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The seven deadly sins of the academy

Matthew Reisz and our seven guest contributors lift the lid on the rampant wickedness troubling the sanctity of our hallowed universities

When the historian David Starkey left the University of Cambridge in 1972, he told an interviewer that he "knew exactly how an ingrowing toenail felt". There was something deeply dispiriting, he said, about "the sense of introversion, of knowing everyone".

The inward-looking, incestuous atmosphere of university life has long made it a breeding ground for some of the canonical deadly sins. Take the description that the historian Edward Gibbon gave of the University of Oxford in the 1750s. He was taught - or, rather, not taught - by "decent easy men who supinely enjoyed the gifts of the founder. Their days were filled by a series of uniform employments: the chapel and the hall, the coffee house and the common room, till they retired, weary and well-satisfied, to a long slumber."

"A silent blush or a scornful frown" would greet questions on whether their research was ever going to lead to any publications. A tutor called Dr Winchester "well remembered he had a salary to receive, and only forgot he had a duty to perform".

So sloth was almost universal, and avarice pretty common. With them went some milder vices: a fondness for booze, complacency and small-mindedness. The conversations of the dons "stagnated in a round of college business, Tory politics, personal stories and private scandal". Nor would they have scored any higher for student satisfaction than for research output. Gibbon described the 14 months he spent at Oxford as "the most idle and unprofitable of my whole life".

Other common features of closed, hothouse communities are the spite and murderous rivalry that long made Oxbridge colleges popular settings for detective fiction. Starkey conducted a famously vicious feud with his former mentor, Sir Geoffrey Elton, about the interpretation of Tudor history. This may only prove that when an intellectual love affair breaks up, the results can be just as toxic as the messiest divorce. But it's not hard to find academics responding to the work of complete strangers with a depth of malice that would put gossip columnists to shame. And the dispute often turns out to be about a subject so obscure that it would take a month to explain to an ordinary intelligent person what is at stake (and a lifetime to explain why it matters).

The classical scholar and poet A.E. Housman (1859-1936), for example, peppered his books and reviews with carefully distilled venom. A rival editor was "a born blunderer, marked cross from the womb and perverse". Another's error revealed "the felicity of the house of bondage, and of the soul which is so fast in prison that it cannot go forth, (believing that) its own flimsy tabernacle of second-hand opinions is a habitation for everlasting". And what was the terrible crime for which this scholar deserved such a roasting, if not eternal damnation? He had omitted a single citation in an entry to a dictionary.

It would not be hard to draw up a list of traditional academic deadly sins on the basis of such examples. But how many have survived in today's academy, we wondered? Which have disappeared? And, assuming goodwill hasn't broken out on all sides, what have they been replaced by?

Modernisation and a huge expansion of the sector have brought fresh air into even the stuffiest quadrangles. So, if people in general are subject to avarice, envy, gluttony, pride, lust, sloth and wrath, what are the vices particularly prominent on campuses and in common rooms now? Here we present our own personal selection, but we'd love to hear about any sins we've omitted. Lifelong laziness or sloth has surely been booted out of the academy. Laurie Taylor has described in Times Higher Education his memories of a time when universities were "managed - despite the declared aims and objectives - to ensure that the staff (had) an easy life". For better and for worse, those days are gone beyond recall. One of Poppleton's treasures, Dr Piercemuller - "an academic who spends his time wandering round the world and doing no work" - is now an anachronism.

Unlike laziness, lust got off to a slow start in our universities. Gonville and Caius had already been around for more than 500 years when, in 1860, it became the first Cambridge college to abolish compulsory celibacy among its fellows. As late as the 1920s, the critic William Empson had a Cambridge fellowship withdrawn when condoms were found in his rooms. Yet today the most virginal cloisters throb with sexual tensions and lust has a secure place among the academic deadly sins just as surely as it does in the canonical ones. But what else should appear on the list? Looking at the standard seven, academics are probably no more gluttonous, wrathful or envious than any other group of people. A career in higher education is an unpromising choice for the avaricious. Pedantry and procrastination, on the other hand, are surely native to the academy. And, although managerialism and changing social status may have cut back on their wilder excesses, we'd like to suggest that arrogance, complacency, snobbery and sartorial inelegance are still pretty common in some seats of higher learning. But write in and tell us if we've got that drastically wrong - or if managerialism itself should count as a deadly sin.

Once we'd drawn up our list, we needed a team of writers who could analyse it with insight and panache. Although we carefully matched sinner with sin, we knew we were taking a risk. Would the reflections on procrastination be endlessly delayed or never arrive? (Academic and journalistic timescales, after all, are never quite the same.) Would those on pedantry be spiky with learned footnotes in several languages? Would an expert on arrogance even deign to respond to our emails?

We needn't have worried. Most of our writers recognised the sin in themselves as well as those around them. All entered into the spirit and offered amusing examples of their sins in action, why they are a bane of university life or what is to be said in their favour. Although they may never become definitive, we are delighted to present our unofficial catalogue of today's seven academic deadly sins.

SARTORIAL INELEGANCE

At Caltech in the late 1970s, I met a postdoc whose morning change of clothes involved turning his Pink Floyd T-shirt inside out. His only footwear was a pair of pink sandals, "a perfectly adequate interface between my feet and the ground".

He was a rather extreme case, admittedly, of the caricature of the badly dressed academic. Since Socrates, there has been an uninterrupted trend for thinkers to dress badly, or at least carelessly. And even today, the unwritten list of acceptable vanities among academics does not include the wish to dress well - that would be just too trivial.

No institution has done more recently than The Open University to consolidate the reputation of academics as the worst-dressed people in the country. The BBC ably assisted, repeating OU programmes annually, with the embarrassment at the clothing choices on display sometimes rising above the human pain threshold. I myself spent a good decade participating enthusiastically in this organised crime against sartorial taste, as many video nasties attest.

Even if the OU had recruited only sharply dressed presenters, most people would still believe that dons have the dress sense of Mr Bean. Any notion that academics had the faintest concern for how they dressed was destroyed by the world's most famous professor, Albert Einstein - "the worst-dressed man in the world", according to Mrs Paul Dirac. She judged her husband runner-up.

Einstein's contemporary classicist, A.E. Housman, dressed neatly without wasting a second thinking about it, simply by wearing a three-piece woollen suit even in high summer (that was the norm, I gather). Among leading women academics, Marie Curie and Rosalind Franklin had what might best be called a utilitarian attitude to clothing, drawing sotto voce sneers from some male colleagues, none of whom was exactly Beau Brummell.

Today, many academics dress down so far that they are indistinguishable from undergraduates. That excludes, of course, The Management, who are usually expected to dress with at least some semblance of formality. For even the dowdiest academics, the day after they take up their first high-ranking management job, it's a safe bet that they will turn up to work in the approved livery, each lining up to their vice-chancellor's values like an iron filing in a magnetic field.

I sometimes worry that the bean-counters may one day try to enforce dress codes in universities and colleges, as part of some misbegotten quality assurance fad. A few years ago, Trine University in Indiana proposed an "appearance policy", seeking to ban cross-gender garb and Mohawk haircuts and also forbidding any "observable lack of undergarments". The university soon climbed down, however, perhaps realising that the notion of forced conformity is alien to any respectable higher education institution: the essential freedoms of their academics must include dress as well as speech.

When academics leave higher education to work elsewhere, their sartorial freedom usually goes out the window. This happened to my pink-sandalled Caltech acquaintance. After joining a bank, he was permanently spruced and primped to within an inch of his life. But a piece of his heart remains in academia: somewhere at the back of his wardrobe, I hear, he still has that T-shirt.

  • Graham Farmelo, a Twitterer, is senior research fellow at the Science Museum, London, and author of The Strangest Man: The Hidden Life of Paul Dirac, Quantum Genius (2009).

PROCRASTINATION

There is no sin more dangerous in academia than procrastination. If the world of the academy is about publishing or perishing, then perish the thought that one might delay writing so much as to fail to publish. One can put off writing, reading or preparation for lectures - all of which lead to various forms of humiliation. The wonder is that the fear of public humiliation doesn't spur one into activity, but the paradox is that procrastination is the dysfunctional way to avoid being humiliated. If you do nothing, you can't be accused of having done anything wrong. Procrastination is a sin of omission rather than of commission.

One always intends to write, but there are so many distractions and preparations that must precede the actual deed. To begin with, you must wait for a clear stretch of time set aside, hopefully the product of a grant, which, of course, one can put off applying for. Then again one must clear one's decks, which means of course clearing one's desk, inbox and the accumulated other things one has been postponing, such as writing letters of recommendation, reviewing manuscripts or doing book reviews. These are the smallish tasks of make-work that are the academic equivalents of civil world distractions like watering the plants or watching DVDs.

It is a general rule of procrastination that the body will take precedence over the mind. Hunger trumps inspiration; sleep wins out over determination; sex seems a lot more alluring than writing one more paragraph. To defeat procrastination, you must conquer the instincts and the drives. I am supposedly descended from the Gaon of Vilna, an 18th-century polymath who wrote copiously on a variety of subjects. His secret, apparently, was to soak his feet in ice water as he studied, an act of asceticism that combated the body's natural reticence to remain at the desk for long periods of time. You could say that procrastinators are hedonists in search of asceticism.

The fact that there is no antonym for "procrastination" lets you know that there is a shared cultural assumption that getting things done right now is the proper way to conduct one's scholarly life. But I would like to suggest the counterintuitive point that procrastination can be a devious royal road to the scholarly unconscious.

When I begin to write a scholarly book, I spend a nervously long period of time in utter fallowness. I put off writing for as long as possible. I wander around libraries pursuing a random investigation of the Dewey decimal system. I go in search of one book on a shelf and end up reading the one next to it. I feel I should write. I know I should write. But I do not write. My obsession at this point is to read everything.

Yes, the drive to read on, to plough through the internet and explore the archive, is a massive form of procrastination. Yet, at the same time, it provides me with a liminal space of organised disorganisation. Procrastination leads me to the horror chamber of uncertainty where I hesitate and pray that coherence and an argument will come. Sometimes procrastinating works and I emerge ready to write. Sometimes it doesn't and I abandon the project. But were it not for procrastination, I would never write.

Procrastination has another virtue. If you put off what you have to do until the last minute, you most likely are doing it to defeat another deadly sin of academia - perfectionism. But by putting off the task of writing until the penultimate moment, you will have to give it your best, but not your very best, shot. You can tell yourself afterwards that you could have done better - if only you had the time, which you will no doubt have at some future date.

  • Lennard J. Davis is professor in the department of English, University of Illinois at Chicago. He is the author of books including Obsession: A History (2008).

SNOBBERY

The definitive treatment of snobbery is not to be found in Sociological Review nor even in The Poppletonian - although it is surely unsettling that "etonian" is printed in bright red, while the humble, populist prefix "Poppl" - is left in sombre black; at all events, Hilaire Belloc's Cautionary Verses gets to the heart of the whole sordid business.

It is not in those helpful verses that remind us of the dangers of keeping pythons, eating string, or changing light bulbs without waiting for the maintenance department to do a full health and safety assessment, but in The Garden Party, that the full pathos of English snobbery is captured. One might think that the Queen's garden party was a gallant attempt to offset the snootiness of English society by mingling the classes on her lawns for a cucumber sandwich and a cup of Earl Grey. No such luck.

"The rich arrived in pairs, and also in Rolls-Royces/they talked of their affairs/in loud and strident voices." No change there, then, save that it'd be the bankers boasting of their bonuses while sniffing coke in the Buck House tented loos. The poor don't care, since they think social hierarchy is a joke anyway and enjoy gawping at the celebs.

But the unhappiness of the middling sort is tragic: "The people in between/looked underdone and harassed/and out of place and mean/and horribly embarrassed." Is there a message for academic snobbery? Might the true elite neither feel anxiety nor go in for snobbery; that if they bother at all, they do hauteur? But does anyone admit to being "in between", let alone "out of place and harassed"? When the research assessment exercise emphasised the discovery of islands - or was it "pockets"? - of excellence in out-of-the-way places, the most astonishing number of institutions announced that they were world-class at something or other.

The University of Oxford is convicted of snobbery on the strength of its architecture; The Guardian, famously, always illustrates stories about Oxford undergraduate admissions with pictures of All Souls, the one institution that has on its books nothing but fellows of one or another variety. I doubt a photograph of the recently erected chemistry building would convey the not-very-subliminal message The Guardian intends.

Can buildings exude an air of "not for you"? London clubs do, and the hero of Jude the Obscure felt that Oxford colleges did; but they were initially built less to keep non-members out than to lock their members in between dusk and dawn and preserve them from the temptations of the carnal world outside. Perhaps they have changed from prisons to fortresses, strong points in a new class war between the qualified and the unqualified.

The worst sorts of academic snobbery, irresistible to the perpetrators just because they inflict such pain on the victims, are all too obvious. "Oh, do they give degrees in that?" and "Oh, is there really a university there?" "Bolton?" they might ask, "the University of Bolton?" Anyone who thinks they are immune can test themselves by listing from memory every institution that now calls itself "the University of ..." and seeing how many they leave out and how surprised they are to discover their existence. Courses provide a less reliable test. It may be snobbery to sneer at media studies, but asking for the abolition of degrees in complementary medicine and theology - though not comparative religion - wouldn't be snobbery but intellectual hygiene; er, wouldn't it?

  • Alan Ryan is a visiting fellow in politics at Princeton University.

LUST

Clark Kerr, the president of the University of California from 1958 to 1967, used to describe his job as providing sex for the students, car parking for the faculty and football for the alumni. But what happens when the natural order is disrupted by faculty members who, on parking their cars, head for the students' bedrooms?

The great academic novel of the 19th century was George Eliot's Middlemarch. The great academic novel of the 20th century was Malcolm Bradbury's The History Man. Both books chronicle lust between male scholars and female acolytes, and I expect that the great academic novel of the 21st century will describe more of the same. So, why do universities pullulate with transgressive intercourse?

When Willie Sutton was asked why he robbed banks, he is famously said to have replied, "because that's where the money is". Equally, the universities are where the male scholars and the female acolytes are. Separate the acolytes from the scholars by prohibiting intimacy between staff and students (thus confirming that sex between them is indeed transgressive - the best sex being transgressive, as any married person will soulfully confirm) and the consequences are inevitable.

The fault lies with the females. The myth is that an affair between a student and her academic lover represents an abuse of his power. What power? Thanks to the accountability imposed by the Quality Assurance Agency and other intrusive bodies, the days are gone when a scholar could trade sex for upgrades. I know of two girls who, in 1982, got firsts in biochemistry from a south-coast university in exchange for favours to a professor, but I know of no later scandals.

But girls fantasise. This was encapsulated by Beverly in Tom Wolfe's novel I Am Charlotte Simmons, who forces herself on to JoJo, the campus sports star, with the explanation that "all girls want sex with heroes". On an English campus, academics can be heroes.

Normal girls - more interested in abs than in labs, more interested in pecs than specs, more interested in triceps than tripos - will abjure their lecturers for the company of their peers, but nonetheless, most male lecturers know that, most years, there will be a girl in class who flashes her admiration and who asks for advice on her essays. What to do?

Enjoy her! She's a perk. She doesn't yet know that you are only Casaubon to her Dorothea, Howard Kirk to her Felicity Phee, and she will flaunt you her curves. Which you should admire daily to spice up your sex, nightly, with the wife.

Yup, I'm afraid so. As in Stringfellows, you should look but not touch. Be warned by the fates of too many of the protagonists in Middlemarch, The History Man and I Am Charlotte Simmons. And in any case, you should have learnt by now that all cats are grey in the dark.

So, sow your oats while you are young but enjoy the views - and only the views - when you are older.

  • Terence Kealey is vice-chancellor, University of Buckingham, and the author of Sex, Science and Profits (2008).

ARROGANCE

All academics are equal, but some are more equal than others; and, while arrogance is a trait to be found wherever in the world that scholars congregate, it cannot be denied that some nations' academics are more generously endowed than most. Having taught for a year at the University of Massachusetts and having lectured across America - Arizona, Colorado, Michigan, Hawaii, South Carolina, Nebraska, Georgia, oh, and did I mention Harvard? Yes, Harvard! - as well as having been a regular delegate for more than a decade at the annual conference of the Shakespeare Association of America and the proud possessor of 38 fridge magnets from different states, I am in an unassailable position to pronounce on the arrogance of my trans-Atlantic peers.

American academics attend conferences in best bib and tucker, they are on time, they ask intelligent questions, they are polite, they have beautiful teeth and they are disappointingly sober. Now, all this could be construed as professionalism - particularly when compared with the drunken, late-night antics of the flip-flop-wearing, unshaven and almost always sunburnt Limeys whose most pressing questions are "where's the bar?" and "does anyone remember my room number?" - but, I assure you, it is arrogance. Make no mistake: their reverence for the subject, thoroughgoing knowledge of its intricacies, prolific capacities to produce research of the highest standard ... what unspeakable arrogance!

So shambolic and amateurish is the British version of academe in comparison with that of its colonial subjects that it appears as an object of affectionate contempt in several novels by David Lodge, not least the brilliant Changing Places, in which the charismatic and hubristic Professor Morris Zapp of Euphoria State University gets to swap jobs (and eventually a wife) with the pedestrian pedant Mr Philip Swallow of the University of Rummidge (Birmingham? How could you?): overpaid, oversexed and over here.

We have only ourselves to blame. In a culture as anti-intellectual as ours, a society in which being any kind of teacher (let alone a university teacher) generates derision and incredulity - "What do you actually do with that 12-week holiday?" - nobody in his right mind would choose the second-oldest profession. In the States, academics are properly remunerated, publicly respected and tenured for Chrissakes! Moreover, all US scholars are professors of one sort or another, since the coveted title that in Britain is reserved for those who are supposedly at the top of their game is immediately conferred on the most callow American junior faculty (a manoeuvre of such arrogance that only Warwick in the UK would dare follow suit).

American media dons are showbiz stars who dine at the White House and influence public opinion, instead of appearing on late-night chat shows in the company of an out-of-work comedian, with viewing figures in the low hundreds, to fulminate about the latest nonsense from Gilbert and George. Faced with such assured displays of scholarly arrogance, how should we begin to fight back? With our secret weapon, of course - Received Pronunciation. "Hey, Professor Smith," called one of my American male undergraduates the length of an enormous and bustling corridor (I didn't correct the promotion), "that accent must be a real bitch-magnet!" I then heard myself declaim, in a combination of Lord Laurence Olivier and Sir Leslie Phillips, "Would that it were, young man. Would that it were!"

  • Peter J. Smith is reader in Renaissance literature, Nottingham Trent University.

COMPLACENCY

By academic complacency I mean the attitude that one's undoubted distinction in one's own subject entitles one to pontificate about any other; and conversely, that their ignorance of one's own subject disqualifies everyone else from having a worthwhile opinion on anything at all. Such complacency shades into arrogance, of course, but I think of arrogance as the child of vanity, whereas complacency is the child of laziness. The virtue opposed to arrogance is modesty; that opposed to complacency is curiosity. Were there any, quite modest academics could still be complacent. But the vices are closely allied. Lord Rutherford's notorious remark that "there is physics and there is stamp collecting" illustrates both.

I once thought that complacency was the particular sin of mathematicians and scientists. Petted and rewarded from an early age for going through their particular hoops, daily seeing themselves unquestionably better at jumping through those hoops than all their peers, no more faulted for knowing nothing else than a champion golfer is faulted for his football skills, can they be blamed for assuming the mantle of omniscience? I remember long ago an egregious young sprig of this kind declaiming at some length on the evils of opposition to the Vietnam War, and then concluding with a smirk, "Of course, some would say I have too little experience to hold these opinions". My own rejoinder of "Oh no, X, you have exactly the right amount of experience to hold those opinions" was one of my more satisfactory moments on the High Table, which I fear is why I remember it.

But, of course, any subject that has alpha-male status will breed complacency. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, it was Classics, with its certainty that without years of Latin and Greek nobody could govern the colonies, but that with those years, anybody could. Classics was aided by an unholy alliance with theology, as witnessed by the famous remark from Dean Gaisford of Christ Church to a lady asking the value of a classical education that it "elevates above the common herd, enables us to read the words of our Saviour in the original Greek, and not infrequently leads to positions of considerable emolument, both in this life and in that which is to come". Complacency, alas, still stalks Divinity, as listeners to Radio 4 know to their cost.

I fear that there are even complacent philosophers, in spite of the shining examples set by omnivores such as Leibniz and Kant, and sceptics from Socrates through Montaigne to Hume and beyond. But philosophers are not alpha males in the current world and are more likely to be the victims of the vice in others. There are complacent economists, informing us about the way in which all value reduces to cash value; biologists telling us about human nature and how we are born selfish and can be nice only by rebelling against our brains; and physicists finding magical designers wherever their own understandings of the cosmos give out. We poor philosophers often need all the resources of Stoicism to bear up.

  • Simon Blackburn is professor of philosophy, University of Cambridge.

PEDANTRY

Does anyone really believe himself to be a pedant (and it is usually a male complaint)? You can probably feel your own lust if you are lucky, smile proudly at your own shabby-genteel clothes, and be complacent about your complacency, but when the wretched bore on the committee says, "I may be being pedantic here ...", he usually means "at least one of us has the seriousness to care about the regulations in the due manner". As with so many of our virtues and vices, there seems to be a conjugation rather than a definition: "I show proper concern for the niceties", "you are a bit of a stickler", "he is a pedant" - and "we are lawyers".

The kiss of death for the history of scholarship is the moment when we forget that, from its very beginnings, there is no scholarly activity without someone mocking its passions and protocols from the sidelines. The pedants are not just always with us, but actually are us in someone's flinty eyes.

The scholars in the library of Alexandria, our ancestors, were mercilessly teased for being "hummers in corners", who cared only whether Homer wrote min or nin (two slightly different versions of the same word, which means "him": a real pedant's worry). I remember a lecture in Cambridge when the professor was holding forth at length whether the right text of a scream in Sophocles was ototototoi or otototototoi, that is, "aargh", or "aaargh". An exasperated student fled muttering loudly, "what difference does it make? It's a scream." And there's the rub of pedantry - it's the scholarly moment when someone else wants to shout: "What's the difference?! - who cares?!"

The pedant is the one who does care and thinks the difference really counts. And tells you. Pedantry has to be performed. You can have secret lusts; you can even be a snob in private, I suppose, imagining in solitude the invitations you would turn down if invited; but it is only when a pedant comes out that pedantry takes place. It needs an audience, or it is just an obsessive-compulsive disorder. Pedantry is that moment when you feel your eyes glaze and your bile rise as your companion says: "Of course, the letter of 15 January 1853, rather than the letter of 19 January, which I think I can show is wrongly dated anyway, must refute the theory of Deathridge."

But the strange thing is that all scholars, hedgehogs and foxes both, love details - the telling fact, the extraordinary coincidence. And we are all capable of falling dangerously in love with pedantry. Think of the lasting success of Fowler's Modern English Usage, a paean to pedantry where irony cannot conceal its true commitment; or A.P. Herbert's legal tales, which revel in the pedant out-pedanting the law. Writing a cheque on a cow, because a cheque can be written on anything, is the pedant's joke par excellence. No one wants to be declared a pedant, but every scholar worth his salt is someone's pet pedant.

  • Simon Goldhill is professor of Greek, University of Cambridge, and author of How to Stage Greek Tragedy Today (2007) and Jerusalem: City of Longing (2008).

Readers' comments (1)

  • If anyone wants to email Kealey himself here's his email: terence.kealey@buckingham.ac.uk.
    Let him have it!

    Unsuitable or offensive? Report this comment

  • I am a woman (as helpfully pointed out by a poster above), a feminist and I have a sense of humour. Most importantly, however, I believe in academic freedom and the right to free speech. Terence Kealey was asked to write on the theme of “the seven deadly sins of academe”. He was explicitly asked for a “lighthearted” or “wry” piece, and we suggested the topic of “lust”, which was a “sin” identified by a straw poll of academics; it was not Dr Kealey’s own suggested topic. Dr Kealey’s article was satire. I fully support his right to express himself in this way. If people are offended, that is their right and they also have the right to express that.

    If we cannot have freedom of speech and robust debate in the academy where can we have it?

    Ann Mroz

    Editor

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