August 15, 2008
Julius Getman, In the Company of Scholars
Posted by Gordon Smith

After reading Bill Henderson's post  on school-specific capital and writing some of my own thoughts on the subject, I became intrigued by Julius Getman's book, In the Company of Scholars (1992). This is a long excerpt (most of the Preface), but it is very poignant and well worth reading:

I concluded that almost all of us enter academic life seeking a mix of four goals –- meaning, prestige, community, and time to devote to study and reflection. The goals are worthy but for most of us are far more difficult to achieve and we had anticipated, and they often are in conflict with each other. My own experiences are in many ways typical.

I entered the academic world because I believed that, if one were a law professor, status was automatically achieved and thereafter ceased to be a source of concern, that achievement would be meaningful and recognizable, and that success was based on merit. I thought that universities provided an opportunity for caring relations, a sense of community, an atmosphere in which ideas were shared and refined, an egalitarian ethic, and a style of life that would permit time for family, friends, and self-expression. The reality, as I discovered, was quite different. The academic world is hierarchical and competitive; achievement is generally ephemeral and difficult to measure. Much that is done in the name of scholarship or teaching makes little contribution because it is removed from reality and the concerns of humanity. Rather than feeling an automatic sense of community, I have often felt alienated. In particular, the desire for success and status has often conflicted with other goals of meaning, community, study, and reflection.

My experiences have been far from unique. Many academics, even those whose lives seem tranquil and successful, are unhappy and disappointed. Some feel cheated, some wonder if what they have experiences is really all there is to life that once seemed so full of promise, and others become caught up pursuing goals of success, recognition, and meaning that seem just out of reach. The more I tried to explain why the good academic life is so difficult to achieve, the more the answer seemed to reside in the ubiquitous conflict between the egalitarian and elitist aspects of higher education. Within colleges and universities, the conflict is regularly manifested in the discussion and resolution of academic issues. It also resonates internally for almost all of us who devote major parts of our lives to teaching or scholarship. Once again, I believe my experiences to be typical. My background has made me receptive to both the lure of elitism and the appeal of egalitarianism.

When I first entered academic life right after a stint as a teaching fellow and graduate student at the Harvard University Law School, I was committed to a conventional and elitist vision of academic excellence. I was convinced that grades and intelligence were powerfully correlated, that analytical rigor was the highest form of intellectual achievement, and that good teaching and careful scholarship were inevitably meaningful and rewarding. That point of view changed dramatically and permanently during the late 1960’s and 1970’s. In part, change came with the times, but it also came from unconscious reevaluation of my own background. I became increasingly aware of sins committed in the name of academic excellence. I began to wince when people spoke reverentially of the need to maintain academic standards, and I started to seriously question the widely shared assumption of my colleagues that professors at elite institutions were smarter and more thoughtful than other people. Eventually I came to revel in my differences with my colleagues, much as I once reveled in my Harvard degree. But that too has gradually changed, and I have become more tolerant of academic elitism and less comfortable with its populist critics. Today, years after I first entered the academy, I find myself almost as critical of academic liberals as I am of its traditionalists.

I realized while writing this book that widespread insecurity is inevitable among professors because some kind of failure is an almost certain aspect of academic life, even (or, perhaps, especially) for its most creative scholars and ambitious teachers. Able academics are inevitably seekers after discovery and enlightenment, and these goals are far more difficult to achieve than success in many other fields or success as a student, which is the experience most likely to lead people to academic life.

Because this book utilizes actual experiences, mostly my own, to illustrate many of its major themes, it may be argued that its conclusions should no be considered valid for higher education in general. I recognize that my teaching has been limited to professional schools associated with major universities and that I have no firsthand experience with small liberal arts, religious, or junior colleges. However, because of my long-time involvement with the American Association of University Professors, I have had the opportunity to work with, represent, and interview faculty members at many different types of schools over a long period of time. I also have conducted a series of interviews of academics with a variety of different backgrounds in conjunction with the writing of this book. As a result, I am confident that the basic tensions, conflicts, ambitions, and satisfactions that I describe are common throughout academic life. The search for meaning, the desire to impart one’s ideas, the wish to be recognized as an authority, and the need to choose the topics and issues with which one deals are all ubiquitous. At every level of academic life, success is difficult to achieve and failure of one sort or another is always lurking.

Lots of fodder here. Getman and I come to our careers from very different starting points, and perhaps our different experiences are partly a function of expectations. The life of a legal academic is so much cooler (to my taste) than the life that had been imagined for me by my parents that I tend to see only the wonderful parts of the job, which are many.

My father enlisted in the Navy during WWII and didn't actually make it all the way through high school, though he was given a diploma. When he retired from the Navy, he worked as an electrician, and he eventually operated his own sole proprietorship. My mother graduated from high school and spent the bulk of her adult life raising children and working in the kitchen of the local hospital.

When I was in high school, my father suggested that I check out the Navy. I was always a bit out of place in my family, so I assumed he meant the Naval Academy. I actually went to a recruitment meeting, but when I saw the photos of the mess hall -- with the plebes or whatever they are called sitting on the edge of their benches -- that was enough information for me. That just seemed like a bit too much discipline.

The fallback option, from my father's perspective, was for me to attend vocational school to become an electrician. Again, I dutifully checked it out, reading a couple of books on electricity and electronics and accompanying my father on the occasional wiring job. But that life was just inconceivable to me.

The thing that really caught my eye in those years was St. John's College in Annapolis. I stared at their catalog for hours and started reading the Great Books on my own. Just for fun.

But none of my high school counselors had any idea about St. John's College. Or pretty much any other college outside of the immediate driving distance from Osseo, Wisconsin. And when I looked at the catalogs of fancy colleges, all I saw was the price of tuition. It never occurred to me that I might get a scholarship, and no one ever suggested it. So I went to BYU, partly because it was far away from home, partly because it was inexpensive, and partly because my best friend was headed there.

When I read that Getman's "background has made [him] receptive to both the lure of elitism and the appeal of egalitarianism," I realize that we are simply coming from much different places. My youth was oppressively egalitarian, and I wasn't much interested in more of that for my career. The lure of elitism? Maybe some of that. But I have always had other values that seem to drive my decisions more forcefully.

Getman is trying to explain "why the good academic life is so difficult to achieve," and he finds "the answer" in the "ubiquitous conflict between the egalitarian and elitist aspects of higher education." This is sort of like me judging a grocery store based on the cheese section. I often wonder, why is it so hard to find a good cheese selection? Strangely, this question does not seem to haunt most of the other patrons in the stores that I frequent. Many of them seem content if the place has a decent sized block of cheddar.

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