Go and Study

A mocker asked the great and gentle rabbi Hillel to summarize the Torah while standing on one foot, to which Hillel replied: “That’s easy. What you wouldn’t have done to you, don’t do to others. As for the rest, go and study.”
Rebecca Goldstein The Mind Body Problem

A friend recently wrote to me about the ambivalence he feels toward being in graduate school now. In reply I had all too casually said that he was there “…to lay the foundation for a life of learning.” Given his current dilemma, I realize now that was rather thoughtless, although he said it had “deeply moved” him.

Graduate student uncertainty about the path they have started down is much more common than it was in my day. When I entered graduate school, there were very considerable demands for university and college professors in all disciplines. This is clearly no longer the case. And for various other reasons the university as I came to know it is no longer quite so attractive to young students or, for that matter, to their professors either.

My friend confesses he is more “moved by pressing goals.” These are far removed from the academic fray. “……there are aspects of the business that intrigue me: the fast pace, the money making, sharp dressing… Mostly the pace. Scholarly research is too slow-paced. And then, after it’s published, who’ll read it? It takes too long to become an established researcher, widely quoted and respected. And teaching and university bureaucracy are so problematic. Knowing all of these shortcomings, present in every industry, will not help me to excel within this “industry.”

I understand his predicament and deeply sympathetic with it. What can I say? We approached this kind of choice point at different times and at different angles. I know my counsel is unrealistic and yet I can’t imagine suggesting he give up on the academic world so soon after beginning his graduate studies.

Our exchange reminded me of a recent remembrance by Roger Scruton of Cardinal John Henry Newman’s memorable lecture The Idea of a University that he refers to as "…surely the most serene and beautiful vindication that we have of the old ideal of the scholarly life."

Later Scruton continues, … It was not simply a repository of knowledge. It was a place where work and leisure occurred side by side, shaping each other, and each playing its part in producing the well-formed and graceful personality.

Yes, that’s the way I always thought of life in the academy. I still do even though I am no longer formally a part of it.

Is there a place today for a life of learning? I know it is an increasingly narrow one. But still its appeal remains as strong for me today as it was the first day I became a freshman in college. I quote Keith Thomas in his Fifth British Academy Lecture, November 20, 2001.

Finally, the life of learning still has an exemplary morality to offer. Where else, save in other forms of academic inquiry, can we find the same scrupulous concern for truth, the same requirement that all propositions which are not self-evidently true should be documented, the same conviction that getting things right is more important than a quick fix, the same acceptance of the complexity of things and the same refusal to contemplate any dumbing down? And where else is hard-won knowledge freely imparted, without hope of financial recompense? So long as these qualities remain in evidence, those who follow the life of learning have no reason to be ashamed of their calling.