The Dissenting Academy.
by Theodore Roszak.
Pantheon. 304 pp. $6.95.
At any time, it is not easy to talk about the life of scholarship without sounding starchy. It becomes even harder when one is faced by this collection of essays, some of which are, to put it gently, rather raucous. Clamor, recklessness, an assault on the niceties, a relentless accusatory tone are all here. Angered and demoralized by the war in Vietnam, eleven scholars in the humanities and the social sciences have turned on their own community, the academy, and challenged it to deny its share of guilt for that war. Nor would a confession of guilt appease these critics: they want penance and reformation as well. They demand that their colleagues move their energies away from conventional interests and take on other tasks, the tasks fit for serious learned men who live in a desperate world. In irritated response, one may be led—hating oneself all the way—to an affirmation of pious sentiments, to the easy rhetoric heard on commencement day and found in foundation reports. The bad manners of some of the contributors are really so unsubtle that their colleagues, otherwise sympathetic and all too ready to accept chastisement from any quarter, may rebel. Unlovely harshness will be tolerated in genius, but these are one's colleagues, after all, who thunder; not Sartre, Heidegger, or Russell.
It would be a pity, however, to let irritation carry the day. This book does, at the least, taunt the reader into trying to put together a few remarks about the life of scholarship, despite the risks of pomposity involved. The question that must be asked is, What does the teacher-scholar stand for? What are the values which he tries to promote and strengthen simply by being what he is and doing what he is supposed to do? The first and most obvious thing to say is that his profession is the truth. Where others get on with only as much truth as they need, and permit a thousand expediencies or delicacies or kinds of laziness to set limits on truth-telling, the teacher-scholar must be ruthless. Scientific truth is no longer subversive, though one day it may become so again, because of human fear or political apprehension. But the truth about man in society must always be, to some degree or other, subversive: the humanities and the social sciences constantly erode human certainty and self-confidence, social stability, political and religious purposes, common conceptions concerning the ends of life. The natural habitat of everybody is the cave; sleep, lethargy, and conformity the normal conditions of order. Against these facts, the teacher-scholar sets himself, he labors on the side of disruption, discomfort, and alienation. He is the servant of the great and the lesser poets, novelists, philosophers, and political and social theorists; or, in rare instances, he is himself one of their number. Whether he creates, synthesizes, or transmits, he is of the Devil's party, working for light and for movement against all rest and certainty, all acceptance and assent. The truth-teller is the naysayer, even though his negations may become petrified into dogmas or ideologies that others use to cloud the light and arrest movement. He is a rebel, traitor, and atheist; partly because he loves to be, because he is a spiteful misfit, but also because he actually does loathe darkness, the warmth and regulated madness of the cave.
From the commitment to truth, certain other qualities come to be intimately associated with the teacher-scholar. He is ideally an idler, someone who is both bloodless and spectatorial. If he speaks or sings like the Devil, he watches and notices, always from a distance, like an angel. He sublimates his hatred of life into the spirit of a dry disinterestedness. He keeps alive the very idea of impartiality; he tries to get the whole view of any matter. His better self rarely takes sides, so that he can respond to the appeal—sometimes loud, sometimes unexpressed—that is found in all human exertion and aspiration. If he does not hear, who will? If he does not empty himself, how can he listen?
He is also a player, but his arena is not life but language. He wants the truth, but knows that on anything important he will fail to seize all of it. His consolation comes from the intellectual pattern he fabricates. He may achieve a system, or he may merely produce a scattering of arguments, metaphors, and disclosures. But whatever he does, he knows that he studies or builds sandcastles. His love of the truth is checked by his limitations, but he disguises those limitations in style.
He is also a trifler. Which is to say that his work helps to preserve the fragile ensemble called civilization, an ensemble made up of all the inessential activities which alone are truly human because they are done for their own sake and because they have nothing to do with efficiency or scarcity. He symbolizes the unnatural, only more intensely than the worlds of fashion, entertainment, sports, and ritual do. He affirms the separation of humankind from all other creatures. From a strict point of view, he is wasteful, marginal, accepting no criterion of seriousness but that which seems frivolous to the world. He is a pedant and a casuist. He worries about the past, and has the effrontery to think that the present generation of men is not the first to walk the earth and will not be the last; and that its immediate concerns are not the only conceivable concerns.
Lucky the time and place that can afford such a pervert. The eleven academic dissenters say that we do not now live in such a time and place. They all share the feeling that the duties of citizenship are paramount. How then is citizenship supposed to govern the work of the teacher-scholar? There are three main answers given, insisted on, in The Dissenting Academy. The first answer is that the teacher-scholar must refuse to place himself at the service of the status quo. In his classroom as well as in his writing, he should shed his timidity, and resist the gratifications of sense and ego that a rich society so effortlessly puts before him. Thus relieved of both fear and gratitude, he can forebear from offering his knowledge to agencies in society which use his knowledge to act in stupid, selfish, or malevolent ways; and deny his auspices to those agencies when they seek to rationalize their policies. In short, he should not cooperate, in his professional capacity, with public wrong-doing, whether wrong-doing takes the form of preserving injustices or perpetrating new ones. This first answer dominates the essays by three political scientists: Christian Bay, Robert Engler, and Marshall Windmiller; and by the distinguished linguist, Noam Chomsky. Chomsky, especially, is severe in his indictment of those academic intellectuals who supplied ideas and apologies for the horrors of successive administrations in Vietnam. On the other hand, the three political scientists rebuke their brethren for celebrating the American political way of life, even though it sanctions gross inequalities and neglects the legitimate interests of countless, largely voiceless people.
The second answer is that the teacher-scholar should devote himself to thinking about the personal and social needs of men in contemporary society. His teaching and research should be engaged by the urgencies that surround him: he should come down from the ivory tower and take a part in the enormous work of social reform. He should judge all that he does by its utilitarian efficacy. If the first answer contains an idea as to what citizenship forbids, the second answer indicates its positive, active intellectual duties. This theme is sounded particularly by two historians, Theodore Roszak and Staughton Lynd; and by Louis Kampf, a professor of literature, and Sumner Rosen, an economist. Roszak addresses all teacher-scholars, while the other three speak first of all to colleagues in their disciplines.
The third answer is that the teacher-scholar must be a citizen not only in his professional work; he must also act as a citizen in the real world. He must lead the young in their harassment of the established; he must succor the disadvantaged. What is more, when it comes time to pass judgment on the academic qualities of junior teacher-scholars, those in authority must take into account this extra-academic or quasi-academic performance. Roszak praises the young instructor who organizes a “well-conceived campaign against capital punishment”; or “feeling that the politics of his community has gone slack, undertakes to run for Congress”; or “leads a civil-disobedience exercise against a germ-warfare laboratory”; or “devotes a large amount of his time to organizing ‘freedom schools’ for underprivileged kids”; or organizes a teach-in on the Vietnam war. “Perhaps he even travels to Vietnam for the Inter-University Committee and then writes on the effect the war is having on village life and on American moral character for the Atlantic or the New Republic.”
Of the three answers, the first is clearly compatible with the notion of the teacher-scholar I have sketched. Actually, it is a more pointedly political version, a politically narrowed version of such a notion. Yes, of course, it is wrong to cooperate with wrong-doing. I would want to go further and say that the chances are always high that those in power are up to no or little good, or alternatively they have a vested interest in confusion and falsehood, for all the cares they must support. The sharpest and oldest class-warfare is between thinkers and authority. (See the comments made a short time back by Novotny of Czechoslovakia.) It is not just the Vietnam war that makes that point. However, let us agree that the war is the most recent vivid illustration of the point: shame on those who, from Kennedy's day to the present, have been authority's accomplices and spokesmen. They should have known better; they should have acted on the general principle: shun involvement in government (except when there is a dire and palpable emergency). Add a subsidiary principle: do not accept favors from government. Only let us notice that it would be foolish to make too much of the influence of teacher-scholars on government. Men in power have their own interests; they do not need professors to tell them what those interests are. We would have had the war in Vietnam, and all the other bad things (as well as the good ones), even if not a single teacher-scholar worked in Washington.
The second answer raises more problems. Staughton Lynd is most eloquent, almost ingenious, in asserting the primacy of the present in the scholarly burdens of the professor (as historian). It may be true that some of the best history of a period is written by someone alive in it, and that therefore some of the best history historians can now write will be contemporary history, the history of events in which they may even play a part. Still, the standard must remain the historian's standard—the quality of historical writing, not the help the historian gives to the solution of practical political and social problems. Otherwise the historian becomes a propagandist; and propaganda is propaganda, though the historian's cause is the best in the world. There is no use in denying that just as there is perpetual strife between thinkers and authority, so there is perpetual strife between thinkers and the most humane citizenship. Citizenship means action; action means partiality and some degree of fanaticism. How can a commitment to truth survive very much active citizenship? How can truth survive the requirements of utilitarian efficacy? Is there not a good deal of innocence in supposing that there is no conflict here? It is no accident that the best essay in the book is Chomsky's “The Responsibility of Intellectuals.” Chomsky sets out to tell the truth about the record of justification for our policies in Vietnam. Certainly there is moral passion in Chomsky's writing; with equal certainty, it helps to arouse moral passion in others. But to the judicious reader, the piece is successful because Chomsky honors the conventional standards of the historian, not because the reader may happen to sympathize with Chomsky's feelings. What is more, Chomsky has done more good by writing it than he has by any gesture of active citizenship, wonderfully courageous though his gestures have been.
And if all historians and other scholars followed the lead of Lynd (and others in this collection) and concentrated on the present, and excluded any consideration but that of immediate relevance, who then would preserve knowledge of the past? Has the past, in its achievements and agonies, no claim on us? To say it again, we are not the first generation of men to walk the earth. Is not memory intrinsic to the barest conception of humanity? I speak not just of history as a source of enlightenment for the present, though that is something tremendous. I speak also of history for the sake of the dead, the ancestors whom we live off, for both good and ill. Lynd's position cannot be universalized without a lapse into barbarism. Let him and like-minded scholars stay in the present; but also let others continue the effort of communication with what has gone before.
As for the third answer, there is a terrible inappropriateness in wanting young teacher-scholars to be judged as teacher-scholars for what they do as citizens. Roszak's view is entirely too close to Mao's doctrine of “red first, expert second.” Doing is not the same as thinking; doing good is not the same as teaching and writing well. Virtue is not a substitute for scholarship: each has its place. But for the teacher-scholar, if he is to be a teacher-scholar, everything in life must be sacrificed to the impossibly difficult asceticism of training his intelligence. In the nature of things, he cannot have much time left over from his intellectual work for organizing, leading, and demonstrating. No matter how exhilarated he feels after a confrontation with the forces of wrong-doing, he must admit that what he has done is commendable by every criterion except the one he has chosen to live by. He cannot be very busy and still discipline himself for truth-telling, still do all the violence he must do to himself to become different from other men.
It may be, however, that all I have said is beside the point. Our crisis may be so grave as to necessitate a total mobilization of virtue, a total absorption in citizenship. The old-fashioned definition of the teacher-scholar may be superannuated. I ask only that the cost of the crisis be honestly calculated. If we can no longer endure the existence of the academic mind, let us at least know what it is we are condemning to extinction. Let us not usher in a new age of darkness and call it liberation.