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Dissent and the Academy

The Morality of Scholarship

edited by Max Black
Cornell, 108 pp., $4.50

Professors are always signing petitions about sumthing,” the Chicago Tribune sulked in an editorial of November 29, and went on to deny the right of professors at Northwestern University to give up their suburban detachment, defy the views of elected officials, and issue a statement against the Vietnam war. The Tribune complaint has lately been balanced by an opposite one, that professors don’t sign petitions enough. This is Theodore Roszak’s theme in an article, “The Complacencies of the Academy,” which appeared in the New American Review.

Mr. Roszak is obliged to concede that there has been a “rash” or a “recent flurry of campus protest,” but his essay reads as if this had indeed been a superficial rather than a rooted and broadly spreading phenomenon. In this impression of the matter, he perpetuates at least the one academic convention of looking everywhere for what’s in front of him. The university is now the principal center of dissent to the present war. No other group except the clergy has furnished so articulate or sustained a protest, ineffectual as it may seem to have been. Mr. Roszak praises the labor unions, at the expense of academic groups, for their involvement in political activity; but the unions have conspicuously lagged in speaking out on foreign policy, and no one is looking to them now for dissent. And where, in comparison to the professors, are the lawyers, editors, publishers, doctors, dentists, and psychiatrists?

Mr. Roszak’s article is one of many recent ones by professors which, offering to expose the academy, illustrate instead its present temper and bear witness unwillingly to its capacity for self-criticism. Harper’s, in its monthly quest for piping-hot problems, has published both William Arrowsmith on the shame of the graduate school and (in the December issue) Louis Kampf on “The Scandal of Literary Scholarship.” These articles fail to acknowledge the extraordinary changes which the creation of new universities, the enlargement of old ones, the speed of promotion, the pressure from increased integration and co-education, from students, from events, from teachers themselves, have brought about. Staidness withers, the older professors have lost weight and prestige. Among the new teachers of English are creative writers who have helped to enroll the university in the making of literature as well as of criticism and scholarship. Poets and novelists have found the campus a more congenial situation, a more realistic engagement, than the publishing or magazine office, and the universities (not the foundations, which are the most miserly of Medicis) have taken over the patronage of literature.

That the university is damned from without for protesting and from within for not protesting implies that it may be coming painfully close to that intersection of commitment and detachment where it belongs. Anyone involved in teaching humanities since the Second World War knows how earnestly many of the best minds have sought to bring their concern for social improvement into curricular change. In his article Mr. Roszak tacitly acknowledges that the courses in general education have been such an effort, but he goes on to denounce teachers for a decline in interest, owing, he says, to the discovery that such courses may not be helpful in one’s field of specialization.

I suspect that general education courses are becoming more numerous. But if, like most educational developments, they flag a little now in the enthusiasm they aroused at first, the reason is not necessarily so selfish and short-sighted as Mr. Roszak contends. Anyone trained in literary study is likely to become uneasy when, as often happens in such a course, he finds himself teaching the Iliad without knowing Greek. He soon discovers that he must follow Simone Weil in making it a purely ethical work. Mr. Roszak would welcome this view of literature, I suppose, but a teacher who tires of it is responding to another form of conscience, one that wants to protect the identity of literary work, and refuses to sell Homer’s birth-right for what Chesterton calls “a pot of message.” Not self-seeking, but self-doubting has made some teachers look for other ways of showing social concern. A recognition of this feeling may have come to Mr. Roszak since his article was first published, for in a volume of essays, The Dissenting Academy, in which it now has first place, he has dropped this particular charge of irresponsibility. There is evidently nothing fixed about the particular abuses which he will choose to denounce.

For Mr. Roszak knowledge must always be a basis for action. This is a new puritanism, a new attempt to reduce thought to service. Louis Kampf’s article in Harper’s insists that literature is in history. It is so, but it is also outside history. To approach the past exclusively by way of the present is not necessarily emancipating; rather the effect is likely to be clammish and reductive. The classics don’t tell us how to vote. This is not to deny that literature may be, as Mr. Kampf writes, “an instrument of agitation.” But it is also an instrument of comprehension or, better, no instrument at all, a disclosure, an art.

Mr. Roszak asks whether a university shouldn’t value equally for promotion a professor’s having organized “Freedom Schools” and his having written a critical study of Golding’s translation of Ovid’s Metamorphoses. It’s clear that he himself regards the work on Golding as frilly and that on Freedom Schools as unfrilly. The alternatives never appear so neatly in actuality. One is not conscious in the university of any such clear distinction between social responsibility and cultivated knowledge. No certain correlation between esoteric mind and exoteric conscience can be established. If some universities might be put off by the work on Freedom Schools, others might be won by it. On the other hand, a community of well-intentioned and uninformed men would be admirable, yet not educational.

UNDERLYING both Mr. Roszak’s and Mr. Kampf’s articles is the feeling that much literary study could be abolished because its results are not immediately useful. Mr. Kampf finds that such study is already dead, though he seems determined to kill it again. He dismisses most of what his colleagues do as pedantry, and makes the usual blast against things like editions. Yet if writers are worth studying at all, then what the poor devils really wrote must be of some consequence. To find out what they wrote requires the most painstaking methods but also, as anyone familiar with the great editions of Donne and Chaucer knows, uncommon qualities of taste and judgment. Such work is dry only in that it is not foaming at the mouth.

Mr. Kampf has had better things to say on other subjects. On this one, he extends his attack to a multitude of targets. He is annoyed that, on the one hand, Twayne has published a book on an American author of whom he has never heard—surely an intolerable act—and on the other hand that some university may be offering a seminar on Ken Kesey. I don’t know whether such a seminar exists, though I believe Leslie Fiedler may have one at Buffalo, but I’m surprised at Mr. Kampf’s not wanting it, for it would arouse immediate confrontation of issues he considers most important. It is more a sign of vigor than of indiscriminateness that the universities have endeavored to encompass the most as well as the least timely materials. While no one will be caught defending the Modern Language Association, another target of these bromides, anybody familiar with its recent history knows how strongly it has sought, by arranging forums and panels on large subjects, and by engagement in the educational process from the primary grades up, to discourage such automatic scoffing.

When he condescends to deal with particulars, as he does in the longer version of his essay published in The Dissenting Academy, Mr. Kampf becomes vulnerable himself. So he offers this pedagogical advice: “Dangerous as it is, we may have to accept some student’s honest feeling that, for example, Milton’s use of pastoral in ‘Lycidas’ is a foolish irrelevance. To appeal to the tradition of pastoral for the poem’s justification is merely to lull the student into a bland acceptance of authority; it will hardly lead him to reflections on the meaning of death.” There is nothing dangerous about accepting the student’s feeling, it is in fact the easiest, manliest, and therefore the safest thing one can do. That it limits and adulterates the poem’s meaning, and makes the poet an amateur who didn’t have the sense to come in swinging, might inhibit the teacher more than fear or acceptance of authority. Mr. Kampf offers in place of older pedantries a new one, the pedantry of propaganda. Of this death has never been in need. His attacks on scholarship flow over into attacks on literary works, many of them presumably crying out for exposure according to some unstated, but nonetheless pious, criterion of commitment. The teacher storms through old books, hissing at Chaucer and Pope, “Wrong here!” “Drop that pen!” or “Off with his prologue!”

THE COMPLAINT that learning is not doing is an ancient one in education, and especially prevalent in this country. All such perennial complaints move at times into phases of intensity, and we are in one of these now. Since the Second World War, owing to competition with the Soviet Union there has been an increasingly popular sense of not having learned or studied enough, especially in the sciences. By biological accident, this sense of insufficiency has coincided with an enormous growth in the number of students, six-and-a-half million by the last count. Perhaps inevitably, these pressures lead to an intensified displeasure with the teaching body and with teaching methods. A new desire to be taught is translated quickly into a resentment of not having been taught before. Re-examination may be salutary for this as for any other profession, and no one is urging complacency. In fact, external criticism has coincided with internal. But it’s regrettable that two activistic and utilitarian motives infect the current examination and make it hostile: one holding that university learning is not socially or politically useful, applicable, responsible, the other that the university is by nature irrelevant, a retreat of the weak or mediocre from significant areas of intellectual effort. That is, it floats about, simultaneously, that teaching is 1) an incapacity for primal acts of the mind and 2) a refusal to participate in primal issues of the society. In effect, then, the profession now consists of unemployables who criminally and repeatedly turn down big, responsible jobs. But one can’t properly speak of a “retreat” into a socially necessary action—teaching. Even if, conceivably, those who have entered the profession have done so to avoid more demanding work, they have nonetheless “retreated” into the real and necessary—as though backing out of butler one ended up cook. It is a profession whose social utility is second only to that of medicine; and unlike many other forms of work in our society, it has an inalienable right to exist.

Periods of extreme social and political difficulty, specifically periods of war, come down hard on the young. In their present danger they naturally cling to the counter and living force of their universities; and the universities in turn, following the family as the closest of all social institutions to the young, have on the whole consistently taken their part.

JUST HOW QUICKLY the university should respond to political events is partly the subject of a recent book, The Morality of Scholarship, edited by Max Black. The longest of the three essays is by Northrop Frye, who happens also to be one of Mr. Kampf’s random targets. Mr. Kampf says that Mr. Frye’s “neat categories” remove the teeth of criticism and deprive it of social context. This stricture could hardly be less apposite, since from Mr. Frye’s earliest book, on William Blake, to his most recent, an excellent one on The Modern Century, the social context of his writing has been clear; and it has been confirmed by his direct work in his country’s educational policy, and by his participation in political questions, including the question of the present war. Mr. Frye considers many of the same problems as do the reprehenders of the academy. While they are interested primarily in convulsive social acts, he is alive not only to these but also to the subtle modulations of involvement which go on every day in the classroom and study. So even when his views coincide with theirs, as sometimes happens, he stipulates the complexities which make easy formulations unrealistic.

Mr. Frye’s essay is addressed precisely to the question of the relation which scholarly detachment has to the rest of life. He finds detachment to be not only an intellectual but a moral virtue; if, however, it becomes an exclusive moral goal, it quickly degenerates into indifference and is subject to Mr. Kampf’s objections. What saves it is what the existentialists call concern, defined here as the sense of the importance of preserving the integrity of the total human community—of preferring, for everyone, life, happiness, and freedom, to their opposites. Because no society fulfills these aspirations, a concerned man, however loyal to his own society, cannot support it unquestioningly.

The scholar’s way of demonstrating his concern may be overt political action. Within his discipline, however, he expresses it in an area intermediate between scholarship and general information, where he functions as a teacher, as a popularizer of his own subject, and sometimes also as an encyclopedist—one who tries to articulate and make more coherent the structure of concern in his society. (At this point Mr. Roszak might agree, though he scarcely acknowledges the existence of an area of specialization which is unavailable for popularizing.) Concern has, like detachment, the possibility of perversion, of being turned into anxiety, where the preservation of accustomed features of one’s society unites with fear of something supposedly symbolic of the society’s weakening. This closing in upon itself is sometimes reflected in a notion that the purpose of scholarship is to unify its different fields, to sketch—like the young Dostoevsky—a fortress without a door. Yet, as Mr. Frye implies, some sense that everything is not related, is not applicable, ought to be latent in scholarship.

Mr. Frye finds the dialectic of concern expressing itself in literature through the romantic and ironic visions which connect with comedy and tragedy. The first envisages life, freedom, and happiness in some festive group; the second—dominant in our day—contemplates the absence of these qualities in “detachment from detachment,” a recognition of alienation and absurdity, as in “dystopias” like 1984 where mutual hatred and contempt have long since prevented communication. In their different ways these two opposing forms subtly impel us to social ties, and make us recognize that we are as Blake says clods rather than pebbles, that “we belong to something before we are anything.” Of course, Mr. Frye’s attempt to articulate the structure of concern in scholarship may seem too noble (in its higher reaches) to encompass the activities of particular departments or individuals. Much of the scholar’s life is lived, like anyone else’s, in unawareness of large justifications. Still the act of teaching, even if imperfectly performed, remains the central gesture, and is necessarily communal. In literary study, even of a specialized kind, the endeavor to mark out for others the particular space occupied by literary works in the mind’s tropics and polar regions requires the self-abnegation implicit in all subtle understanding. It is curious that of all these scholar-teachers only Mr. Frye establishes the rationale of the classroom.

THE SAME VOLUME includes two essays by Stuart Hampshire and Conor Cruise O’Brien. Mr. Hampshire is more explicitly skeptical than Mr. Frye. He inquires into the meaning, for an individual scholar, of detachment, and concludes that it often proceeds unconsciously from personal motives which can only be perceived much later. Absolute detachment appears to be illusory. On the other hand, to commit one’s efforts to “directly useful and socially relevant results” would be to ignore the unconscious sources and needs of imaginative energy. The degree of intellectual excitement which a problem evokes, and the degree of exactness and care which men are ready to bring to its exploration, are safer guides than the claims of total detachment or immediate social utility.

Mr. Hampshire would rely on the gifted individual, Mr. O’Brien is less sanguine. Without denying detachment its virtue, he finds it liable to abuse, not so much through the unconscious personal motives mentioned by Mr. Hampshire, as through unconscious or conscious subservience to the dominant ideology. In communist societies this abasement is called revolutionary subordination. (Northrop Frye calls it “anxiety.”) The danger which Mr. O’Brien signals is counter-revolutionary subordination. He doesn’t find literary scholars the offenders here (though his view of Yeats indicates that they may not escape scotfree the next time), but like Noam Chomsky, whose famous essay on “The Responsibility of Intellectuals” is reprinted in The Dissenting Academy, he attacks scholarship in the “sensitive fields,” meaning, of course, politically sensitive—the social sciences. He describes here in general terms what elsewhere he has described more specifically, how studies of foreign areas have sometimes perverted objective research into endorsements of Western attitudes, and how some scholars, disposed or at least willing to so conform, have been enticed to do so by governmental and quasi-governmental support.

This problem, though recent, is already acute. In 1960, as Clark Kerr pointed out in The Uses of the University, 75 percent of the sums expended for university research came from the federal government. Probably the figure has gone up since. Most of this money is allocated to the natural sciences, because in its anxiety for “results” the government largely dismisses literary study as an Indian reservation where quaint folkcrafts like poetry and fiction are still cherished. Apart from this favoritism, the policy of support is potentially an enlightened one, as Mr. O’Brien does not deny. At the same time, one needn’t be Hobbes or O’Brien to recognize that scholars, like all men, are potentially corruptible. Mr. O’Brien’s essay points to the area of aneurism without offering a transplant. But the attempt must be made to unyoke the government, though not its money, from the scholars, by interposing buffer organizations, presumably groups of universities, between them. The danger of responding to a notion of social utility in a bellicose or merely subservient way would thereby be reduced if not eliminated.

On the other hand, Mr. Roszak’s wishes, in practice, could mean a counter-counter-revolutionary subordination, a subjection of humanistic writing to a new purity of political concern. There is a warning to be sounded here as well. That warning, not preening, is the keynote of all these essays is evidence that the university is struggling, with partial success, to keep free of the corruption of the intellect which war brings with it.

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