The Chronicle of Higher Education, being the trade journal of higher education, is one of those publications one reads, not because one wants to, but because one he has to. It is, in its own way, a faithful register of all that is trendy and profitable in the field, and an influential arbiter of who and what is up or down. Think of it as Variety or Publishers' Weekly for academics. That will explain why it so often makes for depressing reading, since what is up these days is rarely what deserves to be.
But every now and then the light of a gem glimmers amid the muck and mire. An anonymous columnist, an assistant professor of English at a Midwestern college who calls himself "Thomas H. Benton," has penned an unusually thoughtful essay for the December 9th issue, entitled "Reference Works and Academic Celebrity." It is well worth the attention of FIRST THINGS readers who have access to that publication. (Link for subscribers is here.)
Benton is hardly the first person to lament the fact that contemporary academic culture has been impoverished by its capitulation to the cult of academic celebrity. But he goes further than that, taking aim at the fallacy undergirding the cult: our obsession with "individual genius." The very idea that the Ph.D. dissertation ought to be an "original contribution to knowledge," a precept that was already well entrenched when William James wrote against it a century ago, has helped to feed this romantic fallacy. But, as Benton shows, the fallacy has metastasized into something downright ludicrous. In a job interview for an entry-level position at a second-tier state university, Benton was asked how his scholarly work might "redraw the boundaries of the profession." To his credit, he was unable to manufacture a glib and confident answer to such a breathtakingly stupid question, and was too modest to put himself forward as the next Derrida. And instantly, he says, "I could feel the temperature of the room drop as if I had just stepped into a meat locker." The interview was over.
In retrospect, one might have wanted Benton to respond, "If this 'profession' is so fragile and unstable as to have its boundaries redrawn by any freshly minted Ph.D. to come down the pike, who would want to be a part of it? And just who do you people think you are? Would interviewers for an entry-level job in, say, physics, at Mega State U. in Oshkosh ask each applicant how their work would comprehensively reorder our understanding of the physical universe?" Such impertinent questions would not have gotten him the job, but he could at least have gotten some truth-telling satisfaction out of the encounter.
Benton then goes on to contrast the triumph of such inflation and flummery in his field with the painstaking, unheralded, and often anonymous dedication shown by editors of valued reference works, such as the Oxford English Dictionary, the various Oxford Companions, the superb Encyclopedia of New York City, the American Guide series, and countless other works that provide an enormous service to knowledge, but which "confer, unfairly, very little esteem on their compilers." He might also have said more about the truly invisible scholars who produce the definitive editions of important documents, such as the letters and papers of American presidentsslow, expensive, unglamorous, and meticulous work that probably would not be possible in this day and age without the steady support of the National Endowment for the Humanities. Indeed, as Benton rightly observes, those who produce this kind of work are regarded as mere "drudges" who have not figured out "how the academic status game is played." But such drudges are the people who actually keep a civilization going, and sustain the cultural capital that the high-flying celebrity theorists draw upon but fail to replenish. We should treat them as exemplars.
Such, one might say, is life here below, where (we have been reliably informed) the last is often mistaken for the first, and vice-versa. But not every truth must await the hereafter, and quality often does win out in the end. Or at least, non-quality loses out. As Benton observes, "I've been clearing out my theory shelves of so much stuff that seemed absolutely vital 10 or 15 years ago and seems almost worthless now." Such an experience has led him to the depressing conclusion that "most academic careers are built on books that barely survive the decade in which they were written." The ethos of high-quality reference books offers, for him, a useful contrast, one of service rather than self-promotion.
Benton may go a bit too far here, forgetting that the remainder tables at bookstores are groaning under the weight of shoddy, ginned-up reference books that are equally crass and ephemeral. But his larger point is very sound, and the values he exalts are the right ones. The academy is one of the few places in our turbulent culture where we are supposed to be about the business of creating and sustaining things of long-term value, and nurturing a knowledgeable and respectful relationship to the human past. How ironic that it has become, instead, an exemplification, and even an exaggeration, of everything that it loudly claims to find detestable in that cultureand a very inhospitable place to those who would like it to serve as a real alternative.
But one must be hopeful, and I choose to be encouraged that there is a Thomas H. Benton out there, even if I don't yet know who he really is. Let him get his tenure first. Then he can reveal himself.
(Click here to email the author about this item. Wilfred M. McClay holds the SunTrust Chair of Humanities at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, and a member of the editorial board of FIRST THINGS.)
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