“Different strokes for different folks” means, in academic language, “We have our own culture, so bug off.” Europeans tell this to Americans who are curious about native habits. I remember that while teaching at Frankfurt University in 1991 I commented in a memo to colleagues on students who don’t do any reading or preparing for classes and on professors who don’t talk to anybody anyhow. In reply, a colleague on the theological faculty there told me, “Well, we have our own academic culture, and, anyhow, now I won’t ha’C supper with you.” I hadn’t known he was planning to; neither had he.
While a Visiting Fellow at Clare Hall, Cambridge University, last year, I saw a copy of a letter that I would have supposed no circle, however tightly closed, would have wanted sent from its midst Write it to feel better, but then trash it—everybody knows that! It was a response from a woman at a research institute to a letter from a man with whom she had spent some years in graduate seminar. The man had written to invite her out for supper; they had published books on similar subjects, and he wanted to talk to her about a problem of common interest. After making fun of his name and saying she couldn’t even remember him, she declined the invitation in the following manner:
I probably meant to ask around about you but forgot. You are probably right to think that I have very little spare time. What I do have I would rather spend with my neglected friends than dining with a stranger. You presumably know why you want to have a “meal date” with me, but what could be my reason?
There are much less awkward ways of making an acquaintance than challenging her sight unseen to a dinner. A whole evening in no company but yours? If you were charming enough to warrant the expenditure of time and energy, some Cambridge hostess would have made the most of you by now. Then you would be the one with a full dance card.
When I chanced across this gruesome document, I thought to myself: that couldn’t happen in America. No American professor could be so self-important, none would leap at the chance to insult a perfectly innocent friend of times past, and none would actually write up and mail evidence of some gray morning’s foul mood. Why bother?
But then I wondered—why not? After all, the academy thrives on hierarchy and lusts after occasions to show who’s who. We live by selling prestige; education is only our by-product. For instance, a friend of mine who is a highly accomplished neurologist, head of all sorts of medical services in hospitals, told me that the one way he knows for sure he’s really first-rate is that he went to Harvard—40 years ago.
Brown University made itself a hot school by taking in discards, the stupid children of the glitzy; Harvard grabs the smart ones, the next go to Yale or Princeton. But to send your kid to college with the kid of someone you’ve heard of—that’s worth the extra $15,000 a year that Brown charges over the local state university. So they make out like bandits with an inexpensive, unaccomplished faculty. Education is not what it’s about when you pay $25,000 a year for what you could get for $10,000.
Lest my Harvard friend be thought exceptional, a Harvard freshman recently spent an evening telling me about the famous professors whose lectures she’d attended. But when I asked her what they had taught her and what questions she’d asked them, she said that, at Harvard, that’s not how it works. “Anyhow, we’re the best.” So, I suppose, Cambridge in England is not the only place where people could write, “If you were charming enough . . . “
Then again, I thought back to my year at Princeton, where at the Institute for Advanced Study I met lots of people very pleased with themselves for having an office near Einstein’s. When I asked some questions about what they’d recently done in their fields—social science, history, etc.—their paltry answers stimulated a little essay about why Franciscans can’t talk to birds. St. Francis could talk to birds but the Franciscans couldn’t, I argued, because you can’t institutionalize genius. That won me remarkably few friends at Princeton.
When, early on at Princeton (before I wondered in print whether the emperor might be a bit underdressed), I asked one of the permanent folk for supper with some friends, his reply was, “Well, of course, no—I can’t . . . ” followed by some incomprehensible mumbling. I hadn’t been made the most of by some Princeton hostess. When a friend, an IAS member in astrophysics, asked a permanent IAS Professor X for lunch, the latter’s secretary replied, “Mr. X doesn’t make luncheon appointments with Members of the Institute for Advanced Study, but if you see him at lunch, you can sit down at the table.” “Bow, bow, ye lower middle classes, bow, bow, ye tradesmen and ye masses.”
Don’t get me wrong. Both Cambridges are marvelous places, because each has a world-class library; and Madame “a whole evening in no company but yours” didn’t win any popularity contest at the English Cambridge. Everyone who saw her letter said, “Oh, her.” So she’s not going to win any elections to office in her precinct, that’s clear.
And anyone fortunate enough to spend some time at the Institute for Advanced Study or at Clare Hall, Cambridge, its English counterpart, which does everything right that is done wrong at Princeton, knows that those of us for whom they invent research institutes come to daydream and think up problems to solve—not to get invited by Princeton or Cambridge hostesses. They don’t like our suits, we don’t like their perfume—or their conversation. Ray Monk, the biographer of Wittgenstein, says about Professor Godel in his years at the Institute for Advanced Study, “The Princeton hostesses avoided him.” They probably thought they’d ruined his life. Meanwhile, mathematics was reinvented, at IAS, by their outcast.
The point is, the academic world thrives on snobbery. It glories in its honors, prizes, titles, ribbons, and strange medieval costumes. It thinks its controversies are controversies and conducts bitter disputes over honor, prestige, or policy (who sits in which chair on what afternoon). A great writer told me he doesn’t accept honorary degrees—”You just have to sit in the sun for a long afternoon watching other people’s children get degrees in exchange for a piece of rayon”—but, then, he’s not a professor. Only in the academy can someone write, “You presumably know why you want to have a ‘meal date’ with me, but what could be my reason?” In the real world, people don’t say things like that to one another. They don’t need to. Here, in the academy, where the stakes are so low, people sink beneath contempt.