Eccentricity of the intellect
Anyone who, like me, has studied or worked in Trinity College Dublin over the past half century is familiar with the historian R.B. McDowell. Let me say right away that I’m not suggesting we all know anything, even in outline, of what McDowell taught or researched, but we know what he looked like and how he appeared on the campus.
Robert Brendan McDowell died just over a year ago, having very nearly reached the age of 100. He was instantly recognisable: in all weathers he crossed the campus wearing what looked like three or four layers of coats and a battered hat (all of which looked like they had seen better days). He was constantly talking or mumbling, even when nobody was with him. He always walked fast. At dinner he would wear an old gown that was stained and torn in several places. However, if you were sitting near him you would hear a never-ending flow of comments and anecdotes, many of them highly amusing.
About 25 years ago McDowell and another TCD Fellow wrote a history of the College. I remember sitting next to him at Commons (dinner) at the time he was writing this, and in explaining his work he remarked to me that one of the sad discoveries he had made that there were no longer any eccentrics in academic life. I bit my lip.
Of course to many in the outside world the academy is all about other-worldly eccentricity. To many observers this makes old professors endearing, but also emphasises their remoteness from ‘real life’: academics are thought sometimes to inhabit a world in which the normal laws and customs of human behaviour and relevance don’t need to apply. I confess I find this a difficult concept to address. Eccentrics are endearing, but more importantly, an eccentric approach to knowledge can open up new ways of thinking, or facilitate important discoveries. I understand the desire to protect and preserve this aspect of academic life. On the other hand, universities should not be presented chiefly as places in which harmless eccentrics pursue daft ideas, some of which may by some fluke turn out to be important.
Certainly academic freedom should, amongst other things, allow and nurture some degree of intellectual unorthodoxy, which may present to some as eccentricity. But universities are now increasingly institutions that need to answer some quite direct questions posed to them by society, and other-wordliness may not be the response primarily sought. This is a hard balance for universities to get right. But whatever your university might be, I do hope that there will still be some room in it for a person like R.B. McDowell.