dewey, and I cited his notion that philosophy "recovers itself … when it ceases to be a device for dealing with the problems of philosophers and becomes a method, cultivated by philosophers, for dealing with the problems of men." This is what pragmatic liberal education should do, too: take on the great questions of our time with the methods cultivated by rigorous scholarship and inquiry.
For Dewey, no disciplines were intrinsically part of liberal education. The contextual and conceptual dimensions of robust inquiry made a subject (any subject) part of liberal learning. Furthermore, Dewey insisted that humanistic study would only thrive if it remained connected to "the interests and activities of society." The university should not be a cloister; it should be a laboratory that creates habits of action through inquiry laced with compassion, memory and fidelity.
I brought my talk to a close under the rubric, "Instigate/Innovate." I referred to my teacher Richard Rorty’s remarks on how liberal education at the university level should incite doubt and challenge the prevailing consensus. Rorty played the major role in recent decades in bringing American pragmatism back to the foreground of intellectual life, and he spoke of how higher education helped students practice an aversive thinking that challenged the status quo. That is key, I stressed, to the power of liberal education today: instigating doubt that will in turn spur innovation. We need not just new apps to play with, but new strategies for dealing with fundamental economic, ecological and social problems. Only by creatively challenging the prevailing consensus do we have a chance of addressing these threats to our future.
I was surprised by the enthusiasm with which these remarks were greeted. I’d imagined, so wrongly, that talk about challenging the prevailing consensus would have met with a chilly reception at Peking University. On the contrary, the professors and students in the audience were looking to their own traditions and to those of the West for modes of aversive thinking that would empower them to meet the massive challenges facing their society. In the conversations after the talk, they spoke of an evolving education system that would be less concerned with plugging people into existing niches, and more concerned with teaching the "whole person" in ways that would liberate students’ capacities for finding their own way while making a positive difference in the world. Free speech and free inquiry will be crucial for that evolution.
The ongoing conversations following my lecture at Peking University inspire me to think that thoughtful inquiry might enable us to overcome more of our blindness to one another and to the problems we share. Will pragmatic liberal education instigate skillful and compassionate strategies – here and abroad – for addressing our most pressing challenges? My brief visit to Beijing gave me confidence that it is more than just a "folly of enthusiasm" to think that it will.
Time has not been especially kind to Richard Posner’s Public Intellectuals: A Study of Decline (Harvard, 2001). The frequent complaints about scholars wandering beyond their areas of expertise to pontificate on the Clinton impeachment feel like yesteryear’s editorials. The book’s statistical tables tried to quantify the influence of various thinkers and writers – as registered, for one thing, by Google’s turn-of-the-millennium algorithm. And even Posner’s overarching generalizations seem now to have been overcome by events. It retains some interest as a landmark, though, even at this growing distance.
Posner took the old notion of a “marketplace of ideas” in a new direction by treating the activity of public intellectuals as governed by supply and demand. “With hundreds of television channels to fill,” he wrote, “with the Internet a growing medium for the communication of news and opinion, and with newspapers becoming ever more like magazines in an effort to maintain readership in the face of the lure of continuously updated news on television and over the Internet, the opportunity cost to media of providing a platform for public intellectuals has shrunk.”
The ultimate consumer of the public intellectuals’ “symbolic goods” was the lay reader or viewer, who lacked (and presumably desired) the specialized information, the command and context, and the analytical tools used by the commentators. Unfortunately this also meant that the public was in no position to judge the quality of the goods being proffered. “The media through which the public intellectual reaches his audience perform virtually no gatekeeping function,” wrote Posner. “The academic whose errors of fact, insight, and prediction in the public-intellectual market are eventually detected can, as I have emphasized, abandon the market, returning to full-time academic work, at slight cost.”
Rereading the book now, I get the feeling that Posner had a satirical novel inside him that might have held up better than its nonfiction substitute. His model is specific to roughly the last half of the 20th century. It takes as a given the one-way flow of communication from academic specialists, through mass media, to a mass audience incapable of judging what it receives and unable to generate any “symbolic goods” of its own.
All that has changed, for good and for ill. The credentialed specialist and the uninformed layperson turn out to be endpoints of a continuum, rather than absolute opposites. Any given idea or analysis can now inspire a Socratic colloquy. Of course, it’s just as likely to inspire a howling mob of abject ignoramuses, but of course Socrates’s interventions in public discourse did not always turn out well, either.
The term “public intellectual” itself, according to Posner, “was coined by Russell Jacoby in a book published in 1987.” In fact it was first used by C. Wright Mills in 1958, but the phrase entered wide usage only in the wake of Jacoby’s The Last Intellectuals: American Culture in the Age of Academe. Mills and Jacoby were referring to something quite different from Posner’s cohort of moonlighting celebrity academics. Rather, they had in mind generations of writers and thinkers for whom the demands of either the university or mass media were a minor concern, if even that. My essay for Bookforum on the 20th anniversary of The Last Intellectuals discusses the cultural ecology that made such figures possible, and the changes rendering them all but extinct.
Since the book appeared, Jacoby has published a few more volumes, as well a great many essays and reviews, though seldom through an academic press or journal. And his position in the history department at the University of California at Los Angeles is sufficiently irregular – he is listed as “professor in residence” and does not have tenure – to suggest someone half in the door and half out. He lists among his awards the Moishe Gonzales Folding Chair in Critical Theory -- an homage to the late social theorist Paul Piccone, founding editor of the journal Telos. The improbable name Moishe Gonzales was the pseudonym Piccone used for some of his particularly scathing critiques of academic trends.
The news that someone had made a documentary about Jacoby came as a surprise. It also made me realize that, after reading him for more than a quarter of a century, I had no idea what he looked like. If the Posnerian public intellectual is a talking head, clearly the Jacobean variety is not – or was not, anyway, until the appearance of "Velvet Prisons: Russell Jacoby on American Academia," available on DVD and currently available for viewing as part of the Humanity Explored film festival hosted by Culture Unplugged, which describes itself as a “new media studio.” (Not sure how that would work unplugged, but never mind.)
Ten or 15 minutes into watching "Velvet Prisons," curiosity about its origins got the better of me, so I hit pause and made contact with Kurt Jacobsen, one of the producers and directors, whose name was familiar from various publications including Logos: A Journal of Modern Society and Culture (here) where he is book-review editor. With Warren Leming -- an actor and musician who has directed a number of documentaries – he founded Cold Chicago Productions, which brought out two films before "Velvet Prisons," its latest release. (Another, "American Road," will be out this summer.)
Jacobsen refers to the enterprise as Debtors Prison Productions, since “the budget came out of our thin pockets, like everything else we do.” In 2008, Leming invited Jacoby to come to Chicago for extensive interviews, running to six hours of footage. Jacobsen, a research associate in political science at the University of Chicago, held Jacoby’s work in high regard and was glad to participate in the interviews, although the project itself seemed unlikely to get much funding. “We went ahead because it seemed a needed thing,” he writes in an email note, “a necessary intervention.” The producers spent five or six thousand dollars out of pocket: “That leaves out the incalculables of hundreds of hours of free labor by myself and Warren and some others.”
"Velvet Prisons" sketches Jacoby’s intellectual development from high school through his years on the academic job market, while also working in brief characterizations of most of Jacoby’s books – some of them, such as Social Amnesia: A Critique of Contemporary Psychology (1975) and Dialectic of Defeat: Contours of Western Marxism (1981), in very broad strokes, to be sure.
“Our key challenge,” Jacobsen says, “was how to keep a solo talking head, no matter how provocative or profound, visually interesting. Initially we thought we might only hold the most dedicated viewers for half an hour but eventually worked out and settled on a 55 minute version.” The finished product incorporates historically pertinent film footage and book covers, as well as portraits of philosophers and sociologists, sometimes accompanied by passages from their work read in voice-over.
One particularly memorable and effective sequence appears in the course of Jacoby’s very sharp comments on the academic mores that marginalize writers with an interest in addressing a general and educated audience – an ethos that “rewards careerism and networking and backslapping” and people “making quiet non-contributions to micro-fields” rather than “taking it big,” as his hero C. Wright Mills encouraged young sociologists to do. As he begins to discuss the forces pushing scholars to focus on talking about their work only with one another, the screen fills with photographs taken in the meeting rooms and auditoriums of hotel conference centers. The chairs and the ambiance are always the same. (My immediate reaction, on first viewing, was to scan the pictures, expecting to find a familiar face.) How is this in any way preferable to what Posner complained about – the colleagues willing to provide grist for media blather mills?
"There is nothing said in ‘Velvet Prisons,’ by the way,” Jacobsen tells me in the course of our e-mail discussion, “that does not resonate with my own experiences and observations in the darling groves of academe.” He calls the documentary “the proverbial labor of love, and lament…. [The] worst thing I've heard [about Velvet Prisons] is a British scholar friend calling it an ‘elegy’ -- and he probably has a point.”
He says that Jacoby “was very genial, quite modest and, I think, awfully shocked when we actually came up with the doc.” As a matter of fact, by that point Russell Jacoby himself had answered a request for his thoughts on the film, and they corroborated the director’s impressions.
“I did not think they were serious,” Jacoby responded by e-mail. “Why me? I did indeed sit for some interviews, but I really thought that I would never hear from them again. I could not imagine the project going forward. To my great surprise it did go forward. It turned out they were serious. I still don't get it. I'm in no position to judge it. I find it embarrassing to watch.” His response to seeing himself hold forth on screen was “Who is that idiot?”
Hardly a fair assessment. "Velvet Prisons" will irritate some people very much, while many more will watch it with interest and sympathy and even decide to go read Jacoby’s books. All to the good, either way. But my own impression is that the documentary feels unfinished, perhaps because Jacoby’s interpretation of “American culture in the age of academe” is unfinished.
It is at very least in need of an update. Arguing that the pursuit of tenure distorts the development and ethos of young intellectuals has begun to sound like someone complaining that the visual quality of a film is ruined when put on VHS. It may be true, but it’s a problem for fewer and fewer people all the time. At the same time, Jacoby has little to say about the situation of the public intellectual now, with the means of communication between thinker and public in flux. "Velvet Prisons" itself is an example of instance of such change.
It would be worth having another documentary in which Russell Jacoby follows up the arguments left undeveloped in his cinematic debut. But that, alas, remains unlikely. “My cinematic debut,” he told me, “will converge with my cinematic exit.”