My Canon

Reflections on Formative Influence

by Robbie McClintock

A work in progress. Started Spring 2011 as a series of lectures at Teachers College, Columbia University.

Rousseau—Emile and other works

Publish (and/or) Perish

Like many doctoral students, I left tangential matters until late in the process, realizing in 1964-65 that I had to take two courses "out of department" according to the regulation then in force. In the fall, I met the letter of the rule, if not its spirit, by taking a course in the Social Studies program on the History of Europe since 1871: selected topics. The topics—socialism, imperialism, Darwinism, racism, World War I, totalitarianism, World War II, the new Europe, social and intellectual change—were useful background for my dissertation and the lectures and readings excellent.

Furthermore, I thought I had the perfect topic for a term-paper. The prior spring, in working on Ortega y Gasset for the Barzun-Trilling Seminar, I had become interested in the ideas of Jakob von Uexküll [ WEN ] , a German biologist whose work had been influential among humanistic thinkers in the early 20th century. Uexküll did detailed studies of the input-output capacities of different organisms as each conducted its vital activities within its life-world. I had also been dabbling in books on cybernetic theory and realized that in developing his ideas Uexküll had anticipated much cybernetic theory by half a century. Wanting to make sure that Uexküll was not some sort of flake or rabid Nazi, I asked Barzun if he knew anything about his work and Barzun said he thought Uexküll was worth investigating a bit further and suggested that I talk with Erwin Chargaff, a distinguished biochemist based at the Columbia medical school. I spoke with Chargaff, an emigre from the Hitler era, who thought Uexküll to be important. He encouraged me to develop my work on Uexküll further. [ WEN ] A paper for the European history course seem to be a perfect occasion for doing so.

For perhaps the only time in my career, I submitted my paper on Uexküll and cybernetics a couple weeks early and to my amazement the next week, the professor returned the paper saying it seemed very interesting but he could not accept it as he did not know how to evaluate it. I was so surprised that I did not really object, agreeing instead, with a much relaxed deadline, to do a paper on Nietzsche, about whom we both knew something. I did not complain because I was planning to take a course on the psychology of language in the spring and figured I could use the Uexküll paper there, and I was not adverse to writing something on Nietzsche, who I had often read with interest. Of course, to my considerable consternation, that spring the psychology professor also received and returned my Uexküll paper, basically saying the same thing—he did not know how to evaluate it. I ask that he switch me to a 2-point option so that I would not need to do another paper and went home in a stew, clutching my scorned essay.

At that time, graduate studenst felt less pressure to publish early than they do now. I did not really think myself ready to submit work for publication, and had only done a short book review, which a professor had asked me to write—an offer I couldn't refuse. It would now be described as very snarky. The semester ended and I was off to Madrid to search for materials by Ortega in the Hemeroteca Municipal that had not been published in his Obras completas, of which there were many. In the fall, I returned to my new job at Johns Hopkins, and after getting acclimated a bit, someone raised the topic of publications. I though of my orphaned Uexküll essay.

At the time, I subscribed to The American Scholar, a prestigious quarterly published by Phi Beta Kappa, Encounter, an Anglo-American intellectual monthly, soon to become controversial as the recipient of covert CIA funding, and the New York Review of Books, which had a couple years earlier started its long run as the scorekeeper of intellect. Of the three journals whose editorial addresses were handy, The American Scholar seemed the most vaguely plausible and I sent the Uexküll essay off with a terse little letter—"I wonder if this essay would be of interest to The American Scholar? Thank you for your attention to it...."

Soon I received a postcard acknowledging receipt of the submission and then three weeks later a letter from the editor—"You and the American Scholar are involved in an unusual coincidence ... our Spring issue is to be devoted exclusively to the technical revolution and its impact on the general situation.... Your thoughtful essay certainly belongs in that issue and I am most happy to accept it for publication. A check should follow shortly."

My luck was extraordinary. My very first article of substance has been the most prestigiously situated of my publications to date, a special issue on The Electronic Revolution, with numerous luminaries contributing—among them, Gerald W. Johnson, Marshall McLuhan, Buckminster Fuller, Lynn White, Jr., Jacob Bronowski, Herbert Simon, Richard Hoggart, Loren Eiseley, and me. This essay, which I couldn't peddle as a course term-paper, launched me over the next seven or eight years on an active spate of publication, all of which easily wrapped up my initial concerns about professional advancement through tenure. I have always wanted to write, however, not to secure promotion, but to communicate ideas I think are worth engaging. For this purpose, what started out to seem easy became increasingly difficult.

Outwardly, after a pause to gain some steam, I seemed to churn out work of some note....

Notes: In due course, I will narrate my experience publishing and not publishing my academic work. Initially I had a good deal of success along a trajectory by the early 1970s that could lead to some influence as a public intellectual. Writing and publishing, however, is a subtle business. A lot happened personally during the 1970s, which undoubtedly destabilized my work some, but what precipitated an extended hiatus from writing I am not entirely sure. From the mid 1970s to the mid 1980s, I published only one article, and then when things picked up again in 1986, I was writing about the cultural and educational uses of digital technologies. And even then, with technology, I was publishing less in an effort at self-expression, and more with quite instrumental goals in mind, establishing myself in an emerging field and marshaling resources for activities within it.

Even in the late 1960s, with all sorts of momentum carrying me along, I was beginning to entertain tiny doubts that publication was effective for the purposes I cared about. Among the many things that deeply impressed me in working on Ortega was his essay on "The Mission of the Library," published in 1935. In addition to censorship, Ortega suggested that the profusion of books was becoming a significant danger to their intellectual effectiveness, an argument that I believed, and now believe even more strongly, was very cogent. Since Ortega wrote, the incentives for unnecessary publication have become egregiously strong, confronting readers with a vast surfeit of redundant trivia. With so much published, attention dissipates and the influence of ideas goes slack. Far too much gets published and virtually nothing gets read with effective critical attention. Even those who blunder into super-star reputations have no real readership or corpus of work—they get sucked into publishing too much. Their readers, many of whom are simply searching for some little point about which to publish a critique, read too rapidly with distorted purpose in a quest of promotion and tenure.

In addition to wondering whether there was value in publication, I began to question whether people in academia really wanted to have effects beyond their immediate institutional context. What to avoid seemed to me to have become more important that what to achieve and a big thing to avoid seemed to be any appearance of a significantly critical reception. I suspect this aversion to criticism affects both academics and academic institutions, particularly when the academic or academic institutions has a reputation to protect. Keeping the reputation bvecomes more important than using it. This defensiveness seems to me to have turned places like Teachers College very inward with respect to exerting leadership in the public discussion of education.

... Early in the 70s, I read The Silver-Plated Age by Tom B. Jones, reviewed recently on Amazon as follows—"As the title indicates, second-century Rome was not a sterling place. It was burdened with poseurs, pompous educators, bureaucrats, and others who 'stultified the intellect.' That world is described in this delightful little book (which a lifelong classicist recently described as his "all-time model work of scholarship"). The author is a serious scholar who is blessed with a sense of humor, an understanding of the universality of human foibles, and an ability to write simply and flowingly...." It, and ever so much else, left me wondering.... ["What's it all about? You know what I mean." Alfie] -- What's it all about?

Despite becoming disillusioned about publishing things, I continued to write quite a bit, although much of it was often in an almost finished state.... "The Dynamics of Decline: Why Education Can No Longer Be Liberal" was a symptomatic exception to the no publishing syndrome. [ GoTo ]

What does Rousseau and my essays on him have to do with these problems in maintaining my will to publish? A difficult question to answer. The key to an answer is that in working on Rousseau I became aware that however problematic intelligent scholarly criticism had become in general, it was especially problematic in the field of education. In the early 1970s, I became acutely aware how superior the scholarship about Rousseau written by academics in political theory was compared to contributions by scholars concerned with education, even though education was a more important theme than politics for Rousseau and it was the field to which his contributions were most important. That situation galled me and I wanted to do something about it, and still do, but an effort to change the situation struck me, on thinking seriously about how to go about it, to be intellectually quixotic. I published one good essay on Rousseau, [ GoTo ]  and drafted most of a larger work, which has had two incarnations, [ GoTo1 ] & [ GoTo2 ]  and will eventually become a major book on Neuhumanismus. [ GoTo ] 

A way out? Technology and somewhat changed expectations.... See Mark Salzman, "An Atheist in Free Fall" (New York Public Library, February 18, 2011. [ GoTo ]