A few summers ago I went out for an afternoon walk around Auke lake, near Juneau, Alaska, with another professor teaching with me in the Bread Loaf School of English summer session. Alison and I picked our way over large roots and ferns, past a stand of enormous Sitka spruce. Our meandering conversation was much like our walk, following turns and twists, stepping over muddy spots, and catching glimpses of the lake through the trees.
Over the past few weeks I have been writing a talk on scholarship that I have been asked to give at the annual Keene State College Academic Excellence Conference. Thinking about scholarship has me rereading the writing of Alison’s father, Wayne Booth, and I’ve been mulling over his insights about the profession of English, and enjoying his playful way of engaging with the ironies of our professional lives. In an essay he wrote for the book Introduction to Scholarship in Modern Languages and Literatures, “The Scholar in Society,” republished in his collected essays The Vocation of a Teacher, Booth laments the rules of the game of scholarship. How, he asks, can we find our way to a new reward system that emphasizes inventive service to scholarship and society? He realizes that it is not a question to ask established scholars who are benefitting from the rules of the game as it is currently played. And he acknowledges that any young scholar who “does not succumb to ambition, mendacity, or cowardice, and produce instanter that book or article that should in fact have five more years of gestation,” will, of course, be asked to leave the game (62). So Booth turns from literal to allegorical thought and imagines a visitor from a strange land called “Eupaideia, a land that has miraculously ordered its scholarship according to a reasonable ideal.” In Eupaideia, as it happens, has organized its educational system around what they want: citizens who are curious about how to make life more humane. As the visitor explains, they have related scholarly inquiry, publication and reward in a different way.
“Both college and school teachers are judged, for retention and promotion, mainly whether they can arouse the elected committee members’ curiosity about the subjects they teach. Each teacher whose fate is in the balance can choose any method for interesting the committee: published writing, unpublished essays or lectures, tapes, a prolonged group discussion. If curiosity is roused by where she will go next (that is, about what she may be able to teach next time around), she is hired, retained, or promoted. Every five years each teacher undergoes the same test, throughout her life, and those who fail are, regardless of their age, given a one-year sabbatical to allow for preparation for a second try; if after a year of free inquiry she still cannot arouse anyone’s curiosity, she is asked to seek employment in some line of work not centered on competence in the Curiosities. What this has meant for us is of course that nobody writes and publishes unless that route has for her proved the best way to learn. We were a bit surprised to find that the amount of writing did not go down markedly, while the amount of publication dropped by about seventy-five percent. Obviously most scholars find that trying to write a coherent statement is the best way to learn, yet most find the results of the try not ready for publication” (63).
As it turns out, the young scholars learn early a devotion to the task of discovering what is truly interesting about the world and to teaching the arts of such discovery. But, as Booth concludes with a brief commentary on his brief allegory (with a little help from William James and Max Weber), the Eupaideist’s scheme would hardly work in a fallen world.