15 December 2011

On the wisdom of the Zuni

In her classic Patterns of Culture (1934), Ruth Benedict discusses the "apollonian" culture of the Zuni pueblo native Americans of New Mexico. I was particularly struck by their principle (which I caricature for effect) that the only disqualification for public office is to seek it.

I've just been to the retirement celebration of a former colleague at another university. It was a very pleasant event, and it is really grossly unfair to her, and the respect and affection in which she is held by her colleagues and peers, to concentrate on one aspect of it which grated. Nevertheless...

I refer to the presence and manner of one very senior member of the university (PVC), who came late, after the speeches and the presentation (no, not a PowerPoint) of gifts and tokens of appreciation. I happened to be chatting to my former colleague at the time. The PVC arrived, excused himself perfunctorily, and engaged her in conversation talked to her about Optical Mark Readers, or OMRs, as he referred to them throughout (it took me a while to catch up). It had evidently not occurred to him that someone who is about to leave the university at the end of next week might not be able to care less about how out-dated the OMR software is. Nor that she was missing out on farewells from friends and colleagues who did not want to barge in on her "conversation" with a VIP...

The gentleman in question is clearly a self-serving boorish person. He was however, very skilled at communicating his own appreciation of his talents and meteoric rise to his present rank in a few seconds... "But that's enough about me! Let's talk about me!"

I suspect it was ever thus. The (ideal-type) university, wrapped in mythic collegiality, has been in denial about ambition for ever. Cornford's wonderfully waspish Microcosmographia Academica (1908) testifies to that as well as a string of novels from Cannan and Snow to Lodge and beyond. But as Ginsberg argues, the trend has accelerated over the last twenty or so years, on both sides of the pond.

I was coming to believe that the only effective prophylactic is the Zuni principle.

But I got home to watch "Rev" with the creepy archdeacon protesting "nolo episcopare" a little too much. Sorry, Zuni, the creeps are ahead of you!

But how about a Zuniversity?

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