If I could afford to add any more books to my to-read list, I would pick up a copy of Clark’s Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, reviewed here by The New Yorker [via Arts & Letters Daily] Tracing the history of modern academia and its traditions forward from their roots in 18th century Germany (including the ancient roots of faculty balking at oversight and bureaucratic instrusion, such as early requirements that faculty publically list what courses they are taking in a course catalog), Clark uses the idea of charisma to talk about the sources of authority and tradition in the classroom:
The organizations that became the first Western universities, schools that sprang up in Paris and Bologna, were in part an outgrowth of ecclesiastical institutions, and their teachers asserted their authority by sitting, like bishops, in thrones—which is why we still refer to professorships as chairs—and speaking in a prescribed way, about approved texts. “The lecture, like the sermon, had a liturgical cast and aura,” Clark writes. “One must be authorized to perform the rite, and must do it in an authorized manner. Only then does the chair convey genuine charisma to the lecturer.”
I think we all know how religion has played a role in granting academics authority – you don’t have to go back to the German Middle Ages but can look at the history of America’s oldest colleges as well. I find it intriguing to look at the specific impact this has had on how modern education works, though. For example, the review mentions an old alternative to the lecture – the disputation, “in which a respondent affirmed the thesis under discussion and an opponent attempted to refute it”. As the review notes, this is now seen in dissertation and thesis defenses. As a student, I think it would be interesting to understand the roots of this seemingly adversarial structure; in the course of the many reports and defenses I have given, I’ve never seen a faculty member verbalize that the antagonist role they adopt is part of a different type of pedagogical tool. I, in fact, hope that students do read this book. It sounds like it could do them as well as faculty some good in thinking about why we do things the way we do.
Clarke’s main thesis is about how the shift towards researched-focused universities occured, and he seems in the end to have come up with a fairly insipring description of academic revolution. At the very least read the review – and make sure you get far enough through to encounter some of the great anecdotes about how academia used to be and probably my favorite quote from the whole review:
In an even more radical break with the past, professors began to be appointed on the basis of merit.