I am currently reading historian John Lukacs’ At the End of an Age. I only discovered Lukacs’ work fairly recently, after reading a review of one of his other books on David Withun’s blog. He is an insightful and very readable author whose platform happens to match my own in several interesting ways; I’m sure I will be mentioning him again in the future.
I will probably do a full review of the book as soon as I finish it. At the moment, however, I would like to respond to one of the ideas which he discusses multiple times in the first half of the book: intellectual bureaucratization. The main thesis of At the End of an Age is that the modern era of history, which began around the end of the fifteenth century, is now drawing to a close. One of the main attributes that Lukacs points out as differentiating the modern era from previous eras is a the massive growth of bureaucracy in every area of human existence. This trend is even evident–in fact especially evident–in the pursuit of knowledge. Lukacs points to the increasing tendencies towards specialization, the need for credentials, and the drive to place intellectuals within some sort of larger organization. He points out that the words “writer”, “scholar”, “philosopher”, and “intellectual” were once essentially synonyms but have not come to mean very different things. The word “scientist”, meaning a philosopher who cultivates scientific knowledge, did not even appear in print until 1840. Now “scientist” usually implies a practitioner of the natural sciences who has little or no connection with philosophy.
In many ways, this parallels an argument in Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which I reviewed in back in December. Like Bloom, Lukacs infers a connection between the growth of Democracy and academic specialization. Bloom, however, argued that the preeminence of Democracy was itself the result of the concerted efforts of philosophers from Machiavelli on to ensure their own comfort and survival. Lukacs, so far at least, has identified no such causal relationship.
Like Bloom, Lukacs points out that education is increasingly concerned with credentials such as specialized college degrees which are designed to fit students into particular pigeon holes in society and assign them a label (e.g. “physicist, business analyst, journalist”) that equate what they are with what they do.
Thinking on my own career, I realize that I have often chaffed against this phenomenon of intellectual bureaucratization. My “official” academic specialty is operations research, the field which is concerned with using certain techniques of applied mathematics to find optimum solutions to problems in management and engineering. I have succumbed to societal pressure and acquired certain credentials on this area, such as my MBA degree with a concentration in operations. In my final terms in graduate school I was strongly urged by my adviser and others to continue to a PhD program so I could become a “real” operations researcher.
But I never wanted to label myself that way. I don’t think of myself as an operations researcher. I am an intellectual. Operations research is a set of useful tools which I use to understand the world and create knowledge; it isn’t what I am. Nor do I think of myself as a scientist, a philosopher, a scholar, or even a writer, though I do think that each of these are important facets of the intellectual life. Even the label of “intellectual” is limiting. If I am an intellectual, does that mean that I’m less of a worker, or an artist, or a homemaker, or any of a dozen other roles which I fill?
Society though, at least in this age, is very uncomfortable with anyone who doesn’t wear a label. If someone at a cocktail party asks me “What do you do?” they become flustered when I don’t have an easy answer.
At the beginning of the modern era a PhD, or “doctor of philosophy” degree was a general degree, because philosophy was the discipline that included all of the others. A PhD was someone who had achieved a breadth and depth of knowledge in all areas of philosophy sufficient to provide a liberal education to students. Nowadays, though, PhDs are incredibly specialized. The professors and PhD students I knew at school were entirely focused on publishing in the “hot” areas of their own disciplines, to the extent that they would refuse to consider or comment on questions in other fields. Many operations PhDs will not even answer a student’s question about economics or finance, even though these are closely related disciplines. Many of them teach the same two or three classes year after year and become offended when asked to take on a course which is outside their own research interests. I enjoy both research and teaching, but was horrified at the idea of doing either at that level of specialization. Lukacs is right: an intellectual who is willing to be labeled and limited in such a way has become a bureaucrat, a cog in machine which is supposed to create knowledge, but mostly just produces citations and degrees.
For a few months now I have been reading my way through the Great Books and publishing my responses to them on this blog. One of the things all of the authors of the Great Books have in common was that none of them allowed themselves to be cogs in a machine or limited themselves to considering one narrow area of study. As a writer, there is only a slim chance that I will myself produce the next great book. On the other hand, if devoted the rest of my life to being a professor in some narrow area of operations research, there is no chance I would write such a work at all.
Perhaps things will be different in the next era of history, and people will be able to just be people, without labels that fit them into a bureaucracy. Perhaps Lukacs is right and that next era is coming soon. I rather hope so.