Young men in a hurry

by Henry on July 15, 2005

Scott McLemee has a good “article”: on Francis M. Cornford’s _Microcosmographia Academica_, a sort of Lifemanship for the young academic. Some of Cornford’s Edwardianisms have a faint odour of fustian, but in the main his skewering of academic politics is as sharp and relevant as ever. He’s especially fine on the combination of high sounding perorations, low self interest and relentless tedium that marks politics in the self-governing university, and on the ruthlessness of “young men in a hurry,” whose professed radicalism only imperfectly conceals their desire to accommodate their own bottoms comfortably to the seats of power. Cornford’s analysis of academic publishing rings true today (except for the bit about government subsidy):

bq. The Principle of Sound Learning is that the noise of vulgar fame should never trouble the cloistered calm of academic existence. Hence, learning is called sound when no one has ever heard of it; and ‘sound scholar’ is a term of praise applied to one another by learned men who have no reputation outside the University, and a rather queer one inside it. If you should write a book (you had better not), be sure that it is unreadable; otherwise you will be called ‘brilliant’ and forfeit all respect. University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their high calling.

Scott points to an “online version”: of _MA_ (slightly dodgy scan, but still perfectly readable), which inspired me to do a Google search on the first book by Cornford that I ever read, _Thucydides Mythistoricus_ , only to discover that it’s “online too”: It’s a quite brilliantly written Marxisant account of the Peloponnesian war, which blames the outbreak of hostilities on the desire of the Athenian commercial classes to maintain a stranglehold on trade. I’ve no idea how well Cornford’s analysis has held up among classical historians, but he’s still read by international relations scholars.

Addendum: I’ve been meaning to mention for a while that _Inside Higher Ed_ now has an “XML feed”: and that Scott’s columns are collected “here”:



John Quiggin 07.15.05 at 6:10 pm

A great read! Thanks for the link


dunno 07.15.05 at 6:12 pm

Mythistoricus was still viable enough when I was taking an udergrad seminar in international relations to function as the primary text for the behavior of the hoplite city-state (the course, if I remember, took a view of state behavior that was generally Marxist with a heavy flavoring of rational choice modelling, carving history into five or so eras)


y81 07.15.05 at 7:51 pm

I confess that I did not pursue ancient history past the undergraduate stage–as opposed to Greek lyric poetry, now that is worth a man’s life, though it isn’t what I have done with mine–but Cornford was certainly well-respected as a historian in the 1980s. However, I’m not sure about his theories on the Pelopenessian War as such: Ste. Croix was more read among those who wanted a Marxist interpretation, I believe, and he stressed the role of the laborers who rowed the Athenian triremes, as I recall.


jim 07.15.05 at 9:25 pm

TM is a nice piece, but the OCR has done a job on the Greek quotations, which makes it kind of hard to read.


bostoniangirl 07.15.05 at 9:48 pm

I’m not an academic, but I couldn’t help but identify with the description of the business manager. “He is one whose mind has not been warped and narrowed by merely intellectual interests, and who, at the same time, has not those odious pushing qualities which are unhappily required for making a figure in business anywhere else.”

It’s hard to make that combination work.


Rasselas 07.16.05 at 7:24 pm

I entered the Mythistoricus text for Perseus when I was an undergraduate. Glad it’s being read by somebody.


Shalom Beck 07.17.05 at 3:41 pm

Gave a copy of the Chicago reprint to a friend who became a department chairman. Now he is extremely secretive and likes to screw his colleagues for the hell of it.

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