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  • Babel and the Ivory Tower: The Scholar in the Age of Science
  • Tracy Ware
W. David Shaw . Babel and the Ivory Tower: The Scholar in the Age of Science. University of Toronto Press2005. xiii, 290. $60.00

'For four decades,' David Shaw writes, 'I have been trying to discover why scholarship and teaching are at once fulfilling enterprises and exercises in frustration.' His career as a critic of Victorian poetry has been exceptionally fulfilling for his students and readers, and this book is a compelling account of the highest scholarly ideals, combined with an extraordinary range of memorable quotations and anecdotes. Despite his 'sympathy with humanists who deplore the death of scholarship,' he has 'no desire to write an elegy,' and his faith in the university outlasts his discomfort at recent trends within it.

Shaw immediately establishes his devotion to ideals that can never be realized because they are both 'necessary and impossible,' to borrow his description of the scholar's hopes for communication: 'The scholar's vocation . . . is a lifelong call to think adventurously and to live with risk as a prophet, critic, and architect of values.' If that sounds daunting, he raises the stakes when, in one of many references to his former colleague Northrop Frye, Shaw states that 'a teacher who combines Jesus' talent for aphorism with Socrates' attention to evidence, logic, and experiment can surpass even the oracular Frye by becoming a . . . prophet and a scholar, simultaneously.' His purpose is not to belittle Frye but to exalt the teacher, who can never surpass anyone for certain or for long. Whether the subject is poetry or physics, the 'great enemy of discovery is the pretence of being infallible.' In one of the book's best sections, Shaw aligns Thomas Henry Huxley with Thomas Kuhn: 'Like the proof of a metaphor in poetry or a doctrine in religion, the "proof" of a scientific paradigm is less a logical demonstration than a testing or probation of it on the proving ground of laboratory experiment and procedure.' The affinity between humanist and scientific scholarship is based on the importance of models: 'A professor's most sustained conversation is with an academic model or paradigm,' and 'The only loyalty we owe is to the freedom to test, revise, and even reinvent the models of our disciplines.' Teaching can temporarily unite the scholar [End Page 131] and the student, but 'scholarship might be defined as what a thinker does in solitude with his intellectual passions and commitments.' If Shaw is tempted by nostalgia, he is honest enough to remember this anecdote: 'Seated between Northrop Frye and Francis Sparshott in Burwash Hall, I was often reduced to a stammering one-liner: "Pass the salt." My comment was hardly a contribution to the "conversation of mankind."'

This book is beautifully written, but there are two blemishes. First, it has nine epigraphs, five of which are from the book itself. That seems both excessive and immodest. Second, Shaw is sometimes liable to despondency, as in this passage: 'While the large professional and business schools are always on fashionable first-floor display, the genuine scholar is often confined to a dusty closet in the attic of the campus's Gothic asylum, like the madwoman in Jane Eyre.' He then discusses King's College Circle, the 'symbolic centre' of the University of Toronto 'where the university library, the press, and the departments of French and English used to be quartered.' After several relocations, 'the transformation of Canada's largest university into a polytechnic in all but name was completed when the medical building gobbled up the English department, which found itself like Jonah in the belly of the whale that had recently tried to spew it out.' If Shaw had remembered the transformation of Concordia College to Plutoria University in Stephen Leacock's Arcadian Adventures with the Idle Rich (1914), he would have realized that these changes started long ago.

In his conclusion, Shaw uses the language of Yeats and Tennyson to restate his faith: 'In a world where "much abides," though "much is taken," it is no dishonour to the venerable sages of the past that each generation of scholars should worship in the...


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pp. 131-132
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