by Jack Miles

If the academic tills one field and the intellectual is a hunter pursuing prey across many fields, which one is unemployed?

JACK MILES is Senior Advisor to the President at the J. Paul Getty Trust and author of God: A Biography. Portions of this paper began as a keynote address to the annual meeting of the Society of Biblical Literature, San Francisco, November 1997.

As more and more colleges and universities adopt the market model, providing students not what tradition says they need but what the students themselves say they want, the liberal arts are being squeezed out of the curriculum. A recent article in Harvard magazine contains the following instructive paragraph:

Between 1970 and 1994, the number of B.A.s conferred in the United States rose 39 percent. Among all bachelor's degrees in higher education, three majors increased five- to tenfold: computer and information sciences, protective services, and transportation and material moving. Two majors, already large, tripled: health professions and public administration. Already popular, business management doubled. In 1971, 78 percent more degrees were granted in business than English. By 1994, business enjoyed a fourfold advantage over English and remained the largest major. English, foreign languages, philosophy, and religion all declined. History fell, too. . . On the Preliminary Scholastic Aptitude Test, only 9 percent of students now indicate interest in humanities. . .(1)

The liberal arts are not gone yet, but they seem on their way out of an American higher education establishment increasingly defined by the narrower needs of the American economy. The authors of this article, English professors both, offer their statistics as a call to educational reform, to a revival of the liberal arts. But their own evidence suggests that such a revival is most unlikely and that, if the liberal tradition is not to die, American culture may need to find another carrier for it.

The Academic Labor Question

Distinct from but related to the decline of the liberal arts on campus is the deprofessionalization or proletarianization of college teaching. In the academic labor market as elsewhere in the American labor market, the goal of management is, increasingly, to keep the number of permanent, salaried employees as small as possible by transferring as much of the aggregate workload as possible to temporary employees who are paid on a fee-for-service basis and receive few if any of the costly benefits provided their salaried colleagues. Writing in New The Republic, Michael Walzer has noted that a recent, notably successful United Parcel Service strike was not a conventional strike for higher wages but rather collective resistance to the planned transformation of the UPS work force from one of full-time workers with salaries, job security, and benefits into one of part-time workers with no one of the three. Walzer goes on to note, however, that this very transformation is far along in academe, where

an increasing proportion of undergraduate teaching is done by adjuncts and assistants of various kinds, who work on short-term contracts and cannot expect to have normal academic careers. It is now possible to imagine an economy in which the American workforce will be divided into a full-time elite and a large number of harried, unhappy and exploited workers rushing from one part-time or temporary job to another, always insecure, barely able to make ends meet. . . Maximum efficiency requires, so the world was told in 1840 and again in 1997, though not in so many words, disposable workers -- men and women who will work long hours or short, "as necessary," and disappear without complaint when the necessities change.(2)

How large a phenomenon is Walzer talking about? Barry Munitz -- former chancellor of the California State University, now CEO of the J. Paul Getty Trust -- estimates that more than fifty percent of all class hours in higher education in California, private as well as public, are taught by such disposable academic workers.(3) A statistical case can be made that if all classroom hours now taught by fee-for-service adjunct faculty were taught by salaried permanent faculty, the Ph.D. glut would suddenly become a shortage. Thus, Mark R. Kelley and William Pannapacker, president and vice-president of the Graduate Student Caucus of the Modern Language Association, assert:

We cannot emphasize strongly enough that, were it not for the radical increase in part-time faculty positions, there would be no oversupply of Ph.D.'s. Indeed, if all college and university teaching were performed by full-time faculty members who held doctoral degrees, we would be facing the undersupply of Ph.D.'s predicted in 1989 by William G. Bowen and Julie Ann Sosa in Prospects for Faculty in the Arts and Sciences: A Study of Factors Affecting Demand and Supply, 1987 to 2012. Ironically, it was their predictions, widely disseminated in the popular media, that led so many current graduate students and new Ph.D.'s to abandon other careers and pursue doctoral study.(4)

Whatever the exact proportions of the tradeoff, it is clear that as the proportion of classroom hours taught by adjuncts grows, the likelihood of salaried employment for new Ph.D.s will shrink and that it will do so even if graduating classes of new Ph.D.'s also shrink somewhat.

Tenured faculty, the aristocracy of the university, have been disgracefully complicit in the creation of an academic helot class to subsidize their own upper-middle-class salaries, but the helots are progressively replacing the aristocrats as the latter retire and are replaced by helots rather than by other aristocrats. What is being phased out, in short, is the very career which tenured faculty once enjoyed and to which new Ph.D.s still vainly aspire.(5) This career, although it included teaching, was not narrowly confined to teaching in the way that the work of adjunct faculty is narrowly confined -- indeed brutally reduced -- to teaching. For a while to come, some of the many aspiring professors who enter the academic labor market each year will find tenure-track positions and be awarded tenure in due course. More, however, will fail to obtain tenure or even to be hired for a tenure-track position. Barring a labor movement of unprecedented scope, the less talented among them will then sink into academe's permanent underclass, while the more talented will leave academe and seek other employment.

X = (academics - academe) + (university library - university)

Just here is where the story grows culturally interesting. If half (a conservative estimate) of all humanities Ph.D.s graduating after June 1998, join the already large number of their kind who have no permanent, salaried academic employment, then a body of expertise exists outside academe which, reinvested, could -- in more ways than one -- step into the breach created by academe's progressive disinvestment in the liberal arts. These off-campus humanists may become, in other words, the default carrier of the liberal tradition.

The phrase free lance is an interesting one to recall in this connection. Its opposite, never used, is paid lance or soldier, ultimately from the Italian soldiere, meaning one who receives soldi, that is, a salary. In the American academic context, three questions abut one another when we ask where and how academics displaced into the general labor market -- soldiers become free lances -- might succeed the academic institutions that think about them so little.

First, will free-lance writers and thinkers unsalaried by any college or university ever coalesce into a new form of intellectual army, an organized liberal arts alternative to academe?

This prospect is more plausible than it might at first seem. George Dennis O'Brien, in a book entitled All the Essential Half-Truths About Higher Education, writes:

The rise of adjuncts may be seen largely as an objectionable management ploy to balance the budget, but regular faculty on their part may well respond to the new economics of education by quite a different mechanism. A clear example of a possible strategy would be the "franchising" movement in Great Britain. The University of Aberswych decides that it cannot afford to teach a specific discipline, (physics, for example), so it franchises that area to the University of Bosthlewaite, whose faculty are more than happy to receive a portent of steady employment. The next step is obvious: the faculty at Bosthlewaite form a private consortium of physicists. . . and franchise services in various locations throughout the United Kingdom. . . Instead of a specific university having to load itself up with a permanent staff of faculty who may in time become redundant or dull, the university can contract with the Einstein Consortium to supply physicists. Physics, like food services, will be "outsourced."(6)

But if regular faculty can organize to create this "quite different mechanism," so can adjuncts themselves. And if they do not organize themselves, others may organize them. For venture capital moving into online education, they constitute a fully trained and readily available workforce and therefore a potential business asset. Adjunct faculty are a resource for commercial online education in the way that foreign physicians or others with off-brand medical degrees were and are a resource for the "managed care" insurance companies that have diverted so large a portion of the health care revenue stream to themselves.

Second, whether or not college teaching is reorganized in this way, are there other cultural institutions in this country that may be inseminated by an academic immigration? Is it possible to imagine the displaced academics of the country as internal refugees, analogous to the talented Jewish intellectuals who fled Europe for the United States when Hitler came to power?

Third (the likeliest outcome, I believe), will the experience of displaced or never-placed academics in nonacademic venues ever fuse with their academic training to produce a new, more avocational style of liberal arts research and publication? For the monks who preserved and redefined the liberal arts in the Middle Ages, secular learning was an avocation rather than a vocation. If the liberal arts cannot be a gainful occupation for more than a few, then an American secretary of culture, if we had one, would want to know who might keep the tradition alive by pursuing it as an avocation. Change often begins at the margin. The central actors in American higher education as we have known it it in recent decades have been the administrators, the tenured faculty, and the students. Adjunct faculty have been marginal. Significantly, however, nonacademic staff have been almost equally marginal. They have been similarly condescended to, whatever their intellectual attainments. I am thinking, above all, of three categories of nonfaculty campus professional: the librarian, the museum curator, and the director of academic computing. If Peter Drucker is right and if thirty years from now the university as we have known it is no more,(7) are we to assume that the university library, the university art museum, and the various university data bases and computer networks will also have shut down? Let me suggest, to the contrary, that if and when the university as such is out of business, all three of these may still be in business supporting, among others, those unsalaried irregulars who will succeed the salaried professors as carriers of the humane tradition in American learning. An alliance of the now marginal may inherit what will remain of the center.

Is there a word for such people? What do you call an extra-academic humanist, a man or woman with a trained mind who does not make his or her living as a teacher? The term that comes most readily to hand, I submit, is intellectual. If intellectuals, paid or unpaid, succeed today's academics as the principal carriers of the humane tradition, even granting that these terms are not mutually exclusive, what difference will the succession make to the tradition itself? What are the differences between an academic and an intellectual?

Three Differences Between an Academic and an Intellectual

As a Harvard humanities Ph.D. most of whose postgraduation career has transpired outside academe, I have been invited several times to speak to graduate students about the other careers for which their doctorates may prepare them. In retrospect, although I myself gained from being forced to review how leaving academe had changed me, I rather regret accepting those invitations.

I regret accepting them in the first place because, although I may have left behind a useful tip or two, I did the graduate students a disservice by lending credence to the view that American-style doctoral education makes sense as a preparation for a wide variety of careers. I doubt that it does. While it is difficult ever to say what portion of a man or woman's knowledge will not someday be useful, the full-blown humanities doctorate -- particularly if it is followed by long years of probationary appointments and then a negative tenure decision -- grievously delays a young person's entry into the general marketplace, burdens him or her with enormous debt, and inculcates over the years the self-destructive habit of constant subtle deference. Humane learning has many uses in the general marketplace, but the baroque peculiarity of American doctoral education produces an animal hyper-adapted to the baroque peculiarity of the American academic habitat.

I regret accepting those invitations to speak to graduate students in the second place because my remarks encouraged the faculty to begin with themselves and work outward into the culture rather than begin with the culture and work backward to themselves. To a point, American culture has the same relationship to the humanities and the fine arts that business has to business education, medicine to medical education, and so forth. For the humanities and the fine arts, American culture is the market as in the "market-model university" mentioned earlier. And yet classic liberal arts education and research clearly differ from professional training for book publishing, journalism, music, commercial art, film-making, advertising, scriptwriting, pastoral ministry, and the other gainful occupations in which the humanities and the fine arts figure. For all of the occupations just mentioned and a good many more, professional training programs exist. It is to these programs rather than to the humanities Ph.D. that a consideration of the liberal arts market would lead by induction.

Unfortunately, these training programs, not to disparage them, do not meet American culture's broader needs for preservation and refreshment. Although it would indeed be a salutary exercise for liberal arts faculty to ask what and how they would teach if they taught their traditional subjects in as directly market-responsive a way as possible, a still more salutary exercise would be for them -- and for any American who reads and thinks -- to ask what is entailed in an engagement with the subject matter of the liberal arts that is not defined in any way by the needs of students or the preferences of teachers.

The learned fraternity of college teaching attracts those who are attracted by fraternity in general, but what some find sustaining others find confining. Similarly, the quasi-parental relationship of teacher to student deeply touches some but alienates others, who crave the unprotected clash of interaction with fellow adults and feel chronically disappointed in the classroom. Lisa Lewis in her melancholy poem "My Students" manages to voice what many feel but few admit:

I walk into the classroom on time every day.
I write funny things on the board, and I'm hurt
When no one laughs, though I know my students
Are stupid; I grade their papers.(8)

Not all who are attracted by teaching teach well, nor do all who have excelled in the larger world teach poorly. Not all who crave the larger world thrive in it, and some who thrive in it long to flee it. Nonetheless, at a first approximation, the difference between an academic and an intellectual may be stated as follows: An academic has and wants an audience disproportionately made up of teachers and students, while an intellectual has and wants teachers and students in his audience only in proportion to their place in the general educated public.

The second difference between an academic and an intellectual is the familiar difference between a specialist and a generalist, the academic being the specialist and the intellectual the generalist. There are those who think that an academic who sometimes writes for a popular audience becomes a generalist on those occasions, but this is a mistaken view. A specialist may make do as a popularizer by deploying his specialized education with a facile style. A generalist must write from the full breadth of a general education that has not ended at graduation or been confined to a discipline. If I may judge from my ten years' experience in book publishing, what the average humanities academic produces when s/he sets out to write for "the larger audience" is a popularizer's restatement of specialized knowledge, while what the larger audience responds to is something quite different: It is specialized knowledge sharply reconceptualized and resituated in an enlarged context.

The generalist assumes, as the specialist too seldom does, that he is writing for readers no less intelligent than himself but trained in other areas. How does one prepare to write for such readers? One does so by spending as much time as one can visiting them, intellectually speaking, dropping in on them, observing what portion of what one happens to know seems to "travel," as publishers say, and what portion does not. The born academic, as he begins to do this, will feel that he is wasting time better spent in deepening his knowledge of his specialty. The born intellectual will count such wandering as time well spent on his general education.

It is not that, as an intellectual, one can or should seek to subordinate everybody else's knowledge to one's own grand purposes. Even G. W. F. Hegel arrived too late to do that, and no one has tried since. What is called for, paradoxically, is less a store of knowledge than a "store" of ignorance. By forcing oneself to go where one is oneself the blinking beginner rather than the seasoned expert, one learns to turn one's own narrow intellectual sophistication into a broadened version of itself. A generalist is someone with a keener-than-average awareness of how much there is to be ignorant about. In this way, generalization as a style of writing is decidedly different from mere simplification or popularization. If a specialist is someone who knows more and more about less and less, a generalist is unapologetically someone who knows less and less about more and more. Both forms of knowledge are genuine and legitimate. Someone who acquires a great deal of knowledge about one field grows in knowledge, but so does someone who acquires a little knowledge about many fields. Knowing more and more about less and less tends to breed confidence. Knowing less and less about more and more tends to breed humility. Popularization, which certainly has its place, conveys the specialist's confidence but also his or her isolation. Generalization conveys the generalist's diffidence but also his or her connectedness and openness to further connections. Something like this, to repeat, is the core difference between the academic and the intellectual in action on the page.

A secretary of culture, to return to that mental experiment, should want both generalists and specialists on his staff, but he would be ill-advised to regard the generalist as the specialist simplified. Though it would be overstating things to claim that the generalist is like the conductor of an orchestra who masters the full score while the instrumentalists master only their lines within it, it would be fair to say something a bit humbler -- namely, that the generalist is like a music lover who brings a pocket score to the concert and tries to read the performance analytically while hearing it synthetically.

A secretary of culture might be well advised to recruit generalists from the country's publishing houses rather than from its universities, for at the publishing houses the incentive structure favors generalization, while at the universities it overwhelmingly favors specialization, even when latter-day rhetoric says otherwise. "Cobbler, stick to your last" is still the operative rule on campus; and if it occurs to the cobbler that the tools he has been using to produce boots can also produce gloves, let him not suppose that his annual quota of boots will be reduced to accommodate this new line of manufacture. A contrary assumption is absurdly dominant: Only he who has produced a perfect boot can be trusted to make a glove worth wearing. This assumption is implicit in a tart statement by a participant in a recent discussion of "public intellectuals" at the University of Chicago:

Public intellectuals are academics who become journalists while maintaining their posts in colleges and universities. The publics they serve can generally be identified with the readership of relatively low-circulation magazines and tabloid format periodicals like The New Republic, The Nation, The New York Review of Books, the literary section of The New York Times, and the TLS. Their numbers have been increasing over the past decade. In the increasingly celebrity-conscious business of running a private university, some of them, I'm told, have become superstars. After superstar, nova. After nova, black hole. I think, at least, that this is the way it works.(9)

A great many senior faculty share these disgruntled sentiments, and junior faculty, acutely aware of how senior faculty feel, usually conduct themselves accordingly. Which is to say: they allow themselves to be inhibited from attempting much public intellectualism or other adventurism lest their senior colleagues hold it vindictively against them. Who in academe has not heard of a generalist effort dismissed at the departmental meeting with an arch witticism or discounted as publicity hunger at merit raise time? In this way, the stalwarts of the discipline make themselves into highly effective disciplinarians indeed! The culture of specialization which they thus inculcate is not easily escaped even by those who would wish to do so, even by those who think they have done so. I pass over as beneath comment the political correctness imposed on occasion by authoritarian university administrations.

A secretary of culture in need of generalists as well as specialists would need to bear in mind, above all, that academic life proceeds by the channeling of curiosity, which is to say by the benign but systematic suppression of unchanneled, general curiosity. I do not intend to demean. The university's division of learning has led to one breakthrough after another. And yet the methodical channeling of effort is of necessity a confinement as well. Academics, if they are to succeed in their world, simply must suppress their natural inclination to "go off on a tangent." Academe requires this of them, and the sacrifice they make in meeting the requirement should be honored. However, what academe requires and what the culture as a whole requires are not always identical. Sometimes, what the culture requires is a mind stocked with the memory of innumerable tangential excursions rather than with the harvest of the long, hard, stay-at-home cultivation of a given field.

To confinement by field, academe too often adds a further, more interpersonal deformation. A typical newly tenured associate professor will have spent six years or more anxiously mind-reading his senior professors and at least another six years doing the same for his senior colleagues, and this is the best, most expeditious case. If a first negative tenure decision is followed by a second, doubly anxious six-year apprenticeship in a second university, a generation may have passed between the start of graduate school and the acquisition of tenure. It would be unrealistic to expect a man or woman to recover in the twentieth year all the daring that he or she has painstakingly suppressed during the preceding nineteen.

The difference between an intellectual and an academic, then, lies in the greater freedom that the intellectual has to be, without penalty, an explorer and a generalist. There are, of course, a gifted few academics who manage, once they have secured their specialist reputations and attained the rank of full professor, to become accomplished generalists. There are also many self-conscious intellectuals ensconced in academe who from the start would fain see teaching and even their nominal academic specialization itself as just a day job. But theirs is a somewhat unstable posture inasmuch as for them, as for all academics, specialization is not a matter of choice. The division of labor is the very organizational principle of the university. Unless that principle is respected, the university simply fails to be itself. The pressure, therefore, is constant and massive to suppress random curiosity and foster, instead, only a carefully channeled, disciplined curiosity. Because of this, many who set out, brave and cocky, to take academe as a base for their larger, less programmed intellectual activity, who are confident that they can be in academe but not of it, succumb to its culture over time.

The human mind does not naturally or spontaneously remain in externally appointed channels. Only intense training and steady policing can make it perform in this way. Prodigies of learning result from this channeling, as already conceded, but limitation and blindness result as well. It takes years of disciplined preparation to become an academic. It takes years of undisciplined preparation to become an intellectual. For a great many academics, the impulse to break free, to run wild, simply comes too late for effective realization.

In sum, then, the second difference between an academic and an intellectual may be stated as follows: An academic is a specialist who has disciplined his curiosity to operate largely within a designated area, while an intellectual is a generalist who deliberately does otherwise.

The third difference between an intellectual and an academic is the relative attachment of each to writing as a fine rather than a merely practical art. "If you happen to write well," Gustave Flaubert once wrote, "you are accused of lacking ideas."(10) The experience behind Flaubert's remark is one many contemporary writers will recognize all too well. I once interviewed Saul Bellow for the Los Angeles Times, and one of the subjects Bellow mentioned in passing was his relationship to a certain eminent sociologist at the University of Chicago. For this gentleman, Bellow's fiction, the novelist told me, was a kind of "light entertainment." Condescension toward belles lettres remains pervasive in academe, even, strangely enough, in literary criticism.

It is true, of course, that a sociologist of knowledge like Bellow's colleague can accommodate a novelist like Bellow in a theory of knowledge, but then a novelist like Bellow can return the favor by making the sociologist a character in a story. The stratagems are exactly parallel. Each explains that which he finds less important by including it in that which he finds more important or over which he exercises greater power. Each defeats his enemy by ingesting him. The English novelist Antonia Byatt is a professor of English literature who knows that narratology can comprehend many varieties of novelist in a single theoretical perspective, but then Byatt is also a novelist and has also published a novel in which the protagonist is a narratologist.(11)

My point is not that the fiction of a Bellow or a Byatt deserves more respect as sustained thought than it usually receives, although it does, but that it deserves and often enough wins respect as art -- that is, as an aesthetic end in itself -- beyond anything to which the vast majority of social scientists even aspire. This is the third criterion by which, as I see the matter, academics differ from intellectuals. An academic is honored for "making a contribution to the field" whether his contribution was well written or not. A novelist, by contrast, never seeks to make a contribution to the "field" of fiction. No art-writer, whatever the genre, does that. Writers are too selfish, too concerned with themselves, to work that way, and they offer their work too widely to know for whom they are writing. An intellectual novelist does not have, as a professor of English does, an audience defined in advance. More than that, though, a work of written art is in the fullest sense of the phrase a finished product, the end of a line, a last word. The art historian in every artist knows that he had predecessors and will have successors, but the artist in him stops in a perfected moment.

For this reason, expression counts more for an intellectual than for an academic. It does so as well because, for an intellectual, the link of the work to the self is greater. The literary enterprise is not communal but personal, and therefore the author of a literary work wants it not just acknowledged but loved. The novelist or poet may be the pure example of this kind of desire, but to the extent that any research is published as art rather than as science, its author will have something crucially in common with the novelist or poet.

With this criterion in mind, a secretary of culture who wanted to ascertain which academics might be worth hiring away from their usual pursuits to work as generalists might well begin by asking candidates to tell him about the last novel they had read or the last poem. If they answered that they did not read fiction or poetry, he might ask what, then, they did read for pleasure. And if they answered that they did not read for pleasure, he would pass them over, for no one can provide pleasure who never seeks pleasure, and no one who never reads for beauty will ever write beautifully.

I bring up writing as a category in its own right because the attitude taken toward it in academe is so often narrowly instrumental: writing as just a tool to get the job done. Clarity is the only real virtue for an instrumentalist; any other values that might be named are merely ornamental. To compliment a great scholar on his beautiful style is, in the usual case, as much a breach of decorum as complimenting him on his lovely complexion. It may be true, but if he hears dismissal in the compliment, he hears -- as did Flaubert -- only what was probably intended. To restate all this as a third thesis on the difference between an academic and an intellectual, I submit: An academic is concerned with substance and suspicious of style, while an intellectual is suspicious of any substance that purports to transcend or defy style.

Shelter for the Homeless Humanities

The voguish phrase public intellectual is at least temporarily useful, but most public intellectuals would be more accurately called public academics; for even as they turn their attention to matters of public interest, they retain their academic appointments and, for much of their professional life, their academic constituency as well. If all intellectuals are understood to have the public as their sole defining constituency, then the adjective public in public intellectual becomes redundant, and the public academic is correctly seen as a mixed or transitional type, an academic moonlighting or auditioning as an intellectual.

This is not to say that academics who moonlight as intellectuals are no different from academics who stick to their day jobs. There is a striking difference between the two groups, one that shines forth in the complaints commonly lodged against public intellectuals by their "straight" academic colleagues -- namely, that the public intellectuals desert their erstwhile disciplines, neglect the normal functions of their university departments, and excuse themselves from much contact with students, all the while drawing a comfortable academic salary. Resentment at such behavior on the part of those left behind to pick up the pieces is understandable. For the purposes of this discussion, however, I can only note with interest how well the offenders usually illustrate the three criteria mentioned above. They prefer to deal with adults rather than with youth; they address the public agenda in all its variety rather than the agenda of a discipline; and they cultivate a literary style a notch above the average for the fraternity they would transcend. In short, they do just what I would predict academics must do if they would change into intellectuals.

To consummate this transformation, the academic should ideally renounce his or her academic appointment, and some eventually do just this. Garry Wills, who resigned his appointment at Northwestern University not long ago, is a case in point. The deeper question, however, is whether, for those who foresee that the public conversation will be their destination, academe need be the starting point at all. Knowledge will always be necessary, and study will always be necessary to acquire knowledge, but the credentials of doctorate and tenure are another matter. A rose by another name would smell as sweet. An adjunct professor, a graduate student, a layman who knew as much as the dean of the graduate school and who could talk as well to a general audience would have, in principle, an identical claim on that audience. Moreover, to the extent that the dean borrows authority in the public forum from the assumption that academe is a haven for humane learning, he or she trades, increasingly, on a false assumption. It is as if an ambassador from a foreign capital were to offer political advice while, back home, his government was about to fall.

To return to my premise, if the role of academics in the preservation and propagation of liberal learning is shrinking as the liberal arts are crowded out of the university curriculum, then either the role of intellectuals -- men and women of humane learning whose gainful occupation is not teaching -- will grow, or the humane tradition will slide further into decline. If and when that compensatory growth comes about, however, there may come with it a number of now only poorly predictable changes.

As academe eliminates the liberal arts, institutions and forms of organization that are now secondary will become primary by academe's default. Peter Drucker does not predict that university libraries, museums, databases, and computer networks will be gone in thirty years when the university as we know it is gone. But if their likely survival throws their importance into relief, it does so as well for kindred institutions that have never been under university auspices at all: endowed research libraries, independent museums of various kinds, and the many voluntary associations and working groups that the Internet already makes possible. Already, a scholar in search of an out-of-the-way, out-of-print book may have better luck with, which offers "nine million used, antiquarian and rare books, periodicals and ephemera offered for sale by thousands of booksellers around the world" than with a local university library, even a large one. Whether or not venture capital invested in online education succeeds in capturing much of the revenue flow that now sustains traditional colleges and universities, the Internet stands ready as a monastery-on-demand for the dark age after the Rome that is the academic establishment has fallen. When Rome fell, the Roman Empire did not vanish. Its separate parts lived on in other forms. So it could be for the campus liberal arts empire: When it falls, it too will not vanish but live on as its separate parts assume other forms.

Academics are farmers. They have fields, and they cultivate their fields well. Intellectuals are hunters. An intellectual does not have a field but a quarry which he pursues across as many fields as necessary, often losing sight of it altogether. Hunters cannot replace farmers, or vice versa; but if liberal learning in America, hitherto mostly a farm culture, becomes progressively a hunt culture, there will surely be consequences. By the standards of farmers, what hunters do seems reckless and undisciplined, but hunting has its own interior logic, the logic of an agenda that is individually rather than collectively determined.

One cannot easily be either a farmer or a professor by avocation. The strength of these vocations is that they demand full commitment. Mirroring their strength, their great vulnerability is their inability effectively to reward and sustain partial commitment. By contrast, one may rather easily be a hunter or an intellectual by avocation. Like hunters, who join the chase when they can and leave it when they must, sharing the kill with the tribe when they are successful, so intellectuals study when they can and stop when they must, seeking ever to please themselves but sharing their intellectual pleasure, when they write, with their readers.

The agricultural revolution did not occur for no reason. Hunters are more likely to go hungry than farmers. If academics, reliably supported by their universities, are succeeded by intellectuals, only unreliably supported by the work they pick up here and there, the post- and extra-academic humanities will often go hungry and homeless. But hunting does not differ from farming only by being more hazardous and less reliable. Off campus, the liberal arts may, at least on occasion, enjoy a wild adventure and an extraordinary feast. Only time will tell -- but less time, if present trends continue, than we might think.


1. [Back to text]  James Engell and Anthony Dangerfield, "The Market-Model University, Humanities in the Age of Money," Harvard magazine, May-June 1998: 50. In common usage, the phrase liberal arts and the newer term humanities are synonymous, and I use them so in this article. Since the medieval quadrivium included music, I would be happy if, by extension, the modern liberal arts could be understood to include the fine arts as well as the humanities. Certainly, the place of the fine arts in the higher education curriculum is at least as eroded as Engell and Dangerfield show the place of the humanities to be. See also William H. Honan, "Small Liberal Arts College Facing Questions on Focus," New York Times, March 10, 1999. The College Majors Handbook: A Guide to Your Undergraduate College Investment Decision, by Paul Thomas and Tom Harrington (JIST Works, 1998), says that the claim that a diverse curriculum is the best preparation for the marketplace is refuted by the pay histories of the 150,000 recent college graduates they studied. Education for the market is not education for life, but then education for life need not be sought only at school.

2. [Back to text]  Michael Walzer, "The Underworked American," New Republic, September 22, 1997. See also Brent Staples, "The End of Tenure? When Colleges Turn to Migrant Labor," New York Times, June 20, 1997

3. [Back to text]  Private remarks to the author. See also, Joseph Berger, "After Her Ph.D., A Scavenger's Life, A Temp Professor Among Thousands," New York Times, March 8, 1998. Berger reports that temps are responsible for more than half of all teaching at the City University of New York.

4. [Back to text]  Mark R. Kelley, William Pannapacker, and Ed Wiltse, "Scholarly Associations Must Face the True Causes of the Academic Job Crisis," The Chronicle of Higher Education, December 18, 1998, B5.

5. [Back to text]  On the durability of this trend, see Courtney Leatherman, "Growth in Positions Off the Tenure Track Is a Trend That's Here to Stay, Study Finds," The Chronicle of Higher Education, April 9, 1999, A14-A16.

6. [Back to text]  Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998, 209.

7. [Back to text]  A prediction often made and often cited. See, for example, Peter Applebome citing Nancy S. Dye, president of Oberlin College, quoting Drucker in "The on-line revolution is not the end of civilization as we know it. But almost.," New York Times, April 4, 1999.

8. [Back to text]  From Silent Treatment (New York: National Poetry Series/ Penguin Books, 1998), 14.

9. [Back to text]  Joel Snyder, "Public Intellectuals: Threat or [sic] Menace," at the conference, "Public Intellectuals and the Future of Graduate Study," University of Chicago, June 11, 1997, transcript of spoken remarks.

10. [Back to text]  Cited in James Kimbrell, The Gatehouse Heaven, Poems (Louisville: Sarabande Books, 1998), xiv.

11. [Back to text]  Babel Tower (New York: Random House, 1996).

Copyright of Cross Currents is the property of Association for Religion & Intellectual Life and its content may not be copied without the copyright holder's express written permission except for the print or download capabilities of the retrieval software used for access. This content is intended solely for the use of the individual user. Source: Cross Currents, Fall 1999, Vol. 49 Issue 3.