- Why We Need the 16,772nd Book on Shakespeare
Higher education is afflicted by so many threats that it might seem pointless to try to improve the situation by removing just one. But the one I have in mind is connected to others, and if we can take care of the one, others might seem more solvable as well. I am talking about the so-called crisis in scholarly productivity, or overproductivity, in the humanities. According to this argument, warped priorities at colleges and universities have become skewed so that professors are evaluated solely on the basis of their scholarly output rather than on the basis of their teaching, with the result that the educational mission has been sacrificed to research. The commitment to research is particularly destructive, this argument continues, in the case of the humanities, which cannot claim to produce any direct benefits for health, wealth, or national security.
Complaints about “excessive” scholarship are as old as scholarship, which has always seemed, at least to some, gratuitous and distracting. We have the Bible, Shakespeare, and Dickens—why do we need scholarship? We know that the French Revolution, the Civil War, and Winston Churchill existed—what’s the point of hundreds or even thousands of books and articles explaining these subjects yet again? Why waste time with secondary or indirect knowledge about details when we could learn more vital and [End Page 109] immediate lessons from reality itself? One of those self-sufficient immortals, William Wordsworth, counseled a friend to leave off his dry studies and learn directly from bounteous nature.
Sweet is the lore which Nature brings; Our meddling intellect Mis-shapes the beauteous forms of things:— We murder to dissect.1
Among Wordsworth’s heirs today is prolific Emory University English professor Mark Bauerlein, who has appeared in print on a number of recent occasions to declare, in the title of one of his interventions, that “We Must Stop the Avalanche of Low-Quality Research.”2 Citing a depressing wealth of statistics—16,771 works of scholarship on Shakespeare alone in the last five decades!—Bauerlein argues that the rewards and incentives in higher education have forced professors to abandon the valuable task of education in order to devote themselves to the less valuable and in many cases worthless and distracting activity of research. The result, he says, is that faculty are overworked, stressed, and chained to a task they do not really believe in, while students are ignored, uninspired, and prone to drop out. Far better to restrict research activities to a few institutions—“maybe 20 to 25”—and focus the efforts of the faculty at the rest on serving students, both by creating a “teacher track” in graduate schools and, for those already on the faculty, by systematically changing the incentives.3
Few of Bauerlein’s readers will fail to respond sympathetically to some part of this argument. Surely we could get along without some of those obscure papers, those turgid treatises, those hypertheorized word clouds! And just as surely, teaching is important and should be done well. But are teaching and research competitors in a zero-sum game? Is it true that students do not profit in any way from their professors’ research activities? If a cease and desist order were issued to faculty that prevented them from doing research, would the quality of teaching inevitably rise? Would students be better served if faculty saw their primary task as educational? [End Page 110]
I believe that the answer to all these questions is no: research and teaching are not necessarily in conflict, teachers would not become better teachers if they stopped doing research, and, most emphatically, students would be not be well served if their teachers simply taught. I come to this position despite my sympathy for some of Bauerlein’s points because I believe that the premises behind his case are flawed, and, more important, because the likely consequences for following his recommendations would be disastrous.
The most fundamental premise concerns the status of knowledge in the humanities. In Bauerlein’s view, “we need to recognize that [the humanities] have a different relation to knowledge than do the sciences...