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Monday, February 18, 2008

"O young academic politician, know thyself!"

What would happen if Jim Chen traveled back in time and space to England in 1908?  (Besides the usual shoot-your-grandfather time-travel-y altered-destiny stuff, in which Hitler becomes a famous artist, Huey Long serves five terms as President, and Tom Cruise is known as a respected actor.)  I think he would have written the Microcosmographia Academica

Although its actual author was one F.M. Cornford, it reads eerily like an early-20th-century version of  Moneylaw.  As Wikipedia puts it, this short book -- a pamphlet, really -- offers "the classic insider's satire on academic politics."  Although it was written specifically about Cambridge, its satirical description of the politics and decision-making process of academia continues to ring true.  For any current or would-be academic, it is hilarious and indispensible.  And, mirabile dictu, it is available online! 

A wonderful read, really. If you're anticipating a particularly contentious or amusing faculty meeting (not that the two are wholly distinct), or just looking for a better understanding of how things work (or don't work) at your institution, look no further.  It's short enough to print out and bring along for your own diversion the next time you're stuck in a meeting where someone "fill[s] up the time till [he] can think of something to say by talking." 

Here are some samples of Cornford's wisdom from the opening pages of the book.  There are even more after the jump:

My heart is full of pity for you, 0 young academic politician. If you will be a politician you have a painful path to follow, even though it be a short one, before you nestle down into a modest incompetence. . . .

I shall take it that you are in the first flush of ambition, and just beginning to make yourself disagreeable. You think (do you not?) that you have only to state a reasonable case, and people must listen to reason and act upon at once. It is just this conviction that makes you so unpleasant. There is little hope of dissuading you; but has it occurred to you that nothing is ever done until every one is convinced that it ought to be done, and has been convinced for so long that it is now time to do something else? And are you not aware that conviction has never yet been produced by an appeal to reason, which only makes people uncomfortable?

I like you the better for your illusions; but it cannot be denied that they prevent you from being effective, and if you do not become effective before you cease to want anything to be done -- why, what will be the good of you? So I present you with this academic microcosmography -- the merest sketch of the little world that lies before you.

Here are more excerpts from the Microcosmographia Academica.  Enjoy!

[T]he first necessity for a body of men engaged in the pursuit of learning is freedom from the burden of political cares. It is impossible to enjoy the contemplation of truth if one is vexed and distracted by the sense of responsibility. Hence the wisdom of our ancestors devised a form of academic polity in which this sense is, so far as human imperfection will allow, reduced to the lowest degree. . . .

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and 'sound scholar' is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. . . . University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their high calling. . . .

The Principle of the Dangerous Precedent is that you should not now do an admittedly right action for fear you, or your equally timid successors, should not have the courage to do right in some future case, which, ex hypothesi, is essentially different, but superficially resembles the present one. Every public action which is not customary, either is wrong, or, if it is right, is a dangerous precedent. It follows that nothing should ever be done for the first time. . . .

When other methods of obstruction fail, you should have recourse to Wasting Time; for, although it is recognised in academic circles that time in general is of no value, considerable importance is attached to tea-time, and by deferring this, you may exasperate any body of men to the point of voting against anything. The simplest method is Boring. Talk slowly and indistinctly, at a little distance from the point. No academic person is ever voted into the chair until he has reached an age at which he has forgotten the meaning of the word 'irrelevant'; and you will be allowed to go on, until everyone in the room will vote with you sooner than hear your voice another minute. Then you should move for adjournment. Motions for adjournment, made less than fifteen minutes before tea-time or at any subsequent moment, are always carried. While you are engaged in Boring it does not matter much what you talk about; but, if possible, you should discourse upon the proper way of doing something which you are notorious for doing badly yourself. Thus, if you are an inefficient lecturer, you should lay down the law on how to lecture; if you are a good business man, you should discuss the principles of finance and so on.

If you have applied yourself in youth to the cultivation of the Private Business habit of mind at the Union and other debating societies, questions of procedure will furnish you with many resources for wasting time. You will eagerly debate whether it is allowable or not to amend an amendment; or whether it is consonant with the eternal laws for a body of men, who have all changed their minds, to rescind a resolution which they have just carried. You will rise, like a fish, to points of order, and call your intimate friends 'honourable' to their faces. You will make six words do duty for one; address a harmless individual as if he were a roomful of abnormally stupid reporters; and fill up the time till you can think of something to say by talking, instead of by holding your tongue.

Posted by Paul Horwitz on February 18, 2008 at 12:09 AM in Life of Law Schools | Permalink


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