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Academic Caplets, by Ricardo Lida Nirenberg
 
 

Professor N, a well-educated native of South America, moved to the U.S. and ended up teaching at a large State University.  He told me that twenty-five years ago, during a budgetary belt-tightening, he was asked to serve on a Task Force on Academic Priorities whose aim was to decide what to cut; not surprisingly perhaps, Classics was among the likely victims.  Professor N argued forcefully in favor of retaining the Classics program: without it, he said, the Humanities would be in jeopardy.  But N is a professor of Physics, and the words of a non-specialist don't carry much weight; so the chairman of the German Department (a part of the Humanities) was asked whether N's statement was true.  "Not at all," he replied, whereupon it was immediately decided, with only N's vote against, to terminate the Classics program.
"You must understand," Professor N said to me; "the German Department stood to gain one faculty line from cuts elsewhere, and they did get that line.  Ten years later there was another budget crisis and the German Department was closed down; that same chairman was forced to retire.  So you see, even at the University there is some poetic justice."
At the end of that meeting where he was crushingly outvoted (Professor N further told me), the associate academic vicepresident approached him, looking puzzled, and asked, "Are you of Greek descent?"



You probably remember the notorious Unabomber, now in jail; he used to send bomb letters to those he considered key players in the high-technology game.  One of the victims, badly injured, was Gelertner, a professor at Yale.  L, a star professor of Computer Science, sputters in anger when I mention the Unabomber.  His madness, his cruelty? (I ask).  "His ignorance! (L replies.)  He ought to have sent that bomb letter to me, not to Gelertner!"


To make a living as a writer, a good friend of mine ghost-writes autobiographies.  Lately, he has been working on one by a man who was president of a large university.  "How can one make it interesting," my friend complains, "when the man describes the high points in his life by saying, 'then I convened a committee'?"


In 1968 Jorge Luis Borges gave the Norton Lectures at Harvard.  He spoke without notes (since he was blind), and was rather lackadaisical with time.  Lectures were supposed to last for 50 minutes, but his varied in length; in one, having talked for 30 minutes, Borges fell silent but didn't get up from his chair.  One of the Harvard professors who had organized the event (let's call him X: I have this anecdote from him) went up to the podium and asked, "Are you all right, Borges?  What's the matter?"  And Borges said, "It's just that one of my legs fell asleep, and since it is, I think, part of the audience, I reckoned it was the right time to come to an end."  Such making light of the sacrosanct traditions of the place infuriated X and his colleagues; they also judged that the poet had not given them their money's worth of original scholarship.  As a result, Borges' Norton Lectures were the first ones not to be published -- until they reappeared, thirty-two years later, when all the main participants were dead.


Within his special field of philology, Professor Y enjoyed the power of an Aeacus, a Minos or a Rhadamanthys: he passed judgment on his confrères as soon as they had passed away.  His own scholarly work and his editorship of a prestigious journal were the rigid and necessary supports, the sources of authority, allowing him to indulge his main passion, the writing of obituaries.  As a judge he was merciless, and a corrosive odium philologicum would often seep through the well-manicured semblance of scientific objectivity.  Two years before his death (he was long retired and in his eighties, quite decrepit), Professor Y reflected wistfully on his life.  "Now I see that two obituaries should be written on each subject," he said to me; "the first one right after death, the second fifty years later, so as to gain some perspective."
I wished, but found it hard, to interpret those words as a heightened concern for justice; it was more likely a crazy thrust for still more power.  It would have made him a court of last appeal, a Doomsday Judge.  And it would have doubled his output.


Esprits fins, esprits de géometrie, esprits faux.  Pascal's distinctions go a long way to explain the gulf between the good practioners of the humanities and those of the exact sciences, as well as the relative abundance of inept ones.  All else that has been written on the subject seems but footnotes to the Pensées.  But I have found in Pascal no explanation for the striking abundance of mad,  incurably pompous people in Academe: perhaps because for him (as he writes somewhere) we all are
incurably mad, without distinctions.


One of my sons is a professor of history at a prestigious university, and sometimes I fret about the effects that may have on his soul.  I had been reading about the mad enthusiasm with which European intellectuals (Max Weber and Georg Simmel among the most illustrious) acclaimed the start of the First World War, and I commented to my son about the nationalization of science - how the professors of each nation declared that the enemy's truth was false - how the later Nazis, with their "Jewish science," were just following the example.  My son said that in all likelihood such factional spirit would be impossible now, for in our time science has trumped nationalism as a value; then, after a pause, he added: "Who knows if that is a good thing."  Yes, exactly: who knows.  And I breathed easily: my son's passion for truth plus his unflinching skepticism show that his soul is sound and whole.
 



 
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