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« Free Reads -- Underclass? What Underclass? | Main | Andrea del Sarto Reredux »

August 29, 2002

Paul Johnson Reredux


You're quite right about the institutional similarities between the medieval monastic movement and Ivy League colleges.

irish monks.jpg
Irish Monks Modestly Saving Civilization

I would say, however, that on the human level the professoriat comes off rather poorly in comparison with the monks. The monastic way of life emphasized humility, a quality not particularly in evidence among my professors.

It also seemed to have relatively little room for ambitious careerism, in contrast to, say, the antics surrounding the move of Cornel West from Harvard to Princeton. I don't think there was a great deal of high-profile monastery-hopping by monks. The viciousness of faculty politics and the scramble for tenure may well have had analogs in the monasteries, but surely it could not have been as pervasive or as intense (no "up or out" for the monks, as far as I know).

Cornel West Modestly Demanding Respect

The monks, to the extent of their powers, also delivered the goods in terms of transmission of knowledge. The undergraduate instruction at most Ivy League institutions, in contrast, is fairly execrable. My professors seemed to regard teaching as little better than a necessary evil, and preparation for teaching as something best minimized. The assumption clearly was "You're bright boys and girls, just read the book and figure it out for yourself."

Finally, the goal of the monastic exercise--the saving of souls--meant that the community was deeply interested in the welfare of each member. If a monastery wasn't a true community, I can't imagine what other institution could qualify. Ivy universities, to judge by our alma mater, are basically "prestige-maximizing" institutions with no interest at all the lives of their students or even in whether the "education" they claim to be delivering is really being absorbed.

I felt far more of a sense of community in my first job, where my adulterous, hard-drinking, expense-account abusing boss had a genuine human interest in my welfare as well as my work product. More human interest, certainly, than I ever noticed at college, in which contact between the paid staff and the paying student body was highly ritualized and, as far as possible, minimized.

As for what I was doing there, I was looking to join the wonderful world of ideas. What I found was a place in which ideas had been reduced to instrumentalities of a rather grim careerism. Pity.



posted by Friedrich at August 29, 2002


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