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robertogreco : helots   1

"1. An academic has and wants an audience disproportionately made up of teachers and students, while an intellectual has and wants teachers and students in his audience only in proportion to their place in the general educated public. 2. An academic is a specialist who has disciplined his curiosity to operate largely within a designated area, while an intellectual is a generalist who deliberately does otherwise. 3. An academic is concerned with substance and suspicious of style, while an intellectual is suspicious of any substance that purports to transcend or defy style."

"Tenured faculty, the aristocracy of the university, have been disgracefully complicit in the creation of an academic helot class to subsidize their own upper-middle-class salaries, but the helots are progressively replacing the aristocrats as the latter retire and are replaced by helots rather than by other aristocrats. What is being phased out, in short, is the very career which tenured faculty once enjoyed and to which new Ph.D.s still vainly aspire.(5) This career, although it included teaching, was not narrowly confined to teaching in the way that the work of adjunct faculty is narrowly confined -- indeed brutally reduced -- to teaching. For a while to come, some of the many aspiring professors who enter the academic labor market each year will find tenure-track positions and be awarded tenure in due course. More, however, will fail to obtain tenure or even to be hired for a tenure-track position. Barring a labor movement of unprecedented scope, the less talented among them will then sink into academe's permanent underclass, while the more talented will leave academe and seek other employment."

"To return to my premise, if the role of academics in the preservation and propagation of liberal learning is shrinking as the liberal arts are crowded out of the university curriculum, then either the role of intellectuals -- men and women of humane learning whose gainful occupation is not teaching -- will grow, or the humane tradition will slide further into decline. If and when that compensatory growth comes about, however, there may come with it a number of now only poorly predictable changes.

As academe eliminates the liberal arts, institutions and forms of organization that are now secondary will become primary by academe's default. Peter Drucker does not predict that university libraries, museums, databases, and computer networks will be gone in thirty years when the university as we know it is gone. But if their likely survival throws their importance into relief, it does so as well for kindred institutions that have never been under university auspices at all: endowed research libraries, independent museums of various kinds, and the many voluntary associations and working groups that the Internet already makes possible. Already, a scholar in search of an out-of-the-way, out-of-print book may have better luck with, which offers "nine million used, antiquarian and rare books, periodicals and ephemera offered for sale by thousands of booksellers around the world" than with a local university library, even a large one. Whether or not venture capital invested in online education succeeds in capturing much of the revenue flow that now sustains traditional colleges and universities, the Internet stands ready as a monastery-on-demand for the dark age after the Rome that is the academic establishment has fallen. When Rome fell, the Roman Empire did not vanish. Its separate parts lived on in other forms. So it could be for the campus liberal arts empire: When it falls, it too will not vanish but live on as its separate parts assume other forms.

Academics are farmers. They have fields, and they cultivate their fields well. Intellectuals are hunters. An intellectual does not have a field but a quarry which he pursues across as many fields as necessary, often losing sight of it altogether. Hunters cannot replace farmers, or vice versa; but if liberal learning in America, hitherto mostly a farm culture, becomes progressively a hunt culture, there will surely be consequences. By the standards of farmers, what hunters do seems reckless and undisciplined, but hunting has its own interior logic, the logic of an agenda that is individually rather than collectively determined.

One cannot easily be either a farmer or a professor by avocation. The strength of these vocations is that they demand full commitment. Mirroring their strength, their great vulnerability is their inability effectively to reward and sustain partial commitment. By contrast, one may rather easily be a hunter or an intellectual by avocation. Like hunters, who join the chase when they can and leave it when they must, sharing the kill with the tribe when they are successful, so intellectuals study when they can and stop when they must, seeking ever to please themselves but sharing their intellectual pleasure, when they write, with their readers.

The agricultural revolution did not occur for no reason. Hunters are more likely to go hungry than farmers. If academics, reliably supported by their universities, are succeeded by intellectuals, only unreliably supported by the work they pick up here and there, the post- and extra-academic humanities will often go hungry and homeless. But hunting does not differ from farming only by being more hazardous and less reliable. Off campus, the liberal arts may, at least on occasion, enjoy a wild adventure and an extraordinary feast. Only time will tell -- but less time, if present trends continue, than we might think."
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january 2005 by robertogreco

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