Front Matter, Academic Agonies and How to Avoid Them, Joseph Agassi





And do not tell them, “make your opinions like mine”—for, this is their prerogative and not yours. — Rabbi Ishmael ben Rabbi Yossi; Talmud, Abbot, 4:10

What a man dislikes in his superiors, let him not display in the treatment of his inferiors; what he dislikes in inferiors, let him not display in the service of his superiors; what he hates in those who are before him, let him not therewith precede those who are behind him; what he hates in those who are behind him, let him not bestow on the left; what he hates to receive on the left, let him not bestow on the right: this is what is called “The principle with which, as with a measuring square, to regulate one’s conduct.” — Confucius, The Great Learning,  James Legge translation

An ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure. — Benjamin Franklin, Pennsylvania Gazette, Feb. 4, 1735

I have carefully endeavored not to deride, or deplore, or detest but to understand. — Spinoza, Tractatus Politicus, 1 §4


Instead Of A Dedication

A spirit hovers over these pages, that of Imre Lakatos. Outstanding mathematical philosopher, he had no need for plagiarism, intrigues, and confusion; alas, he had a weird sense of fun. Were he not such a windmill, I might not be such a Quixote; or am I a Sancho; perhaps his lost ass. The advice offered here should help prevent damage of the kind he spread.

My Part in the Story

My reports on life in Academe may be false: for example, I report that professors often waste too much time reading works of students when grading them, yet for all I know, few professors read anything. Still, my observations are repeatable, testable anthropological field-reports—on a tribe scarcely studied. Do kindly test them. Thank you. My proposals I intend to reflect the philosophy of my teacher Karl Popper. Do test them too. Thank you again.

The villains in my piece are legendary Harvard President James Bryant Conant and his public-relations envoy, trendy philosopher and historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn. They served the Pentagon. The miserable failure of its efforts to force J. Robert Oppenheimer to return to its nuclear armament programs led it to pour money into coffers of universities to goad their administrators to pressure their professors to apply for research grants as means for harnessing physicists to their dirty-bombs wagon. This needed the blessing of leading academics. Conant and Kuhn volunteered.[1] This forced Academe to reluctant corruption worldwide. It is time to begin public discussion of ways to restore Academe’s lost honor. The present handbook should help inaugurate that discussion.


This utterly scatter-brained study is a take-off on Laurence Sterne‘s 1759 classic, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman that was a spoof on the ambiance of the time. It is, however, no spoof and its narrative appears only as insinuation. I have two purposes in my decision to send the following ruminations to the press. The first is my overall view that there is enough suffering in God’s world, with no need to add to its stock.[2] Nowhere is the needless sacrifice so pervasive and so conspicuous as in the system of education. This embitters the sweet life of learning that Academe still offers. Academic jobs are still more in demand than in supply, rendering competition for it hard. The (unavoidable) absence of clear criteria for intellectual excellence makes it hard to keep the competition clean and prevent needless suffering. This volume is an effort to reduce the needless suffering that the rightly coveted Academic life may cause.

I have also tried to add rudiments of a story line to emulate my model, the life of Tristram Shandy. I gave it up. There are many novels and movies on life in Academe; some of them are excellent works of art, and others include perceptive comments. I have no intention, much less the ability, to add to them significantly. There is story enough in the true anecdotes that I report here and there throughout this work.

See the table of contents for details.

[1] I owe the job offer to my publication, Towards an Historiography of Science, History and Theory, Beiheft 2, 1963; facsimile reprint, Middletown: Wesleyan University Press, 1967; reprinted with corrections in my Science and Its History, Boston Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. 253, 2008. To check the appointment, the faculty of medicine interviewed me. They did not believe my confession of ignorance, since I spoke there of the episode in the history of medical research that I was familiar with—having been involved in it as a patient—and since by sheer luck I guessed correctly what book a faculty member very vaguely referred to.

[2] Sharon A. Levine, “Boston University School of Medicine”, Academic Medicine2010 85: 265-8.

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