July 05, 2008

The world and the academy

What unites Niccola Machiavelli, Edward Gibbon, John Le Carre, Austin Woolrych and Cicero? Obviously their high intelligence- but there is something else. Machiavilli, Gibbon, Le Carre and Cicero all share two characteristics- all of them are cultural figures, all of them are cultural figures who have said something important about humanity and none of them originally worked in the humanities. Machiavelli was a statesman and ambassador, Gibbon a country gentleman, militia commander and MP, Le Carre a spy, Woolrych a Harrods salesman and then soldier and Cicero the leading politician of the Roman Republic for a time- all of them used that knowledge though to put into argument and philosophy. As Gibbon put it the commander of the Hampshire militia had given the historian of the Roman Empire's decline invaluable material, and the historian of Rome's decline would not have emerged in my view without the commander being present. The same might be said of the others: to give another great example, Cornelius Tacitus, the greatest historian of Rome, understood the fear of Sejanus and Tiberius because he had lived through the reign of Domitian. Modern historians often dismiss Tacitus's account as being semi-hysterical: but the coolness which is so self evident from the lounges overlooking Harvard Yard is not so self evident when you have served through a reign like Domitian's. Experience helps us to understand the humanities in general.

The problem is not that universities exist- that is good and the world of history for example has expanded and become more rigorous thanks to the work of many professional historians over the years. But that the world of universities is too closed in on itself. Academic monographs are interesting to those involved but scarcely raise a smirk outside the academy, some academics even go so far as to disdain the idea that they have any responsibility to anyone who is not inside the tiny circles of a common room. The tradition of an amateur man of letters, so vital to the nineteenth century academic world and without which much of the history done today would be useless has died. That means that there is less connection between the academy and outside than there should be. Outside experience should fertilise the understanding of historical reality and novelistic inquiry, academic rigour should strengthen the processes of thought outside the groves of the university. The decline of the essay in some ways is a parallel process to this- the great essayists from Hume to Orwell were in touch with the intellectual climate and transmitted that to others on the outside better than journalists do today.

I suppose ultimately that is the hope for blogs, that they can fulfill part of that role. But there also has to be a relaxation of the snobberies on both sides- academics have to realise that you can do good work whilst being an amateur, others have to realise that they should take on what academics do and use it. Sir Alan Sugar's derision for academics on the Apprentice is well known- the worrying thing is that such a bigot is advising the Prime Minister of the day. Blogs like Stumbling and Mumbling, Willelm Buiter's, Ben Goldacre's or this humble effort can help but in order to do so- they need to be taken seriously both inside universities and outside them. We need to talk over the professional boundaries that infest knowledge- and academics need to take the effort to make rigour accessible seriously, whilst others need to make the effort to understand a greater part of their lives. That has an impact obviously on another subject which is the leisure available in modern society- part of the problem is that those naturally most receptive are those who work hardest- but the ultimate problem is one of attitudes on both sides. The fact that the gulf has developed and that academics have lost experience of the real world whilst the real world has stopped paying attention to academics is a tragedy, not merely for universities but for societies in general.


Don Francisco said...

Good post. I've been reading Clive James's book Cultural Amnesia - have you come across it? James makes similar points to ones you have made here in it. It's a wonderful book - can't recommend it enough.

James Hamilton said...

Just to second the recommendation for Cultural Amnesia (the ebook edition has additional essays; the original is now out in pbk).

Have just finished Gunter Grass "Peeling the Onion" and Stefan Zweig "The World of the Past" to pass the hours on a variety of German trains. Have you, either.. the Zweig in particular chimes with your thinking on this post.

Gracchi said...

Yeah I have read Clive James- its a wonderful book and one I very much enjoyed. As to Zweig and Grass- no I haven't, I must though they sound good. To be honest the thought for this post was brought up by another great book- Pocock's first volume on Gibbon- of which more at some point soon.

Anonymous said...

The decline of the amateur is absolutely disastrous as far as the intellectual climate in this country is concerned. But not because of the inwardness of academics, but there overweening influence on the intellectual climate. Their indestructible outwardness.
Academia cannot tolerate the presence of informed amateurs because they could become a genuine alternative and independent authority. Someone to challenge the vacuous "research" pumped out in the merry-go-round of funding and policy which characterises the insane joyride of mutual reciprocity of the press, the universities and the government.
Consider the example of Fabian Tassano and his colleagues at the Oxford Forum to see exactly how valued independent intellects are in this country of official truth. Not a fat lot.