The Death of the Gentleman Scholar

The Death of the Gentleman Scholar
by ADMIN posted on OCTOBER 22, 2011
“Wisdom crieth aloud in the street; she uttereth her voice in the highways” Proverbs 1,22

Recent events have made me remember that one of the reasons I dropped out of law school was that lawyers seemed just like businessmen to me. They told the same jokes, drank the same beer and ogled the same girls while they sat smoking the same cigarettes (when you could smoke cigarettes on a university campus, a hundred years ago) between classes. I had chosen “the law” (notice the phrase) because I’d seen A Man for All Seasons twenty times and thought if it ever came to it I would willingly die for justice, which had become in my head a worthy substitute for God. I’d left him behind at the end of my freshman year and there was an intellectual and moral gap that needed filling.
But I did not want to end my days among the sons of peanut farmers in lower Virginia, so I escaped and joined the ranks of the liberally artsy. I defended my choice by telling my parents that wisdom was as good as justice any old day, even if it didn’t pay as well. My Black’s Law Dictionary for years was a doorstop in my bedroom, reminding me of this early vocational recalibration. For their part, my family were still recovering from the time, at 14, I had absconded by night from a Roman Catholic minor seminary in Baltimore after deciding I lacked the right stuff to be a priest.

One of the things you learned quickly in graduate school was that you could not always be right. In high school it had never seemed to matter if I was wrong: everyone was wrong, much of the time. In college it mattered a little more, but in “major public universities” the cloak of anonymity helped to deliver you from discernible error. Their opposite, “the small liberal arts college” was where people with money went to be told, in the nicest way, that they were wrong, but that it didn’t matter because they were going to get a good job anyway and what really mattered was that they weren’t being taught by graduate students but suckled by grossly underpaid PhD’s.

But graduate school was different—primarily because error was conspicuous. It mattered. The twelve people sitting around the table with you all wanted to be right– to show that they’d done the reading, translated the passage, mastered the method better than their chums. Facts mattered when they mattered, but ingenuity and imagination mattered more, more than anything except sleeping with the professor.

So did civility. The quickest way to the bottom of the heap in every class and every seminar was to call a colleague (and mean it) crazy, wrong, pathetic, or dickheaded. In my over-long graduate school career, I probably encountered all of the known subtle equivalents of calling somebody hopelessly stupid, but never directly. You relied on market pressure and quiet consensus to make the case. You relied on what was beginning to be called discourse. Only once do I remember a student breaking under the pressure of this consensus and telling a professor, a woman professor as it happens, to go fuck herself. That student is now a lawyer.

What I remember most, however was artful disagreement: “You may be right that Shakespeare was an alcoholic, but have you considered that by our standards everyone in Elizabethan England was?” or, “I do take your point about the importance of classical grammar; but I think I’m with F.R. Leavis on this one.” It was always good to be with F.R. Leavis on anything, especially if the professor was with him as well. Cheap disagreement was citing expert opinion and footnotes in your own defence. Good disagreement was learning how to make a case of your own. Once, in the world, we had professors who knew the difference between the two.

The sensible pattern of those days stuck with me: in my own small classes and seminars, I don’t permit students to begin sentences with “You must be kidding,” “What a load of crap,” “Get over yourself” or “I can’t believe you just said that.” That’s for the mall, or a disagreement over drinks or Thanksgiving dinner. Treasure a space where it’s not allowed. And there is a small, cowed part of me that regrets that the free speech impetus of my college generation, thirty years on, seems to have inspired mainly linguistic muck and the artifice of quick put-downs.

Graduate students, if they are lucky, become something called “academics.” They write book reviews to pad their resumes, then articles made from chopping their dissertations into tiny bits, and then recombine the bits, with invention, into new books. The smart ones never budge more than an inch from the research they did for their dissertation because, usually, it has meant a job, tenure, and intellectual territory. It has also meant, in some cases, a degree of celebrity–though the reality is that most academics will die in shadows gray, even if tickled pink at the number of hits they get on a Google search.

Anonymous or not, the scholar has always been a citizen of a larger world—the world of ideas. He is no longer confined to the seminar room, nor even to a particular “employer.” The academic world is wide and scary. Teeming with people just like the ones you knew when there were twelve of you around a table waiting for you to crash and burn so that they could rise and fly. It is Olympic, and full of people who sniff error the way hounds sniff for rabbit.

The profession of scholarship as it was inherited by my generation of scholars still possessed an element of chivalry. It is easy to scoff at chivalry, because it has been bruised, battered and left for dead in free speech wars, gender and sexual revolutions–and by fiat in the literary critical verdict that no discourse is privileged over any other and its marketplace corollary–that teachers are, first and foremost, industry service providers, and students are clients and paying customers. (Change that C- to a more comfortable B+ for you, John? My pleasure. Blanket?).

All chivalry is slightly artificial, based on the ancient idea of Do ut des – giving what you expect to get. But to say you were a “scholar” was also descriptive of what you were as a servant of knowledge, someone who would always be, in a socratic kind of way, a subordinate of the wisdom you were trying to communicate to students in the classroom and colleagues reading you in libraries.

The academic profession was a collective full of idealists who actually thought they were combating the ignorance that is the natural state of youth and society. They were the front line of defence against a return to barbarism and Hobbes’s first stage of Me-ism

Any academic is lying who tells you she hasn’t spent the last ten years in committee meetings being reprogrammed to know that the primary role of a university is not the dissemination of knowledge but the retention of students, frantic for self-esteem. This almost imperceptible insertion into academic life by the educationist theory factories will have had some innocent title like “The Changing Face of American Education” or “Managing Student Persistence.” But basically, the program to be got with was about how your ivory tower has been converted into a condo association. –And just to drive the point home, your performance reviews will be done by the customers every 16 weeks, and they do count.

I miss chivalry. I miss the cozy, feathered protection of Oxford common rooms, quiet tutorials where tea is served and two-hundred count formal lectures where students take notes instead of covert text messages . I even miss calling my students Mr and Miss, already quaint in my day when socialist professors insisted on their right to be called Jerry.. But in his heyday, madly perhaps, the scholar “behaved” as though he knew what he was: a servant of knowledge, a master of arts, a professor of wisdom–of some sort–an unworthy midwife who “got” the Socratic thing about knowing nothing being the first step in knowing.

But one thing that did not change until much more recently was the discourse, at least not substantially. In the reviews you wrote, you tried to imagine the scholar whose work was in front of you and sharing your predicament. If you rose in the ranks, and he hadn’t, you felt the tug of generosity in knowing that a good word might make the difference between tenure and failure. In the books you wrote and edited, you were careful to give full and fair credit in footnotes (which seemed to grow inexplicably longer than your paragraphs as you created your case or argued your point).

I have seen trenchant, damning reviews of my work and undeservedly generous ones. The damning ones did not call me a fool and the good ones did not call me a genius. Once upon a time, the world of ideas was more about the ideas than the advocates. Now, a political model rules in which killing the advocate is the fastest way to get rid of the idea. If Barack Obama is a communist, how can anything he says be right? If Professor Lewis is a Jew, of course his opinions about Islam and terrorism can be ignored, negated—nay, vilified. Judging a book by its cover, a scholar by his race, politics or religion, is nothing new of course; except that scholarship itself is supposed to be about correcting this predilection, not buying into it wholesale.

Based on my conversations with colleagues over the last year, I’m sad to say that the gentleman scholar is as dead as a doornail. What G B Shaw once said about Christianity (“The conversion of the savage to Christianity is the conversion of Christianity to savagery) is more profoundly true of scholarship, where the popularization of ideas makes it difficult to distinguish between good ideas and atrocious ideas since all have equal standing in a world of flash and hyperlinks.

It means that many scholars, including scientists, can use the “authority” they have earned in a particular area and apply it to areas in which they have no expertise at all. Amateurs who failed as job-getters, teachers or authors can find a new life as experts in virtual classrooms in which the only responsibility is to themselves. (I speak of blogs.) Self-taught experts can cavort with real experts in the great democracy of ideas where no one is better and so no one is, really “right.” In short, the chastening experience of criticism that might have led to self-criticism, humility and a keen sense of wrongness just doesn’t happen. What does happen is a style and language that makes rightness more difficult, makes “knowledge” so negotiable that it becomes indistinguishable from darkness. ”Learning” (awful, archaic idea) becomes affectation—pomposity and arrogance. Late-breaking news and myth-busting become the current wisdom.

In a world dominated by the twin opposites of sham authority and rank amateurism, the first casualty is real scholarship.

26 thoughts on “The Death of the Gentleman Scholar

  1. It appears never to have occurred to you that some bloggers who are even amateurs do indeed rack themselves with self-criticism and understand the way of humility and a keen sense of the possibility of being wrong — that is, has it ever occurred to you that these qualities are also to be found “in the ghetto”? Instead of treating them like disease carrying mosquitoes, if you actually condescended to allow yourself a serious discussion, you might find your own sense of humility and keen sense of wrongness being tested. I have learned much from public intellectuals. I have also learned a few of them are insufferable self-pleasuring snobs of no intellectual value whatever to the wider community. And there is also gold, I have learned through experience, hidden in the ghetto. Some public intellectuals act is if they know this and the dialogue is rewarding to both sides.

    • Thank you in general for the tone of this Neil: you need however to send this to Mr Carrier whose aspersive style was the provocation of this rant, which I identified as a rant, and to his advocate PZ Myers. Dig for gold there.

      • Or should I have first said “Sorry, I’m a disease carrying mosquito from the ghetto”? And then have begged to have been swatted for entering the hallowed halls of the esoteric humanist space. . . . ? Is that the tone you wanted from me?

      • Dr. Hoffmann, I am in complete agreement with you. Great post.

        However, in the interest of thouroughness, I would add quite a few more names to the mailing list that you supplied to Neil.

    • No doubt about it, gentlemanly discourse is dying an ugly death at the hands of the atheist fundamentalists and this comment seems determined to make that point – ‘it appears never to have occurred to you’, ‘has it ever occurred to you’, ‘if you actually condescended’.

      Neil has ignored the central thrust of the posting to latch onto the criticism of bloggers and thereby promptly confirms Dr Hoffmann’s point with his own conduct. Nice one.

  2. Mr Hoffman, Sir, I wonder whether you are not being a little too hard on the amateur, perhaps. For amateurs such as I with a couple of dodgy A-levels left over from the ‘sixties it is still possible even in this Elsevier dominated world of the Intertoobz and Adobe to research a subject by reference to observation and original papers thus arriving at some conclusion which is then open to argument, is it not?

    Whether the field of interest be drug addiction, a particular disease or HT power cable pylon design (yes, I should get out more) there is much to be discovered out there by any who thirsts for wisdom.

    I suggest that even though there are many hazards in the way of finding knowledge, the discerning will learn rather than be bullied.

    • Franklin, you are right that no one should be discounted because s/he is an amateur: but when someone whose credentials are not at all clear decides to establish himself simply by taking random jabs at the incompetence of scholars who have a proven record of competence, something has to be said. Carrier has now tried to discredit Ehrman — and me previously — and I think it is time to invoke Matthew 7.16 — not simply trust someone who is operating a fan club based on his own private view of his extraordinariness.

    • We’re all amateurs on most things. While we can have opinions, we just don’t pretend to be experts and have the training and knowledge to make learned arguments and pronounce with arrogance entire disciplines to be “fucked” (Carrier 28.11.2011). I studied many things at university in my first degrees, including classics, history, psychology, ecology, criminilogy, anthropology, English literature, Music, Art History, Maori studies and more. I read widely and still read those subjects but I am not an expert and don’t pretend to be. I’ve read Stephen Hawking. I don’t understand it completely because I haven’t the training or knowledge. While I accept his argument as the best and totally plausible as he presented it, I’m not qualified to disagree with anything anyway.

  3. As a philosophy undergrad many decades ago, and now as a blogger myself, my view of academics was/is not as gracious. Too often the academic will arbitrarily narrow the terms of discourse to exclude concepts they consider to be ultra vires, regardless of their intrinsic value.

    As an example, ethics remains a favourite subject among philosophers, and biologists must fear any pronouncement from that camp – that their project be declared ‘immoral’. I engage these pundits with the notion that ethics today must be examined less from the perspective of mores, and increasingly from the implications of our actions on our species and planet – and they simply won’t go there. The concept of ‘morality’ is too wonderfully nebulous to forsake.

    Remember too that academics are known to form schools of thought (in my day the British Analytic Tradition) and so, as an undergraduate I was not to expect any mention of German or Oriental philosophies, and had to make do with Alan Watts for the bulk of my introduction to the latter. Over the past century Wittgenstein and his emulators have done a lot to keep Asia, Islam and the West as three solitudes. They abdicated any responsibility for the T-shirt/Tweed jacket of their own little club, and that has cost us dearly.

    It’s true that my sherry-and-recorder (the flute) seminars for 5 credits were very cordial, but they were also an intellectual travesty and bad joke for all concerned.

  4. Well, I had an Intro to Philosophy class in undergrad, and a class focused on Epistemology in grad school. I’ve spent a lot of time studying religion in the first century CE. I think I can safely say that I am as educated as Plutarch, and I’m definitely superior to Lucian.

  5. The problem it is not the “amateur” thought. The problem is the arrogance that some minds, amateurs or not, have to dismiss people work because does not “fit” whit their own theory and “their” position is the only ” true and logical ” conclusion. This is valid for Catholic Church in Galileo’s time and for, less educated and similarly arrogant Carrier, PZ Myers and company. They have not knowledge to debate, so they attack… And Internet is a nice battle field where reputations can be harmed without academic review.

  6. These are not footnotes, and I’m not disagreeing.

    A. Massimo Piatelli-Palmarini (Inevitable Illusions: How Mistakes of Reason Rule Our Minds, 1994):

    The essential elements of the Bayesian procedure are as follows:

    (1) A series of possible alternatives (which statisticians call “states of nature”) that come before the decision and the gathering of further information.

    (2) The a priori probability assigned to each alternative, before verification or testing.

    (3) The degree of reliability and the predictive capacity of each test.

    (4) The results of the tests (inquires, controls).

    (5) The probability assigned to each alternative a posteriori–after, and in light of, all the tests and the further information gathered.

    Bayes’ classic law… states that the probabilities in (5) can be exactly calculated on the basis of data provided in (1) through (4)… It must be stressed that both Bayesian and non-Bayesian theoreticians of induction agree on the formula discovered by Bayes… What theoreticians disagree about is the amount of insight one gains from applying this formula to all actual cases of induction…

    …the most delicate and difficult part of the operation: One is seeking to calculate the probability of the hypothesis before, and independently of, the test, as well as to calculate the probable result of the test, independent of that particular hypothesis but taking into account other plausible alternatives. This requires rigor, but also flair, common sense, an acute intuition, a fair dose of expertise, and a refined imagination.

    Thereafter, applying Bayes’ formula is purely mechanical… The grandeur of Bayes’ law lies precisely in its great formal simplicity–but a simplicity that requires a highly intelligent mix of science and art when applied to concrete examples. In individual cases, it is difficult to insert the right ingredients or numbers in the formula. A mistake in the…a priori probabilities means that the law’s wheels grind out numbers, and an “answer” quite without sense [I’m smelling kielbasa; yum]. The correct calculation of the [a priori] probabilities in a given sector… requires years of study and the cumulative experience of thousands of analogous cases and tests, each patiently analyzed…

    B. George Poyla (Mathematics and Plausible Reasoning, 1954):

    My friend and I are both interested in the conjecture A. (This friend is a mathematician, and A is a mathematical conjecture.) We both know that A implies B. And now we find that B, this consequence of A, is true. We agree, as we honestly have to agree, that this verification of its consequence B is evidence in favor of the conjecture A, but we disagree about the value, or weight, of this evidence. One of us asserts that this verification adds very little to the credibility of A, and the other asserts that it adds a lot.

    This disagreement would be understandable if we were very unequally familiar with the subject and one of us knew many more formerly verified consequences than the other. Yet this is not so. We know about the same consequences of A verified in the past. We agree even that there is little analogy between the just verified B and those formerly verified consequences. We agree also, as we honestly should, that this circumstance renders the evidence for A stronger. Yet one of us says “just a little stronger,” the other says “a lot stronger,” and we disagree.

    We both suspected, even a short while ago, that B is false and it came to us as a surprise that B is true. In fact, from the standpoint of a rather natural assumption (or statistical hypothesis) B appears pretty improbable. We both perceive that this circumstance renders the evidence for A stronger. Yet one of us says “just a little stronger,” the other says “a lot stronger,” and we keep on disagreeing.

    We are both perfectly honest, I think, and our disagreement is not merely a matter of temperament. We disagree because his _background_ is different from mine. Although we had about the same scientific training, we developed in different directions. His work led him to distrust the hypothesis A. He hopes, perhaps, that one day he will be able to refute that conjecture A. As to myself, I do not dare to hope that I shall prove A one day. Yet I must confess that I would like to prove A. In fact, it is my ambition to prove A, but I do not wish to fool myself into the illusion that I shall ever be able to prove A. Such an incompletely avowed hope may influence my judgement, my evaluation of the weight of the evidence. Yet I may have other grounds besides: still more obscure, scarcely formulated, inarticulate grounds. And my friend may have some grounds too that he did not yet confess to himself. At any rate, such differences in our backgrounds may explain the situation: we disagree concerning the strength of the evidence, although we agree in all the clearly recognizable points that should influence the strength of the evidence in an impersonal judgement according to universally accepted reasonable standards.

    Let us note: two persons presented with the same evidence and applying the same patterns of plausible inference may honestly disagree.

    C. Chronological conundrum aside (and D. below notwithstanding), it might be noted that A –> B.

    D. In his Introduction to Logic, Irving M. Copi tells the story of a barrister who failed to prepare for a case (i.e., he eschewed ‘due diligence’). “He arrived at court just a moment before the trial was to begin and was handed his brief by the solicitor. Surprised at its thinness, he glanced inside to find written: ‘No case; abuse the plaintiff’s attorney!'”

    • No one doubts the mechanics of Bayes. “Thereafter, applying Bayes’ formula is purely mechanical… The grandeur of Bayes’ law lies precisely in its great formal simplicity–but a simplicity that requires a highly intelligent mix of science and art when applied to concrete examples. In individual cases, it is difficult to insert the right ingredients or numbers in the formula. A mistake in the…a priori probabilities means that the law’s wheels grind out numbers, and an “answer” quite without sense [I’m smelling kielbasa; yum]. The correct calculation of the [a priori] probabilities in a given sector… requires years of study and the cumulative experience of thousands of analogous cases and tests, each patiently analyzed…” and this paragraph seems rife with reasons to reject it as a solution to a literary critical puzzle that requires first a hermeneutic about which almost no one agrees. Even to disagree with the previous sentence illustrates the uselessness of the application to the New Testament where premises have to be constructed from dozens of different types of genres. I like your Copi example–I recall using his text in logic a hundred years ago.

  7. These are good thoughts, although somewhat doleful. Change is the universal constant, and some is for good and some for bad.

    The idea that universities are merely farms for paying students is certainly a change. It is likely to have some odd effects, at least initially.I don’t belong to academia myself, so I don’t know how widespread the disease has become. Probably it is being felt in lower-grade universities first, where there is less financial ballast in the system from endowments and the like. On the other hand … in the longer term it will probably have some positive effects as well.

    On the other point: I feel that the amateur like myself has no real chance to compete with the academic. He hasn’t the time. Always he has a tent-making job to do. He must do whatever he does in the evenings when he’s tired, with no access to the literature. Good scholarship must always crush the bumptious amateur, if the two are fairly matched.

    Yes, it is certainly easier for the amateur to become well-known at the moment, because of the web. But I wonder whether this is only because the scholars are not really using the web. By this I mean that they are not publishing their work on it.

    If so, the dominance of the amateur like myself is purely because the “other side” (although I see myself as a servant of learning, not a competitor) hasn’t entered the ring. I think this will change. If academics can retain enough control of their own work to put it online, then their work will become known, and the amateurs will return to being mere popularisers.

  8. This is such an important subject that deals with standards of conduct that touch every aspect of life. Coupled to the word ‘gentleman’ you used words like ‘chivalry’, ‘courtesy’ and ‘discourse’. They evoke a picture of respect, consideration and tolerance. I am reminded of my training in table manners: look around to anticipate the needs of others, behave with restraint and moderation, include others in the conversation, listen carefully, respect others’ views by not offending them, etc.

    All of this we included under the rubric ‘gentleman’. Today it seems so quaint, old fashioned and quite irrelevant. Why would that be? Any good philosopher would tell you that we are describing aspects of virtue ethics. And here is a sad fact, virtue ethics is in near terminal decline. I suspect that Neil Godfrey intends to deliver the coup de grace. Virtue ethics has declined precipitously to be replaced by consequential ethics with fatal effects on discourse. Why fatal effects? When you measure the morality of behaviour by consequences, it all depends on the desired consequences. Neil Godfrey wanted to score some points, this was his desired consequence so in his eyes his behaviour was morally justified. Consequential ethics is all things to all people and justifies any desired consequence. Not so, the philosophers will claim but we are not dealing with philosophers, we are dealing with the rank and file who see consequential ethics as the licence that validates their desires. It is a shifting ground where each person is the arbiter of his desired consequences.

    Virtue ethics, by contrast, is motivated by a vision of what an admirable person should be and these virtues are anchored in role models. These virtues were first defined by Plato and Aristotle and later by Christianity. These virtues are given their staying power by various role models. For Christianity the role model was Jesus Christ. However for much of society the role models were the class known as the gentleman. They embodied the virtues thought desirable for society. Now the problem is that these role models have largely disappeared from modern life, for various reasons. The absence of role models has removed the anchor from virtue ethics, leading to its decline. Consequential ethics rose to take its place and this is why we see such a dramatic decline in civil discourse.

    I don’t think we will ever see the gentleman scholar again. The lowest common denominator dictates our values and we are doomed to spend the rest of our life wrestling in the mud pit with pigs. This is our Sisyphean task.

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