[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University

William Clark
Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006 (2007)
662 pp., $22.50 pb

Marvin Lansverk

Samuel Johnson, when evaluating potential friends, liked to determine first whether or not they were "clubable." When initially judging books, I use a similar blunt tool, deciding whether or not they are "tubable." Like its rhymed namesake, a "tubable" book is also a potential friend, one that I feel I'll be able to relax with, enjoy, with whom I want to spend time—in my backyard hot tub. Thus, in addition to their content, certain material concerns affect my judgments: such books can't be overly large and heavy, or expensive, or alternatively, they can't be ones that might wind up on my office bookshelf in my personal reference library. Who wants wrinkled pages in their reference books? To be "tubable," then, is a somewhat narrow class, and not an unequivocal honor. To be "tubable," I guess, is to be a disposable friend.

From everything I'd read in advance about William Clark's Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University—that it was "astonishing," "funny," and "brilliant," moreover, that it was about the strange world that I inhabited—I thought that I'd found a new backyard friend for sure. But after slogging through the entire thing, at times alternately absorbed, impressed, and baffled, I've nevertheless come to the conclusion, alas, that we are only to remain acquaintances. In fact, and here is the greatest irony of all, by the time I reached the end, I realized that more than any other book that I've read lately, the book that this one resembles most closely is itself about a tub: namely, Swift's Tale of a Tub!

On one hand, what that means is simply that "this is an odd book," as the author readily admits at the outset. And it is odd in part because of its odd subject matter: the people and processes that have produced higher education, from the Middle Ages to the modern. But more than that, it is an odd mix of microanalysis and macroanalysis, of Foucault and Northrop Frye, of Max Weber and Robinson Crusoe, of attention to 250-year-old class grade sheets and to Austrian heroes of bureaucratic reform. By now, we are all used to histories that move seamlessly between disparate elements of material culture, and between those elements and the ideas that they both help generate and contain. But the biggest problem with this book is that its moves aren't very seamless. Rather, they seem almost Cubist at times, even Swiftean—though the digressions and fast-cut editing techniques are not all intentionally self-satirical.

Nevertheless, the book is fascinating—and brilliant—if difficult to summarize. At the macro level, as Clark identifies, it provides a "Foucaultian reading of Weber's rationalization theories" (475) while telling the story of the rise of the modern research university. The story concentrates on the developments in Germany, with occasional attention to Oxford and Cambridge (referred to throughout the book in their collective conflation: "Oxbridge"), with particular attention to bureaucratic developments in Austria. Some of the overarching elements of this narrative are not surprising, as Clark traces movements from "the traditional or medieval juridico-ecclesiastical academic world into the modern politico-economic regime of research" (8). Thus, as one might expect, he illustrates the changes in educational institutions as they move from theological and legalistically driven enterprises—where private and public are fused—to one driven by ministries and markets—where the private and public become separated. Key steps in this change occur throughout the early modern period, culminating in the Enlightenment with its drive for rational bureaucratic principles and management, yet complicated by Romanticism with its counter movements of emphasis on individuals. Central to this story are the consequences of these movements for academic charisma, in its Weberian sense. That is, Clark is primarily interested in accounting for and comprehending the movements of power in academe, particularly the transitions of authority through the Weberian stages of charisma, tradition, and finally rationalization (Clark's reformulation of Weber's more optimistic "rationality"). Moreover, Clark is interested in accounting for how charisma survives the move from oral to print culture, how it continues to survive—past its time, so to speak. And one way that it does, Clark eventually explains, additionally following Foucault, is through complicated and paradoxical forms, increasingly through "disembodied" versions of charisma that many of us who work in academe will recognize (even if you haven't read Foucault).

Though the broad outlines of this story may not seem surprising, its details are fascinating and often funny. For it turns out that that the engines of change and modernization at universities, at least in Clark's version of the history offered here, necessarily come from without: by bureaucratic mandate (note to Montana legislators: don't read this part!). In many of the stories Clark tells, academics and their institutions are consistently moribund, insular, nepotistic, in-fighting, and lazy, until forced to change. Some of the funniest examples include public lectures given because they are required, but with no one in the room, or the professor of theology at Tübingen, Ulrich Pregizer, who devoted four years of his public lecturing to the book of Daniel, and then the next twenty-five to Isaiah (talk about microanalysis!). Other funny anecdotes come from the early eighteenth century, the low point in academic dissertations, with titles such as "On the Reasons Why Not Few Scholars Bring Nothing to Light," or the series of self-study dissertations such as: "On Scholars Hastened to Their Deaths Through Overmuch Study, part I," or "On the Wicked Wives of Scholars." In Clark's story, such academic narcissism is cured through energetic bureaucratic oversight—coming not even from internal administrations, certainly not from academics themselves, but from external governmental bodies. Humorously, some of the heroes of this book, and its most memorable figures, whom we meet many times across a number of chapters, aren't professors; rather they are bureaucrats, like Prussian minister-extraordinaire Friedrich Gedike and Johann Justi, whom Clark calls "the Adam Smith of police science" (373), that is, of increasing bureaucratic oversight—i.e., policing—of educational institutions. As Clark also notes throughout, (additional note to Montana legislators: do read this part), the origins of most of the problems in academe, from the early modern to the present, were a direct result of the catastrophic underfunding of the institutions, which made it nearly impossible to make a living at it for centuries.

Clark's method, however, isn't to focus on people so much as on material culture, on the "little tools of knowledge" (6). Thus, he starts with fascinating attention to academic parades (early versions of our convocations and commencements), which he accesses through early illustrations, engravings, and paintings (Clark makes effective use of images throughout the book, especially when dissecting them for information about lecture and tutorial practices and spaces). Clark immediately moves on to seventeenth-century academic catalogues, treated effectively and creatively as a new genre, with much to tell us about early modern educational values, organizations, and preoccupations with rank and privilege.

Clark's attention to the history of academic culture that we've inherited, the structures and patterns that still define our lives today, is quite wonderful. He devotes chapters to the history of examinations (tracing their move from oral to written, and their surprisingly late development as a way to identify and reward merit); the research seminar (with necessary digressions on the history of tutorials, lectures, academic organization, and the rise and fall of disputation), the Doctor of Philosophy (a degree which is also a surprisingly late development, the story of which is told in one of the most interesting parts in the book, complete with intrigue, disciplinary in-fighting, and lawyers as the villains); and the professorial appointment system (which also maps out a slow but increasing emphasis on merit and publication). Along the way there are interesting discussions of the publish or perish mentality, library catalogues, annual reviews, and the dreaded "visitations," the precursor of today's "accreditation visits," the appearance on campuses of investigators whose job was to report back to the authorities, and which inevitably led to shake-ups and significant changes. Clark's interests here continue to extend to the "little tools" of bureaucrats, their questionnaires, numeric tables, and visitation journals, which Clark mines for information, not just in terms of their content, but what their form and very materiality says about (and how it affects) the march to the modern.

Part Two of Clark's book gets stranger for a while, though it is still interesting. Here, Clark becomes more overtly Foucaultian, addressing other nonmaterial aspects of academic culture, which themselves, paradoxically, also are incorporated into the movement from oral to written through commodification, namely: academic gossip, rumors, conversations, and interviews. It's here that he pauses to theorize in his most sustained fashion, drawing in Frye's views on Romance, for aid in assessing the genre aspects of modern bureaucratic paperwork, with sideways glances at various "academic" novels, from Robinson Crusoe (1719), to David Lodge's Small World (1984). The last chapters of the book, including the epilogue, provide, finally, a fast-paced historical narrative, putting together the earlier micro-components into an overview of the changes that had been chopped into constituent parts before. It is here that we finally get the "view from above," the story of the rise of the efficient, bureaucratic, meritocratic German research university through the last half of the nineteenth century and into the twentieth, and the place that still remains for charismatic "Big Men" within it. Here, also, we get brief attention to the emulation of the German system by both "Oxbridge" and American universities, with our universities finally out-bureaucratizing the Germans—in a good sense—with the American system of departmental organization allowing for even more nimble reactions to market forces (and fads) than the German structures of an oligarchy of professors.

The book is much richer than this brief summary can account for, and more complicated of course, with its attention to the nuances of interaction between Enlightenment and Romantic thought (generalizing period labels that Clark is not loath to employ), and to significant differences among the academic institutions, including Jesuit vs. Protestant, Austrian vs. German, Göttingen vs. Berlin, and German vs. Oxbridge (Oxbridge gets less attention throughout, because as Clark argues, in most ways, except in written examinations at Cambridge, it was a lagging rather than leading institution in the changes he is tracking). An important realization that emerges from these nuanced discussions, however, is the wide cultural variety in even the most fundamental terms and structures associated with academic life, from "college," to "university," to "tutor," to "lecturer," to "professor," all of which mean different things at different times, and are roles with widely different functions in academic life over the years. No wonder academics from different countries have a difficult time understanding each other—it's hard enough to keep the terms straight even when reading the book. From among some of these terms whose time has past, however, emerge candidates for resuscitation: my nominations are for convict as a term for "student resident of a college," and wrangler (and senior wrangler), for the "students who performed best overall in exams." I can see the academic headlines now: "Montana Cow Colleges Reclaim Wranglers from Rodeos."

In spite of all the interesting elements in Clark's book, however, and partly because of them, the book is not easy to read. Part of the trouble is Clark's ambition to get it all in: the history of leading educational institutions across Europe and across six centuries is an impossible task, even with his attempts to anchor the discussion. But it's also partly a result of Clark's method. With the chapters each divided up into many mini sections, plunked next to each other with some discursive aids (but not enough), it is as if the book were written on note cards stacked one next to another, not yet fully edited or integrated. One minor example is a brief section in Chapter Twelve, "The Research University and Beyond," called "Austria and the Colossus," which starts with the clunky transition: "England has given the counterpoint to the major motif of Germanic academia in this book, while Austria has provided a counterpoint within the major motif" (452). Only four paragraphs later, a new section begins: "From Georgian to Victorian England," which oddly repeats nearly the same exact transition: "In this book, as noted, English academic practices have served as the major counterpoint to those in Germany" (453). This bricklaying effect extends down to the sentence level itself, with sentence after sentence within sections reading like individual units, set one after another. This effect is compounded by Clark's kitchen sink approach, where he seems to be emptying his whole erudite card file of notes and thoughts on the subject, whether they hold together or not. Thus, we get microanalysis set next to theoretical essaying next to literary criticism next to macroanalysis, with not enough glue to hold it all together. This tendency to lurch from topic to topic, even from genre to genre, makes the book harder to read than is necessary (Clark occasionally shifts his own style and tone, in Chapter Six, for example—on the rise of the doctoral degree—moving from traditional academic prose to overt irony, even parody, incorporating into his own style some of that of its subject). While part of the fun in Jonathan Swift, it is less so in a work of historical scholarship. One result of this note card method is that the book's titular focus on charisma, and research, tends at times to fade into the background. Though always on Clark's mind, too often the book is more focused on the history of institutions and structures in general than on the movement of charismatic authority, and the construction of research within them. It would benefit from an even more sustained focus on both.

There are more substantive complaints to be made as well. In his attention to German institutions, Clark neglects developments elsewhere, including Scotland, during the Scottish Enlightenment. Even more important (unless you're Scottish), in his telling the story of research universities via the story of modernization and rationalization, he underplays or neglects the counter story of the value of academic contemplation, which may only look like doing nothing to a bureaucrat with forms to fill out. Furthermore, he neglects somewhat the contributions made by some of these very academics to Enlightenment thought that was then turned around onto themselves. In fact, as it turns out, education ministers were often academics first (as was Gedike), thus inter-implicated in each other's realms.

In spite of all this, Clark's book is still a treasure trove of original research, usable data (with tables and appendices of its own), and thoughtful, intelligent analysis. It will and should be read by all who are interested in the history of universities, in Germany and elsewhere. It will find, I admit, a place in my office library, where, though its pages are slightly wrinkled, I plan to continue to refer to it. But I don't plan on taking it back into the hot tub.

[The Montana Professor 19.1, Fall 2008 <http://mtprof.msun.edu>]

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