Many people do not understand how very new the current University system is, nor how that system is currently disintegrating under stresses imposed by economic and ideological interests. To the first part, the contemporary University in general traces its roots back to the very late 18th to early 19th centuries in Europe, while in this country it really only came to form itself after the Second World War. Now, there have, of course, been Universities for some thousand years or more in Europe, with the University of Bologna being formed in 1088. But the medieval and early-modern universities were primarily focal points for the indoctrination of scholars for their entry into sharply defined orthodoxies; the idea, much less the practice, of academic freedom simply did not exist. In contrast, our age has witnessed a scintillating, Camelot-like moment in history, when there was a dream (if something less than an ideal-practice) of academic scholarship coupled with freedom of thought and inquiry.
But despite what the right-wing media would have you believe, it is not the demands for fairness from oppressed groups (the challenges dismissed as “political correctness” which, in fact, challenge institutionalized forms of power and bigotry expressed and manifested in language that those in power would have you believe is innocent) nor is it in the protests of youth demanding that culpability be acknowledged and justice faced, that we will find the genuine threats to the contemporary University. No, the death of contemporary academia is being inflicted in the name of business, money, “efficiency,” and capitalism. Higher education is coming to be dominated, at the highest echelons of administration, by persons who are not scholars, but are business “entrepreneurs.” Welcome to the “Corporate University,” where students are “customers,” education is a sellable commodity, and the professoriate is replaced by disposable teaching staff with neither wages, nor benefits, nor job security (in other words, easily intimidated lackeys), whose only option is to cave and cavil to their corporate directors, or face the abyss of being independent.
Per this last point, in 1970 something on the order of 75% of those teaching at the college and university level were professors either on the tenure-track, or in fact already tenured. Today that number is more like 25%. Absent the protections of tenure, scholars cannot freely inquire into subjects, nor can they present the results of those inquiries, in any manner that disturbs those in power. Already we are seeing examples of Universities (in Florida and Kansas, for example) in which purely academic and scholarly issues are being actively legislated from the outside by monied interests. However, exploring this deplorable state of things is not my primary interest here; for a more detailed analysis, I encourage you to read Marc Bousquet’s How The University Works (now free for the download.) As a supplement and context, you should also look into Thorstein Veblen’s Higher Learning in America, from 1918. No, my real agenda today is to talk about how it is that what is old is new again; about how, when (medieval and early-modern) Universities were dominated by ideology rather than inquiry, and genuine scholars had to make their own paths. The early-modern university brought us the original Independent Scholars.
I make no secret of the fact that I am an Independent Scholar, not so much out of courage or integrity as necessity, so presumably any issues of “full disclosure” have long since been satisfied. I don’t go about advocating this path to others (“You too can be a penurious Ph.D! Food is so de classé!”) On the other hand, there are a number of us on this path. What I really want to discuss here is how this current situation mirrors conditions of 400 years ago, long before the rise (and now, fall) the the contemporary University.
René Descartes serves as a nice example. French and Catholic by birth, despite (perhaps even because of) his fragile health as a child, he served as a mercenary soldier for the (ironically) Protestant Dutch during the Eighty-years War (the Dutch war of Independence.) He studied at various Universities of his day, but basically had to shift for support from various patrons. (Even those who occupied permanent university positions in the day depended on coin from their students for their livelihood. To this day, the “hood” on academic regalia has a pocket in it. This pocket is at the back, so that the professor would not see how much money was deposited by his (it was always “his”) students. This was a way of saving face for those students who were often enough skint broke, and couldn’t make a respectable deposit.)
Descartes is widely known as the “father of modern philosophy,” but it should be added that he is the “father” of modern mathematics as well. That geometry course you took where they talked about Cartesian coordinates? That was invented by René Descartes. (In fairness, though, if Descartes is the “father” of modern philosophy, then Francis Bacon is the “uncle,” and not even the creepy one.) Like most scholars and artists of his day, Descartes had to shift around to find wealthy patrons, typically nobles or even royalty, who sought to enhance their reputations and the fame of their households by supporting those scholars and artists, who in turn would dedicate great works to those patrons, or even work within the patrons’ households as private intellectuals.
Such was Descartes’ last permanent employment. In establishing his fame as a thinker of the first order, Descartes also incurred a measure of disrepute amongst the more rigidly orthodox amongst the European universities. But the Princess Christine of Sweden needed to decorate her estate with famous and interesting people, so with the promise of a very comfortable stipend, she lured Descartes to her brutally cold Northern European castle in 1649. The two discovered they were not much fond of one another, and Descartes solved the problem by dying of a respiratory infection in February of 1650.
Personal animus and death at a too-early age aside, Descartes’ story is somewhat representative of independent scholars, both then and now. The contemporary University is not much interested in hiring anyone unless they come with a pedigree from one of the top ten schools in the country; teaching ability and research discipline are nothing when compared to a Big Name Feather in one’s cap. Four-year and two-year colleges are willing (by necessity) to cast a wider net. But there remains a significant body of scholars who have either rejected the Corporate University by choice, or been rejected by it, or some combination of both, who find themselves on a Cartesian-like path of their own, independently finding their own scholarship in their own ways. Some have managed to parlay their advanced degrees into careers outside of the academy, what is sometimes abbreviated as “Alt-Ac” (Alternative Academia.) Still others make their way as best they are able. But what is notable is the re-emergence of scholarship – some of which is quite good – that is conducted outside the strictures and “old-boys club” of the contemporary, Corporate University. This is the “return of the modern,” of scholars as they existed at the inception of the modern age. What is old is new again: the independent scholar is once again amongst us.
This is not necessarily a good thing, but it is the thing we now face.
But one more word needs to be added, about a calculatedly misleading phrase I tossed out above: the “contemporary, Corporate University.” In reality, there is nothing really “contemporary” about the Corporate University at all; it is actually quite medieval. While the driving dogma is not explicitly “Universal and Catholic,” there remains a driving dogma which increasingly demands unquestioning obeisance. The pretense of “shared governance” exists in little more than name, where everyone pretends that the faculty of the university has a say in its administration. But that is only permitted to the extent that merely symbolic assemblies such as the “Faculty Senate” (try not to laugh, I dare you) accede to the demands – explicit or implicit – of their governing Masters (which is to say, Corporate Administration.) (I should add that even in the 19th C., Nietzsche disdained what was happening in German Universities.)
The Corporate Masters lack the unifying ideology of the medieval Church, and they certainly exercise less power over life and death. (It has, happily, been a while since anyone was doused in oil and burned at the stake.) But these Authorities exercise their currently limited power in a society driven by fear, where the comfortable make no waves and are deaf to those who do.
I personally believe that the University is dead, and we now face the long, tedious task of stuffing its rotting corpse in the ground. This will take a long time, because the corpse insists on twitching. But real scholarship has begun its migration back to its early-modern roots, away from institutionalized dogma, and into independent sources.
The website for the National Coalition of Independent Scholars ← is here.
Brian Burtt said:
Where will we find our wealthy patrons?
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Gary Herstein said:
I’ve a letter in the mail to Donald Trump, even as I write this …
Gary Herstein said:
Actually, I wonder if folks should start thinking about actively cultivating a kind of “patronage” system? There are already systems in place for being awarded grants, from both private and government sources. But these are few, difficult to win, and often specify they cannot be used for basic living expenses. Think tanks are a kind of patronage system, where the members are supported by the generous donations of the men behind the curtain.
Brian Burtt said:
I do think that a universal basic income would be a good start (for this, and so many other things).
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Gary Herstein said:
Good point! I’d add universal health care. One does not need to live fabulously in order to live well (eudaimonia.) Those who wanted to live fabulously could pursue that dream; those who were committed to bettering opportunities for their off-spring could pursue that one. All all could pursue how-some-ever they thought best.
Artists and scholars could also pursue their dreams, unburdened by the terror of immanent death and starvation.