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Lost causes

"Ah yes,” said my genial editor at Oxford University Press as she looked at the massive manuscript of my book — a very long and detailed study of a Renaissance classical scholar, “they don’t call Oxford the home of lost causes for nothing.” The sales (well, the lack of sales) proved her right, of course. And yet, she didn’t mean to discourage me. In fact, she said it with a smile. Her job, as she understood it, was publishing lost causes: books of high scholarly quality that could not possibly sell more than a few hundred copies and which could be printed only by an enterprise that saw losing money as part of its reason for being.

In those distant days, Oxford was by no means the only university that saw itself in these terms. My alma mater, the University of Chicago, supported plenty of projects that had what is now called “impact,” from the work of Enrico Fermi on nuclear fission to that of Milton Friedman and the other Chicago boys on free-market economics. But when a Chicago president wanted to evoke what made the university special, he or she usually mentioned the Assyrian Dictionary — a vast, many-volumed effort to list and explain the words used in the cuneiform tablets and stone inscriptions made in ancient Mesopotamia, begun in 1921, which seemed to be as magnificent and as impossible to complete as the Cathedral of St. John the Divine. The University of Chicago, presidents liked to say, never questioned whether it made sense to pay a group of Assyriologists to spend their lives compiling meanings without end. That was what a real university was for.

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The Assyrian dictionary was an extreme, a limiting case, of something that was central to the university as an enterprise: It was a place where scientists and scholars could scratch their itches, could pursue the problems that made them curious — however bizarre these might seem. Often, of course, it turned out that apparently impractical investigations yielded practical results of great importance. Back in the day, Senator William Proxmire liked to award the Golden Fleece to projects supported by federal grants that he thought ridiculous. One of these awards went to a Chicago archaeologist and geographer who worked on climate change and agriculture in ancient Africa — and whose work, as the senator did not take the time to find out, shed light on the causes and consequences of the very contemporary Sahel drought. But what mattered most were the imagination and insight that had led the scholar in question to look at the evolution of the earth and human society in new ways.

Nowadays, of course, universities — even the University of Chicago — tend to describe research in very different terms. They insist on the practical effects of much of the work undertaken on campuses. And they are right to do so: There is every reason that donors and foundations and the political classes and ordinary citizens should see that universities are not only creating new knowledge, but also helping — to cite recent Princeton cases only — to find ways to trace the spread of disease in the Third World, interpret radical fluctuations in weather conditions and understand the true impact of invasive species.

But to follow even a part of what goes on at Princeton or any other great university is to see that practicality is only part of the story. Read a university web page carefully, day by day, or an alumni magazine, or go to an event like the Princeton Research Symposium held a week ago, at which dazzlingly clever graduate students and post-docs talked about the work they are doing on everything from the social instincts of bacteria to the history of the universe, and you see that what makes the university tick now is exactly what made it tick in the old days: the passionate curiosity that inspires everyone from brain scientists to bibliographers to ask new questions and develop new methods in order to answer them.

What’s missing here — and what used to be present — is the confident declaration that this magnificent scene of unfettered inquiry matters in its own right: that a university exists, among other reasons, to let people try things out, some of them over the very long term, without immediate pressure for results. I worry about the way our language has changed because language doesn’t only reflect the world, it shapes it. And I’m afraid that the language we use now makes it harder than it used to be to explain why it matters to provide some free space for minds to play in.

Universities need to serve their societies. But they do that best when they give their faculty and students the chance to become deeply, passionately excited about some new inquiry, and let them follow it, even if the immediate rewards aren’t clear. Sometimes patience is rewarded. After all, the Chicago Assyrian Dictionary reached completion in 2011, after a mere 90 years, and now opens up the languages and histories of great civilizations to scholars and students around the world, in a way that no lesser enterprise could. That’s the kind of lost cause that deserved, and still deserves, to find a home in the university.

Anthony Grafton is the Henry Putnam University Professor of History. He can be reached at grafton@princeton.edu.

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