HESA

Higher Education Strategy Associates

Microcosmographia Academica

Many years ago – I think it was when I first got elected to student council – my grandfather gave me a copy of a 1908 satirical book on academic politics called the Microcosmographia Academica (available online here) by F. M. Cornford. Addressed to “the aspiring academic politician”, it is still very much worth a read today, especially if you’ve just been elected to Senate or have taken on some significant administrative duties. Not all of it ages well (bits of it are unintelligible unless you have a firm grasp of late nineteenth century academic reforms in the UK), but much of it is absolutely timeless.

Consider the problem of how we select professors:

A lecturer [i.e. a junior-rank professor – AU] is a sound scholar who is chosen to teach on the grounds that he was once able to learn.

Replace “learn” with “conduct competent research” and the statement is as true today as it ever was. Similarly, it turns out that the basis for academic snobbery hasn’t changed very much in the last century or so:

The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it.  If you should write a book be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called “brilliant” and forfeit all respect.

But the core of the book is an adumbration of ways in which things do not get done in universities. Referring to committees, Cornford says:

…we have succeeded in minimising the dangerous feeling by the means of never allowing anyone to act without first consulting at least twenty other people who are accustomed to regard him with well-founded suspicion…it is clear, moreover, that twenty independent persons, each of whom has a reason for not doing a certain thing and no one of whom will compromise with any other, constitutes a most effective check on the rashness of individuals.

Cornford notes that there is only ever one argument to do something: that it is the right thing to do. All other arguments are arguments not to do something. These he enumerates with great relish: the Principle of the Wedge (“do not act justly now for fear of raising expectations that you may act still more justly in the future”), the Principle of the Dangerous Precedent, Giving the Present System a Fair Trial, etc. But he is also very good at explaining how to accept something in principle while obstructing it in practice. To wit:

Another argument is that the machinery for effecting the proposed object already exists. This should be urged in cases where the existing machinery has never worked and is now so rusty there is no chance of its being set in motion.

And of course, he deals with political discourse in a university, specifically with respect to Jobs:

These fall into two classes: My Jobs, and Your Jobs. My jobs are public-spirited proposals which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

Non-academic positions still get spoken of this way all the time.

It’s a short piece – not more than a half-hour’s read. It’s worth the time. Enjoy.

This entry was posted in Academia, Administration, Humour, Universities and tagged . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

We encourage constructive debate. Therefore, all comments are moderated. While anonymous or pseudonymous comments are permitted, those that are inflammatory or disrespectful may be blocked.