I started reading The Four Cultures of the Academy for work, but I’m finishing it because the author is incredibly insightful. It’s the kind of book that rings so true that it’s funny.
I haven’t had this much fun reading a book since Antifragile. Like Nassim Taleb, author William H. Berquist puts words to many of the things that I’ve already observed, but arranges them in a useful way and explains them with more insight, experience, and technical knowledge than I have. It both affirms my confirmation bias while providing useful information–the best kind of book.
This is one of my favorite passages. See if you can guess what this story reveals about the rank the male faculty on the hierarchy.
Our protagonist–the ideal scientist or scholar–usually dwells on some lofty plane. Subsidized by family wealth or secure in a university appointment, he (rarely a woman) seems to be oblivious to the more mundane matters of finance. Personal relationships have a low priority, though the professor may be seduced at the end of the film or novel by an attractive laboratory assistant, reporter, alumna, or daughter of the university president. His requisite apparel is either a white lab coat or a herringbone jacket. He invariably smokes a pipe and partakes of an afternoon sherry. The scientist or scholar is often a former college athlete (the Rhodes Scholar model) but is not physically active only when an emergency occurs (about two-thirds of the way through the novel or movie). His physical prowess emerges only when the monster is invading, when fieldwork is required, or when our protagonist wants to show that he is still an all-American fellow by participating in a pick-up football game being played on the grass in front of the laboratory or library. Our modern-day equivalent to the scholar-athlete is Steven Spielberg’s Indiana Jones.
The scientist-scholar’s work is usually performed in solitude with one or two young proteges who provide appropriate respect and encouragement. Neither our protagonist nor his assistants are very interested in the ethical implications of their work until late in the movie or novel. They are concerned with the ultimate impact of their research on the welfare of mankind but are shortsighted about its immediate implications. The work in itself is a breakthrough–always on the frontiers of knowledge. In Thomas Kuhn’s terminology, this research is never in the realm of “normal science,” but is always in the realm of revolution and new-paradigm construction.
The research or scholarship is, of course, always successful. Very little attention is given to problems of dissemination; the new knowledge is immediately available to the entire world. only early on in the novel or movie is there resistance to the dissemination of our protagonist’s findings. By the end of the movie or novel, the scientist or scholar often shifts attention from his own work to broader social or religious concerns. The quest continues.
Let’s see…introspective? Check. Unusual? Yes; often cultivated deliberately. Unattractive? Generally on the left side of the bell curve. Bitter? Often.
$10 says the seductress is a redhead.
This is such prototypical version of Gamma: A Love Story (the title that I give all the different flavors of gamma fantasies in media) that it almost hurts. And yet, it really is the backbone of the dream of the research faculty. Everybody wants to be the secret king of research. Everybody wants to get the girl without having a clue. Everybody wants to never deal with money again in their lives.
And risk…don’t even get me started on the risk tolerance of faculty.
This book was written in 1992 so I’d like to say that things have changed since then…but I don’t think they have. The type of person that self-selects for a faculty role exhibits almost exactly the same characteristics of a gamma on the hierarchy.
Remember that the next time you ask why universities don’t just stand up to their students.