A few days ago, I joined a group of Yale students and professors for a visit to the Dead Sea Scrolls exhibition in Times Square. The exhibit — which I certainly recommend to anyone interested in ancient Judaism and Christianity — is a remarkable mixture of scholarship and entertainment. Somewhat incongruously, the exhibit’s neighbor at the New York Discovery Center is none other than “CSI: The Experience,” inspired by the hit TV show. Glossy advertisements plaster much of downtown Manhattan, and the visitor is introduced to the Scrolls by a high-tech, 360º video show and live actors dressed as Israeli field archeologists.
Although the exhibit is certainly the product of a monumental effort on the part of scholars, it is also clear that the Discovery Center views these ancient manuscripts’ visit to New York as a lucrative financial opportunity. That marriage of the scholarly and the commercial seems worrisome. After all, attempts at appealing to broader popular audiences inevitably result in the loss of scholarly authenticity and the introduction of some degree of anachronism.
But more than that, the rank commercialization of these ancient texts — one of the most important scholarly discoveries of the century and a source of wonder for millions of the faithful — seems to chip away at the integrity of academia itself. When the ivory tower opens its doors to private enterprise, it cannot help but appear less pristine. The academy engages more, but its authority and the quality of its output are diminished.
Shopping period at Yale presents us with a similar quandary. Professors go into salesman mode as they try to interest students in their subjects. Members of the faculty perform song-and-dance routines and play funny videos during their first class meetings, and they develop niche, hip-sounding titles for classes in an effort to appeal to wider groups of students. The enrollment in William Honeychurch’s “Great Hoaxes and Fantasies in Archaeology,” for example, is exponentially larger than similar archaeology courses with comparable material but less sexy names.
Even the term “shopping period” reflects a commoditization of scholarship, one we barely even notice anymore. I certainly don’t think that we should all be stuck in classes with boring material and uninspiring teachers, but what does the experience of shopping do to our understanding of education and our place in academia? I can’t help but think that Yale students think of themselves less as responsible protectors and developers of knowledge and more as self-interested consumers pursuing our pet interests and causes. This shift in perspective is not good for us, academia or society.
This consumerist ethos isn’t simply a question of pride, accolades or undergraduates’ self-understanding. The emphasis on form and display rather than content has ramifications for scholarship as well. Conceptual frameworks and lenses of understanding are all the rage while the difficult philological and manuscript work that goes into translation and critical editions goes unpraised and underemphasized.
Indeed, perhaps this was precisely the concern at the heart of the recent controversy over Dean Thomas Pollard’s insistence on interviews for graduate students, a move strongly resisted by some faculty members in the humanities. I — along with pretty much every other undergraduate who has ever had section with a teaching fellow — think that interviews are a no-brainer. Teaching and committees are part of American academia and we certainly don’t want to be subjected to instruction from incoherent and unpleasant teachers. Nevertheless, we should appreciate the fears of those scholars who are watching as the American academy is overrun with performers and dynamic innovators whose personalities outstrip their scholarship. I certainly don’t know enough about Cornel West’s scholarship to pass judgment, but there is something about the era in which we live that makes his success and celebrity unsurprising.
None of the above is meant to diminish the importance of engaged and accessible scholarship. An idea which cannot be communicated is usually not coherent, and one that is not communicated will never be influential. Nevertheless, we must be wary of those trends which strip the academy of its aura of prestige and threaten to push scholarship into supposedly relevant and interesting — but less than substantive — directions. We are hopefully here because we love to learn, but that love must not lead us to gut the academy as we shape it in our own image.
Yishai Schwartz is a junior in Branford College. His column runs on Fridays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.