The Professor Comes of Age
Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research
University. William Clark. vi + 662 pp. University of Chicago
Press, 2006. $45.
In almost any way that one can imagine, Academic Charisma and
the Origins of the Research University is an astonishing
book. Earlier reviews have said as much. It is astonishing in style,
voice, structure, method, conception, breadth and learning. It is
full of arresting detail, which is joined (as the author, William
Clark, says) to a "grand narrative." The book also
possesses a chaotic freedom that, together with its self-conscious
idiosyncrasies and irregularities, and odd typographical layouts,
reminds one of Laurence Sterne’s 18th-century novel
Tristram Shandy. Clark borrows from and adapts the
ideas of important thinkers such as Max Weber, Marshall McLuhan,
Northrop Frye and Michel Foucault to establish frameworks and
nuances—drawing possibly too much from Foucault for some.
Those who work on the history and ethnography of homo
academicus have often wondered why historians have not
developed a systematic account of the evolution of this special kind
of professional occupation. (The work of the French sociologist
Pierre Bourdieu is too abstract to qualify.) Engineers, medical
doctors and lawyers have been the subject of innumerable
sociological and historical studies, but not the professors. The
omission is strange because, as the late Harold Perkin said,
academics comprise the "key profession," since they
educate all the others.
We first encounter the rubric "professor" in the earliest
periods of university history, but not until the 1700s does it
assume its present meaning. Thanks to Clark, we now have a detailed
and systematic understanding of the stages of role differentiation.
We start with a world in which seniority and ascribed status matter.
In the medieval period, academics, like other members of society,
did not think of themselves primarily as distinct individuals with a
unique personality; rather, they defined themselves in terms of the
particular status groups (distinguished by dress and privileges) to
which they belonged. Several centuries later, a new generation of
Renaissance humanists began the process of self-seeking that
eventually resulted in the Romantic conception of the professor as
genius—as (to use Weber’s term) charismatic. Social
standing was no longer ascribed; it had to be earned.
Clark very nicely and precisely takes us from the medieval
chair—cathedra (the chair or throne of a
bishop)—to the more modern chairholder at the center of a
network composed of disciples, research libraries, seminars,
institutes and laboratories. He provides us with lengthy accounts of
the history of library cataloguing, the making and keeping of
records, lecture and seminar formats, changes in the examinations (a
subject that has attracted considerable historical attention), the
doctoral dissertation, advanced degrees and the transformation of
oral cultures into written ones.
The Jesuits of the Counter-Reformation were the precursors of a new
professorial style that was more militant and talent-centered, but
their formidable intellectual qualities were put at the service of a
particular religious program located in Rome. Therefore the
professor could not come of age until the birth of the modern
This observation is the linchpin of Clark’s analysis. After
making it, he introduces a startling set of ideas: It was not the
professors who created the modern academic profession; rather, it
was the rationalizing, bureaucratic, market-conscious functionaries
who served the various German states of the 18th century. Through
site visits, the careful recording of facts, new methods of
accountability and judicious use of budgets, government ministers
forced the once-indolent professors to become hardworking and
reputation-seeking. It was ultimately the state that created the
syndrome of "publish or perish" and put us on the path to
the large-scale research environments in which scientific work is
In sum, an elaborate and successful deception was carried out.
Professors regarded themselves as autonomous, but in fact the
universities in which they worked were manipulated to achieve the
larger technological and bureaucratic aims of the modern state in
competition with other states. Even the newly acquired personal
identity of professors was a blind. At bottom they were only
officeholders, paid by governments. Medieval academics may have been
anonymous, but because they belonged to clearly defined status
groups, they did not have to personally struggle with their identity
or wonder whether they had sufficient charisma. Nor were they in
danger of confusing who they were with the scientific instruments
and methods essential to modern professionalism. Therefore the
medieval academics were not alienated from themselves or, to use
Clark’s word, "disembodied." We might also say, "denatured."
Clark is the rarest sort of historian, one who does exactly as he
wishes. There is a real voice here. The observation extends to the
writing, which is various. Sometimes the prose is clichéd in
postmodern fashion—Clark likes to use occults as a
verb—but in another direction he also likes to repeat the
phrase "clouds of unknowing." At other times the writing
is provocative and playful, if also a mouthful: "the simulacrum
of a public-private self cast in the rumor-mill of the market, an
effect of the power of ministerial paperwork and the fame
machine." And many times the prose is purposefully funny and
anything but dryasdust academic writing.
No summary can do justice to a book so relentless in analysis and so
rich in original source material. But some criticisms are required.
Bringing macro- and micro-history together is always an elusive, if
necessary, aim of historians. The exhausting detail of Clark’s
work, the language skills, analytical methods and fascinating
sources that he commands need a larger framework if they are to make
sense, and that larger framework is perforce sketchier. Thus we
encounter some rather gigantic generalizations—for example,
homo academicus germanicus protestantus. This is
intended to be a summary phrase involving Weber’s protestant
ethic of work, but it is somewhat open historically and hard to
connect with the precise information supplied in the specific contexts.
Similarly, Clark occasionally offers throwaway conclusions:
"Perhaps it ought not to surprise us that capitalist England
saw the most refined development of the early modern grading
system." This follows from a discussion of the evolution of the
Cambridge honors examination degree of the mid-18th century, which
has long attracted attention as the possible origins of the merit
principle in ability sorting. But the connection between English
financial capitalism or early industrial capitalism and aristocratic
and Anglican-dominated Cambridge is not at all obvious. Just how
market discipline may have somehow led to an important change in the
structure of examinations, or is related to it, is by no means evident.
In writing about the development of academic culture in the United
States, Clark attributes far too much influence to Oxford and
Cambridge. More important for the history of the academic profession
and university organization in America, and throughout the British
Isles, was Scotland, which is only mentioned in passing toward the
end of the book. The Scots and the Scots-Irish were the great
educators of the English-speaking world well back into the 18th
century, providing leadership, teaching and curricula. It was on the
Scottish professorial and professional-school model that Victorian
university expansion took place throughout the United Kingdom. To
have had Clark’s superb analytical skills directed toward
Scotland would have been illuminating indeed.
The focus on structures, systems and organizations is critically
important, but readers should realize that it moves the story in a
worrisome direction. The usual way of discussing the growth of the
academic profession is to stress the importance of disciplinary and
subdisciplinary specialization. Professors are highly educated men
and women driven by a passion for and love of knowledge. And
knowledge begets knowledge. New ideas and applications of those
ideas are created in laboratories and classrooms and account for the
strength of the advanced industrial and high-tech democracies. In
this alternative and conventional narrative, the professors, as
creators of knowledge, are in charge of their own destinies.
Clark’s emphasis on the state as the ultimate, if indirect,
source of intellectual creativity therefore challenges received
opinion, but it also challenges a certain high-mindedness about the
pursuit and embrace of knowledge that the inherited account assumes.
The corrective is necessary; but it also a corrective derived from a
particular skepticism about current academic values that Clark does
not in any way conceal.
That skepticism is widely shared today. Even four decades ago, Clark
Kerr, who was then president of the University of California, warned
about the damage to academic culture caused by the "rise of the
Research Grant University." In the final chapter of
Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research
University, William Clark joins a large number of critics in
finding fault both with the managerial and corporate styles of
governance present in research academia today and with the
grandstanding and self-seeking that have encouraged institutions to
purchase faculty. It is assuredly difficult to recognize the remains
of collegial authority in today’s universities. The heavy
emphasis on wealth generation has produced
university-government-industrial alliances that are often
disturbing, compromising our sense of the proper use of scientific
inquiry and making us wonder about the true strength of professional
values. However, this is a complicated story of losses and gains.
This tailpiece of the book is its least original part, but in
fairness it does tell us where Clark began his retrospective investigations.
Lay readers will find the book’s methodological and
intellectual sophistication difficult to grasp. They also may not
appreciate its deliberate irony. Clark uses irony in classical
rhetorical fashion to emphasize the unexpected outcome of the story
that he is telling and at the same time to distance himself from a
conclusion of which he disapproves.
All in all, this is a brilliant book. The styles and methods may be
recognizable, but the whole is daringly new, exciting and disturbing.