Part I: Diagnosis, Academic Agonies and How to Avoid Them, Joseph Agassi





1. Anything Wrong? Not Really

Anything wrong in Academe?—Not much really; on this let me cite Steven Brint (Times Higher Education, January 3, 2019).

The success of US higher education goes far beyond the two dozen American universities that dominate the world tables. The vast majority of the top 200 research universities are stronger than ever, and the system as a whole has shown an amazing resilience through recession and expansion alike. In my new book, Two Cheers for Higher Education: Why American Universities Are Stronger than Ever—And How to Meet the Challenges They Face, I have traced the contours of American higher education from 1980 to the present—and, despite the validity of some of the gloom and doom stories we see every day, a very different picture emerges. I seek to paint this picture not because I want to sweep the problems of higher education under the rug but instead to set these daily challenges in a broader—and frankly more positive—context.

My readiness to endorse this view should not mask my dissent from the approach that it displays. Its author considers higher education as a part of the national society and economy, and this is fine, especially since this refers to the “underrepresented, first-generation, and low-income students” (even though too briefly). “The boom in undergraduate education created opportunities for mobility” that is extremely significant as a tool for overcoming discriminations of all sorts. Yet there is no mention here of the love of learning that boring courses tend to destroy and such matters that signify individually rather than socially, and there is likewise no mention here of the injustices typical of the academic system. This is where I hope to help you personally. I hope to help you dodge injustices.

Anything wrong in Academe?—Not much really; but enough to crush some of its weaker members, or at least to make their lives a misery and their toils futile. Hence, it deserves a diagnosis. Moreover, the diagnosis may be quite interesting. More to your concern, the more attractive an academic job is, the harder it is to acquire it; the more unclear the entrance conditions are, the more arbitrary the induction to Academe becomes. Those who try hardest and follow the rules conscientiously, then, those are the most vulnerable to the injustices of the system. Avoid this. At any cost. Keep your nose clean, they say, meaning, do your homework and do not complain. I say, Ignore this advice / demand of theirs. Take care of your own interests, mainly of your self-esteem and of your curiosity.


Anything wrong in Academe?—There is no reason to assume that the academic community is worse off than any other sector of western society, or of American society, or of yours, whatever it happens to be. On the contrary, one can safely assume that the academic community fares much better than the community to which it belongs in both economic status and in social status, as well as in the escape from much of the worst ills of racial and gender prejudice and religious bigotry, not to mention illegal conduct. Happiness, health, and robust and relatively free modes of living, are to be found more on campuses than elsewhere, whether in town or in country, whether in high society or in show-biz, in big or small business, in industry or in crafts, or in state or church. The situation in Academe is, overall, unusually satisfactory in many respects. This is so if we consider the faculty alone, or if we consider any combination of faculty, administration, and student-body, or even a wider group of Academe-and-associates, and when it comes to a university town, the whole of its population. This does not mean that all is well in Academe. Centering on the ills of Academe (as I intend to do) might lead to (my) being blamed for a lack of any sense of proportion, to be sure, but such a blame can be equally leveled against the physicians who concentrate on illness and on its possible sources, such as low hygienic standards in some metropolis; one can all too easily blame physicians for their not recording health as opposed to the pocket of illness that still remain, for their not paying sufficient tribute to recent progress and for not noticing that some other places are much more afflicted by the same maladies that physicians observe here and by other maladies that have been successfully eradicated here.

That we do not often hear these charges is the result of our viewing physicians as technicians with a vital job at hand; it is likewise our readiness to consign the task of judging the state of public health to politicians rather than to medically trained public-health officials. Patients asking for medical help will not criticize physicians for not observing healthy people but mainly sick ones; when one thinks of physicians, one thinks in terms of patients’ specific ailments rather than view them as, say, public-health inspectors (which very few of them are). Yet, to think matters out carefully, among the possible allegations mentioned above, there is one with a kernel of truth: the state of health of the population in almost all countries of the world is poorer than that in the advanced countries, and so local physicians would, perhaps, better serve humanity if they went to work in the poorer parts of the world. This, after all, was largely the motive behind the many missionary health-professionals who went, and who still go, to less developed countries, and their admirable secular heirs, the Doctors without Borders and their likes. Can we, then, blame the doctors who stay home? I do not think so. First, we cannot properly assess the relative merits of staying or going abroad: when we can come any closer to reaching a reasonable assessment of that kind, then we do indeed open propaganda campaigns for the transportation of doctors (say from town to country, or from a Christian to a heathen community) or in order to make them stay where they are (rather than go in search of a better living to the rich countries or to the Big City, or to West Side). For my own part, I consider the modes of reasoning of most of these propaganda campaigns much too shaky. Even were that reasoning feasible, let me stress, nothing beyond propaganda may be justified except in short periods of emergency (war, natural disaster). Once we can force people to do the best they can where they can do it best and we may thus seriously endanger and destroy things more significant than the lives of their patients, such as the interests of whole societies due to their possible loss of the democratic way of life. Even if one values life more than democracy, one should think carefully before one allows oneself to try and hassle doctors around, since by doing that one may destroy democracy, and with it the legal sanctity of individual life, leading more to the destruction of lives than to their preservation.

The same considerations of preventive medicine go to preventing crime: effort in that direction may boomerang; incentives for leaving the life of crime is by far better than efforts to eradicate it.

So, however healthy a society (or a sub-society) is, the choice of ills to study and the complaint about that choice are at best expressions of regret that we do not invest the most efficient mode of employing talents or of deploying scarce resources. One is as much at liberty to desist from trying to cure any ills in preference for living in peace within one’s means while doing little or no good and while attempting to harm no one. It is not anyone’s job to praise the health of the society in which one dwells, whether or not one volunteers to study its wounds or to try to cure them.


My own choice of the study of the ills of Academe is personal: I have myself suffered from them and I am still keen-eyed in spotting on faces of students the pains similar to those that I had suffered. Some students have come to the university in order to escape the boredom of the humdrum daily life in their home-community and of the high school classroom that they had attended, in order to integrate in the community of inquiring spirits and participate in all the excitement of college-life as seen on the television and the silver screen and as echoed in coffee bars and in the homes of elder neighbors—only to find themselves again saddled on the same sort of boring curriculum with the added agonies incurred by bewildering courses and by life in bewildering student-societies, especially the diverse primitive fraternities and sororities and student societies and clubs of all sorts, not to mention graduation ceremonies and all that. I have chosen to study the ills of Academe also because many of my friends there suffer harassment by publication-pressure and writing-blocks; enormous classes that they—as almost anybody—are hardly able to manage with any measure of success frighten them out of their wits. Some of them cannot cope with tasks provided by college bureaucrats; they are unable to cope with the mounting correspondence with the administration of the university and with the multitude of chores, departmental and committee; they are at a loss to find their own place and usefulness in the ever-growing complex of Academe. They are possibly beyond help, but their successors are not necessarily beyond help—provided they learn of the troubles that they are going to face before this happens to them and before they find themselves in the net of neuroses and lack of leisure-time so essential for learning how to adjust to the situation and cope with it. (I remember with incredulity the utopian view of Academe that my peers, science students, entertained like naïve children.) In addition, I have chosen to study the ills of Academe and to try to offer what little I can towards improvement, because I am myself affected by these ills; though, I hope, largely indirectly. Small ills of society (as they may appear tomorrow and as in part are already manifest in Academe today) may undergo amplification tomorrow and similarly the small cures of these ills may undergo amplification too. Academe has an ever-increasing effect on society: for better and for worse, in the modern world Academe stands for the intellectual side of public life: it encompasses almost the whole of intellectual life, with its new up-to-date departments of media-technology and of mass-communication and of the diverse fine arts. With its multifarious research projects and with its providing a second home for any free-lance thinker, artist, writer, and journalist willing to have their names on the lists of faculty members and offer a few spare lectures at a decent honorarium. Today, Academe, at least in the United States and by projection soon perhaps in the whole of the advanced part of the world, encompasses almost all intellectual life, at least by attempting to allure any part of the intellectual world deemed to be of any value in the eyes of even small sectors of the population, and by subsequently providing training for almost any sort of profession of any significance.

A minor example: the conspiracy theory. The world is full of conspiracies of all sorts, most of them lame. The conspiracy theory is the idea that a large-scale clandestine accord between members of a small minority (the Jews; the capitalists; the clergy; aliens; you name it) is responsible for the ills of modern society. This theory is attractive as it ascribes intention to some seemingly unintended events, as is characteristic of magical thinking, while ascribing the intentions to some anonymous humans, as is characteristic of the social sciences (although without being as testable as the empirical sciences are). Advocacy of the conspiracy theory is less common in Academe than elsewhere. Another example: Academe is generally more liberal than the population at large.

Finally, I offer this my study of the wrongs of Academe plus my suggestions about the possible ways to ameliorate them as a partial payment of a debt of gratitude. I am an academic and I owe to Academe my successful life, such as it is. If you like my diagnoses but not my proposals for help, I request that you replace them by better ones.


Your troubles, young prospective academic, belong to an unadjusted intellectual of the future; they are largely rooted in our inadequate methods of rearing intellectuals of all sorts. Academe has largely reformed and expanded, especially in the West, to cover all sorts of intellectual activities; it has forgotten, in the midst of all the furor and excitement of such expansion, to improve or even preserve the methods of rearing new generations of intellectuals, particularly future academics. Herein lie your specific troubles. The rest of your troubles many other young people in modern society share, and I shall ignore them here. How to court members of the opposite sex and how to live with your dormitory inmates, for example, these are universal problems. All that I say about these problems in the present context is that the better integrated and successful you are in your own specific community and in accord with the specific norms of that community, the better are your chances of coping with the universal problems of living with neighbors, and of achieving some decent standard of social and economic existence. At the very least, if you are successful in the first, special task of improving the system but not in the second, universal task of making a decent living, you will have some measure of compensation in having some sort of achievement, especially in the intellectual world (whether in the arts or the sciences, or in education or elsewhere; it does not matter where): as painter Frida Kahlo and philosopher Karl Popper have noted, in the intellectual world achievement is ever so gratifying, even in the depth of misery. (You must have read this in some cheap novels and biographies. At times literature does hit upon the truth, be it cheap or not, popular or not.) Your trouble is, I suppose, that you do not know what are the general standards of your community, and the specific ones that you do know, such as those accepted in your classroom, you justly abhor. Well, then, at last we have put our finger on something when we have expressed your bewilderment!

At least, put that way, the description sounds more scientific. What exactly is this being scientific? I have compared myself to a physician already, and claimed in effect the same privileges as physicians, even comparing my relations to you with doctor-patient relations. This is mischievous and quite unbecoming. On what basis? By what standards? Suppose I do claim the status of a scientific authority for my advice—although I do not, as I was at pain to point out in my Preface; how do you know what these standards are and how can you judge whether I am a proper physician or a quack?[1] Even if I had good credentials and my standards were those that Academe endorses, as the best members of the academic community might, how can you judge that this is the case? The trouble is, you remember, that you do not know what they are! Hence, we are back where we started!

Not quite. For, I am going to tell you what the standards of the academic community are, and what seems to me good in them and what not, what of the rules you may violate with impunity and what you may try to adhere to for your own good, for the good of the community, or for both. Moreover, unlike the physician’s recipe, mine will be in plain language, not in Latin or jargon; unlike that of the fashionable philosopher, it will not be too abstract to apply: you will be able to understand it, examine it closely, and put it to experimental test with relative ease. You will be obvious. This is my promise to you. In return, I request that you write some critical comments on my advice and try to improve upon it. We all need progress.

Let me start now with the first prevailing rule—first as far as you are concerned—and the ways to prevent its application to you. You will improve your lot after you learn to spot its application and after you learn to immunize yourself against it, as it is the root of most of your present troubles. It is, Lead students by the nose until they become utterly docile! Very few professors will admit that they try to lead their students by the nose, but


Lead students by the nose! You will not hear professors mutter under their breath this sentence while crossing the quad on their way to the classroom. You will not hear them say so to each other nodding in agreement with each other like gangs of ancient politicians or of slick war-horses. You will not hear the departmental chair say so triumphantly in a speech to the new instructors delivered on registration-day. You will not hear it at all, simply because professors seldom speak about methods of teaching, and they seldom if ever think of them. New instructors can search with lanterns and not find any single person, qualified or unqualified, to advise them on such a base topic as methods of teaching. Rare Professors who are officially experts in teaching-methods do discuss them, of course, if only because they must have published enough on their expertise to merit promotion or tenure. Consequently, the Web is full of papers on teaching methods. If you have an hour to spare, you can look them up and satisfy yourself that this literature is hardly usable; and that when it is, its advice is immensely misanthropic. Obviously, there are exceptions for that. Conspicuous among them are John Locke, Janusz Korczak and Albert Einstein. No one I know recommend them as advice to young academic teachers on their way to the classroom. In response to complaints about the absence of useful material for academic teaching, some professors stress that Academe is primarily the home of the scholar, and secondly, but only secondly, the home of the student.

I do not know what comes first, teaching or research. Since in my opinion academics should have no special obligation, I have no objection to either option: I think what is first and what is second matters little and often has no meaning—at least no manifest meaning—when too differently important tasks are involved. (We do not always have a standard of comparison of significance, let alone under what conditions.) Academe can and does profitably house the scholar who cannot, will not, or simply does not teach; and this holds equally well for the brilliant teacher whose scholarship shines but who has not published—for any reason. These teachers may fail to achieve tenure and they often have lower posts that they are prone to lose despite their able performances. The reason is that we identify research with publication. This leads to multiple authorships of papers. Such a paper is often the products of a professional writer; his names appears as the last on the list of authors.

An outrageous fact about Academe is its tuition fees that some prospective students are unable to pay. This is easy to overcome by a law that makes every student loan guaranteed by the state treasury. Anyone who says this is too great a burden on the state treasury is ignorant of the techniques of forging budgets. Once all registered students are able to pay their fees, it will be in the interest of all universities to remove the modern demand for qualifications for becoming a student: opening the gates of the university to all will make it a much better place, with much less red tape.

I will not elaborate on all this. It is too obvious. Back to teaching.

Academe offers teaching as training for future academics. This is especially true these days: since World War II, Academe will never invite one with no doctorate for any appointment to any academic post, no matter how brilliant an intellectual one is. Still, most graduates do not end up with academic posts. Teaching them is a service that Academe renders to the community, for which it receives ample remuneration. Whatever task one performs, one may just as well attempt to perform it adequately. It would be easier for the professors to teach if they did discuss more often, more frankly and much more critically, their teaching problems and views (with each other or in specific sessions of a senate sub-committee). Not only you, hopefully a future academic, but also faculty-members, even experienced ones, hardly know what are the rules of university teaching, because the rule that permeates the university is that such rules, whether they exist or not, should seldom be put on any academic agenda for discussion (not even in schools of education), except in extreme situations and then as briefly as possible. Some events invite discussion of teaching. To that end some dignitary, professor or not, will contribute hot air—for half-an-hour or so. The trouble is too serious to discuss, since hardly anyone notices even this pervasive rule. If you must have an example, let me add reluctantly, you can skip to the last pages of this work, where you will find a discussion of an example in detail. Let me add reference to a welcome new addition, conferences devoted to academic teaching. I have little to say about conferences; even the poorest ones are beneficial, since academics who meet peers in corridors in conferences can only benefit from added communication opportunities.[2]

Back to my present topic: leading students by the nose. Many will not even know they think that they should lead their students by their noses. They will not recognize this wording of their views except, perhaps, as a crude caricature—perhaps rightly so. It can be reworded, perhaps, in ways more agreeable to them, but not to you, my intended reader, the bewildered future academic. Mathematics professors, for instance, do say in many universities and on varieties of occasions and in different kinds of places, from classrooms to international conferences, that students should develop their mathematical intuitions rather than ask too many questions. Philosophy professors say derisively that it is not their task to provide a preview of the whole course at its beginning. Professors in schools of medicine curtly snap at any rebellious or inquisitive students, telling them that on their first contact with patients they will readily realize the immense value of the massive information now kindly rammed down their throats. Psychology professors, like other insecure souls, say in exasperation that they have too little time to spend on folklore that their naïve students may have swallowed mistaking folklore for science, much less time to spend on the philosophical questions that bug them mainly because they are untrained, ignorant, and grossly misinformed.

Let me report to you the very opening of my very first mathematics course. It was a course in the infinitesimal calculus. The professor began with some administrative matters and we all understood him. He then told jokes about mathematics professors. We all laughed, but we did not know what he was doing. He was trying to put us at ease, which is very commendable, of course, even though it was not too successful. He then cleared his throat, and this we all understood: the lecture begins. He said, “Peano’s Axioms. Axiom Number 1. One is a number.” I lost him. What he said was very systematic and up-to-date (Peano published his axioms in 1900), beginning with the foundation of arithmetic, then using a sophisticated method due to Bolzano and Weierstrass of founding the differential calculus, and then taking it from there. It was not historical, since the calculus evolved unsystematically and with no foundations. I had no idea about it all. It bewildered me beyond description. What saved me was my Talmudic education: I looked up as many books as I could (this was well before the internet was available) in an effort to plough my way through the minefield. Fortunately for me, on my second year one of my professors was Abraham Halevi Fraenkel of the famed Zermelo-Fraenkel abstract set theory axiom system. Studies with him helped, not to mention his availability to students. Somehow, I pulled through. I was a poor student to the last and graduated by the skin of my teeth.

No matter where you study, it is likely that the principle is the same: students have no idea about the content of the courses they take; they are ignorant; this is precisely why the course is on the syllabus; this is why they should study first and ask questions later; much later, said philosopher Michael Polanyi. Philosophy fares worst. Teachers are prone to follow leading philosophers Martin Heidegger or Ludwig Wittgenstein with no explanation of what it is all about, hoping to see students lose interest in questions that had excited them during their adolescence. This is truly heartbreaking.

Do not let all this depress you. Admittedly, some of the questions that students ask are stupid. Many professors take this as proof of their own disdain: if the students are good students, many professors take for granted, then they will soon discover this and will desist from polluting the atmosphere of the classroom with futile questions. The better questions are answered in the course anyhow, in their proper place in the course; raising them in a disorderly fashion only causes loss of time and rupture in the organized internal development of courses painstakingly prepared by conscientious professors; let students forget their silly questions and keep to themselves all their good questions, and they may sooner or later meet the answers to the good ones anyhow. Other good questions that they may have, they can retain and postpone the study of—until they embark on post-doctoral research if they retain interest in them rather than choose the better ones that the experienced professors may suggest. So, there! No questions, please! At least not on my shift; perhaps in section meetings that comprise the proper places for discussions of the lectures and that teaching assistants should handle.

To see how prevalent this nasty-and-stupid hostility to active learning is, we may throw a glance at the exception. It is Proofs and Refutations (1970) by Imre Lakatos. That book illustrates the method that he used in teaching mathematics: he demanded students’ interventions and used them to further his discussion. He made every student in his class a true mathematician—admittedly a poor one, but as one able to learn mathematics with pleasure and with understanding. It is most unfair to expect that every math teacher will be as brilliant as Lakatos. He met with nasty resistance. He left his focus on math and published on physics and he published popular ideas in order to win the fame that his neglected studies of mathematics richly deserved. Pity.

I have mentioned Lakatos in order to elaborate on my claim that there is no substance to the suggestion that professors have no option but to lead students by the nose. The better academics will have nothing to do with this folly. Find better academics and try to be their student.


Let me repeat. Not all the defects of Academe detract from its being the best place to spend your time in. Nevertheless, this is no reason to tolerate its defects. Its major defect, I say, is its education method: lead the students by their noses! Not even that; it is the dogmatic conviction that this must be so. Do not let the prevalence of the arguments for it fool you. You can endorse any argument in defense of dogmatism; as long as you are ready to listen to criticism of it, you are not dogmatic about it. In any case, remember: you are the customer, and the customer is always right. The customers are normal citizens, common or garden bewildered citizens; that is good enough; just avoid the stiffness of dogmatism: it is superfluous. The dogmatists in Academe want you to learn; so learn. You want elucidation of what you learn, and you want it now; they ignore your wish; they want you to commit to memory a semester of lectures that may (and then they may not) fall into place miraculously at the end of the semester, or at the end of years of submissive training. Disregard this.

Can you get what you want? Right now? After all, the customer is always right. Now, customers may wish to purchase the moon; since the moon is not for sale, they may purchase nothing or settle for the second best. You can get only some of what you want; not the moon; maybe comprehension; an overview of the course you take and a statement of its importance. This signifies for your finding your place in the scheme of things. You will find in almost any college or university, however small and/or second-rate, some outstanding instructors who do try to help bewildered students. Go talk with them. Just knock on their doors and ask for help. If they are any good, they will respond and in a friendly manner and they will try to see what ails you. And then you will be alone no longer.

This chapter is the opening of the part of this book devoted to diagnosis. I will leave you to the concerned faculty to discuss your ailment. I will come for you again in later parts of this book to discuss what comes next. Let me nevertheless offer here already one small recipe, well ahead of its place (Part III, Prescriptions). Try to shop for courses conducted by the better instructors, or read the better available books on what interests you. It often amazes me how indifferent students can be to variations in instruction: one big university may offer ten or twenty instructors teaching simultaneously so many sections of the same introductory course,[3] yet students barely investigate before registration which of these sections is more to their taste. Campus gossip thrives on courses that require little or no efforts (“mickey-mouse” courses; often enough the instructors who deliver them are totally uninterested or insecure; they may feel the need to court students and have nothing to offer but unearned good grades), or about pairs of courses that largely overlap so that studies for one enable a student to receive credits in both (they are given by instructors who usually can offer only one course but are forced to teach two or more different ones). Even this kind of gossip is less frequent than one might expect, and gossip is seldom reliable, especially gossip that faculty generates to discourage students from flocking to courses of outstanding lecturers. (Good teachers invite pressure on them to conform, but Academe forgives good teaching much more easily than high schools do, for the simple reason that it is much easier to fire a high-school teacher than a tenured academic.) As to other options, there is almost no information among students, partly at least because the departmental chair tends to discourage broadcast of evidence that may lead to undesirable distribution of students in sections and to jealousy among faculty members. This is for the chair to manage, not for you; what you can do is to shop for courses as intelligently as you can (and this includes not trusting too much quasi-official gossip, since it is departmentally controlled). You can always ask and shop around. The rule often allows for window-shopping for the first week or two of the semester. The use of this option is available to all, for free, and with hardly any repercussion.

I have placed this piece of advice here, ahead of its proper place, to show how obvious it is that there is no need to lead students by the nose. This is evident already from the conduct of the better instructors, of those instructors who enlighten their students about the aims and standards of Academe, at least with respect to the subject matter of the courses that they teach while they teach them. Courses satisfactory for bewildered students are admittedly rare; admission to them may be entangled by red tape of all sorts—­not because they are satisfactory but due to the need to curb any exercise of choice in the interest of law and order. (More about this later.) When bewildered students find such courses, their lives brighten up and they have something to look forward to—with anticipated pleasure. It is the fun of learning that marks the intellectual. This fun Benedict Spinoza referred to in his unforgettable expression “the intellectual love of God”; there is no need to be religious in order to find this expression impressive any more than in order to enjoy religious art.

How, you may say, how can I get into a course that may interest me? How do I know which course will, to begin with, even if I listen to campus gossip? And how do I manage the red tape? These questions are not very serious. Those who know how wonderful it is to be in a course that they like, gladly gatecrash even on the off chance that a course may be interesting. There is no loss in trying, and those need no encouragement who know how great is the profit from any interesting course. So do it.


You need not believe me that learning is great fun. Learning was always such a chore for you, and if you ever chanced to enjoy a reading book—and this becomes more and more of a rarity among undergrads and even among graduate students—it is likely that this book hardly relates to your required scholarly activity. I cannot blame you. By the time you will have experimented in your academic activities in line with some of my suggestions, you will be less incredulous, I hope. What, you will persist (and I like your persistence), what about all the unhappy professors whom I have mentioned? We will reach them soon, too, and we will then discuss both the agonies that they incur and the ways you may try to avoid them. Let me tell you already now that the intellectuals among them—yes, you have understood me correctly: it is barely reasonable to expect all virtuous professors to be intellectuals—the intellectuals among them find in their studies ample compensation, if and when they have the leisure to study. Hence, they are not so badly off after all. Still, I hope that you will be better off than they are. (Lest you misunderstand me, let me say explicitly that the intellectual academic is not much dissimilar to the non-intellectual academic in this respect: both may be bewildered and/or unadjusted, and both may be well-adjusted; both may be performing their academic duties to the best of their abilities and in the manners they envisage, with or without neuroses, with or without cowardice. Both may enjoy all sorts of extra-curricular activities as well as much of their academic work. What then makes one an intellectual and the other not? The answer lies entirely elsewhere—in the one’s capacity and the other’s incapacity to delight in a new idea or a good book or even a conversation with a bright student; the student may be ignorant—we all are—but she has to enjoy sharing delight with an intellectual—a professor or not. All this may matter little to you. For my part, I do prefer to speak of the intellectual, being one myself and hoping that you too are, or will be soon enough—and hopefully a well-adjusted one to boot.)

This, then, should be the supreme rule of Academe: the highest good is the intellectual love of God, the love of learning, the pleasure in learning, alone and more so in company. All else is secondary. For instance, if your hobbies have little to do with learning, then possibly you should consider career retraining. For another instance, once you know what questions (if any) a course is designed to throw light on, and once you learn to find the significance and appeal of such questions, you will feel properly challenged and interested; you will not be bewildered about the course material and of its presence in the curriculum and the course-work will look to you not a chore but the labor of true love. For still another instance, good instructors are either ones who manage to benefit from teaching, or ones who can participate in the task of students’ intellectual progress. The agonies and ills of Academe come mostly from deviations from this supreme rule. Which rule I shall soon discuss.

Adam Smith envisaged the capitalistic Utopia where individuals serve the economic interest of the community best by attending to their own economic interests and by profiting as much as they know how. This ideal has not been fully achieved and it can never be fully achieved—not along the lines (or according to the model, as economists would say) that Smith himself envisaged and defended. Yet, throughout the history of economics, and in spite of the Keynesian revolution, Smith’s idea has remained an ideal—unattainable, perhaps, but still a useful guide—of liberal economics and even of liberal social philosophy in general. It is hard to believe that it is at all possible to eliminate all conflicts between individual and society even in one given sector, be it the economic sector or any other sector.[4] Yet as an ideal, at least, but also as one best amenable to approximation, no sector is more agreeable to it than the commonwealth of learning is. The best way intellectuals can serve themselves is nearest to the best way they can serve the community of scholars and thereby the community at large: by trying to satiate their own curiosity such as it is.


This is so obvious that it would barely need statement, except that the ills and agonies of academic life come all too often from disregard for it. Hence, it needs restatement. Often. In any case, this is the leading light of the present handbook. If you do not like it, then perhaps you will save your time by putting this book aside.

2. A View From The Periphery: Academic Mystique

Before starting the discussion of the role of the periphery in the forging of academic life, let us take this for granted. Every occupation can have its mystique, even the most pathetic life of petty crime.[5] We are all possible victims of any kind of mystique. Here our concern is with intellectual mystique and with academic mystique. (Confusing them is part-and-parcel of academic mystique.) A most obvious manifestation of a mystique is the feeling that life would be meaningful again for me, were I able to be X, to do Y, to control Z. It is but an excuse for poverty, yet poverty needs no excuse. (The paradigm-case here is the story—it is apocryphal—of movie-star Marilyn Monroe having felt that were she able to read Dostoevsky her life would have meaning.)

Publication pressure is well known and much resented. It works as the administrations of universities remunerate faculty-members who have published more than their share—often with much disregard for the quality of the publications. I have once asked a dean of a large faculty in one of the ten topmost American universities (by universal consent), what his view of the matter was. In a moment of frankness, that dean said, much as sheer quantities are unimpressive, boards of directors have little else to go by, and so it is scarcely practical to oppose it or replace it with attention to quality by any sane criterion.

If you want to see Academe the way some people on its periphery do, you have to look at it through thick fog, preferably slightly glowing. Boards of directors find quantities impressive because they take it for granted that the quality of academic publications is assuredly very high—at least if publication lists are limited to peer-reviewed journals (known as the learned press). They scarcely ever ask themselves what is high quality and how it is attained; they scarcely ever ask themselves what is peer review and what are the rules for it; it never occurs to them to notice available criticism of the review process (which has interesting, growing (peer-reviewed) literature); but they hope and trust that academics know the right answers to questions of this kind and that they abide by them. Academics are supposed to achieve the highest score at every attempt. Sometimes members of boards of directors are not naïve, but then they know that lay people who are interested to any extent are; and so they adopt the naïve attitude anyhow. (The hypocrite always says, I am no bigot, but I cannot fight the whole world; all my friends and relations are bigots; all my neighbors are; all my peers are. So I cannot help but join them.)

Are academic publications of high quality? Let us replace the question to make it easier to answer: are publications in highly esteemed learned periodicals of high quality? Let us replace this question too, to make still easier to answer: assuming that we have a model of a publication that is admittedly high quality: will a publication that resembles it be of high quality? Consider such a marvelous classic as, say, Adam Smith’s The Wealth of Nations; will its current emulation count as high quality? Such books exist. It is most amusing that their authors manage to get them published, I do not know by what virtue. They often are very well written and of reasonably high quality, and they serve readers, some of whom are successful in business and feel uneasy about their ignorance of economics, including the ideas that first appeared in Smith’s classic. So yes, in my opinion, the wording of most publications of most academic disciplines (to exclude philosophy and some history of science) is reasonably adequate. Whatever function they perform, it makes for their successful sale on the open market. Often, the rewrite of an old classic is successful merely as it is more accessible than the original. The paradigm cases are Gottlob Frege’s old logic texts of and Kurt Gödel’s paper ho his proof. Though it is relatively young (1931), it is scarcely readable; many later presentations of it make it accessible. This does not hold for Smith, though, since he was a great writer. Even so, rewriting his ideas in the light of the ideas of his successors is quite a challenge and can be great fun to read.

The pressure to publish is great; the pressure to produce wonder drugs and amazing new gadgets is greater. Ever since the days of Pasteur, who won the admiration and sympathy of his colleagues for the manner he let farmers and patients impose on him, the problem keeps increasing. However tentative and hesitant the attitude of research workers is, people are bound to disregard or dismiss their hesitance as mere humility. The unavoidable public-relations offices of the research institutes and medical centers tend to issue press releases that exaggerate the significance of results of research. They develop thick skins and all sorts of rationalizations by which to fend off exasperated and infuriated complaints from the research workers concerning the inaccuracies of their press releases. The pressure on research workers to produce sensationally practical results is a terrible nuisance, and so is the resultant pressure on them to avoid all error and all blunder and all blind alleys. This you can see, for instance, in the incredibly apologetic commentaries on radio and television, as well as in the popular press, about the progress of the American space program, especially in reference to blunders. Needless to say, and those who do not trust a priori reasoning can procure evidence, investigators are much less apologetic and secretive about blunders than public-relation officers—to the effect, that many errors committed by those involved in the space-project (or any other project) are concealed from the public whenever possible. The purpose of these efforts at concealment is to avoid unpleasantness, or unnecessary misunderstanding, or scandals, or attempts to prevent the steady flow of public financial support for research. These may be good short-term reasons, not long-term ones (Popper). Their use keeps the public ignorant, and, in ignorance, the public puts pressure on investigators to produce miracles. When its patience is long, it will wait and wait and allow the public-relations officers and journalists to prove that the miracles are in hand or at least round the corner; when the public’s patience becomes short, however, it has enough evidence of subversion in the fact that scientists regularly err and occasionally blunder.


Blaming the public or the journalists or their likes will not improve matters. Blaming never does. The situation wants no protest, much less moral indignation: it wants detached, careful examination. Protest against credulity should help; this is not likely. Protest against the alchemists who kept promising that the philosopher’s stone is (almost) at hand, for example, may have helped to create classical science; at least this is a part of the official philosophy of the scientific revolution as the Royal Society saw it, very much in the spirit of its intellectual leaders, Robert Boyle and Isaac Newton. They partook in the search for ways to transmute base metals into gold [by chemical means], yet they did destroy public credulity. Boyle fought the obscurity of the alchemists as well as the philosophy in which that obscurity was deeply rooted. He advocated an alternative philosophy in its stead.[6] He even declared that this was his claim for fame: his restatement of chemistry within the mechanical philosophy. Allow me to explain all this, not so much for the sake of historical nicety—though I find this point of history interesting and deserving wider interest—but for better comprehension of today’s public attitude that is still rooted in the modern version of the classical alternative to the philosophy of the alchemists—as expounded by the great lights of the Royal Society of London that the commonwealth of learning endorsed for centuries.

The alchemist philosophy that most medieval and Renaissance thinkers endorsed is simple: the Ancients had all knowledge, and we have none except that which is preserved in ancient books and in oral tradition. The knowledge kept this way is corrupt—due to transcription errors, distortions by all sorts of heretics, and loss of ability to read them with proper comprehension. Knowledge is in still our hand, but it is in closed books; we had better find the keys with which to open them. Herald of modernism Francis Bacon both endorsed and criticized this idea. As one of his chief commentators, James Spedding, admitted reluctantly, his Wisdom of the Ancients was a typical Renaissance attempt to unlock the secrets of ancient myths and find the wisdom in them. (He often declared that before the Fall, people possessed all possible knowledge.) Yet the secret wisdom that Bacon claimed to have discovered in ancient myths is very opposed to the alchemists’ philosophy: it was that we should find knowledge not by unlocking the works of others but by unlocking the works of Nature Herself through the study of facts of Nature. Studying human output, he said, leads to prejudices, to being ready to squeeze facts into the preconceived notions, to being ready to put Mother Nature in chains. The right method, he says, is to obey Her humbly by recording facts as She presents them to our open mind, and in reward for our bowing to Her, She will reveal her secrets to us. (We should stoop to conquer.)[7] If only we could forget the errors of the past and do proper research we will not go wrong and studies will yield with regularity ample fruits—both enlightening and useful—since Nature never lies.

Here, in brief, is the kernel of a philosophy that is at the basis of much harmful credulity popular among scientists to this very day. The naive Renaissance faith in science was in the infallibility of good researchers. At the time, the population of the modern world was scant, most of it were illiterate, and most of the rest dabbled in experiment hoping to count as researchers; the modern version of the faith in the infallibility of science rests on current public ignorance (of science). As long as public opinion was limited to enlightened opinion, Bacon’s insistence on infallibility was in check, as the public of that time could comprehend scientific controversy. The myth that science as we know it is infallible always goes with ignorance of its working details. Ignorance permits credulity and thus pressure on researchers to produce miracles regularly and without fail.

The amateur fringe-academics are a new breed. They view Academe with bleary eyes, all of Bacon’s nasty attacks on Academe notwithstanding. They maintain the aura of Academe for it, free of charge. (The borderline between the non-scientific and the scientific literatures accommodates popular science that presents science as infallible and science fiction that admits fallibility, but with excuses of all sorts that explain why the output of some scientists is erroneous—and thus allegedly pseudo-scientific.)

As to professional fringe-academics—mainly liaison people like science-correspondences or public relations officers—I do not know whether they fall prey to the same credulity as the fringe-academics. I hope that these people are not as ignorant and hence not as credulous and hence able to minimize the damage that they cause. They feed the credulous with constant streams of vain promises and myths with the excuse that they cater for the sake of science and of higher education. When research workers press fringe-academics to be cautious, they respond by reminding them of their immediate interests. Incredible as it sounds, many research workers tolerate the view of themselves as infallible, as they deem science infallible. They consequently tend to produce over-cautious, clever qualifications that the public sees as a mere part of the scientific ritual but that they use as excuses for their possible mistakes. All this you would do well to ignore. We should take for granted that everything human is fallible: we can never be sure that any human product is error-free.

The reason for the common pretense at infallibility that the academic liaison people perpetrate is part of prevailing institutional arrangements, of the social function of journalists, which is to serve the public, especially in a manner that accords with the (short-range) interest of researchers as usually misunderstood.


New York Times of March 13, 2019:

For prices up to $1.5 million, parents can buy a five-year, full-service package of college admissions consulting from a [law] company…

You may think this has nothing to do with you, since you are not one of the youths whose parents waste abundant sums of money on their education. Not so. They are rich enough to be able to forge the ethos within which we spend our days. What can we do about this, then? An improvement of the situation by enlightening the public is the best tool against parasites. Can there be such an improvement soon enough to help you personally? To my profound regret, I think not. The Baconian faith in scientific infallibility is rooted in a very deep-seated widespread prejudice. The prevalent philosophy is not that researchers are infallible, but that science comprises theories that rest firmly on indubitable empirical evidence; supported by a myriad known facts these theories are allegedly indubitable, or at least very highly probable; they are correct, or correct by and large, or nearly correct. No one knows what basing theories on empirical evidence is: look at the variety of books on the topic—by scientists, philosophers, journalists—and you will not fail to notice how hazy almost all of them are when it comes down to the simple technical question, what does a scientist do in order to be right. The wish to find how one constructs a microscope, how one raises a bacterial culture, and how one constructs a computer, lead to satisfactory responses with reasonable effort. The descriptions have to include sufficient details to enable one to reproduce that microscope, that bacterial culture or that computer. One may find the detailed description hard to understand, of course, but the sufficiently interested will easily find various ways of rendering the prescriptions comprehensible within, say, less than one year’s study. Famously, given sufficient means, even terrorists can produce weapons for mass destruction even in their back yard. This is very different from the success of investors or stock-market speculators. Repeatedly, a private firm offers courses that promise their graduates success in the stock market. By very simple reasoning, one can easily learn that a valid recipe for such a procedure is impossible: were ordinary means sufficient to follow familiar procedures and quickly and easily become very rich, and this will have to create an inflation. The Baconian procedure, or any procedure of producing science by basing theories on facts and verifying predictions based on these theories, is similar to the one that allegedly enables one with assurance to make a lot of money in the stock market: it promises patents and scientific awards and highly paid professorships. It is ludicrous, all learned, sophisticated, logico-mathematical and crypto-philosophical and clever and ingenious studies and investigations and inquiries and disquisitions and analyses and syntheses and symposia and colloquia and monographs and polygraphs and tomes and encyclopedias concerning the rules and methods of induction and verification notwithstanding. Hans Reichenbach and Rudolf Carnap and other great lights of inductive philosophy and inductive logic of yesteryear, once world renowned, assured scientists of success. At least in the long run, they added (say, one out of ten trials? At least not zero out of one hundred). They wrote as if never in all their lives in Academe had they met honest, clever, and industrious investigators who worked all their lives and earned their bread and their colleagues’ respect by the sweat of their brow and yet made no discovery.[8] All scientific papers are valuable, yet few of them add to the fund of knowledge. What is that fund? Is it a library, one that subscribes to all the learned periodicals although no one reads them? Some papers present novelties; if their authors are lucky, handbooks will sum up the results of their papers in single lines in the right tables of scientific or technological information. Such handbooks are useful. They are available in libraries and in scientific research laboratories and in commoner establishments like motorcar repair shops. This is a tremendous achievement that society must thank Academe for, come what may. The fathers of the scientific revolution would be proud of them; the fringe-academics that perpetrate the myths that the fathers of the scientific revolution have fashioned are too snobbish to notice items like motorcar repair shops, not to mention such wonderful items as youths tinkering with a crumbling jalopy.

Maybe science needs a mythology like any other social system. That mythology need not be stupid or elitist. The myth of induction, so popular in Academe, was once anti-elitist; now it leads to the popular pestering of investigators for wonderful results daily. It is scarcely possible to overcome the popular view of scientific information as infallible or at least as highly probable: it is current quasi-official philosophy of science.[9]

Mythology need not damage research though it may. Investors in the stock market may believe in systems that assuredly make one rich overnight, and on occasion, however rare, they may become rich overnight. More often than not, they will neither become rich overnight nor relinquish their belief in the system that is supposed to make them rich overnight. This may be credulity, and it may be naïve optimism. It is commoner in the laboratory and the university library than in the stock exchange and the broker’s firm. Already John Maynard Keynes has noted this: most people believe that saving makes one rich, even though most available evidence goes clearly against it. Knowing this may improve your ability to function as an investor. The same goes for the scientist. This is no guarantee, and it does not override the demand that you should know your way about—in the laboratory or in the stock exchange: myths may disrupt, and awareness of this may reduce disruption, but no more than that. Only the outsiders, who know and understands very little of the goings on, use myths in efforts to interpret the facts. When they do this critically, they soon learn to discard the myth and proceed to study the system in other manners; when they do this uncritically, however, they use the myth, get stuck, and after a few attempts they declare the situation a mystery beyond comprehension. Apprentices may study details of the working of their jobs, operationally and systematically, in the hope to relate all this to the myth. They may easily forget all this in due course, due to the pressures of the duties of their calling. They are the initiates; they are the ones who both hold the myth and control the working detail of the situation, they—poor fellows—are the living evidence that the myth describes the working details of science. They become the knowledgeable experts who understand what we, the less fortunate, fail to understand. Admittedly, they cannot explain to simpletons like us how the myth and the working detail cohere, but we are to blame for that; they are busy doing something else: they explain all this to other experts—and to philosophers of science. Stripped of all the arguments that are learned and scholarly and profound and logical, stripped of all the arguments that experts supply, the myth and the working details still diverge. No one can explain how the myth and the working detail cohere, not even to their own satisfaction. Yet they are confident that they will soon accomplish this feat, since it is possible, since the myth and the working details obviously do cohere, as is all too easy to prove. Most of those who do the work in practical detail agree that the myth and the working details do cohere. Scientists confirm this way philosophers’ blind faith in myths that accompany research and vice versa. What for?

The most popular commentator on science in the post-World War II era was Thomas S. Kuhn, who sold over one million copies of his book. He described there the myth of expert science—explicitly and in some detail and approvingly with no reservation. An essential part of his presentation is the idea that the way scientific research proceeds is the most efficient, and that the reason for this experts cannot explain to outsiders. Nevertheless, he rejected the myth of induction that most researchers advocate. He shared with them the claim that academics are unable to explain to outsiders what they do when they perform research, so that outsiders cannot judge their output. Likewise, they are unable to explain to outsiders what they do when they teach, so that they have to lead their students by the nose. Leading students by the nose is the tradition of Academe since its inception; leading the public by their nose about research is a recent tradition. The success of Academe, though not maximal the way Kuhn assures us, is still splendid. It is the fruit of the admirable research traditions that evolved outside Academe.[10] Contrary to this tradition, some can present science scientifically, with no more myth than the usual.

Is not the science of science a social science? What, you will ask in exasperation, what, dear professor, about the liberal arts? The myths you refer to, and the whole hullabaloo about it, covers the natural sciences and technologies, including applied mathematics and including medicine; what, sir, is the case of the liberal arts? Indeed, dear reader, I forgot all about the liberal arts, and more so all about their aim and function. As a mitigating circumstance please allow me to mention—for I do not want you to judge me too harshly, it is not good for either of us—that I am not alone in this neglect. My colleagues from the liberal arts departments in the big universities have forgotten all this too, and my colleagues from the small liberal arts colleges, as well as these colleges themselves—though they may contain the cornerstone of the New Academe and the future salvation of our intellectual world—have been forgotten by the rest of the world; almost. They all are honorable and they all try hard to imitate the scientists, these liberal arts professors of the big universities, and they try hard to have their share of the myth. You should not blame them, as the myth is lucrative and they have research students who seek academic employment just as you do. The professors of the liberal arts add to the myth of scientific infallibility the myth of the cargo-cult: they hope, like their peers, the south-seas-philosophers, that by emulating the successful they may become successful too.[11] This way academic philosophers yield to publication-pressure and try to display usefulness: they declare both stock-market manipulators and research laboratory investigators better off when they follow their absurd formulas that, being part-and-parcel of statistical theory, are very easy to refute.

The only constant criticism of Academe from the periphery, indeed the only debunking descriptions, concern the department of language and literature. They comprise a variety of variations on Lucky Jim, a 1954 bestselling novel by Kingsley Amis that exposes the phoniness of some academics in the Faculty of Arts. For Academe as such, except for C. P. Snow, the celebrated author of The Two Cultures and the Scientific Revolution, 1959, hardly any writer criticizes it all the way, and no one did so as thoroughly as Francis Bacon did in the early seventeenth century.[12] Literati, especially novelists, are almost the last breed of intellectuals whose occupation is still somewhat independent of Academe. Partly it is because they criticize the only section of Academe that they know and compete with and occasionally quarrel with; a section whose members try to hide behind a myth.

Mythology is hard to assess without some interaction with fieldwork. It is hard to compare the scientific pretense of English departments with that of departments of other liberal arts and of fine arts. Nor is it easy to say what is worse, pseudo-scientific pretense or contempt for science and for rationality. Anti-scientific conservatives and pseudo-scientific radicals disagree about academic myths. In departments of music, painting, and architecture, the myth of science is possibly equally widespread as in English departments; but those who fall out with these departments do not usually write novels against them. This should do—at least for now—as means to indicate that the myth of science (of induction) is not confined to science faculties and technical colleges.


The myths of Academe have a halo created by its myopic periphery. In addition to public-relations officers and science-correspondents the periphery consists of academics in the gowns of philosophers and historians of science and of science educators not to mention the philosophers and educators who serve diverse departments of science; it also contains a small, hidden army of non-academic semi-intellectuals and intellectuals who had nearly joined academe or contemplated that option but did not. These are often the kindest and most bright-eyed representatives of Academe: the very carriers of the halo of academic mystique. They seldom attract the limelight; they never speak until they are spoken to, and never in a loud voice, at least not concerning academic affairs. Nevertheless, their advice counts because the public judges them more reliable than public-relations officers of Academe and science correspondents, and for the good reason that they are outsiders who have no axe to grind, who are sincerely appreciative of Academe. Indeed, they are: they hold a romantic view of it, even when choked with envy and jealousy. Remember the high school teachers, research officers in the armed forces, and similar professionals, who have never forgiven Academe for not having hired them. Some of the romanticism of non-­academic intellectuals is touching. We have only to consider the case of Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, who valued his pathetic scientific research much higher than his divine poetry. Or the case of Chaim Weizmann, the recipient of the Balfour Declaration that gave the Zionist movement its greatest impetus and the first President of Israel, who was one of the most brilliant diplomats of all time and who always regretted his having relinquished his career as a research-chemist that was not distinguished. It is easy to sympathize with such humble romanticism. Consider the case of Lord Balfour. He aspired to be a philosopher. The Fowler brothers poke fun at him in their charming The Kings English, quoting not his significant Declaration, but his shallow philosophy. Some romantics, though they are often enough well-off where they are, would nonetheless move into Academe on the condition that they were guaranteed equal success there, or at least some assurance against utter failure; their faith in academic mystique makes them fear that they will fail even when some academics tell them they have no reason to expect trouble. And then, of course, there are the misfits whose romanticism is an escapist dream and who, being intellectuals, take Academe as a default option to dream of, merely as an escape. They too possess public recognition as authorities on Academe in the small circles in which they earn their livelihood or in which they play bridge or sip a glass of beer in the pub around the corner on a hard day’s night.

It is the prerogative of every citizen to be a dreamer or a misfit or both. The damage a citizen causes others this way is negligible and the damage that one causes oneself is strictly one’s own affair. The damage that fringe intellectual cause Academe is negligible too, and Academe even benefits in parts from the widespread academic mystique. This is all in social terms; an individual—particularly an aspiring academic—may greatly suffer from it, and from the disillusionment and bewilderment and ill-success it may bring about, such as your own disillusionment, bewilderment, and ill success. Which is why I am noticing the otherwise insignificant academic mystique. It matters to you; needlessly. When you know how to see it in proper proportion, it will be negligible for you too.

This review of the fringe covered public-relations officers and science journalists and intellectuals—the fringe-academics. There remains a significant group to consider: non-academic researchers and authors and powerful academic administrators. The latter deserve a special discussion; I will take it up in the next section. Of the former, I will say little in this paragraph. Since World War II,[13] Academe tries to swallow all researchers and authors by offering them jobs (at least part-time, as all medical schools do on a regular basis) and other forms of liaison. Academe tries to swallow them and it perpetually seeks budgets to support such moves. Governments and major industries are the only bodies with which Academe cannot compete and it appeals to them regularly for money. Research institutions in industry and government either develop their own academic liaisons—the sociology of this new kind of institution (it began with the creation of the Institut Pasteur, 1887, and the Princeton Center for Advanced Study, 1930) is fascinating, but I am too ignorant of it discuss it in detail.


Academic philosophy of science and the mystique it involves are the chief causes of bewilderment for young recruits like you; ignorance of philosophy is no exemption. Some young recruits harness themselves to the duties of their apprenticeship, laying the mystique aside for a while, as their parents, professors, advisers, housemothers, and other well-wishers tell them what they ought to do, as it was always done since the time Academe was instituted and to date. This may render recruits impervious to the mystique: they then abide by their own dreams, or else they are critical of the extant academic mystique, perhaps with the help of some odd adviser, or are so bright as to be able to satisfy the low curriculum requirement unthinkingly and in their spare time, and they do this well enough to win professors’ indulgence due to their brilliance.

I doubt you belong to any of these neat categories that slight bewilderment. You do not even know why you find it hard to integrate. It is the mystique, I tell you; it is the academic mystique that you have imbibed before you ever saw anything like the university campus that is annoying you. If your advisers resemble the ones I had, then they too cannot explain it—because they suffer from the same malady; not with the same symptoms perhaps; or perhaps from the same symptoms too, but you are not yet able to observe them in others, much less in your parents, high school teachers, and university instructors. Give it time.

In a sense, let us admit, academic mystique is a part of a much larger phenomenon, simply because, as it happens, the modern world has chosen Academe—with its consent—as the representation of the magic that goes into all learning, into the mystery of cognition and of knowledge. It is the possessions of the very ignorant and of the greatly learned.[14] The mystique discussed here, the one that chiefly fringe-academics propagate, is that of the ignorant, of one who is awe-struck by Academe and who holds in the community the position of one who is trusted to know something about Academe. On this, one may indeed trust the fringe academics: they know that Oxford and Harvard are top universities, much more reputed as centers of learning than our local community college. Do not trust them: the local community college has a great advantage over both Oxford and Harvard: it is where simple folks go to learn for the mere love of learning. If there is any single quality that keeps Academe together— Oxford and Harvard and our local community college—then it is the love of learning. Nothing like it for dispelling the mystique.

3. A View From The Administrative Office: Academic Business

Administrators serve an ungrateful, unappreciative, unfriendly public: in Academe, these are mainly faculty and students, but also the public at large. Administrators generate resentment to themselves the world all over; we call them bureaucrats and other unpleasant names. If they are incompetent, we scorn and accuse them for performing their duties perfunctorily; and if they are competent, we scorn and accuse them for their inhumanity—for being cogs in a machine—and for their governing the public instead of serving it. When they satisfy the public’s expectation, there is no grumble; but this is seldom the case, and then we take their proper service for granted, whereas the moment of its absence looms large. President Kennedy complained once about complaints: nobody ever wrote to him thanking him for the well-being of the economy or the stock market in good days but many wrote to him plaintively and accusatively on bad days. Administrators tend to learn to live with this, and perhaps even to forgive their public for their thanklessness. Academic administrators are in this respect in a particularly tight spot. Their services are seldom required and often resented even when performed as best as possible. What academic administrators in particular do not wish to learn, is that when their services are not required they should not offer them and let the university go to the dogs. If the university will consequently be on its way to the dogs—and there is no good reason to suppose that; on the contrary, it will rather flourish—then the academic public will request the services and perhaps even be grateful for their being promptly rendered (Parkinson).

The philosophy of public administrators is not that of power seeking and of display of superiority. Even petty bureaucrats seldom confess to this philosophy. When you need a bureaucratic service badly, and when the bureaucrat rubs this fact in, you may think—and all too many do—that this is an exercise in displaying power over the public. This is seldom the case; it is an optical illusion of sorts; petty bureaucrats simply feel tired of the public reluctance to notices the positive contribution of administrators to the life of the community, and their petty behavior towards members of the public who need their services is the only way they know of arguing back. All odds are against them, since when they can argue back, their adversaries are naturally in great need and desperate hurry to get through the red tape as quickly and smoothly as possible; they are in no state of mind to learn the lesson that petty bureaucrats are rightly anxious to convey. This situation is hopeless. Competent administrators are simply too enlightened and too upright—in their own image, of course; strictly, one cannot be upright unless one makes a full-time job of it, unless one can afford to stay aloof from the multitude—and so they cannot resort to the vulgar methods of petty bureaucrats. They mold their public philosophy differently.

High-ranking or competent self-righteous administrators understand the working of the civilized world, or at least the working of that part of the civilized world that they control. They have no time to explain it all to every Tom, Dick, and Harry who passes their way. The matter is rather delicate, you see: without law and order, the civilized world as we know it will collapse, but law and order are neither perfect nor tailor-made to suit everyone. And so one must be patient and willing to help, even though the public grumbles, not only by administering the law by the book, but also by showing some initiative and some understanding of what may be treated as special cases, as situations calling for some compassion, for special concessions that conceivably may occur without thereby throwing the system out of gear. It is not surprising that outsiders cannot appreciate all this subtlety, or even the existence of it. When administrators from other places establish contact with you, they do not know the intricacies of your own organization either; but at least they assume that you know them, and they trust you to do your best in the circumstances, hoping that you will trust them when the need arises. Perhaps the most glaring instance of this is how much even the cleverest academics need administrative representation: they cannot get funds and facilities from government agencies or from donors or from the market; sooner or later, academic administrators must step in; they may be handicapped by the limitation of their intellectual or scientific side of the situation; for this they need the professor involved in the project; but this handicap is amply compensated by administrative competence, by the ability to appreciate the problems that government administrator face and talk to them and smooth things up.

Administrators understand well enough some of the politically significant aspects of a scientific project; and then they are able to use it better than the researchers are. Researchers are seldom helpful, being scatterbrained, inaccessible, and so incomprehensible. Administrators can talk for them better, or hire some competent public-relations officers to talk for them while caring for administrative commitments.

Professors have neither the time for all this nor the understanding for the necessity of it nor the patience that it requires. Suppose the academic administrator left the university; quite apart from the chaos on campus, there will always be the other administrator, in the Capital, in industry, in the Foundation. Do you suppose that professors will all be better off trying to arrange their own administration as well as to work with the various administrators in other sectors?


Administrators are practical, down-to-earth people hard to fool, with little desire to revolutionize the world and ample good will to keep it going smoothly and improve its ways in what little manner they can, as long as they can do it without fuss. The only trouble with their philosophy, like with any elite philosophy, is that they know best. When it comes to managing Academe, this trouble is a disaster all round. Once upon a golden age, no matter how universities performed, the performances of administrators were under constant check of the university Senates, namely, the totality of its full professors. Oxford colleges are still chiefly under the control of fellows who administer their colleges on a part-time basis. Administrators there still help of the Senate and its committees. In a paper about Oxford philosophers and their way of life, English philosopher Richard Hare, fellow of an Oxford college, boasted about his activity as a member of a committee in charge of the college buildings. It included climbing on the roof of a building to inspect it for leakage, he reported. This seems to illustrate the ability of academics to control their administrators; it is the very opposite. Ever since I could afford a plumber, I never climb my house to inspect it for leakage because the view is not as grand as Oxford’s and because it never occurred to me that if I hire a worker, then this very act might risk my autonomy and the way I choose to run my life. Oh, I have heard about maids who run tyrannically the households of their mistresses for them; I can hardly imagine a situation in which a member of the college physical plant department, who is naturally employed full-time in the maintenance of buildings, would be able to run the college; I can envisage—­indeed I saw a few times—a secretary of an academic department or faculty running it; this is unusual and perverse; initially, the position of the college secretary was essentially the same as that of the departmental secretary, except that the college secretary had higher responsibilities (and so higher rank and pay, as well as larger staff); what has happened meanwhile? How did the administration take over the government and the policy-making of the university?

This question pertains not for a novice like you, perhaps, but for the academic way of life in general. In my youth, the administration—all employees except for academics, as well as for maintenance and lab assistants and their likes—the administration comprised a few people, and as I was working in the administration I knew them all. Today this is almost unthinkable. Today, the average number of administrators, they say, is half of that of the scholars and teachers. I think one-to-one is more likely. This is in accord with Parkinson’s Law (1957). Parkinson himself was a professor (of naval history in Kuala Lumpur), and he was probably impressed by this process of immense, unnecessary growth of academic administration since his student days in Cambridge before World War II.

A silent coup happened since then. The academics turned administrators, such as heads of departments, deans, provosts and their likes supported it without notice. In the golden age of academic self-government, they held part-time jobs. These were desirable as they came with special honorariums and social graces. C. P. Snow describes this in loving detail in his The Masters of 1950. He tells of a struggle for a small college headship; participants coveted the honor and the added salary. In addition, some hoped to use the prestige that comes with the job as support for their political party. The wife of one candidate coveted the college-head’s house and his wife’s task of serving the wives of the other fellows tea and cakes on Sunday afternoons. Today, academic jobs are full-time.[15] What makes a fellow relinquish an academic career in order to become an administrator? What ambition? How much does an academic expect in return for the lost freedom to choose what to study and to spend time idling in one’s laboratory or poring on a book for the sheer pleasure of it?

It is not ambition, I think, but the desire for an early retirement from academic life. It is­ the desire rooted in a sense of despair and of defeat or, much more frequently, in sheer cowardice and in fear of defeat.[16] In the last stages of the golden age of academic autonomy with no publication-pressure, an old professor, tired of pursuing further research and ready for high recognition for his past researches, would yield to pressure to become rector or provost, knowing that this would be sufficiently close a position to full-time to deprive its occupant of the time and energy needed to conduct vigorous research. A rector or a provost then remained academic, as the job was for a few years, allowing him to return to researches with renewed vigor. Today, departmental chairpersons whose administrative work occupies them to the extent that they can barely cope with their relatively light teaching burden—usually one course or one seminar per week in one semester a year—and with the task of keeping touch with the growing literature.

Whether this is the truth or an excuse for not participating in academic life is immaterial. My impression is that they do speak the truth when they claim that their administrative jobs are full-time—simply because as administrators they are incompetent and because work expands to fill the time allotted to it (Parkinson’s Law, 1957). One might claim that all this is reasonable in view of the expansion of Academe and of the administrative burdens in it. Yet the expansion is voluntary, even when administrators impose it. For, they should not be in a position to impose policies on universities. The increase of the administrative burden is useless, not to say harmful. Even when the department expands and the administrative burden increases, even if administering a department is a full-time job, to be a departmental chairpersons as a full-time administrative job is highly inefficient: hiring a professional secretary is much cheaper and better. A friend of mine who was an ambitious researcher was under pressure to chair a department. On my advice, he accepted the position on the condition that the department should recruit an administrative assistant. This is the place of administrators: not to run any organization but to administer its policies. The difference between business-people and academics is simple: only the former know what they want and how to decide—and let helpers execute their decisions.


A struggle for power between academics and administrators did take place. Administrators won the battle so thoroughly that the academics no longer expect that administrators with academic backgrounds—deans, rectors and college presidents—will remain loyal to the academy rather than to its administration.[17]

The reason cannot be the frequently repeated explanation that it is administrators, especially college presidents and trustees who provide funds. For, obviously, the administration is much the more dependent on the faculty then the other way around. As administrators are used to tough thinking and have an ideology of law and order to support it, they win step by step, inch by inch (you do remember, I hope, that they hate revolutions but are always ready to implement some small improvement without fuss), all the way to complete victory over the faculty.They always know who are the good academic and they always support them. Whereas academics have learned to live with academic mystique while trying to minimize its damage, administrators have no mystique—except for the production and sale that they administer. Universities produce teaching hours and diplomas and college degrees; they produce all sorts of high-school teachers and technologists and professors; they produce research reports and scientific papers and scientific periodicals and scientific books; they produce ideas and discoveries and inventions; honorable mentions and honorary doctorates and national awards; and national figures and memberships of national academies and national boards of all sorts and Nobel prize winners; the whole kit and caboodle. Never ask for values, but for definite commodities; and never ask for their value, only for their market value: they should be commodities in demand. If you do ask for the value of a commodity, we can translate the question to that of the cost of hiring a public-relation officer who can tell you the value of the commodity in question. That is all. Nothing more. The headache begins with the widespread information that academics are eccentric; like children, they are. They need special attention and care; you cannot scold them when they step out of line both because they do it every so often and because scolding them is the wrong way to achieve results. One must understand them, be patient with them, but be insistent when matters of importance arise, such as passing research projects through the proper channels.


There is no need to go further. Giving vent to one’s exasperation (about academic administration) is useless; as a surrogate for action, it is harmful. We may study what efforts can prevent the conflict between administration and faculty to the benefit of both parties, and at what price. For, ultimately, we will all benefit from clarity about what the faculty can pass to the administration. It is what can be sufficiently pigeonholed. It not possible to pigeonhole education, intellectual activity and their likes, as administrators of the more advanced and larger universities wish to—and have partially instituted. I have taught in one such a university, and wanted once to recommend that the university should grant a student a second chance—or rather a third chance, to be precise. I received uninformed about procedure and looked around for ways to do so. Many colleagues told me that this was impossible. In such a huge university of scores of thousands of students, one had to run the records by the use of computers. However justified one’s requirements for special considerations may be, it is impossible to feed the computers with data that have eluded its programmers. I was astonished. I shall not insult you with discussion of the possibility of taking away from the computer all control; I merely wish to report all this as an instance of the (unintended) contempt with which administration can treat academics. This is only an instance, of course; you can find special considerations everywhere, even in that university, and probably the administration’s claim that I have just restated they only use as means for weeding out the less pressing pleas for special considerations.

Incidentally, the student who awaited expulsion without getting the third chance got it after all: the computer office was overworked and so it processed her data too late for her immediate expulsion; she had an additional semester during which she could improve her average grade. Thank heavens for small mercies: even the best-equipped, most competent administrators are not perfect. Notice that this story could not happen in a traditional university since before World War II traditionally exams took place only before graduation. (This was fortunate for me, as I am particularly bad at exams.)


When social researchers compare academic systems, standards, and so on, they tend to ignore the difference in background between the medieval, modern, and contemporary systems. The medieval system was a social class (University means whole, and in the Middle Ages it meant also class), and it was a part of the clerical class; it functioned as a training ground for some future clerics, but this was secondary and performed as lecture courses. These were the only form of publication available before the invention of the printing press. This invention could but did not stop the lecture system. Already in 1908, Abraham Flexner’s first book, The American College, strongly critical of many aspects of American higher education, denounced in particular the university lecture as a method of instruction. As famous humanist psychologist Carl Rogers has noted, often a lecture course is an inferior textbook that has failed to find a publisher. A myth once circulated that once famous philosopher Stephen Toulmin began teaching in Oxford, where he read in his lectures galley proofs of his first book with the consequence that his contract did not come up for renewal. Such stories make it hard to comprehend why we do not replace lectures by ones written by an Albert Einstein or an Isaac Asimov, recited by a Morgan Freeman, and distributed on campus by the university bookstore or downloaded from the net at a reasonable cost. Were administrators innovative enough for that, they might alter Academe for the better. I hope that Internet universities will do that. Indeed, the trend has already started. Even Harvard and MIT offer some courses that one can download. Yet the network already has discussions that come to explain why these can only supplement real live lectures, not replace them. Crazy: irreplaceable real live teacher-student contacts require tutorials[18] and seminars, not lectures whose audiences often comprise students immersed in their mobile devices, be these laptop computers, tablets or smartphones. The silly claim that live lectures are indispensable comes to prevent the reduction of the burden of scholarship. It is redundant: it will not serve professors, as their salaries do not depend on their output. (It never did.) It will serve the administration that grows beyond expectations in accord with Parkinson’s Law; unlike faculty, administrators do need tasks to justify their appointments.

Jon Marcus of the New England Center for Investigative Reporting says,[19]

The number of non-academic administrative and professional employees at U.S. colleges and universities has more than doubled in the last 25 years, vastly outpacing the growth in the number of students or faculty, according to an analysis of federal figures.

Compulsory education made us literate, the industrial revolution demanded literacy, and the wonderful GI Bill in the post-World War II United States opened the gates of Academe for many. The administration swelled. Still, the change is staggering. In my youth, the administration of Academe was very limited. Today the estimate is that there is one clerk for every two academics. What do they do? The see to it that students will not register to a course delivered in French unless they understand French, that students will not register to a course in Algebra II unless they have passed successfully exams in Algebra I, and that science students will not register in courses in the Faculty of Arts.

Administrations keep unnecessary records of all sorts of material. In Europe before World War I, a student registered in a university received a personal record book where lecturers signed their names and possibly wrote the grades of students who partook in courses. Now that the population of students is much larger, just recording their grades is an industry. In the United States of America, the sub-system of community colleges suffers much less administration. A community college can upgrade to fit current needs of its students. This will not harm administrators; with luck, it will reduce the recruitment of new administrative personnel to Academe. If Academe will consequently be open to all applicant, then a whole chunk of today’s administration that handles admission will be redundant. They say that the cost of open admission will be exorbitant. This is not serious. State universities are not quite open but they are open to all high-school graduates of their states, and consequently the first semester there is overpopulated. This hurts nobody. It is a filter system much healthier and much more efficient than exams.What puts community colleges at risk of administrative control is the right of some of their former students for transfer to universities.

Good administrators of universities perform an almost impossible task. Without any familiarity with intellectual value, they assess its parallel market value—of the researcher or scholar or artist that the university may wish to hire, as well as of the level of efficiency of a teacher and of a student. When they goof, the result is awful. Too often, they require that professors should grade on a curve, not on the silly supposition that the quality of students is homogenously distributed but as a weapon against the following. When a professor becomes very popular this creates a burden for them. Most of the popular professors gain their popularity by offering Mickey Mouse courses. Many students like such courses and their easy grades. Such courses reduce reputations of schools. Empirical support for all this comes from math students, who on the average are the most serious: they may flock to formal logic courses because they can pass the exams there with minimal attendance and no preparation. Administrators find this intolerable, God knows why. When I once granted top grade to all the students of a seminar of mine, I had to fight some administrators; I won. When I failed a few students in my course in the school of medicine, I refused to quarrel with the administrators and I refused to yield to them. I resigned.

Sadly but understandably, administrators cannot prevent the emptying the university of its content: they can only try to guard its reputation. They pressure teachers to raise reputation. This is a sure formula for inflation, for raising nominal value, not real value (Korczak).

Universities issue licenses where the law requires university degrees for the practice of medicine, law or accountancy. In some countries, granting licenses is the prerogative of the university and the professional guild combined; in other countries, the government handles licenses. The need to coordinate licensing laws is on the increase. Meanwhile, universities cherish their power in these matters. Yet the academic system will survive only if it will give up its power, leaving all licensing to the state. This will enable the university to cancel all degrees and open its gates to all, demanding neither fees nor proof of qualifications—as it did for centuries. This will be cheaper by far and will offer no attraction for enrollment except for the desire—pure or practical— to learn. This will demand of students to decide what they want the university to offer them. Those who say this cannot be done do not know that the early universities were like that, as were the European Jewish schools before that and as schools over the rest of the world were before modernity took over. Those who say that the result will be lowering the standards are right; except that by liberal norms low standards obeyed are better than high standards circumvented. Freed of lecturing, academics will have time to attend personally to their own and their students’ needs.

They say, the use laboratories prevents free access.[20] This is untested, since university laboratories are relatively new: before the mid-nineteenth century none existed. Also, universities may charge fees only for the use of laboratories. This will allow for the drastic reduction of administrations, thus saving enough to enable cancelation of laboratory fees. As laboratories are tools for investment in all sorts of startups and ventures, grants for laboratories may make them profitable. The claim that laboratories are too expensive for tuition-free education is but an excuse.[21]

4. A View From Within: Academic Muddling Through

Whether we should take the academic periphery and their mystique seriously or not, whether we should take administrators and administration seriously or not, I hope my previous pages has raised in you some misgivings about a point that may be intellectually as well as practically significant: is not the opposition to the tough and clear-cut attitude of the academic administration tantamount to academic mystique? If we know what is what, then we can neatly pack and stack it in its proper pigeon­holes and if not it is a mystery. How then is it possible to avoid both groping mystique and bureaucratic pigeonholing? For, some academics do avoid both, to some extent at least, as I have been claiming all along in the name of the sense of proportion. They do so during their work-a-day by putting aside whatever they can.

This seems satisfactory at first, but it does not go far enough. The problem was whether knowledge that is the pigeonholing of our information into theoretical categories is not the opposite of mystique that is the clouding of our ignorance. The answer is in the negative. The reason for it is obvious. Whereas knowledge is no mystique, ignorance may but need not be. What idolaters see hazily, what they prefer to cloud in mystique is what the more critical (especially the self-critical) would consider lamentable ignorance. This looks very neat: some are pleased with it (because they are mystified or because bureaucratic attitudes blinker them); others rebel and try to reform Academe rationally. This, alas, is not quite correct: bureaucrats are quite capable of introducing reforms, though admittedly rather gradually and on the quiet; the reforms that academics introduced were more gradual. The difference between the two comprises two factors. Administrators are clearer and more effective; academics have a better idea of what universities are about, namely learning and education as measured by dollars and cents (William James). Academic inefficiency is poor organizational technique plus the paucity of rational thinking and planning.

I have no wish to pretend that traditionally academics used to run Academe more rationally than today. (The reason is that Academe suffered from bigotry as a Church affiliate.) The usual method of running universities until recently was the method of muddling through;[22] this method was more rational than it looks, but not as rational as that of articulating aims and policies and discussing arguments for and against them openly in avoidance of defensiveness. Muddling through we may not know what we want, and how much of it we may reasonably expect to achieve; we may be painfully aware of some shortcomings and severe defects of extant ways and means, and we may make some amends by sheer trial-and-error. At least it suffers less from smugness, conceit, and mystification, not to mention bigotry.

Even nowadays, when up-to-date researches fully articulate much of the academic traditions and bureaucrats zealously guard them, most of the academic hiring and firing, most of the methods of deciding which courses must be taught in a given department, which kind of teacher should be assigned to which kind of job (is an introductory course more suitable to student-teachers than a junior course? Should the more experienced faculty-members or the novice be in charge of it?) and which extant method of student-advising is wise to adopt, what kinds of departments is it advisable to develop (specialized or broadly based), and hundreds of other problems, are tackled by muddling through, by copying adjacent university’s techniques, by letting sleeping dogs lie. Academe is a labyrinth. Most of its experiences and experiments are barely publicized. (The journals that should serve as natural platforms for this are often run by administrators who wish to protect the profession against enemies and present matters superficially and through rose-colored glasses.) Thomas S. Kuhn, the most famous philosopher and historian of science in the twentieth century, condemned some of my observations of the teaching of the history of science in leading universities as not serving the interest of the profession. His defensive view of Academe, I dare say, is not flattering.


You are right: there are exceptions. Of course. Let me mention one. The Flexner report on medical education in the United States of America of the early twentieth-century was a serious survey. It led to a drastic reform (that Flexner executed), including the closing down of scores of medical schools, the employment of hopefully more competent full-time faculty in medical schools, and more. This reform is a huge exception. Yet it is over a century old, and it gave way to the present method of muddling through, if not to conservativism rooted in excessive mystique and bureaucracy. One might expect past success to encourage further trials, but no: medical education is more conservative than the average. The American Medical Association advocated revamping medical education through its Accelerating Change in Medical Education Consortium. It launched a program in 2013 that involved 37 schools and cost a total of $14.1 million in grants to develop new curricula. The competition for entrance to American medical school today is unbelievably fierce. This seems to me irresistible temptation for corruption and thus a very serious danger.


So much for one example of an exception of a rationally planned academic reform. There were others, especially the secularization of Academe after the French Revolution (due to secularization), but I will not bore you with history. The common method is that of muddling through— traditional and up-to-date. Size reduces its applicability, with some amazing instances.

Consider experiences in journalism—concerning speed of attaining and disseminating information and journalistic style (including newspaper layout). These are pooled by relatively newly-founded schools of journalism (1899; 1908), some of which train in editing of academic periodicals, in compiling anthologies, in composition of textbooks, introductory and high-powered, and the publication of proceedings of nationally and internationally organized symposia of learned societies, and of other undertakings; the production of diverse sorts of peer-reviewed academic periodicals, legit and vanity.

These activities involve important technicalities on which enormous amounts of practical yet unutilized experiences are available. Editors of academically bent commercial presses are a genuine nuisance; university presses are the worst. As they have collected some experience, they can guide the professors who edit scientific periodicals, anthologies, and proceedings; similarly, they can direct authors of monographs, surveys, and textbooks. With their superior knowledge and experience, and with their excessive administrative powers and extra funds, they win every time, and often with ludicrous or disastrous results: they either have purely commercial interests and wish to hit a wide market with expensive books, or they have in mind purely the interest of the university as understood by its top administrators; accordingly, they wish to publish the impressive and scholarly-looking tomes to sell to no public at all except perhaps to university libraries. The academic library system is the monkey that eats its own tail. Periodicals are sometimes up to one year behind, and proceedings up to two or three; easily. This means that academic news in print is often three or four years out of date; in our days of fast printing and of much faster internet. The financial aspect of academic publishing is ludicrous. Publishers expect authors to provide camera-ready papers and books, preferably with imprimatur of all sorts. Publishers of learned periodicals have an incredibly high profit margin. This has led to the growth of an immense predatory literature[23] that expects authors to pay for the publication of papers that scarcely anyone will read and that serve only to boost authors’ publications lists.

For another instance, take student registration.[24] Some state universities are legally obliged to admit all applications of resident high-school graduates.[25] This led to a routine there—established by muddling through—to get rid of a portion of freshmen—between 30% and 50%, sometimes—in semester exams. The result is not necessarily disagreeable because these students report in their CV-s that they had “some college education” and thus increase their job opportunities by spending a few months in college and failing their first exams. This waste is beneficial, as the United States of America can afford such luxuries, especially as it suffers from unemployment of high-school graduates. The result for the freshman who will remain in college may be disastrous: a teacher of a class of such students may be careless. The first college year in the United States of America is often intellectually lower than the previous high-school year was. (This is an empirical finding based on a large, varied, and wide sample: the level of literacy proficiency is on the decrease.)[26] Especially since some of the freshman year is devoted to the study of articulation and of composition, many students who hope to embark on academic careers may be doomed to the inarticulateness that they will hardly suffer from during their undergraduate days (because of courses with multiple-choice exams) but they will suffer bitterly from it during their graduate studies that require writing of full-scale dissertations. I have met famous professors with series of scientific reports to their names, who were unable to write monographs.

These then are two obvious, serious problems that many an academic has studied and tackled whether by muddling through or otherwise. Their investigation is not half as rational as it could be, because there is too little pooling of experiences, comparing of notes, and rational exchanges on national and international scales, necessary and obvious as all this is. The reason for this is simple. As long as Academe—the intellectual world, indeed—was small, it could administer itself rather well with minimal attention. When it grew to its present mammoth proportions within a quarter of a century or so, it got so completely out of hand that administrators had to take it over, and so they did—much to the relief of most academics; until they discovered at what cost. (Innovative Flexner was active in the interim period.)

The most obvious example of how an increase of scale calls for different techniques is too familiar to discuss here: sex on campus. Once it could be left safely to the discretion of those in charge, but no more. In addition, there are other piquant instances to discuss. Let me mention one odd case. In the past, when a student had a grievance about the outcome of an exam, there was a simple way to handle the matter: there was always a possibility of a repeat exam. These days such students discuss their grievances in the presence of their lawyers.

Perhaps the most comic of these instances is the lack of proper planning of national conventions. Administrators organize these conventions, mainly since they are very large-scale operations by now; and so, it is well-known, the main benefit from attending conventions is from the unorganized part of them: the talks are all too often boring—boredom may be a condition for invitation to address a convention—but walking in the lobby and bumping into interesting colleagues quite unexpectedly is fun that renders the attendance of conventions worth-while. This is rather nice on a small scale, or among people who can handle complex situations. On a large scale, however, this creates new disagreeable customs. Young upstarts are bound to develop the sweeping glance and the ability to stick eyes on prey once eyes meet; the old hand develops the ability never to look in the eyes of anyone except familiar peers. The sight of convention lobby and more so of organized social meetings is grotesque and pathetic. The situation, however, need not be dull; a little planning and rational discussion may bring about immense improvement in the role of conventions in the life of Academe, and a platform for the rational planning of all sorts of programs that are now left largely to administrators and partly to muddling through.

The idea of academic freedom is most conducive to leaving conventions to fumblers, somewhat on the following lines. Those who wish to fumble should have the occasion to do as they please; and the strong-headed should be discouraged, as conventions cannot rest on ideology; otherwise they become partisan and intolerant; and so, it seems, conventions must rest on the lowest common denominator and thus stay ineffective. I disagree; academic parties have the right to organize and have their conventions or sub-conventions. That such parties must organize broadly based conventions in order to lay their hands on funds, leads to shallowness and pretense. (I have in mind particularly the pretense of a school of thought that it is a field of study or an academic subject, such as analytic philosophy or the psychology of learning.) The administration of conventions, which involves governments, big foundations, national organizations and universities (not to mention business interests, mainly university publishers and the tourist industry) must undergo far-reaching alterations one way or another, and academics must have opportunities to design conventions around clear-cut problems of major policies and raise real controversies for the greater glory of Academe; they must find occasions to organize openly partisan conventions too. This requirement bumps into the hardest problem: the fiction that Academe are a-political makes it impossible to handle the inevitable involvement of Academe in politics so conspicuous in the Vietnam War and in the efforts to ostracize all Israeli academies.

In mentioning all this my point is to draw attention to the difference between mystique, bureaucracy, muddling through, and planning—as well as the superiority of muddling through on a small scale and of planning on a large scale. The muddle-heads will say, and they will be right in saying, that things are not as simple and clear-cut as all that: after all, mystique may plague everyone, including administrators, muddlers through and rational planner; bureaucracy is not the exclusive prerogative of the bureaucrat, and so on. All this is true; and muddling through is admittedly better than mystique or bureaucracy—as it is inferior to large-scale rational debate of proposed plans in the light of experience.


How much muddling through is going on, and how much of it should go on? I am afraid I do not know. I have mentioned a few of the most important aspects of university life that still display the method of muddling through. My personal predilection is for muddling through, but intellectually I prefer to plan rationally. The reason for this reluctant preference of mine you may find below: all too often muddling through produces copycat conduct, and thus stagnation. Moreover, when stagnation sets, muddlers are stuck; and if their problem is not administrative, no bureaucrat will take the initiative of helping them out. The bureaucrat does plan, but not always to suit problems of the academic. I am particularly eager to discuss the planning of the division of labor between academic and administrator, and I declare my view here and now to all and sundry, especially to those who might be crazy enough, now or at any later date, to conceive of the idea that I might be put in a position where I may have some measure of likelihood, however slim, to execute my conception. For, I have one idea and I intend to stick with it quite stubbornly, regardless of whether my intentions have any practical consequences and whether others would judge it good or bad. I suggest keeping the division of labor straight: the job of administrators, to begin with, is not to plan administrative work for academics, but to administer it, the job of planning—especially the determination of both preferences and policies—should be returned partly to the academics and their chosen representatives (not chosen administrators) and partly to democratically elected representatives of the public interest. Under the guidance of spokespeople of the public interest, all administrators may—indeed, should—plan administrative reforms and overhauls of all sorts as need be. We should appoint an administrator to see to it that the representatives of the public interest do not represent the administration. In particular, no one should impose measures to raise the degree of efficiency of academic research or teaching. Admittedly, political institutions can be very bad (and sometimes they are) but in the West they have seldom stooped so low as to permit administrators to pretend that they represent of public interest (rather than the fallible public view of it); this is the situation only in Academe.[27] We are all trying to cope with this, each in their own peculiar ways. Some of us refuse to fill in the many questionnaires that administrators keep issuing; to no avail. In such matters, muddling through will not do: coordinated concerted efforts demand planning.


The British Museum possesses a letter from Immanuel Kant to a publisher. In it, he apologizes for unexpected delays in submitting a manuscript—due to ill health. It seems somewhat grotesque but is unavoidable that leading people have to follow standard procedures. At times, this becomes silly. It is easier to obtain approval for hiring an additional professors than a secretary, whose salary is significantly smaller, yet the efficiency of the faculty would increase enormously had they had its professors obtain the services of an additional secretary. In some universities, leading intellectuals have to declare that their manuscripts are ready for print before they can get the necessary secretarial help. Worse still, they may receive untutored and untrained graduate students to write letters to administrators about manuscripts. This is due to muddling through. It is still advisable to stick to this method as the least expensive, rather than advocate the concentrated rational study of administrative and technical problems of academic life. At least until problems become urgent, we can let sleeping dogs lie. This will call for action only when administrators, publishers, janitors, or parking attendants control the character and service of Academe,[28] when rules and regulations and computer< 04663237"> programs dictate and control the quality of life there. So, does academic administration threaten the western scholarly tradition? I do not know. I do not know how Kant’s publisher decided whether to accept a book by Kant for publication, when its manuscript was in final form, and what to do if he messed so much with the proofs that they had to be reset. I do not know how much accepted traditions harass writers, what they must tolerate to secure publication in submission to pressure. Information is not easily accessible. Things have changed so rapidly over the last few decades that I, for one, find it hard to grope for some perspective.

The moral of all this for you is obvious: do not trust these pages, not even the information they present: things change fast. It is always useful to check significant information. We cannot always do so. The amount of information that an author of a lab report takes for granted is staggering.[29] Only mainstream reports are somewhat less unreliable than most information, as these reports are liable to undergo repeated tests and corrections. Nevertheless, as astronomer Sir John Herschel noted early in the nineteenth century, science would be impossible without considering reports of empirical finding bona fide. How much of the material here is empirical? At least I hope you deem them bona fide.

This is muddling through: people may act with scarcely any understanding of what they do; they may have the wrong idea even of the most general picture of where they are and where they are going. Oddly, to say of a process that it is muddling through is to compliment it as the avoidance of examination of a big picture and the attention to its details. One may not learn it ever, or learn it the hard way. In my student days, when I studied physics, the clear image of classical physics enchanted me; not its being old fashioned, as the clear image included special and general relativity, despite their novelty—as Nils Bohr kept stressing. The muddling through of quantum mechanics disturbed me then, as Bohr’s indulgence in it did. My peers were aware of what troubled me, but they ignored it and persisted with their studies. I dropped out of physics and became a philosopher. Many years later, I returned to what troubled me, and tried to organize my confusion; I wrote a paper—the only paper in physics that I have published—and expanded it into a short book. I tried to interest physicists in it, including some classmates. I failed. Later on, I realized: they were still muddling through. I had undervalued their efforts being bona fide. Research is in part muddling through and in part the study of principles; it is always bona fide. For years the great idea of my teacher Karl Popper, his demarcation of science from pseudo-science, both thrilled and troubled me. I now know: he overlooked another demarcation: some pseudo-scientists are charlatans; others are bona fide mistaken. I cannot complain, though: this distinction is extra-scientific.

5. A View In Perspective: Academic Traditions

Where should we start? Of the detail and of the general idea, which comes first? Answer: start with a general question, take a general answer to it and modify it by paying attention to relevant details (Democritus; Einstein; Popper). Western tradition illustrates this repeatedly but also offers objections to it: a bird’s-eye view not correct from the start, arch-logician Van Quine quipped, is strictly for the birds. This, he failed to notice, renders the problem insoluble: the claim to have started with a correct bird’s-eye view is dogmatic; the hope to start correctly without dogma by appeal to facts leads to a loss of orientation. Hence, any bird’s-eye view should suffice to begin with, assisted by criticism that should improve it.


Medieval universities served two roles: as homes for clerical misfits and as schools for budding clerics. From time immemorial, schooling was the prerogative of the priesthood; the ruling classes followed, and then their high-class servants did. Scholarship was the next step. In ancient Greece, it always belonged to marginal members of the leisurely class (scholé is Greek leisure). Jewish tradition boosted scholarship as a form of worship, viewing Jews as a cast of priests (Exodus 19:6). In Europe literacy declined with the decline of Rome. In the renaissance literacy grew slowly. Antonio Manetti’s life of Filippo Brunelleschi, the father of the Renaissance, reports (1480?) that Brunelleschi was literate although he was apprenticed to a silversmith: at that time only intended clerks or physicians acquired literacy; his family had intended this future for him, but, as he was interested in silver work and competent with his hands, they yielded. This explanation shows that at the time in Florence customs concerning literacy changed radically. Literacy became the rule in Europe after the institution of compulsory universal education. The quip of the American Midwest reveals the prevalent attitude to reading: “When all else fails, try reading the instructions manual!” Reading instructions is as old as writing. Study for pleasure, as habit, was a great step forward. < 04663243">The medieval Christian recluses were the spiritual ancestors of the western scholars. In the West, reading fiction is prevalent. Leading twentieth-century author William Somerset Maugham says in his autobiography, reading fiction is the escape of lonely children from their loneliness. This is what leads to scholarship.

Anthropology describes individuals by reference to their roles in a given social environment. By definition, a role is a set of socially determined rights and duties. Individuals are born into most of their roles. They rarely have the option to choose and acquire them; and to make it so, the price of a choice is usually high. There are matters by which we may assess the flexibility of a society: the degree of freedom to choose a role in a given society may serve as a measure of that flexibility. This may be due to the narrow range of options available, or due to the high cost of an option. The less flexible a society is, the less incentive for deviation it offers anyone disposed to deviate—by physical withdrawal (usually into the wilderness), by social withdrawal (usually into the lap of the family or into a monastery of one sort or another), or by becoming an outlaw. The need for flexibility may find odd expressions. In traditional China and Japan, for example, most roles were firmly fixed for most individuals from their very birth. This gave rise to secret societies, with customary recourse to violence: they had to play tremendous social roles as they came to open blind allies. To give you some feeling of the traditional inflexibility of traditional European society—the full sense of it is hardly attainable, and that is for the good as the sense is terribly crushing—let me mention an instance of a society more flexible by far than any that has ever existed on earth, yet highly inflexible by comparison with ours. Consider then France past the French revolution.

Distinguished novelist Honoré de Balzac ends his Le Père Goriot (1835) with a frighteningly realistic account of a discussion that the old criminal Vautrin holds with the young law student Eugène. Vautrin tries to induct Eugène to life of an outlaw. He shows him that under the most favorable circumstances, his future as lawyer is abysmal. And yet, by any reasonable standard, early nineteenth-century France was a free country.

Anthropologically speaking, life of crime is a set of social roles like any other. (Émile Durkheim) Some alternatives come with high incentive for their choice balanced by high cost of that choice. The balance may fail for some individuals—turning them into social outcasts. To be an outcast is a penalty and a part of a role. The degree of severity of this penalty depends on the degree of inflexibility of the society in question. This is a pompous way of saying that society forces people to behave in a punishable manner. It is terrible. One need not be an anthropologist to know this—and that society may make life tolerable for deviants (and their friends and relations); the way to do this has to be restricted but not illegal. Deviance, and permitted deviant social-roles, sprang into various societies as secret societies, religious orders, secret religious orders, physically isolated institutions like monasteries and like madhouses. Anthropologically speaking, monasteries are one of the ways a society gets rid of its unadjusted members with the least fuss. When one thinks of what the unadjusted did in the early Protestant societies (remember the witches of Salem) one can easily see how relatively cheap monasteries are; the institutions of eccentrics, bohemians, and so on, is cheaper—provided society can afford some measure of civil freedom. Liberal toleration of deviants is limited by forcing them to starve before recognizing them and their contributions. All this follows obvious universal patterns. In Aldous Huxley’s Brave New World, society is very inflexible; it maintained its inflexibility by a highly scientific method of conditioning its members to accept it with pleasure. Nevertheless, that society breeds deviants regularly and it incarcerates them in a very pleasant, isolated monastic enclave.

While monasteries and universities developed learning, the arts that they rejected developed in the bohemian margins of society; it could easily be the other way around. The arts developed in the margins of urban society known as Bohemia from late medieval society to date. Learning, and scientific research, developed in zigzag: it started in the crafts, left them in the mid-seventeenth century for the scientific societies, and joined the university in the nineteenth century. It could all be very different.

Scientific societies never competed with the universities; already in the mid-seventeenth century, they made truce. As the universities were primarily refined monasteries, education and the advancement of learning became their major objectives only when America started to lead the commonwealth of learning. The Oxford don, the Sorbonne professor, the traditional old world academic, these were not researchers but scholars; not teachers, but excellent conversationalists, secularized, glorified monks of exquisite taste, especially (but not only) in matters of high learning. Academics could of course spend time on research, simply because they were free to choose any eccentricity, especially in the field of learning. Thus, Oxford granted (non-academic) Robert Boyle an honorary doctorate. In 1832, Oxford granted honorary doctorates to two distinguished (non-academic) researchers John Dalton and Michael Faraday. The conversation that evening between the newly created doctors and some top dons was a disaster; complaints about the folly of the action were loud the next day. This happened just as change started to set in: Napoleon had started a new Academe with the Ecole Polytechnique; Prussia began a competition with France and rendered a major reform of its universities (1830) and even England chipped in by founding the University of London (founded, its charter declares, for nonconformists, Jews and the poor). The Prussian reform won reaffirmation in the Second Reich as a matter of course. Alas, the hideous Third Reich trampled on it, also as a matter of course. Before that, the industrial revolution forced the universities to equip themselves with modern laboratories. Cambridge opened a laboratory in the early seventies of the nineteenth century. In its inauguration, its head, James Clerk Maxwell, said the students were fortunate that it was poor, since this forced them to construct their own instruments. Oxford refused to construct a laboratory until the twentieth century. Sorbonne joined soon.

General literacy was a most welcome change due to the industrial revolution and to democratization. In 1800, Count Rumford, an American adventurer who lived in Europe, began a movement that soon became most influential: founding institutions of adult education for the poor. The idea of self-education is ancient; its modern variant appeared in radical intellectual writings of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, especially in the works of Bacon, Descartes, Locke and Spinoza, whose contempt for the traditional modes of education was boundless. Self-education was the chief slogan of one very famous and important though unoriginal thinker, Dr. Isaac Watts, now remembered for some doggerel hymns that somehow have remained in some Episcopal hymnals, and perhaps also for his succinct advice for educators to offer children programs for seven days of work per week. A poor man’s version of this idea was Sam Smile’s 1859 dreadful Self Help.[30] The nearest description I know of life in accord with the philosophy of Watts and of Smile is the bleakest part of the 1909 novel Martin Eden of Jack London: the system he describes in realist detail enables one to rise above one’s station, but at the cost of such hard work that it ends up by his losing all interest in life, including interest in scoring any victory. Incredible as it sounds, many leaders of their communities emerged from the lower ranks of society in accord with Sam Smile’s formula that is still seems credible. In the nineteenth century, it was the thing to do. Workers who spent ten or twelve hours a day on the treadmill had time and the desire to attend public lectures. Leading researchers such as Ørsted, Kelvin, Maxwell, Huxley, Helmholtz, Mach, and Oliver Lodge, published some superb essays that they had read to such publics. These institutions could not remain in the slum. Evening schools for workers opened in universities, and in the mid-century the University of London opened an evening college for workers (Birkbeck College). The story of the rise of that college from the slum is a breathtaking tale. My point here, however, is to describe the rise of the modern universities as institutes of universal high education, as the trend of having the academic world as the chief instrument of universal high education. This was a great, radical novelty. It makes Academe deserve all the compliments in the world. We tend to forget all this due to the tremendous success that compulsory education had in fighting illiteracy.

Partly due to literacy and partly due to new science-based technologies, the nineteenth century saw a tremendous expansion of Academe with no plan and no sensitivity to needs beyond the very minimum. This way technical universities evolved—first in France, and then in the United States of America, and then all over Europe. The difference between traditional universities and technological ones waned in two steps. Increasing demand forced traditional universities to open schools of engineering. As the Soviet Union defeated the United States in the space race by dispatching Sputnik I, American investment in education was copious. The arts benefitted from this too; technological universities began teaching the arts. (The trend gained much support from immensely popular, prestigious, 1959 The Two Cultures and the Industrial Revolution of C. P. Snow.)[31]


Academe has influenced almost all modern lifestyles. A few striking examples: almost all American teachers (especially high-school teachers but not only), almost all special teachers, whether of vocational training, of therapeutic courses and of rehabilitation of all sorts, including physical education, and by now even teachers of the diverse arts, whether of plastic arts or of the performing arts—all these are usually under the aegis of Academe, with teachers who are academically trained and many of whom work in academic institutions or keep in touch with them. This was not so before World War II. Today almost all physicians, surgeons, public-health officers, and medical consultants, highly specialized or not, have academic degrees and diplomas; many of them are adjunct academics who work in university hospitals. Similar changes took place throughout the medical profession: epidemiologists, psychologists (therapists or teachers), psychiatrists, nurses, midwives, they all now undergo academic training, whatever this is. Technicians and engineers in almost all branches of industry, executives in most of the economy, accountants, even many politicians and public administrators—for better or for worse, now unlike a century ago—are in America graduates in their chosen specialties, often the law, before they become apprentices. This is a great change.

England had traditionally two universities, Oxford and Cambridge. Later on London University appeared (1830). New ones (redbrick universities) mushroomed later. Oxford and Cambridge, left most tutoring to beginners, better trained than American student-teachers are today, or even newly appointed British assistant-lecturers. Bertrand Russell’s 1956 Portraits from Memory contains incredible and very amusing descriptions of Cambridge at the close of the nineteenth century. The degree of indifference to learning permitted and sometimes exercised there was remarkable. It made the devotion of the true scholars there a true labor of love as seldom witnessed. The radical change of Academe after World War I was almost entirely unplanned. Muddling through is unsuitable for a radical transformation of a system; miraculously, A spontaneous reform on a large scale, it did not cause a complete collapse of the system.

The rapid growth of Academe required an easy criterion for selecting new faculty-members. Publication lists was such a criterion since publications had been then due to intellectual pursuit. As the criterion took roots, it led to the deterioration of the quality of publications as means of spreading knowledge, and soon the mystique of publication developed in the public and publication-pressure in the universities. I have met people who lived before the age of publication-pressure. Some of them had published nothing.

Publication-pressure may be useful. Yet due to immensely rapid, hardly studied changes we do not quite know how much of the traditional role of the universities is preserved, should be preserved, and how. We lost the perspective and we should reconstruct it, for bewildered future-academics, for the advancement of learning, pure and applied, and for coping with the bureaucratization of Academe. We also want to reestablish Academe as the natural home of deviants. Some liberal-arts colleges are exceptions to some extent, but mostly the pressure on academics to conform is becoming increasingly agonizing, especially since the teaching methods in the university have not altered radically and they forces academics to conform more than in the past. In the academy, as elsewhere, the intelligent may find ways of evading pressures, of replacing filling forms by asking secretaries and others to help, or by being so important that administrators learn to ignore their neglect of performance of so essential a part of their duty. This is nothing special and nothing new: every society, however rigid, permits some measure of deviation. Modern society is particularly flexible, especially due to size: an academic can always hope to move to another place. Still, Academe is no longer the home of the deviant; this is hard on many of your teachers, my dear bewildered reader, and on you too.

Forgive me for treating you statistically, but not knowing you personally, I do not know what else to do. If we are to treat each other less statistically even when we are not familiar with each other, then we must create more freedom and laxity; in particular, we must allow for people who fit no category and nonetheless let them build their homes somewhere within the bounds of our society. By now, Academe is hopelessly set in some pigeonhole, so that now it finds it hard to house the abnormal; let me and you escape it and build a new monastery for ourselves; within Academe, alas.

I was carried away. I had intended to tell you how publication pressure grew. One person instituted it: Harvard president James Bryant Conant. He made Harvard a top academic institution since the grading of academic institutions relied largely on the portion of academics with doctoral degree: he created new Harvard rules: offer no employment in any academic position to anyone who is not a Ph. D. and apply ruthless publication pressure. A liberal that he was, he dismissed those who did not cooperate with the notorious House un-American Committee. Yes, it was during the Cold War< 04663256">; Harvard is one of its casualties.

Yes, you are right: it is no use crying over spilled milk. Still, it is time to make amends. You ask, what amends? In whose hands? I do not know. This deserves public discussion. For that let me put in my two bits: let us make Academe as pleasant a place for scholars as possible, and see to it that whatever the rules for hiring new recruits will be—yes, this is where you come in—it should be as fair as possible, under some democratic control. Is this possible? I hope so.

6. Student Agonies: Classes, Assignments And Examinations

Students in contemporary universities are fortunate. The degree of freedom and leisure their environment offers them is almost unequaled to any, at least within the early adult age group. Yet many of them are troubled. Even those who lead relatively happy lives suffer unnecessary troubles that they can minimize by planning and that the university can eliminate with small reforms easy to implement but not likely to occur nonetheless.


The greatest troubles that befall students befall modern society: boredom and anxiety. Even the famous Nazi philosopher Martin Heidegger knew that much. His cure for it is simple: join the army; live dangerously; die on the battlefield! There is an important kernel of truth in all this: dead people suffer neither boredom nor anxiety; even before death comes to the relief, during battle fear is so intense it leaves no room for boredom or anxiety. That Herr Professor Doktor Heidegger knew very little about military life is obvious from the fact that he saw it as all battlefield and no barracks. If you are bored and anxious in a university, think how lucky you are to avoid the murderous boredom and anxieties of barrack-life, not to mention the horrors of the battlefield. That is something to ponder about.

To complete this silly lesson in the essence of existentialist philosophy, I must mention Heidegger’s follower, famous playwright Sartre. Whereas Heidegger diagnosed us as bored and anxiety-ridden, and his recipe for a cure-all is war, Sartre was more humane and more perceptive. He replaced boredom with nausea. This is some improvement, since the excessively bored are nauseated—at least with themselves, if not with the whole world; on top of this, some may be nauseated not out of boredom but out of a loss of a sense of proportion, so that Sartre’s score is higher than that of Heidegger. Even productive and creative people may suffer from severe fits of nausea: artists, composers, writers, who work hard in attempts to achieve perfection, especially if they repeat one piece of work again and again and again, with all sorts of variations intended to capture perfection, they may be so immersed in one work, arrive at the point where returns from improvement are so rapidly diminishing, become so tired, that they lose perspective and get severe attacks of nausea akin to attacks of vertigo, berserk, and other fits of malfunction. You may have had a mild form of that sickness when working hard on an assignment or an examination. The only cure for this is old-fashioned: do something entirely different; get a vacation if necessary. In severe cases, nausea requires psychiatric aid of some sort. Whether Sartre would agree with this or consider it futile since nausea is an essential and indestructible part of the human predicament, I was never able to judge, since his obscurity almost equals that of Heidegger. Maybe he did, and for the following reason.

Sartre added some bright perceptions to the existentialism of Heidegger: it is the idea of the inalienable responsibility that all individuals carry with them whether or not they have a sense of responsibility and whether or not they have the inner strength to carry the burden. Ultimately, no matter how hard it is and how poor the range of alternatives that are open to an individual, ultimately choice is individual; only individuals choose, even if they do that by shifting the burden to others—usually commanders, or bosses, or masters or spouses—in order to deceive themselves that others choose for them. This point is extremely important, and it bears any amount of repetition; even when it is masqueraded as a new philosophy and as a profound idea stated in the most obscure and muddling terms; it is always welcome. The question, however, is not whether you or your designated boss must choose for you; it is always that you choose knowingly or not, wisely or not. Can you find help even though others cannot choose for you?

The answer is, obviously, sometimes but not always, someone in the vicinity can and is willing to help you if you ask nicely. Sartre insinuated the contrary opinion: he seems to have suggested that one person cannot ever help another in reaching difficult decisions. I am not in the least confident that I am reporting Sartre correctly. Be it what Sartre had in mind or not, it is obviously false and its falsehood is obviously a source of a ray of hope. If it is Sartre’s view that one cannot help another in coming to a decision, then we need not be surprised that he was so muddled. Anyhow, obviously, it helps to learn of alternatives that one has not noticed or consequences that one has not noticed of alternatives that one has noticed. It is always advisable to conduct rational debates on what one cares about and on what troubles one—with equals and by luck with the wiser and the more experienced.


Boredom and anxiety are common indeed, and at least among the more intelligent and among intellectuals, nausea is too. Possibly, most people most of the time have lived lives excruciating in their boredom and anxieties; it is hard to judge.[32] What is more depressing than to wait for rain in a dark, empty, and painfully long winter nights? Yet this was common fare in peasant societies and these were relatively stable; they were at least much more stable than the world in which gave birth to Heidegger’s brutal, pretentious writings. Hence, his view of boredom and anxiety is of a special sort. (Heidegger openly idealized peasant societies in the stock reactionary fashion, not caring for consistency.) In modern industrial society, boredom and anxiety differ from those in peasant society. It is the boredom of work on the conveyor-belt as already Adam Smith noticed and wrote a severe warning against its inhumanity; it is the boredom of a mechanized industrial society that does not train its members in the art of enjoying leisure, as discussed in some details in Russell’s pioneering and most important “In Praise of Idleness” (1932). Both versions of boredom are so often rooted in lack of concern for the human need for food for thought, for challenge (Abraham Maslow). It is rooted in a special application of the doctrine of original sin to learning; an application and a doctrine that most of your teachers have advocated. I do not know them personally, of course, and I suppose that some of them are very good teachers—at least in your own rather untutored eyes. I still think, unfortunately, that most of them take for granted the doctrine that I wish now to present as the basis of your education.

The most obvious phenomenon of teachers’ attitudes towards their routine duties as teachers—whatever these are—is their extreme dislike of their duties. Teachers can hardly conceal their reluctance to teach. Its manifestation often begins with impolite admission of their lack of all interest. The complaints among academics concerning their duties of reading assignments and grading examinations and term papers may give the impression that they are true martyrs. Since they seldom benefit from such activities, they must be doing it either because they have no choice or because they think they are doing it for the sake of their students. It is easy to discover that the latter idea is predominant: academic teachers suffer as they do for the sake of their students—as they keep saying.

Professors force students to come to their lectures, to write silly routine essays and answer the same questions that the textbooks answer year in and year out. Students must memorize hundreds of details that are included in their curricula for reasons that they cannot fathom, to repeat obscure statements that their professors read from their notes, to write empty essays on topics that concern nobody, all in the name of learning and of culture. When students protest that they are bored, their professors admonish them for a lack of interest. When students ask for the use of the information they have to memorize, they receive extremely poor answers for which the teachers could never get any credit were they to sit for exams in the stead of their students.

Our teaching system causes much harm: students learn to hate studies or at best to tolerate them as a necessary evil. For my part, I am of the opinion that what is not interesting is intellectually valueless. But to this I shall come later, and I shall explain at length how it is possible to be a poor student yet a good scholar, and how such students who are good scholars can manage to be recognized by their better teachers and to graduate more or less successfully despite all obstacles that conscientious academics put on their way.


One way to examine the rationality of a view is to see how serious the arguments its advocates present in its favor are. Moses Maimonides, one of the greatest and most rational philosophers of the Middle Ages, said, religious laws are not essential for rational individuals, but since common people need these laws to guide them, everyone is obliged to obey the laws. Therefore, he added, rational people can offer arguments in efforts to support of the laws but not in efforts to criticize them. This is dogmatism. He meant to ameliorate this dogmatism by debating its value for common people. Right or not, normal democracy has superseded all this.

Maimonides was rational when he offered his argument. Benedict Spinoza, his greatest disciple, still held that rational people have no need for laws. As he spoke about legislation, he did better than Maimonides did. It should serve as a tool for education, he said. This is a better ground for legislation than the ancient idea that man to man is wolf, famously defended by his older contemporary Thomas Hobbes. All these ideas are erroneous. Laws are indispensable, said Karl Popper against them, even were we all peace loving; even were man to man an angel[33], as he has put it. This deprives all traditional views on laws of their rationality. It is funny: since Einstein improved upon Newton’s theory of gravity, quite a few philosophers became relativists about truth. Now there is a point to this: Newton’s theory was one the peak of scientific knowledge and when it has lost this status, some assumptions about it had to go. Oddly, many philosophers, especially the post-modernists, declare the truth relative rather than that rationality is. This permits the rationality of the proposal of Maimonides to disappear. A practice that was eminently rational once is possibly no longer rational. Hence, relativizing rationality is obviously preferable to relativizing truth: it is commonsense.

Academics have many arguments in favor of lecturing, assigning essays, and forcing students to memorize and sweat for examination. Some of these arguments are extremely poor; most of them never underwent examination, except by learning psychologists. Concerned people, whether students or professors, whether students-senate or its committees, or any academic institution or sub-institution, operated by faculty-members, administrators, or both; whether bodies concerned with some aspect of the public good or another, such as the society for the prevention of cruelty to children, or the council for better education, or the Ecumenical Council; or governments, federal or state, their legislatures, courts, or administrations—none of these has ever bumped into the idea that possibly all this is a big error, not to say empirically refuted. The only reasonable argument for all the antediluvian practices that Academe clings to tooth-and-nail is that they are traditional. This indicates that they may have been rational once. Probably they were. But then, the claim for rationality of the lecturing system is obsolete; anyway, it is empirically refuted. Every day thousands of opportunities avail themselves to thousands of honest people who would not usually overlook an opportunity to make an easy honest buck, to make a very honest and well deserved, yet very easily earned, buck and a handful of bucks, by the sheer exercise of common sense to the arts and sciences of academic instruction. The most efficient professors give students multiple-choice exams and let graduate-students grade them. Unskilled workers could do that after little training, and they will gladly do it for the minimum wage. The saving thus accrued would be enormous. Large universities have introductory courses in vast duplications to keep classes small—to facilitate contact between teachers and students. Had students spoken with their instructors instead of listening to them lecture, they would all be happier.

It is easier to talk to you about your own troubles and ask how necessary they are: I do assume that you are no glutton for punishment and so would gladly rid yourself of a trouble you see no reason to suffer. Your superiors may find it easier to let you melt in your own sweat and leave things as they are; as long as you do not scream, they will gladly ignore your plight. As long as you are reading my message to you—advocating intellectual pleasure instead of intellectual suffering, as I do—I assume that you have enough sympathy with my cause as to be ready to consider the possibility that some of your mental suffering is avoidable; and then you can try to assess the cost of avoiding it. So do read my views about cost-reduction.

I assume then that you accept the suggestion that possibly you are better off not going to lectures at all expect when you enjoy them or at least expect to enjoy them or can see the benefit they may somehow offer you in some distant future. Come what may, do not retreat now to the doctrine that you must endure the suffering of the boring lectures because obviously they are good for your career or for your soul. There is nothing obvious about that, and your professors who are so quick to say it is obvious are not quick at all to tell you why or answer questions about their educational views.


Discipline. Academic discipline. This is what you gain first in any education system, including Academe. When you join an army or enter a factory, the first enemy you encounter is intense boredom and inability to contain it. When you stand still in a military parade and hear a bombastic, long message, you feel an enormous itch; you start an obsessive desire to scratch here and to rub there; you start feeling that your whole life is in jeopardy unless you can scrub one foot with the other, or scratch the middle of your back, or your elbow; you cannot stand still or you will explode. What you suffer from is not an itch but boredom. Your immediate superiors will punished you by all available means, legal and illegal, by mental cruelty, humiliation and abuse, until you learn to tolerate boredom with equanimity. If you do not believe it is boredom, try factories instead and you will discover a similar, though much less openly oppressive regime. If you are still skeptical, look at some street-urchins and beachcombers suffering from boredom: they can scratch themselves and hop around all day long, but they soon find such remedies pointless, and they desperately look for other—sometimes at the risk of health and of freedom. In the classroom, the desire to scratch and hop is the same; we have begun fighting it in elementary school. Yet some of us are not sufficiently bored in elementary and secondary schools, and so these lucky ones become less lucky as they are less prepared for the boredom of university lecture rooms. They are the more likely to arrive at the university for further education rather than for a degree or for training in some craft. The need to learn to tolerate boredom is bad enough—for the training to suffer boredom is the destruction of initiative, of spontaneity, of the life force itself. We should consider it morally and intellectually undesirable. Allowing for it is a disaster. That our civilization has survived it is a miracle.[34]

Oriental cultures—and other non-­western, not primitive cultures—do suffer boredom with equanimity. This is impressive. They do so as broken individuals, as ones who had had too much pain and deprivation, physical and mental; so they consider total indifference a state superior to other available ones. Many (indigenous) Indian, Chinese and Japanese philosophies view boredom as the nearest to happiness: take the utilitarian scale of pains (negative) and pleasures (positive), set the maximum at zero, and you get a western imitation of Oriental philosophy. Take Oriental students who are not hopelessly steeped in that philosophy and present them with a challenge; you will soon learn that you have opened in their hearts the Pandora’s box of all the fears and anxieties that they have ever experienced, plus the ones their ancestors have inculcated in them for eons in an attempt to make them docile. At least in the Orient the prevalence of this phenomenon is to be expected; not in a state university in the Mid-West of the United States of America. It is shocking to notice how much of this still exists in the Occident. How are we going to develop enough faith in our youths to be able to assist their education without browbeating them into accepting boredom? My hope is pinned on you as well as on similarly bewildered students who have never made it because they have failed to suffer boredom, to tolerate it—as others do as a matter of course, running from one lecture hall to another and cramming for one exam after the other, aimlessly and pointlessly yet indifferently. I put my hope on you especially because you are crazy enough to aspire to an academic job—as you wish to be a professor or to escape the worse boredom of the barracks, the conveyor-belts, red tape, rush-hour traffic crawl, the rat race. The future of Academe may depend on you. So, keep fighting! Hold the fort!


From time immemorial, oppression persists for the good of society: society has priority over you: we can do without you but you cannot do without us! Romeo and Juliet must die. They are very nice and captivating, and they have done nothing wrong; Juliet did not even go to the discotheque; but die they must—to maintain the social order. This story is universal. The peculiar to Shakespeare is his objection: after they die in the traditional catharsis, the rules of tragedy force the curtain to fall. He refuses, keeps the curtains up, and forces into the stage the whole of the council of the Montagues and the whole of the council of the Capulets. He forces them to agree that things cannot go on like this. In the modern world social change continues, by legal reform, by easing of custom and by the vagaries of fashion. Most impositions on individuals in the name of society are quashed: society invites your rebellion. Moralists declare repeatedly: the latest permissive move will destroy society. Yet oppression is the offender: it causes instability. Initially, liberalism met with derision as utopian, as impractical. Now that liberal countries are rich and rich countries are liberal, now that illiberal countries cannot progress despite tremendous natural resources, why do most philosophers still deem liberalism failure?

Is there evidence that lectures, exams (other than for licenses), and the like, are good? What does research on education say? Remedial teaching and the teaching of retarded children (for which we owe education incalculable debt) are terrific. Regarding education of normal kids, standard education theory consists of three items: motivation, didactics and curriculum. Motivation theory assumes wickedly that kids do not want to learn and proposes, more wickedly, to trick them to study. Didactics answers the question, how can we go not too slowly (so as not to bore) and not too fast (as to invite errors)? The ideal, the smooth growth of skill, is the faultless education of the nervous wreck. Great reformers like Janusz Korczak and Caleb Gattegno are ignored. So standard education theory is useless for us. Admittedly, educators have useful stock of experience, and more than a trick or two to teach beginners. To qualify as a schoolteacher you undergo training. Academic teachers need no training. At least half of the freshmen and sophomore classes in the average large American university are taught by graduate students who often have less training than schoolteachers, both in education and in the subject matter at hand. This is no accident. The universities streamline their routines in many respects; electronic tools often replace administrators there; can these also replace student-teachers? Yes, of course they can. Some universities do replace teachers with screens, tapes, videos of all sorts; the internet universities and extra-mural departments of leading universities discover that lecturers may be replaced by actors who are much better at reading textbooks aloud than professors and that the contents of the standard textbook can be replaced by the best and most advanced text available. The replacement of lectures with electronic tools should free them to work with students in tutorials, study groups, and more.

What will help us find the truth on this? Can we consult biographies or autobiographies of scientists, scholars, pillars or industry and politics? A general is more likely than a professor to be a candidate for any political position. Pillars of society who are university graduates often refrain from reference to this; their autobiographies are vague about it, unless they explain why they did poorly. Few celebs—political, industrial, business or show biz—did well in college. They have little to say about the benefit from their education, although they may stutter kind words on the good old days. This is understandable. Military academies do not breed generals; they cannot say what in their training has made them outstanding. How much do they owe to their excellent intrigue mongering? Yet a general is credible talking of the quality of a military academy than a financier is talking of the quality of a university. The exception should be the outstanding professor. Former Princeton University professor United States president Woodrow Wilson is reputed to have said he left Princeton, as he got tired of its politics. Einstein said, exams had caused him harm. There are also exceptions elsewhere: Philosopher Michael Polanyi compared excellent professors that are powerful researchers to their Renaissance predecessors as workshop owners. He followed Einstein’s claim that research is nearer to art than one may surmise from the official doctrine of science as resting on detailed information.

James D. Watson’s 1968 The Double Helix reports the history of the discovery of the nucleic acids that was a grand breakthrough. I cannot discuss it here; I recommend it very much, since it is terrific read. It describes two ambitious young researchers very far from conformism. One can declare their discovery too unusual to draw any lesson from it for simpletons like you and me. Still, it shows that the exceptional researcher should stay off the treadmill; and maybe you are it.

Honest biographies of honest failures often contain nostalgic references to the fun of university life as enjoyed by frank, undisturbed reports of free non-intellectuals.[35] Fun I am after; but not at the cost of failure.

Perhaps we should consult some average ex-students in diverse occupations. Such studies are hard to conduct: unless very cleverly and carefully contrived, they are more than likely to present staple answers. Some staple answer are predictable with little effort: almost all will report that they find their academic education beneficial. When pressed, they will criticize their education in a predictable manner: average people give average answers. Most psychological and sociological surveys then are hardly of any use. Consequently, social researchers prefer multiple-choice questionnaires. The trouble with these is that much bias sneaks in by the very choice of questions, their wordings, and even their order. This kind of research is so exasperating that one need not be surprised to find some social researchers preferring controlled experiments to surveys. The few experimental colleges that have made lecture-attendance voluntary or abolished lectures deserve close study.


Before leaving the empirical material, let me note: although information provided by outstanding citizens is inapplicable to the rank-and-file, and although the information provided by ordinary citizens is scant and not easily available or too problematic, one class of outstanding citizens is available for possibly enlightening information, namely the academics. After all, as generals benefit from their schooling more than outstanding financiers do, academics may likewise benefit from academic training.

There is a measure of risk involved here, though, as in the study of any unrepresentative sample. The sample of outstanding academics may be puzzling and eccentric. Let me mention an example. Martin Buber narrates that early in his life he tended to draw a romantic picture of a hero of his (Moses Hess, I think), and only through prolonged work he learned to make it less ideal. One might expect Buber’s report on his training to include reference to the critical attitude; but no; he refers to no training, by others or by himself, that helped him grow out of romanticism and to what he passed later as realist. In that improvement, he says, he received help from the music of Johann Sebastian Bach. He does not claim that he can explain this. Perhaps some Bach fans need no explanation of this; perhaps others cannot understand this. In any case, Buber’s story is impressive in its oddity. Stories that are more down-to-earth appear, say, in the autobiographies of Russell, Planck, and Einstein. Russell had nothing favorable to say for his teachers in Cambridge with one exception (Whitehead), though he expresses respect to some Cambridge scholars and his indebtedness to the lively intellectual atmosphere of the Cambridge environment; also, he defended the right of poor academics to remain in universities for the sake of academic freedom. Planck had as teachers two of the very best physicists of his day, Kirchhoff and Helmholtz. One was a very good lecturer, the other very poor. Planck viewed himself as the pupil and follower of the poor lecturer rather than the good one; his inability to impress either of them was a disappointment that no later fame and recognition compensated for. Strange. Einstein’s story is understandable. He hated lectures, did not go to them, and passed the exams on the strength of lecture-notes of classmates. The exams hurt him nevertheless: they spoiled his appetite for physics for two years. For the rest of his life he expressed admiration for the English system of private tutorials.

The sufferings of students in classrooms and in assignments is immediate and real; the promised return is neither immediate nor assured. This invites rebellion.


Do not let all this fool you: every argument, however deadly, however conclusive, has to it many rejoinders. Only, the more deadly or conclusive an argument is, the harder it is to find a good rejoinder to it. The difference is between any rejoinder and a good one. It makes the difference between better and worse exchanges of opinion, arguments, debates, discussions. I suppose you can decide what rejoinders are good, what not; but it is easy to throw dust into people’s eyes because many people lack the courage to dismiss a poor rejoinder.

This explains the quick turnover of popular philosophy. Once-famous Paul Feyerabend said, as we may fail to distinguish between good and poor arguments, we should welcome all of them. The popularity of this feeble idea invites explanation. Mine is, cowards find solace in this, no matter how odd it is. Even were cowardice less common in Academe than elsewhere, it still is the most damaging aspect of rationality. Thus, the answer to all of my criticisms of current education is, our present educational practices work, whereas a reform may destroy it; why, then, rock the boat?

Indeed, our system worked even children were spanked and beaten and flogged and whipped and kept in jail-like schools run by sadistic ignorant masters as described by Charles Dickens and by Alphonse Daudet. When Freud and his followers suggested that traumatizing kids harms them, they met with the same answer: do not rock the boat. He did. Did he and his followers go too far? No: the boat did not sink. Now, we can scarcely avoid experimenting; we can use them better or less well. Take two or three rather large universities, and cancel all compulsory work for two or three years and see what happens. For the life of me, I cannot see how this can damage Academe. The experiment may conceivably damage two or three universities, and this is why my proposal seems unacceptable. My concern here is with students. Possibly, you are doomed to swallow lectures to the end of your student days; at least remember that this is not demonstrably beneficial to you—or to anyone else. We do not know whether it is so, since universities are too cowardly to experiment. This is hard to deny.

A healthier attitude is this: it is easier to cancel some poor methods than to yielding to them since somehow it is deeply significant and miraculously useful and ingeniously designed and cleverly organized for your own enormous and incalculable benefit. Do not blame yourself for the suffering, boredom and futility that it incurs. I will show you that you can avoid the drudgery with impunity. We will come to this. In the meanwhile, you will be able to learn from poor students in your own class. You will, of course, want to know how you can use the poor student’s techniques—and even improve upon them, I hope—without coming any closer to becoming a poor student; while improving your position as a scholar, both in fact and in the eyes of those on whose judgments your future may vexingly depend.

7. Teaching Agonies: Courses And Students

My apology: this volume is much too orderly and to the point; it definitely begins to smell like a typical do-it-yourself tool-kit. Books of this sort are usually boring. This is evident from the few anecdotes that an author includes here and there in order to alleviate the misery of the bored student for a minute or so during which, the writer hopes, readers’ initial desire to read may avoid total collapse. For, dreadful as most do-it-yourself academic literature obviously is, and much as most of it depends on readers’ moment of self-deception being strong enough to make them throw away a small sum for the sake of an idle dream—the fact remains that, fortunately, its writers can never assume that readers will ever be forced to read—especially since teachers hate the do-it-yourself literature (as misleading) and will never force students to invest in it. The writers in question cannot make the material itself interesting. This is so partly because most of them endorse the popular myth that boredom becomes true scholarship. I am becoming increasingly boring myself, though not out of such ideology. It is due to the limitation of my literary talent. If you are suffering from the creeping stodginess of these pages, think for a moment of their poor author. What am I sweating for? Why do I care enough about you to go on pouring so many words trying so hard to entertain you and keep your interest afloat? I guess I am impetuous. Ever since I remember myself I wanted to say something—long before I had anything to say, and long before I had my idea of how hard it is to say anything well. I remember I felt the need to go in the streets and shout, “Listen to Johann Sebastian Bach! He is so great!” Lucky for myself, I did not; and, unlucky for myself, I could not become a musician of any sort, performer, conductor, composer, or plagiarist; I could not even qualify as a historian of music or a musicologist, I could become an usher in a concert hall or a receptionist in a conservatoire, even an administrator there; but I retained the idea that saying is more important than the message; and this shallow adolescent folly prevented me from an attachment to the margins of the music world. By some deviant route, I became a professor instead. My ideal was that Scheherazade of the frame story of the classical Arabian Nights who had married a sultan who, suspecting his wives of infidelity, got into the habit of beheading them soon after the nuptials; and she kept alive by keeping her husband’s interest in the stories she was telling him. Poor woman; she must have developed an obsessive desire to bore her audience once, but she could not afford that luxury. Do as she pleased she could, but not bore the audience; constantly keeping her audience’s interest alive, she had to make her sister invite her next episode repeatedly.

As Tristram Shandy has said, “in this, Sir, I am of so nice and singular a humor, that if I thought you were able to form the least judgment or probable conjecture to yourself, of what was to come in the next page,—I would tear it out of my book.”[36] Tristram Shandy can afford to bore his reader; he had nothing to lose but his audience, and as a gentleman he was financially independent; Scheherazade could lose the head she carried on her shoulders. Indeed, she had to resort not only to the art of storytelling, but also to contrive a fake-audience—her sister Dunyazade. Poor Dunyazade; she had no interest in stories, she knew her sister’s stories by heart from early childhood in Grandma’s version that was far better; she hated and envied Scheherazade’s superiority as a queen and even as a story­teller; yet she had to play a fifth-wheel in a mismatched company and pretend to be begging her sister to tell one more tale; just one more—for a thousand and one nights! It is about as terrible as having to come with the rest of the departmental staff to a public lecture by some old bore whom the departmental chair was careless enough to invite or not dexterous enough to shake off. I do not know why the wise compilers of The Arabian Nights could not do with Scheherazade alone, why they needed the services of Duniazade. Maybe they tried to be realistic for a moment and confess that the initial approach to their audiences is problematic, to overcome unfairly, by means that were not perfectly honest. A book with an intriguing, even sexy, title and title-page illustration is not yet successful, but if the book is good the reader will probably forgive author and publisher its misleading title and illustration. A professor has to get audience one way or another—by promising good grades and by threatening with poor grades, if need be; but it gets rather tedious if a professor has to inspect attendance in every lecture and throw every other week a surprise-exam, or use other ploys to keep audience attendance, no matter how reluctantly. It is disheartening, not only for students, but also for lecturers. College-kids barely know their professors; students select sections according to timetable convenience rather than according to their knowledge of who is lecturing how. The poor lecturer; semester after semester the poor lecturer has to face a group of anonymous and bored faces with little chance of acquaintance before they vanish, only to transform to another group. Now lecturers have to pretend ignorance of the engagement of their audiences with their laptops, tuned to the internet for something interesting.

Every one of us has had some chance to talk to some bored audience, to discover their boredom but to be unable to stop talking until the end of the message. If you have experienced that and if you can imagine making a living by doing that, a couple of hours a week, then you may have some idea of the unpleasantness of contemporary university lecturing.


The Journal of the Royal Medical Society of 1960 includes a paper on eighteenth-century researchers. I find in it the following assertion.

In 1744 the Medical Faculty consisted of a Professor of Medicine and a Professor of Anatomy and Botany, but apparently these gentlemen did not deliver lectures on their subjects and it is difficult to find out exactly what duties they did carry out.

The author of these lines, James Wallace, B.Sc., F.R.S., ignores the possibility of professors with no duties, although this was the norm. Even much later, when professors did have the duty to lecture, they could deliver the first and the last lecture and leave the rest to assistants. Research is the last thing that engaged them. No wonder they were engaged in intrigue: they had nothing else to do. (Admittedly, some professors did find something to do: study.)

Traditions change. As soon as the idea won popularity that lecture courses can be up-to-date, math and science professors began to display a sense of duty: lecture as best they could and prepare their lectures repeatedly to improve and update them. God knows why they feel obliged; perhaps because they take it as the obligation that comes with the appointment; or because they recognize the value of education and feel good as a part of the education system. The improvements of their lectures are utterly lost on most students; the punctuality with which they come to deliver their lectures is similar; it is a demonstration of good will that benefits hardly anyone. There is no remuneration for the efforts of academics to teach well or to keep their lectures up-to-date or even to come to lecture regularly. Ironically, the great frustration is the result of it being a labor of love. Professors often dread exams more than students do. Students who receive low grades, fail, or are penalized otherwise, can rectify failures, and they know that professors cannot fail, say, half the class; this provides some assurance of success. Professors know that when they read the exam papers their consciences tell them to fail at least half of the students, as well as their miserable lecturer. This is out of question. Fortunately, professors cannot tell their bosses how to grade lecturers. Yet when you grade yourself and give yourself a poor grade, especially when you cannot tell anyone about it, you are liable to get a strong fit of nausea.[37] The old-fashioned cure for it is vacation. Fortunately, professors get vacations after exams as a matter of course. Before their cases become acute, they can try to relinquish teaching, either in favor of administration or in favor of purely research positions or early retirement. Sometimes they may become sufficiently senior in their departments and gain limitation of their task to graduate teaching that keeps them away from large classes. They may try to find a job in small liberal arts colleges whose teaching is more old-fashioned and less on a conveyor-belt. The situation is thus not desperate, yet it does involve much agony—aggravated by a sense of duty.

Some professors care little about their teaching; they cover as much of the elementary standard text of the course assigned to them as they can do effortlessly, tell as many stories and tales, parables, jokes and anecdotes, as they feel they need as a means for eliciting students’ attendance, assign plain and easy assignments that they can check at a glance, and grade exams generously to avoid disputes; their courses need not be up-to-date, as there is no initiative for it. I do not know who is better, the careless lecturer or one who burns with ambition, works hard at pumping as much material as possible, as up-to-date as possible, into the skulls of unwilling audiences in the name of learning and scholarship.

This discussion is a flop. Professors have troubles teaching but teaching does not kill them—it seldom gives them ulcers. But they sometimes despise themselves for not getting ulcers about the poverty of their performances, and so they try to make their students get ulcers and they try to relegate the worse and tougher teaching assignments to young graduates who do it for much less remuneration yet with much greater effort and trepidation and alacrity. Since I am a professor, let me report that I have experienced what I describe here, but seldom; much less than my peers. So I know: the agonies of professors hardly deserve a section, and even if they did—as I initially thought when I designed this volume—the attempt to put myself into their shoes and feel how it feels already nauseates me; so I cannot do it well and I am looking forward to the next section.


Diagnosis is nauseating anyhow. It is hard to stick to it for long; it is hard to do so and maintain a sense of proportion; it is hard to diagnose one illness after another and remember that most people are well enough. Physicians learn about this during their apprenticeship: a diagnostician who examines a healthy person has to be on guard to avoid finding something wrong.[38] Since there is no perfection, perfect health being no exception, diagnosticians will usually have anchors in reality.[39] University lecturing is dreadful. Assuming that you are a student, I suppose you suffer from it at the receiving end, although you may very well have some sort of teaching assignment too. So you know, lecturers may suffer too; mostly they take it well. As a student-teacher, you may have your suffering immediately alleviated to some extent by one simple observation that I hope you take from me upon trust because, as I keep telling you, I find this section sickening and I am impatient to move to the next one. The observation is that you are left lost in the woods not because they have forgotten you and would not extend you the courtesy of telling you what the university expects of you; rather, it is due to their ignorance: you were told it all. I think this is comforting; I think it is always comforting to know that the fellow whose shoulder is next to yours is not indifferent to you but is lost too. At least Freud said it is comforting to know that you are not a lone mental sufferer.[40]

Lecturing is of a subject or to an audience. Lecturers of a subject tend to be monomaniacs, to see the world as defective because most people do not care enough about it or—much worse —they ignore one’s contributions of the lecturer to it. For them the classroom is their salvation. There they crack the whip, threaten with surprise exams and poor grades, and so on.

Lecturers who lecture to audiences find saying something more important than having something to say. They know that only children will listen to them. The place to find child audiences is elementary school; and so such lecturers become schoolteachers. Students enjoy them. So no complain.

Academe was no place for lecturers; it was a community of eccentrics and scholars. They lectured, but incidentally to their vocation. Lecturing as a vocation, as the labor of love, has little discussion about it. Novels about good lecturers are usually either soapy or heartbreaking but seldom enlightening.[41] On research as a vocation, the literature is poorer. The most celebrated text on it, Max Weber’s 1919 “Science as a Vocation”, still ignores lectures, except to mention some of the tasks that obviously do not belong to the lecture-room, chiefly political propaganda. So do the many comments on it. Possibly, commentators see no problem there. They were thus not lecturers proper. Nor were they monomaniacs. Least of all were they the monomaniacs that original thinkers tend to be—out of curiosity or out of the desire to broadcast an idea. Since academics were not ex officio the original thinkers of recent centuries, they lectured partly to dictate books, partly to fill a duty to the society and to the Church that took care of their material needs, and partly as recruitment for the next generation of academics. This was always crude: before becoming a fellow of a college or a professor (or looking for fortune elsewhere), a successful graduate became a tutor or a Privatdozent, left to fish for his own students. Even Adam Smith was such a tutor. In contemporary United States of America lecturing counts almost only during one’s graduate years if one is not bright enough to receive a reasonable non-teaching fellowship and not well-to-do and able to do without it. Possibly non-distinct assistant professors whose colleagues cannot decide whether to extend their contracts or not, they may benefit from reputation as lecturers; that occurs seldom.

Traditional Academe did not recognize any need for good lecturing. The excellent lecturer James Clerk Maxwell, better known for his electromagnetic field equations and other great discoveries, had only three students in his last class in Cambridge. This is dreadful, but typical. In the whole history of early modern Academe, until the end of the eighteenth century, almost no person stands out as a lecturer, except some who introduce experimental demonstrations into classes: Vesalius, William Cullen, Joseph Black and Georg Christoph Lichtenberg. Justus von Liebig of the mid-nineteenth century won reputation because his university laboratory was open day and night. As W. E. Johnston tells us in his 1861 England As It Is, the place to hear a good lecture was not a university but an evening lecture for lay audiences—especially the Royal Institution where Davy began the tradition of entertaining science lecturers. His lectures were social events like the opera performances to which, nasty gossip columnists observed, ladies went to exhibit new hats. Tradition developed as Davy’s successors in that Institution, Faraday and Tyndall, did very well too. It is still alive there. Tyndall was so successful that he received an invitation to lecture in the United States of America. He also was a bit of a ham: he planned accidental fires to arouse excitement, for instance. In universities, things remained traditional and lectures dull. Maybe there is the tradition in Academe that good academics must pass the test of trial by lectures, and the test of learning to deliver boring lectures and survive the ordeal. I do not know. Academics detest talking about teaching. They say this may be the beginning of efforts to impose pressure on lecturers to teach this way or that, and thus infringe on their academic freedom. True enough: we must guard the right that academics have to bore.

In large universities, where lecturers are on their own and can do anything they like in their lecture-course with no fear that anybody will bother to pay any attention unless their grading is unusual or some scandal develops—in such places lectures are incredibly uniform. (Some of the exceptional lecture courses are on sale, though.) Teachers who come from different universities teach similar courses that bear different titles. America has a few small colleges that center on teaching; they show concern, hold discussions, and attempt coordination. Yet there is much more variety in the teaching there of elementary material, even though unusual courses and wild lectures are scarce there too—unless they invest efforts to bring distinguished visitors, which is expensive.

Traditional Academe did not recognize any need for good lecturing. Yet in some sense, it does recognize it. The evidence for that is simple: if you are a good lecturer you may find that peers sabotage your work; if you are not, listen to what they say about those who are.


Before I conclude this part of my discourse—it is high time—I had better correct one misconception that I might have created. If I were not so conscientious, I would have long ago started the next item on my list, but I cannot leave you with the feeling that I ignore the violations of academic freedom that frequents the large universities. Admittedly, there is not much public discussion of teaching and of teaching methods. This rigidified the accepted framework. If you deviate on your own without violating the framework, you may get away with it; but with the increased conveyor-belt techniques, for any deviation, in any way and measure, to remain unnoticed becomes ever harder. Your students, for example, will have been forced to listen to you by their departmental ideologists—who occupy most of the rest of this tome—and these ideologists think they have definite ideas of what you should be teaching and how. When students complain—and coercion does lead to complaints, unfortunately wrongly (from poor students who feel the need to justify their failure by complaining) rather than rightly (from bright and interested students)—the departmental ideologist consider justified cross-examining them. Ideologists are either unimaginative fanatics or tired lecturers aspiring to administrative positions; in either case, your ideologist will soon brand you a deviant who experiments at the cost of letting young innocents pay for your errors. Also, there is the cursed set of curriculum committees designed to prevent you from teaching what you are personally interested in; they will even suspect that under the guise of caring for students you wish to introduce a course merely because you personally happen to like it, which is intolerable: it may make students enjoy a lecture, Heaven forbid. Thus, the major traditional rationale for teaching, the perpetuation of certain pure interests and the recruitment of new candidates for the sacred duties of the intellectual love of God, all this is institutionally barred (not very successfully, let us hope.

The tremendous expansion of post-World War II Academe brought to it a special kind of conveyor-belt education system, and one that trickled down from Academe all the way to kindergartens. It was worth it, as weapons in the battle against illiteracy and superstition and ignorance. Eventually, we need to disassociate Academe from any social or political function that is essential for modern society. Academe was a luxury and should remain a luxury. Research is a luxury and it should remain a luxury or perish. Academics should be invited—not forced—to perform research. No more than that. It is possibly too early for this reform. Doyens of Academe will oppose it even when it will be too late. Their major excuse will be that the reform I recommend is unrealistic. I shall argue that it is easy, and throw some tips on grading exams and on other useful if dull items. If your chairperson cannot place you in a job you can do well, maybe you will do better to move to another school. Academe is large, and there is a silver lining to this cloud too: you can always try to move to another school. Once you realize that, you have a good bargain chip. Admittedly, for this you need some market value; not much. This is easy to acquire—by writing one or two noticeable papers. We will come to that in good time. Keep reading. When I bore you, just skim through this volume to find what takes your fancy.

8. Research Agonies: Keeping Abreast, Publication-Pressure, And The Drive For Recognition

I hear you complain. It is all too easy, you say, to advise academic upstarts who are not doing well in their universities to move to other universities: this is easier said than done. How does one move around? How does one enter Academe in the first place? Is the entry methods available repeatedly and indefinitely?

You have a point there. To repeat: entering Academe is as unpredictable as any matter to do with attractive employment. Still, the techniques of moving from one academic institution to another are relatively simple: it is easier for Academe to hire an insider than an outsider, one whom others have found suitable. This is true also for institutions that suffer high rates of attrition and for ones that have many job applicants and no clear filters to reduce the number of applicants to a reasonable size. The system prefers old pros to novices. Hence, become an old pro fast, say, by publishing rapidly. For, you do not want to waste time on a rat race.


The old pro is one who is au courant, up-to-date. Tradition was indifferent to it: what counts traditionally is what the professor knows: what he ignores it you should ignore. The change occurred when science professors wished to be up-to-date. It came with the rise of the prestige of science in Academe, towards the middle of the nineteenth century at the earliest.

It is impossible to read all the papers published in your sub-discipline. The old pros stick to their sub-sub-disciplines (knowing more and more about less and less) where they claim expertise. They glance regularly at the leading periodicals there, keep touch with peers and frequent conferences. This does not assure not missing some important item; nothing does, except their scarcity. This is how most experts suffer anxiety.

Recognition of important items may take time. The result may be rapid when the author of the important item (or one who takes a share in the credit for it[42]) is a member of the Establishment or when a leading member bestows it.[43] Otherwise, the time lag takes the average of 20 years, namely, nearly a whole generation.[44] Publication pressure and the requirements from publishable papers offer some guarantee for stability. It can improve, as I will venture to argue in the prescriptive part below.

One may be a novice or a trainee for many years; in scholarship as in politics. The higher you aim, the longer the training-period the system expects you to undergo—like in politics. You get qualified for more and more lower positions but it becomes ever harder on your self-esteem and sense of dignity to accept them. This need not be so. Peers may consider famous professors young for long. They would still gain high salary and power. They tend to publish technical papers and hold influential positions on the national scene: they help friends get better jobs or raises, or persuade editors of learned periodicals publish papers and publishers to print books; leading higher-degree-granting-universities (what a monstrous title) consider their advice seriously and let them help craft hiring policies. Such people are not young, except when aspiring for high positions. Aiming at the top makes an academic young: promising rather than as established. The promise is seldom intellectual, since scholars of this kind tend to be specialists in narrow, technical sub-sub-fields; few consider themselves qualified to comment on a work respectable as promising, not as a work well appraised and cautiously assessed and publicly declared worth its weight in gold. It did not raise public discussion, it did not contribute any distinct idea or conclusion to any other public discussion; it nevertheless looked highly respectable and was tentatively considered this way. (That is to say, people refrained from commenting on it, but they nod their heads approvingly when they hear it mentioned.) The scholar in question had also published a short note or two that were easier to comprehend, that led to some discussion, and that would have established their authors as minor figures of sorts were they candidates for it.


How does a person of promise fulfill that promise? When has a person of promise failed to do so? Is there a deadline? With my yen for digression, I see here a temptation for one so great that I may never return to my agenda. So let me forego this digression, especially since it rests on my own impersonal observations (that is to say, I have read documents pertaining to such cases), and so I shall only give you a few brief hints—extremely inadequate and not doing much good to my reputation as a very exacting scholar able to dismiss nonchalantly a much acclaimed work and declare it obviously too dull or too unscholarly or both. Of course, my own scholarly reputation is terribly shaky among the real guardians of the high standards of scholarship who know that I am demanding the impossible—both impressive scholarship and the avoidance of dull boring detail. My present sketchy survey that opens a Pandora-box of tough questions is one more confirmation of my poor scholarship, of my preference for fireworks over genuine, detailed, serious, careful work. My fireworks comprise a wholesale dismissal of other’s fireworks as unscholarly and of other’s scholarship as dull.[45] So be it. I cannot but sketch my answer to the questions I have raised here; I may return to them later on somewhere in this volume, but now the following paragraph should do.

Academics are promising as long as they project images of aspirant to a high position. How does one keep a public image and how does one lose it? One loses it when rumor says that one is an aspirant no longer: one has a great future behind one, as a professor of mine used to say of himself. He was; and he succeeded to change his aspirations and make it just in time by changing his field of expertise. This is another story. When one projects an image of being an inventor—telling people about one’s researches, subscribing to The Inventors’ Magazine—with no credentials—it provides gossip with a choice: wait for the fulfillment of the promise, or dismiss it as a dream. I should have used another verb instead of “dismiss”, I decide on a second thought, but I am in too much of a hurry right now, so, allow ne to proceed. A third and important alternative is to destroy one’s image as an inventor by registering a minor patent and another minor patent and then declaring having left the field.


I am back to my agenda. The reason why our most ambitious professor’s work was tentatively respected is not so much that it looked respectable as that it looked like progress-reports of a person working on a Really Great Book.[46] That need for progress-reports is real. Colleagues will say, the person in question must go on publishing to maintain a position. This explains why they barely read these reports, especially since this requires effort: in order to maintain a job one has to add occasional items on one’s publication-list and provide a revised version of it to the departmental chair, the appointment committee, and others.

Kindly note: my dislike for publication-pressure and for the servile succumbing to it is no objection to the publication of progress-reports. There is much to say for the proper planning of a study, first as private draft for colleagues and close students, then as a series of papers in a few editions, and only then as a finished product. This is no general recipe, though I suspect most studies would improve were they first condensed into series of very short papers. Nor are all studies capable of such a treatment: there are too many reasons against it, not the least of which is that its author is willing to give the subject only so many years of research-life and no more. On such matters, authors’ decisions are strictly private. One may botch up a project; a possibly splendid work may turn up obscure and confusing and useless for the mere reason that its author was sick of it and left it unfinished; an author may even have felt that readers can fill gaps by themselves, investing little effort reasonably to expect of them. Authors may do themselves severe injustice even by small misjudgments on such matters.[47] Still, such a decision is strictly private. The longer a researcher works on a book, with the outcome of more progress-reports, the better the chances that the product is acceptable, perhaps as a masterpiece.

A serious optical illusion dominates this. Often writers think it impossible to make an impressive book by the mere rehash of ideas already present in the learned literature. Not so. At times, the mere rearrangement of old material is sufficient novelty. Non-fiction depends less than fiction on how much of its content readers are already familiar with. And spotting a good piece of fiction is easy: it keeps its readers in suspense their familiarity with its synopsis notwithstanding. Indeed, some writers (Dostoevsky, Crime and Punishment, 1866) start with spoilers. Similarly, a writer may easily remake a series of short stories known to many readers to render the collection a novel, and a reviewer may say, the connoisseur will derive a special pleasure from reading it and being able to contrast the original with the finished masterpiece. (Example: Isaac Asimov, I Robot, 1950.) Preparatory works of artists, sketches, were normally destroyed or lost until the advent of the connoisseurs; now artists exhibit sketches. Some exhibitions of sketches display various preparatory stages of one or a few masterpieces, some sketch exhibitions display sketches of not-executed works. Picasso is the master of such exhibitions, and fascinating they truly are. Exhibitions of his sketches enrich enjoyment and understanding of his finished masterpieces.

There is no law in this matter; sketches of some artists are much superior to their finished products. This may be because they are good drafters but poor oil painters; or because their private work is bolder than their concessions to public taste; or for other reasons. E. H. Gombrich points out that Constable’s colleagues were familiar with his unfinished oils; they found them quaint. Today they fascinate, considered finished canvases with bold blobs or “flakes” left there as if by intention, resembling impressionist techniques of the later generation.[48]

There is no law about why some unfinished masterpieces stir us. Constable’s unfinished oils stir even better than his finished ones; Leonardo’s oils stir as characteristically unfinished. When you look at an unfinished Leonardo work you can see why he did not finish it; the fellow was so powerful an artisan and such a perfectionist that when he had arrived to that stage after much labor and planning, he knew where he was going to. Being a restless spirit, he could not bring himself to complete a purely mechanical work. You see it and you imagine the finished product effortlessly, if you have some knowledge—very little is necessary—of Renaissance art. How very different all this is from Leonardo’s marvelous horror sketches that are hard to view as paintings since he has not painted any of them. We can imagine such paintings, though. There is even a risk here, the risk that we will distort Leonardo’s horror pictures as we look at them through the eyes of Hieronymus Bosch, or even Salvador Dali, and let all sort of cheap horror paintings and movies influenced us, especially those by artists whom Leonardo has influenced!

There is one important reason for putting sketches into a finished oil and series of progress-reports into a book. The sketches are under-interpreted and misinterpreted, and it is a real pleasure to be corrected by looking at a masterpiece and see how much greater is the artist’s creative power than yours is. Artists interact with audiences, though. If this is not so true of Leonardo, it is very true of Michelangelo, in some of his large-scale works. And what is true of giants may easily be true of lesser mortals. Some of us need reactions for our progress-reports, which indeed provide a better rationale for publishing them than succumbing to publication-pressure.


To return to our hyper-ambitious professor (you did not think I would forget him, did you?), who publish hard-to-read progress-reports that peers tentatively respect, pending the publication of the resultant Really Great Book. This turned out to be a very poor job of stitching together the previously published material. Perhaps it was the outcome of a rush to meet a deadline; perhaps some events have caused fret and panic. Some of us depend on public criticism so much that we cannot amalgamate previous efforts into one piece without the benefit of such criticism. In such a case, one should be frank and publish a collection of essays, not a book that claims in vain a unity of thesis, approach, or style. Our hyper-ambitious professor publishes drafts, whether in panic or in over-confidence. The world can finally judge it, or, worse, ignore it—much too ruthlessly to my taste, and with the ugliest aspect of scholarship from its earliest days, namely with Schadenfreude, with the glee of watching a downfall. It is pathetic to watch the pack of hyenas and vultures cautiously gathering around the prospective carcass, not daring to strike from inability to judge how much life there still may hide in its hide. I would gladly have come to the defense of our hyper-ambitious professor who is down-and-out just to shoo them off, but probably the corpse had never had much life in to begin with, and then sadly one cannot do much about it. Let the dead bury their dead, as Friedrich Nietzsche said, citing the paragon of Christian love.


My story has a moral or two. And though I trust you, dear reader, to know them, I shall sate them, not from distrusting you—you have proved yourself faithful as you stick to this text so that you deserve my unqualified trust—but from inability to resist this temptation.

First, one need not publish one’s magnum opus; there is good incentive not to publish it: the more magnum an opus is becoming, the more risky it becomes to publish it. Publication-blocks provide strong incentives for pressing oneself to overcome them by advertising intent to publish. However, since publication-block rests on fear of public ridicule, the consequence is contrary to expectation: the pressure one puts on oneself intensifies to no avail. The agonies intensify too, and become unbearable. Then one publishes in despair, or burn one’s manuscript, or learn to bear with the situation and fizzle out into the pain of disappointed retirement.

These are field observations. How typical are they? I do not know. Two nice elderly peers I knew, one suffering terrible agonies and the other—in the very same department—playing it cool, preparing to write a definitive work, cultivating in the meantime excellent relations with the administration, travelling regularly to study documents, publishing regularly small snippets of great scholarship and erudition, and from time to time even reviewing a book about the subject, rhapsodizing about the soil and praising the stem, but regretting that the roots had not yet taken deep enough and condemning the fruit as much too unripe. One way to evade publication-pressure is to befriend administrators; one who has a relatively good—even though rather quiet—reputation, and if one’s administrators like one, then they will say the silliest things in one’s favor.


What has this to do with academic research, you might want to know. You have the right to it. Well, academics should create—ideas of scientific and scholarly and any other merit. This is crazy, since creativity has no law, no bound, no standards. The pressure to produce with no guidance as to what and how to produce is unwise; alternatively, the pressure to produce along detailed production lines may lead to boredom and self-contempt. Those fortunate enough to be able to produce find it hard to publish and to get credit, because, if their output is original, it fails to conform to existing criteria. It is cranky or ingenious; peers are afraid to judge.[49]

A writer has to show competence in a field; the question is, which field and how competent; it is open. Here I cannot resist telling you a brief anecdote concerning an anonymous referee for Isis, the prestigious organ of the international society for the history of science.

One day, when I was still struggling for recognition, I submitted a paper to Isis. This was risky: we expect struggling young academics to submit to lesser journals—unless their work is obviously most exceptional as a recommendation of an august, powerful professor proves, or if they sign as junior authors with such a professor as senior authors.[50] In the field of the history of science, the number of journals is so limited that I have submitted the said paper to a most all of them. My paper’s title is ‘Who Discovered Boyle’s Law?’[51] The opinion widespread among scholars at the time was that Boyle’s research assistant discovered this law (the pressure of a volume of air is proportional to its density). This opinion accords with Bacon’s view of science: assistants often see what their bosses ignore, due to preconceived notions that block vision. Boyle was a Baconian up to a point—not all the way, since he was a skeptic—and he endorsed Bacon’s recommendation that amateurs should make observations even if they do not know how to use them for theorizing. Boyle is thus supposed to have composed tables of pressures and volumes of given quantities of air, which conform to the law, but failed to notice it until his assistant did. Boyle says openly that he considered the law prior to his experiments, and he claims originality for it. I found it permissible to quote crucial passages from his book where he reports all this. The referee of Isis conceded that I had proven my point satisfactorily, but criticized me for not having used manuscript sources. Now referees are volunteers and so, as referees they are beyond reproach: if their reports are substandard, then their editors should ignore them or else they are to blame for taking poor reports seriously.[52]


I will return to all this later; here I raise some difficulties and bring up to the surface some confusions so that you can articulate them and thereby clarify them. If you have arguments for and against pressure, that is all right. If you find my discussion remote from our present topic and a symptom of the author’s propensity to digress, I hope you have enjoyed the stories. If you worry about my casualness, and advise me to do myself some good by reorganizing the structure of this section, then let me assure you that you need not worry about me. As long as you enjoy yourself as a reader, I am pleased. As to my own position, a very long publication list has defended me against all sorts of malice. Unfortunately, my public image pains some highly-strung hyper-ambitious peers as well as some embittered failures; I cannot help this.

I still find it hard to publish some of what my audiences enjoy. I do not complain, as I violate received standards of scholarship. I did not complain when my struggle for recognition meant efforts to secure a job. If you break the rules, you have to expect the guardians of the established order to be less than enchanted by your performance. It is wonderful that one can so easily survive their censure, get established, and even allow oneself to befriend many of them. To repeat, I am speaking from personal experience; what is sad is that they manage to prevent worthy battles from starting.

After all, it is the motive behind these pages that may hopefully make them signify. You, my prospective reader, have a fight on your hands, and I am trying to help you find a suitable arena for it, to help you overcome misleading intuitions you might have and misleading advice peers may offer you in good faith, to encourage you to fight and to act clean when you fight, with no ill feelings and no resentment—within reason, of course. Remember: your peers have the right to stay resentful even for no reason. Do not resent this and do not try too hard to win their friendliness! This will come in due course.

9. Social and Organizational Agonies: Colleagues and Administrators; Chores

I hope to make this section as brief and to the point as I can: I itch to leave this part, which is diagnostic, and skate as quickly as I can through the causal or etiological part, so as to come to my advice which, I hope, might help you in your choice of so tangled a career as one in Academe. I would have preferred to dish out my suggestions without all these frightfully roundabout and digressive discussions and philosophizing and dissecting and historicizing and anecdotage and trifling and frivoling. I would offer you my suggestions and hope for the best since I make no claim, here or elsewhere in these pages, that my suggestions are harmless at worst and useful at best. For all I know none of them is. My hope is that they are highly testable so that you can test them and if possible improve upon them. I claim that some of my suggestions are better than yours are, because I have been around a little and have read a little and thought a little about your questions. My own test of my proposals to you is this: I wish someone had told me what I am telling you when I was a beginner like you. Even in case a suggestions of mine is no better than yours, your contrasting the two may lead you to newer and better ones; your mere consideration of some other person’s proposals may help you create some sense of distance from your desires, especially the pressing ones.

Perhaps here I can start with a suggestion straight away. It is seriously damaging to the proper composition of this volume, but the volume, after all, should serve you, so you should not suffer for its sake. Besides, there is no need to strain your patience too much, since you can always go straight to my suggestions. When you do so without my consent, you do so at your own risk. By all means, do. For my part, I shall prepare you when I deem it necessary. Let me offer a suggestion for which you need no preparation.


My suggestion is this: avoid as much as possible all administrative and technical work. I suggest that you feel an urge to organize things your own way. I suggest that although you are probably right, although it is most likely that you have some administrative suggestions that would improve matters, you should not try them out. Not yet, at least. You should avoid meddling in administration as much as you can before you establish yourself as an academic proper—unless you intend to become an academic administrator soon rather than a member of the faculty, in which case I wish you good luck. Otherwise, postpone all administrative and technical work, in the department, in the college, in the Parent-Teachers Association (sorry: it has a different name in college than in high school; I am ignorant of it), and everywhere else. Do use all drastic means at your disposal.

As much as possible. How much, exactly, is possible? Consider this. You receive forms in the mail, you glance at them, and you throw them in the wastebasket rather than fill them out. Right? Wrong! You should not have glanced at them in the first place. You may think I am joking; you may think I am exaggerating; so perhaps I should not have offered this piece of advice at once; but then you would have misread the previous paragraph. So I hope you believe me when I put my hand on my heart and solemnly declare, I am dead earnest and promise to explain my radical proposal in full detail and at once. I have to explain two points. So give me time. I have to explain the damage done by glancing at your forms and the safety of avoiding glancing at them. The latter is easier, so let me start there.

Administrators, especially in a reasonably well-managed organization, administrators of colleges that are operating on more or less the same scheme for at least one decade, should be able to handle deviants and emergencies of all sorts, and with relative ease. This is true of competent administration in general and of academic administrators in particular. They are better educated, they still have a bunch of eccentrics on their hands, and they still handle, willy-nilly, education and ideas rather than marketable tangible products like nuts and bolts and perishable goods. Trust them to be able to handle eccentrics who dare throw forms to the trashcan without even glancing at them.

The number of friends and acquaintances of mine who incur on themselves unnecessary agony from not appreciating this fact staggers me. Academics will not believe you that administrators know all about safety-margins. Academic administrators are particularly good at concealing that fact and at crying aloud that their deadlines are absolute; the more they cry the less they are to be believed—as usual in human affairs (“the lady doth protest too much, methinks”). Deadlines for submitting grades, records, proposals, budget-estimates, publications, they all have broad safety-margins, as everyone in the administrative office could tell distressed professors world-renown for their wisdom, if they only consulted the right secretaries in the administrative labyrinth.

>Hence, if the form that has arrived in today’s mail is important and you have to fill and return it before a significant, real deadline, the proper administrative officers will find a way to get you doing so in good time. You will get personal letters with signs of urgency smeared over both envelope and the cover letter long before the matter is urgent, your phone will ring in your office and at your home, messengers will meet you at the door of your classroom and at the door of your office on the beginning of your office hour or just before a departmental or a faculty or senate meeting. If you have a Facebook or Twitter account, they will reach you there too. Meanwhile, enjoy your peace and use it well in the sacred act of self-improvement.

Administrators and colleagues do not have to inform you of matters beneficial for your work. Traditionally, the job of the administration was to help academics run a university. This is ancient history. Today they run it themselves and that is the way they want it. The job of colleagues, too, never was to help you; it always was to help themselves in the struggle intended to ensure the survival of the fittest. Even when the administration has to inform you, they will easily find a way of seemingly doing so, namely of drawing your attention to it so discretely that only their files contain traces of it, not your memory. Those who do want something know that they have to plan getting it; to plan it well, they need time, and they need friendliness and good will, so that they have to make alliances. As it turns out, these alliances are breeding grounds for intrigue. For, usually, peers who volunteer to do routine administrative jobs insist on benefitting from it. Sad.


You may want to get some administrative experience. You do need administrative experience. You will not gain any administrative experience from being conscientious and from volunteering. This will only encourage everyone to dump dull work on you, which will make for more waste of time on administration, and so on in a frenzy until someone will blow a fuse. This is how the leisure class, as wise Thorsten Veblen has called the academics, manage to belong to larger and larger administrative units, immerse themselves in administration, and get ulcers in the process.

If you escape administration, it will be your colleagues who will first try to put you on the right track—like the tame she-elephant who lures the wild he-elephant into a trap; like the Aesopian fox who, having lost his tail, started a campaign for a new fashion of short tails. You may be surprised to see how infantile your colleagues may be when it comes to work and administration; you will not believe that on top of being so childishly brow-beaten by administrators they childishly brow-beat each other. Funny: they need no excuse for their escape from self-improvement.

I tend to regret having written the last paragraph, and I sincerely wish I could delete it as an exaggeration or at least as insignificant; but I do not think I shall be honest with you if I do. My regret is that I find myself conveying a very misleading impression. Some of the people whose composite portrait I have tried to convey in the previous paragraph are people whom I greatly respect as intellectuals and even as worldly wise, whose company as colleagues and as good friends I do enjoy. Surely, the little misconceptions they have of the administration, the pressure that they may put on me and on you, is utterly negligible as compared with the true companionship they have offered me and other younger colleagues that has made a lasting difference.

I am running the risk I have mentioned in my preface, of looking as if I see the world as sick merely from my concentration on diseases. This is barely avoidable. Let me, then, return to my wish to be of help to you, to relate to diseases only as in preventive medicine: in the hope of saving you some possible future discomfort.

The more you ignore the anxious advice of your concerned colleagues, the more you are deaf to pleas of theirs that they press on you in your own very best interest, the more you will be able to enjoy their company as relaxed friendly intellectuals who derive pleasure from learning and from intellectual debates, oblivious of the whole world of strife, even of trouble in the very ivory tower of theirs. Moreover, you will have time to listen to students and to try to be of some help to them. For, the favors our elders and betters bestow on us we owe to the next generation. This is priceless—even when we fail completely: action in good will is never to regret. Never.


The greatest service of scholars to the community, to repeat, is their own pursuit of their own best interests for the sake of their own souls. The best way to pursue scholarly interests is to pretend that you are in a true ivory tower, to relax and forget all pressures except those internal to your scholarly pursuit. You can meet your own chair to hold a conversation about a recent paper in the learned literature forgetting rank and all; this will make your chair very glad: intellectuals who function as administrators long to return to their initial role and play colleagues again, at least for a sneak leisurely moment. You can meet a leading authority in your field for a conversation between equals, frankly and openly, without attempting to conceal your ignorance but without playing humble either, forgetting that your interlocutor is an established authority and you are a struggling upstart. For, leading authorities too enjoy intellectual activities rather than play authorities, even though being an intellectual authority is a little less of a burden being an administrative authority, be it departmental chair or a dean or a university president. Academic life is mostly great fun; this volume, however, is about something else: it is about academic agonies and how to avoid them. We have not finished the list—not by a long chalk. I do not intend to, but I cannot end this part of this work without a glance at one of the most notorious academic pursuits—I was going to say ‘pastime’, but I do not like undue frivolity; even I know when one must be duly serious: I am speaking of academic intrigue.


Academe started as sinecure, as having no community to cater for. As leisure: etymologically scholarship is leisure. Quite a number of countries have more than a thousand universities each. The variety of professors there is tremendous. I knew full professors who came to school twice a week for one lecture course and one seminar, and only one week out of two. This looks very little, yet one could do less. Leading scholar Sir James Frazer (1854-1941), professor in Cambridge University, did not like giving lectures; he stayed most of his time there in a library. In the old universities, where the faculty in each department was one professor and an assistant. At times, there were two assistants, and they competed for his chair when he retired. The professor had to deliver the opening and closing lectures, but could leave the rest to the assistant. Unlike today’s academics, they did not have to keep abreast: they already knew all that there was to know. They had all the time in the world and, celibate, they often did not know how to spend it. They invested much time and effort in intrigues. Some of them developed hobbies too; most used intrigue for this.

Today academics complain about hard work. This is not serious. We all need a better view of academic jobs. This requires a better view of the administration of the Ivory Tower and of the ways and means for increasing its efficiency. This requires a better view of the place of the Ivory Tower in the modern community at large. This is a complicated matter, especially since it is hard to admit that the admission policy of famous universities is discriminatory, the compulsory lecture courses redundant, and the students often need courses in elementary skills, mainly of reading and writing. All this would change radically were all universities open to all individuals with no exception and with government loan guarantees and with extra fees for the use of laboratories or whatever else is costly to run and with no exams. True, modern society needs exams, beginning with tests for minimal qualifications and tests for drivers and teachers and lawyers and physicians and accountants. There is no reason why Academe should be in charge of the granting of such licenses; parliaments should decide on the best way to handle them for the benefit of the public.

I have little expectation that any authority will take me seriously. I do not expect you to believe me either. I hope you will test my advice to you. You need a job right now; and I cannot help you get it; you also need some advice right now on avoiding some academic agonies; you cannot wait for Academe to improve. So remember: the best way for you to improve your chances at the acquisition of an academic job, if there is any, is by improving your academic qualifications and publication-list.

10. The Aims and Subtle Methods of Academic Intrigue. Or, if You Have a Conscientious Academic for a Friend, Who Needs an Enemy.

Wait a minute. Please take your time and do not rush me. No; you must slow down reading this page. Put this volume aside for a little while, recline in your armchair and just relax a bit. Please, won’t you? Put the volume aside altogether and return to it only when you have the time and presence of mind. You do not have to finish reading this work tonight, do you? If you are tired, put on the television—or just go to bed; this book will wait; the world will wait; take your time! Be nice to yourself!

Some times, however seldom, I wish I were a poet. If I were a poet, I could employ some imagery to slow you down; enchanting imagery, that is. I would evoke a moon shining so bright from its ashen surface, so white, that you will not know whether it was the odd, serene gayety or the serene mask of death; I would make the moon light a pale quiet blue sky with a few bright stars and a black deep infinite background of utter void of darkness; I would make the moonlight silently throw long shadows over a pale gray earth with mere glimpses of color. If I were a good poet, my words would transfix you for a still moment that has the taste of eternity.

Or I might remind you of remote and distant lands of great adventures and hopes and expectations; and of joys and of mischief; and frustrations and regrets; of childhood dreams, and of adolescent infatuation, strong and simple, and honest and sincere and so painfully deeply felt yet so ironically ephemeral and forgettable—at least in its intensity. And this might charm you too, and make you wish to read more slowly, and care less about where the story goes and what is the moral of the story, and wish to enjoy it here and now, and take it in in small bits, like sipping some old tasty wine, rare and unique, an experience to be prolonged and drawn as long as possible.

What is so wonderful about poetry is its ability to present reality as if it were dreams, pleasant or painful as the poet may choose, its illusion so strong that something like it is rarely achieved by any other art; even motion pictures can seldom aspire to it, and even the most intense drama often achieves it only by stealing charm from poetry. When Mercutio[53] sings the ode to Queen Mab—the mistress of dreams—and the way she comes to steal young hearts and old in moonlit evenings, Romeo and Juliet are both forgotten; the play stops dead; the drama matters not; everything stands still. Poetry may give us any impression the poet is concerned with; the intensity of love; or the beauty of love; sorrow; frustration; resignation; a sense of beauty at the first sight of spring; or of a picture; anything. The feeling may be as shallow as adolescence infatuation or as deep and complex as the mixed feelings of an old revolutionary who at heart feels nostalgic towards a world he is so dedicated to destroy (T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi, 1927). What makes the poem great is that for a while it forces the whole world to stand still.

In a sense, Beauty is like that in all of Her appearances. When you awaken from the Funeral March of Sinfonia eroica back into reality, hearing the coughs of members of the audience clearing their throats in the short intermission between movements and noticing the orchestra and the conductor and the walls and ceiling and lights of the concert hall; when you tear away from a Rembrandt original and manage to look around you again and see the museum, the people strolling up and down the assortment of pictures, the guard standing bored next to a statue stealthily leaning on its base so as to relieve the pain of aching feet—then you realize that for a moment of beauty all these had vanished for you like magic. When Donatello dropped from his hands the eggs he was bringing home upon first seeing Brunelleschi’s crucifix, he did so simply because when he saw it he was transfixed and forgot everything around him except the work of art. Yet this kind of experience is more essential to poetry than in the other arts: if it does not happen to the reader of a poem, then the said poem is merely doggerel; but it need not happen to a good statue, to a good symphony. It can happen in the cinema all too often, especially to a tired spectator, who gets easily absorbed into the force of illusion, and the whole audiences and the whole theatre with its ushers and usherettes, and the red lights on its exits, and the noise of popcorn munchers, all disappear for a while. This is not necessarily beauty; it may indeed end up in a dream and a slumber. Not so in poetry. You may go to hear a poetry recital and from being tired fall asleep there too; yet if the poetry was great and not too badly recited, the experience will be different: you will wake up in a shock, not from the land of sense-illusions and camera tricks, but from the feeling that while asleep you were carried by some goblins to the land of magic and charm and wizardry and back to this world.

Why this is so I do not know. Perhaps it is because the only justification of poetry is that it is speech in high concentration, and art in big doses may be the hallmark of beauty. This is why any concentrated speech may sound poetic, even the spontaneous cooing of young couples.

Is beauty really art in concentration? What is art in concentration? I do not know what art is, what beauty is, and how objective it is, or how universal its criteria really are. Still, the experience of beauty is real; it comes on diverse levels, from the mildly pleasant to the intense immersion into a corner of the world of its own, to the total oblivion of the rest of the world. Many people have never experienced the highest level of beauty; some people with a great deal of interest in and concern for the arts have not either, though some lower-level aesthetic experiences do have great importance in their lives. Especially art critics and art historians of scholarly and pedantic dispositions. Some people, even artists, are tone-deaf: music means nothing to them except that it is noise; they know how much some of their friends and relations like it, in the way that non-addicts in general know about addiction. Others are deaf to poetry; even some prose writers of some prominence may be deaf to poetry. And so on. Obviously, one can even be a musician, gain very little aesthetic pleasure from one’s music, and yet have some sense of beauty and in a way enjoy music. I do not like to litter my discourse with examples, but my last point does sound strange enough to merit an instance. Benvenuto Cellini seems to be telling in his autobiography—though quite possibly my reading of it is erroneous, and it is a question of reading this great Renaissance sculptor rather than of quoting chapter and verse—he seems to be telling that, since he learned to play the flute under the enormous pressure put on him by his father, whose dearest wish was to see him become a great musician, he hated the flute in particular and music in general for the rest of his life. He was a reasonably good player and when the flute was a useful instrument in any of his varied pursuits, he not only used it well but also, he confessed as if the fact surprised him, he even enjoyed it. Let me close this digression of mine by reporting that there exist musicians like Cellini who are professional, who make a living of it, and who are reasonably content: from time to time they enjoy music.


Music of the spheres, the beauty of an intellectual exercise rather than an artistic one, is something the taste for which is seldom cultivated and all too often trampled on; regrettably, too few people have it. It is not so much a matter of intellectual ability as a particular sensitivity, a special faculty. You cannot see the beauty of transfinite induction without knowing a semester or two of abstract set theory, or the excitement of the Keynesian revolution without familiarity with late nineteenth-century economic theory and admiration of it. But if you can see the beauty of intellectual ideas then you may be excited by any great intellectual exercise, Euclidean geometry or high school algebra; the idea of liberal economics, or a discussion of the various theories of justice in Plato; Darwinism. How prepared you are to understand Plato’s Symposium, or Macaulay’s Bacon, or Mendel’s original papers, or Fraenkel’s Abstract Set Theory, is quite a different question from, can you enjoy these works as some enjoy Shakespeare and Tolstoy or others enjoy Bach and Beethoven. Leading twentieth-century hermeneutist Hans Georg Gadamer admitted that he was more interested in Aristotle’s physics than in Einstein’s; extremely popular twentieth-century social philosopher Herbert Marcuse has denied that enjoying science may compare with enjoying the arts. How unimaginative!

Jewish tradition considers the study of the Law a major ritual obligation. Much as I dislike most Jewish rituals and the devotion with which Orthodox Jews observe them, since early adolescence I enjoyed the charm of the delight with which traditional Jews perform the ritual obligation of study (of the Law). I found it strange, since the scholasticism and legalism of the content of that study was alien to me. Contrary to my expectation, I found impressive the fervor and delight and eagerness connected with such studies. Amongst Gentiles, I am afraid, the phenomenon is somewhat less apparent, but it is evident there too. Not only can one argue from the phenomena, one can also claim that were it not so, publication-pressure and all that would never have taken root as they have. Were no pressure admissible, much of the force behind intrigues would vanish—like a nightmare—and with it much of the intrigue system would vanish too. The regrettable rarity of intellectual pleasures in Academe is perhaps manifest in the surprise with which reasonably educated people meet intellectual pleasure, intellectual delight, and the eagerness to return to studies; this greatly contrasts with the traditional Jewish disposition to take such pleasure for granted. Bertrand Russell tells the story of his having gone with a friend to visit Alfred North Whitehead, the mathematician who was his teacher but later joined him as a coauthor of the epoch-making Principia Mathematica. When Russell and his friend visited Whitehead, they found him in his garden, working on some mathematics. He did not notice them and they avoided disturbing him. After half an hour of standing there unnoticed, they left, Russell says, awe-stricken. Later in life, Russell himself changed his attitude. He once met a Balkan diplomat in conditions less conducive to learning: Russell himself wanted to discuss politics, in the hope to elicit from the diplomat some important information; the scene was a battlefield—bullets whistled all round, horses bolted, and I know not what—yet the diplomat obstinately went on discoursing with Russell about philosophy. This time his emotion was not of awe, but of a tenderer sort. The difference was not because the diplomat had a lesser academic standing than the mathematician—Russell never was a stuffed shirt—but because Russell himself had learned the personal value of learning: between the two episodes Russell spent some time in jail where he was greatly relieved of the burdens of his environment by a special dispensation he had to read and write there. This sounds corny, but it is true; and again I can only say I am sorry I am not a poet, so I could write like Kepler of the sweet music of the spheres and Spinoza of the intellectual love of God. The obvious question is, how come people whose job is to listen to the music of the spheres, to play it, to teach it, how come they can bring themselves to spend precious time on other things, like academic administration and academic intrigues, important as these may be. It is like being able to live in palaces furnished exquisitely and most comfortably yet spend most of one’s life in the slummiest part of one’s hometown; to have quite a decent, educated wife and prefer to her a vulgar mistress (Guy de Maupassant, Bel Ami, 1885). People who do that are perverts; or perhaps saints (Gustave Flaubert, The Temptation of Saint Anthony, 1845) —I do not know much about saints. Mostly, academics are neither—not even the deviants among them. Why do they not prefer the palaces of the art and the sciences to the squalor of academic quarreling, conniving, scheming, plotting, contriving, spying, gossiping, slandering, and spreading misunderstanding and mistrust? I have no idea.


This explains quite a few facts. It explains why academic intrigues equal only political intrigues—this in spite of the intellectual importance of academics in general and the political worthlessness of their intrigues in particular. Intrigues, Popper has observed, seldom succeed—so seldom, indeed, that when they succeed, their success looks miraculous. Yet desperate people will plot because they are desperate. Politicians will plot because of illusions about power, because of obsessions about power, because it is the done-thing to plot in the corridors of power, and because of boredom there. Boredom explains a lot: when boredom is painful enough even crap shooting may look exciting. Academics plot, it seems, largely because their teaching and their studies bore them—as do research and publications and committees in charge of planning of new curricula and of new indoors or outdoors intramural or extra-mural activities—if the word “activities” is not too much of a euphemism in this context.


Academics may also plot out of some sense of duty. This is both an explanation and an observation of sorts.

The need for a new explanation is the admission of a failing of an old one, so let me make the admission openly. Whether or not most academics plot out of boredom, some do not. You can find a person most qualified to enjoy works of Euler, as qualified to render ideas of Cauchy exciting as Artur Schnabel brought out the fire of Beethoven’s piano sonatas; and yet such a gifted person would spread intricately-contrived slander too, and intrigue as interlarded as Belgian lace, like any other academic and perhaps more so. Perhaps more so because that gifted person is cleverer and more intense than the average academic is, perhaps because one cannot live in beauty all day all week long and one finds the faculty club more congenial to communicating dirt on peers than intellectual beauty of some of their output. I do not know. Plot and intrigue they will, and indignantly; in the name of scholarship and in the name of the profession,[54] to warn others and to avert scandal. Notoriously, malice and self-righteousness are siblings. If you think this is a paradox, or that I am being funny, you thereby show that you do not have the basic training in verbal pyrotechnics; you are very nice.

The fundamentals, the very ABC, of verbal pyrotechnics is the ability to replace quickly and regularly any word, descriptive phrase, and any other semantic unit, by its synonym that has the opposite social or moral or aesthetic overtone or nuance—if the original expression was laudatory, the equivalent replacing it should be pejorative, and vice versa. I recommend to all my students to take crucial passages or arguments from books or essays and translate them in that fashion to examine the claims of such passages or arguments for rationality: a necessary condition for the passage or argument to count as rational is that it can take well the strain of such translation. Slanders goes on all the time, quite consciously and voluntarily; but no one labels this activity as slander, especially when the content of the slander is true, or half-true, or even seemingly true.

Just to make it clear that I am not joking, let me confess I found it sometimes hard not to join such battles. An interested party enlisted me once, particularly because I am a sort of expert on plagiarism, and because the colleague under attack had made liberal use of some manuscript work of an investigator killed in a plane accident and that the colleague received from the deceased researcher’s naïve widow. I did my research on this case, and concluded that the colleague’s behavior was barely within the law against plagiarism, and that though one could perhaps prove in court after long struggle and cross-examination the improbability of some of our colleague’s claims for originality, the matter would not permit itself presentation in a clear-cut fashion. It was with effort and bad conscience that I have not fully participated in the campaign; I think that had my colleague found it politic to make fuss rather than lie low till the storm blew over, he might just as well have sued me for some utterances I had made in the faculty club, and in front of sufficiently many witnesses within the faculty.

We all slander and contrive, and we all are guilty of similar felonies, which resemble the violations of speed-limit laws and similar traffic regulations in that one is seldom penalized for them and almost never in retrospect. Why, then, is academic malice so very different from small malice in general? Or is it?

There seems to be an optical illusion here. Young students who have certain reverence for Academe are more shocked to see their professors as a bunch of old fogies, and not too pleasant ones at that; instead of concluding that professors are not very different from some characters in some nineteenth-century novels whose boredom and anxieties were their chief enemies, students may see professors as monsters. It is hard to forgive a professor’s inability to fit your own father-image, much harder than to forgive your own father. You just realize that your father is of a common or garden variety of humans, and you search for a substitute; for reasons above your comprehension you just happened at that time to be on your way to college; wonderful! So you chose a father substitute, you made your choice carefully, and then, what a heartbreak! What a disappointment! You must blame your prof. for that! In the name of all that is sacred to Academe!

Some of us are stubborn, and go on looking, wondering from one class to another, from one country to another, even. Finally, we graduate: we do not quite need a father-substitute; we do not quite mind the failure of our elders and betters to fill such positions. Most of us, however, despair after one effort or two; become embittered and try much too early in the day to make the best of a bad job; become cynical; not very interested in our work; we follow the pattern and inherit our predecessors’ positions with incredible precision. It is a fascinating problem, and quite universal. Children fight their parents, only to emulate them. “And see children upon thy children and peace on Israel”, said the Psalmist (128:6). Children upon thy children, my father interpreted this verse to me on one of his good days, show how much thy children resemble thee, past quarrels notwithstanding, and thus the significance of these past quarrels simply evaporates and the grounds for peace are laid down. On one of his bad days he said, when you see your children quarrel with theirs, you sense the sweetness of revenge. This has nothing much to do with Freud, Oedipus and all that; at least not necessarily so. Proof: your academic father-substitute may easily be a woman. Traditional Chinese mothers-in-law treat daughters-in-law in harshness exemplary to many a western father or professor; and the more a daughter-in-law suffers the more she in turn takes revenge on her daughter-in-law when her day comes; empathy, whether through suffering or admiration, eludes this pattern. If it were merely a psychological phenomenon, an occasional kind-hearted mother-in-law could break the chain. Kind they sometimes are, naturally, but stop the chain they simply cannot, or rather could not as long as the traditional Chinese social system prevailed. You may think traditional Chinese mothers-in-law and daughters-in-law have little to do with disgruntled full professors and disappointed young aspirants; you can think again.


The roots of academic intrigue lie very deep. To stop it from poisoning life in Academe and destroying all that makes Academe attractive is almost impossible. The most important non-intellectual assignment for you still is to prevent it as much as possible. The best way to do this is to divert the mind to activities more worthy and exciting and enjoyable; study is the best. In addition to this piece of advice, I may advise you reluctantly to indulge in some efforts at institutional reform. It is highly complex and tedious: putting too much effort into it is bound to be too expensive and highly frustrating. Meanwhile, the less familiar with local intrigue you are, the better. And no: intrigues against you are no exception: decidedly: the less you know about intrigue that involves you, the better. You may think it wise to prepare for it. Definitely not. Proof: as this is a full-time job, better suffer the worst penalty for ignoring intrigues—especially since intrigue-mongers usually have the upper hand when conflicting with you. Your best defense against them is overlooking them. If you know about an intrigue against you, behave as if you know nothing about it and suspect less.

I have some evidence to support this, from my own intrigue-ridden academic career. The intrigues I suffered most were such that no amount of preparation could improve my position. It was intrigue that has put a wedge between my admired teacher and me; I saw it coming and I could do nothing to prevent it. I also lost to intrigue the best offer for an academic job that was meant for me and the grants that I was encouraged to apply for (all of them except the one that was kept hidden until it was too late for the intrigue-mongers to sabotage), and my wife lost her possibility of a decent academic career as a penalty for having chosen the wrong spouse, her research and teaching qualifications notwithstanding. I hope that this last case belongs to the sexist past. As intrigue-mongers are usually cowards, they aim to penalize graduate students who opt for the wrong advisers. I always managed to rescue my students from unfair disqualifications, and this success too had nothing to do with preparations of any sort. In a sense, the hounding of my graduates is a boon for me, as it functioned as a filter that permitted only determined, brave students to approach me with a request for help. These are the students whom I covet. Every cloud has a silver lining.




[1] I do claim scientific status for my reports, but not the status of scientific authority. A normal proposal for an airplane, for example, has scientific status, but not necessarily the status of airworthiness that allows launching it in the market. This status is of scientific authority. To be scientific an idea has to be testable; to be authoritative it has to pass some specified tests. In modern countries, the law of the land specifies the qualities required for the attainment of authority.

[2] Conferences too are imperfect. I have organized some sessions in conferences that authorities found wanting since I refused to permit powerful dignitaries to waste my audience’s time. Nevertheless, even sessions with many worthless papers serve a purpose, not to mention the service of the worthless papers themselves. See my “The Functions of Intellectual Rubbish”, Research in the Sociology of Knowledge, Science and Art, 2, 1979, 209-27; reprinted in my Science and Culture, 2003.

[3] Fortunately, this arrangement is not under threat from the increasing availability of courses online, since its task is to facilitate face-to-face interactions between teachers and students. What online teaching does threaten are the customary introductory courses delivered in huge classes, labelled in the USA as 101.

[4] Georg Simmel, Conflict and the Web of Group Affiliation, [1922] 1955.

[5] Rino Coluccello, Challenging the Mafia Mystique: Cosa Nostra from Legitimisation to Denunciation, 2016.

[6] Robert Boyle, The Sceptical Chymist, 1661.

[7] The sexual allusions here are inbuilt: (Renaissance) mysticism permeates with sexual metaphors.

[8] Facing research that has led to nothing but frustration, they drew great encouragement from the success of science in general, with no evidence that the success is due to induction.

[9] No kidding. See my “The Philosophy of Science Today”, in Stuart Shanker, ed., Routledge History of Philosophy, IX, Philosophy of Science, Logic and Mathematics in the 20th Century, 1996, 235-65. Let me add an explanation for the particularly sorry state of the philosophy of science: appointment committees for its practitioners include science professors who are not researchers; they tend to support appointments of professors for the philosophy of science who sing the praise of science uncritically.

[10] See my The Very Idea of Modern Science: Francis Bacon and Robert Boyle, 2013.

[11] For cargo cults see I. C. Jarvie, The Revolution in Anthropology, 1964, Ch. 2 §2. For its practice in Academe see Norbert Wiener, God and Golem, Inc.: A Comment on Certain Points where Cybernetics Impinges on Religion, 1964, §7.

[12] Thomas Sprat, A History of the Royal Society, 1667: the Society had accomplished in a few years more than Academe had in centuries. The Society soon made peace with Academe. They adjusted to each other repeatedly, until Academe swallowed the scientific societies whole. See my “On the decline of scientific societies”, International Journal of Technology Management, 2009, special issue, 46, 180-94.

[13] Astute Norbert Wiener noticed the process in The Human Use of Human Beings, viii, 1950!

[14] Thus, a most popular originator of sayings about the mystery of the universe is Albert Einstein. This is so partly because similar sayings of Newton are less familiar and less crisp.

[15] I served once as a substitute department chair and once as a department chair. This enabled me to observe how very busy chairpersons are, and how needlessly so.

[16] Psychologist Alfred Adler said, people often fail out of fear of failure.

[17] Contrary to this observation of mine, one may claim that both parties have the public interest in mind. Nevertheless, a conflict is there. Administrators want smooth functioning and public reputation whereas the faculty want learning and reputation among peers.

[18] Private tutors depended on their ability to help students pass exams. Adam Smith functioned for a while as a tutor and he returned money to some of his charges. This was far from the customary attitude: “I have satisfied myself that the present state of degradation and contempt into which the greater part of these societies have fallen in almost every part of Europe arises principally, first from the large salaries which in some universities are given to professors, and which render them independent of their diligence and success in their professions.” Smith proposed to institutionalize incentives for public servants to serve the public well.


[20] Economist, 20.7.2019, “Should University be Free”.

[21] Steve Fuller, The Sociology of Intellectual Life: The Career of the Mind in and Around Academy, 2009.

[22] Bernard Shaw, Notes to The Devil’s Disciple, Burgoyne, 1901.

[23] See Jeffrey Beall, List of Predatory Publishers, 2013,

[24] See opening page of Vincent Tinto 1975 “Dropout from Higher Education: A Theoretical Synthesis of Recent Research.” Review of Educational Research, 45 (1): 89–125.


[26] Thus, “On the prose scale, the percentage of college graduates with Proficient literacy decreased from 40 percent in 1992 to 31 percent in 2003. For adults who took graduate classes or completed a graduate degree, the percentage with Proficient prose literacy fell 10 percentage points between 1992 and 2003.” National Assessment of Adult Literacy (NAAL) “A First Look at the Literacy of America’s Adults in the 21st Century”.

[27] James Burnham, The Managerial Revolution (1941) claims that managers have taken over all everywhere. This holds only in the Soviet Union and its likes. In the west this holds in spots.

[28] I cannot often show you that I am not exaggerating, but let us take this as an instance. In a large university at which I once taught, parking attendants penalized instructors for staying in class for an extra five minutes. These extra five minutes may signify, and in many ways.

[29] James D. Watson, The Double Helix, 1968, is vivid in its reports on the corrections of many received assumptions that were necessary before the sought-after picture could emerge.

[30] Two messages of that book are true and valuable: learning is a pleasure and the best tool for social mobility. Nevertheless, the idea that hard work is the solution to all ills, especially poverty, although well intended, is obnoxious.

[31] The Two Cultures describes a gap between the faculties of arts and of science, the mutual indifference of their members, and the scientific ignorance that artists display. He calls them “natural Luddites”. He concludes with the advice to the British to have their education system emulate the Soviet one.

[32] Henry David Thoreau has famously stated, “The mass of men lead lives of quiet desperation.” (Walden). Bertrand Russell said, most of the time most people were peasants; their lives are boring.

[33] ‘Public Opinion and Liberal Principles’, 1954; Conjectures and Refutations, 1963, Ch. 17, §3, p. 350.

[34] Samuel Butler, The Way of All Flesh, 1903.

[35] F. Scott Fitzgerald, This Side of Paradise, 1920, is a terrific example.

[36] Laurence Sterne, The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, Gentleman, is an unfinished novel in nine volumes, 1759 to 1767. Its digressions render its story marginal. The target of its jokes are the philosophy and the literature of the time. In particular, its free-association style is a deadly critique of John Locke’s theory of learning (echoed in “Funes the Memorious” of Jorge Luis Borges, a story that encapsulates Sterne’s novel in the style characteristic of Borges). The book is unfinished, possibly due to its author’s decision to leave it unfinished. The same, incidentally, holds for Schubert’s unfinished symphony. (The extant outline of its third movement is no evidence.)

[37] The only record I know of this widespread occurrence is a casual, brief scene in Ingmar Bergman’s movie Fanny och Alexander (1982-3). In it, in a moment of truth, a professor reveals his soul to his wife. (The professor in Josef von Sternberg’s 1930 movie The Blue Angel is too pathetic for that.)

[38] Jerome K. Jerome, Three Men in a Boat, 1889, describes self-diagnosis that way.

[39] Bernard Shaw, Doctor’s Dilemma, 1906, says, the interest of doctors leads them to find illnesses.

[40] Sigmund Freud, The Id and the Ego, 1923.

[41] The exceptions are listed in the proper literature; let me mention only the towering output of Janusz Korczak, especially his 1922 children’s novel King Matt the First, and the novel of Anton Makarenko, The Pedagogical Poem, 1926-36. See also Daniel Greenberg, Worlds in Creation, 1994.

[42] The paradigm case is the 1923 Nobel Prize in physiology “for the discovery of insulin”.

[43] The paradigm case is Planck’s recognition of Einstein who was then unable to attain an academic post.

[44] See my “Cultural Lag in Science” in my Science and Culture, 1981, 119-139.

[45] This self-portrait of mine is borrowed from the review of my Towards an Historiography of Science (1963) by the leading philosopher and historian of science Thomas S. Kuhn, who called me both brilliant and a plagiarist (British Journal for the Philosophy of Science, 1966, 17, 256-8). See my Science and Its History, 2008, 121.

[46] The opposite is valid too: when  Andrew Wiles worked on his monumental proof of Fermat’s last theorem, he was eager to conceal that fact from peers (to evade competition?). To that end he published then small progress reports on other matters.

[47] This is why often a thinker publishes one work in diverse versions: contemporaries may want elaborations that posterity may better skip. Yet worry about posterity is unwise. Moreover, posterity may do well enough with the opening of a magnum opus. In such cases, it may be a pleasure to read some well-written originals whole. Examples; Newton, “The System of the World”; Smith, The Wealth of Nations; Heine, Religion and Philosophy in Germany; Darwin, Autobiography; Charles Ives, Essays before a Sonata. Collingwood, Autobiography.

[48] E. H. Gombrich, Art and Illusion, 1960.

[49] Early in the day, the understandable inability to distinguish between the mad and the genius led to the identification of them and, worse, to the view that the insane are saner than the sane. The ability of the insane to act reasonably while under immense pressure confirms this stupid idea. See Yehuda Fried and Joseph Agassi, Paranoia: A Study in Diagnosis, 1976.

[50] August powerful professors are too busy to have time to write their own publications; they assign tedious work to their younger colleagues or brighter research students—doctoral or post-doctoral—and sign as senior authors, naturally: both because they are senior and because the work is of such quality it will never reach the printer except when adorned with their august names.

[51] My “Who Discovered Boyle’s Law?” was resubmitted a quite few times, each time incorporating more responses to arguments from the rejection slips. It was initially three typed pages of my doctoral dissertation. Its published version—in another journal—is over sixty printed pages long. It has made a difference: it stopped the series of publications on its question.

[52] For more details see “Revising the Referee System” in my Science and Society, 1981, 156-163.

[53] Mercutio dies early in the story to intensify it; his ode makes him a darling to make his death signify.

[54] Thomas S. Kuhn accused me repeatedly and rightly of ignoring the interest of the profession.

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