The Teaching Profession

         Back when I first came to know the university, it was a teaching institution.   Senior professors continued to teach first-year classes at Illinois until about the time I became a department head, but by then so many freshmen were in classes taught by assistants that one of my main concerns had to be finding good people to supervise them.  Within just a few years, even this sort of work was regarded as demeaning in an environment overshadowed by thriving, commercially driven technical innovation, especially in electronics and medicine.  "Research" had become a university banality like "state of the art," and "cutting edge," and "excellence."  The university was credited with such profitable innovations that its policy had come to be driven by research.  University budget depended on federal and industrial grants.  Research in the humanities, on the other hand, scarcely affected the national economy.  Like the social sciences, they could at best affect only perceptions.  Historical studies became split between "humanists" and social scientists.

       
Research in literature had hitherto meant uncovering new texts or new historical and biographical information.  That is slow work, often measured in lifetimes.  Today's university was demanding continual evidence of ongoing research.  The less earthshaking the findings, the more important became sheer numbers of publications.  Numerous specialty presses quickly emerged throughout the world catering to this new academic industry of research in the humanities.

      
My predecessor as department head, the linguist Frank Banta, had enlisted several bright, energetic young men focused in one way or another on the then new theory of signs, semiotics.  One of them, Albert Borgmann, becoming a philosophy professor at the University of Montana, succeeded in addressing larger contemporary problems:  The Nature of Information at the Turn of the Millennium (University of Chicago, 1999).  Werner Abraham, today at Groningen, focused on linguistic theory with several collections of essays, e.g., Knowledge and Language with Eric Reuland, 1993.  Such editorial activity became typical, although I omit it in the followingPeter Foulkes, a deft critic (The Search for Literary Meaning, 1975; and Literature and Propaganda, 1983) went on to Stanford, then took the German chair at Cardiff.  Götz Wienold (Die Erlernbarkeit der Sprachen, 1973), is today at Constance. 

        My own recruits tended to be very devoted teachers, but they also had to yield to the pressure to publish.
  James McGlathery taught Romanticism (Mysticism and Sexuality, E.T.A. Hoffmann, 1981; Fairy Tale Romance: the Grimms, Basile, and Perrault, 1991; Grimms' Fairy Tales : a History of Criticism on a Popular Classic, 1993; E. T. A. Hoffmann, 1997; Wagner's Operas and Desire, 1998).  U. Henry Gerlach, who took charge of basic German instruction, continued the traditions of German positivism, not merely in documentary research and in objective interpretation, but also in collecting his own essays:  Einwände und Einsichten, 2002).  I admired the comparatist Herbert Knust not only for his diligence and flair in teacher training but for his astonishing ability to direct student plays and even musicals like The Threepenny Opera.  His book on Bert Brecht's Leben des Galilei came out in three editions after 1982, because it was indeed directed toward university students.  The same is true of Elmer Antonsen's A Concise Grammar of the Older Runic Inscriptions, 1975.  Like McGlathery, Knust, and Gerlach, Antonsen eventually became department head at Illinois.  James W. Marchand commanded a prodigious memory and an astonishingly broad range of knowledge, especially in historical and scientific fields.  I believe that Marchand made the important difference in my own life by demonstrating to me that there is no field not open to anyone who will only take the trouble to learn.  This view, new to me, a child trained in an era of esoteric specializations, was refreshing.  It meant that any individual could judge all things for himself.

       How dare I do that?  As I tried,
I became convinced that the rare bright sparks in history were all minds unintimidated by authority.  This was certainly the distinguishing character of my most revered Germans, Martin Luther, Wolfgang Goethe, and Albert Einstein.

       Luther had found his world, and indeed a large part of the world, subjected to a mammoth bureaucracy.  I recognized that the authority inherent to all organizations, however essential to accomplishing their presumed mission, constitutes the seed of their corruption.  I found analogs to the Renaissance Church
everywhere around me.

         As to Goethe, his astute research into visual perception convinced him that the physics of his day was simply mistaken about the nature of light.  He devoted much of his life to writing the first history of science, in an attempt to understand how Isaac Newton could have been so universally accepted and followed for so long.  Yet Newton's authority continued for yet another century after Goethe.

       The eventual refutation still had to await the work of Albert Einstein.  Harking back to Luther, Einstein was careful to articulate how a

 religious attitude toward truth is not without its influence on the total personality of scientific man.  Aside from what presents itself to his experience, and the rules of thinking itself, the researcher recognizes as a matter of principle no authority whose decisions or utterances can lay claim to 'truth'.

        I wondered what the "rules of thinking" might be.  I hit upon such basic notions as

 1) Cicero's plain demand that "your utterance has to be either true or false or you are not saying anything at all," sharpened in our day by Carl Popper's contention that any valid statement must be vulnerable to falsification;
2) the rule of parsimony called "Occam's Razor";
 3) David Hume's insistence upon clear distinction between "is" and "ought to be"; also
4) avoidance of other well-known fallacies like "begging the question," petitio principii, of which Hume's rule may be but one instance.
      
And I included the importance of humility, e.g,
Count Alfred Korzybski's principle that the "map" you draw is always something else than the "territory" you think you are describing.

        It struck me that all the above really just mirror common rhetorical devices taught by the ancients.  Teachers of rhetoric explicitly recommended
effective oratorical techniques like the irrefutable truism (slogan, called in my day "talking point"), copious eloquence, confusion of the factual with the factitious, and drawing conclusions which have yet to be demonstrated. The ancients also cautioned us that we might sometimes apply these very same ruses in order to persuade ourselves.  Obviously, what I was calling "rules of thinking" are no more than tests for honesty.  They could be multiplied almost indefinitely.  I concluded that there remains only one supreme "rule of thinking," namely Einstein's "religious attitude toward truth."

         Truth may be ephemeral, even transcendent, but we just have no other guide. The truth must never yield priority to any ideal, however noble, be it humanity, peace, justice, liberty, equality, fraternity or what the buzz of the moment may be.  These all constitute an unquestioned authority
to their ardent supporters.  --During my time in academe, the very saddest lesson I had to learn was how frequently, how routinely, the cardinal rule of thinking was authority--sometimes questioned, but always ultimately revered.  A prominent instance was peer review, mentioned above, and other normalized evaluation techniques.  There is nothing scientific about peer review, of course.  Some argue that its purpose is to avoid error, but that is a bureaucratic goal, not a scientific one.  Error is the very substance of science, as many have observed.  Carl Popper even argues that no advances ever occur except by way of error.  His is an article of faith, of course, faith in the ultimate triumph of candor and good will.


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