Faculty image Rudolf B. Schmerl


Strange Places, Familiar Ways



The preference for the familiar over the strange is probably universal and seems to lie very deep. Just how frightening the strange can be is illustrated in the reluctance to leave the familiar, even when that has itself become dangerous. These propositions were ingrained into my very bones as I grew up, a refugee from Hitler's Germany, in the only shelter I knew--my family-which, regardless of our actual circumstances and frequently changing location, never abandoned its affection for the good old ways in the old familiar places, places that for us had turned into a slaughter house.

The one institution in which one might expect to find the usual preferences reversed, in which, because of that institution's dedication to the search for knowledge, familiar ways and traditions should be subjected to analysis as rigorously as the latest hypothesis, the most recent fashion, is the university. This is especially true of the large, wealthy, "research" university, in which science and scholarship are sponsored by dozens of external agencies at an annual cost of hundreds of millions, in which, one would think, the life of the mind is synonymous with skepticism about, even distrust of, established orthodoxies—from the compartmentalization of knowledge as reflected in the institution's structure to its further acquisition as reflected in its processes. I spent almost half a century at one of the most eminent of these institutions, the University of Michigan, as student, editor, administrator, and professor, and although I may have had such expectations originally, I cannot report their fulfillment.

Perhaps a refugee, even after more than seventy years of refuge, is especially suspicious of such comforts as the familiar provides, knowing danger may be stirring just beneath their surface. That, at least, is how this refugee has come to see American academic life: fascinated by particular processes, unconcerned with general results. That institutions, that is, the people who comprise them, prefer familiar ways to strange places is not surprising. But for a university, whose essential task is to liberate the mind from the confines of the familiar, no preference could be more inimical.


Desire Under the Elms

I came to Ann Arbor in the fall of 1953 to continue my studies and to teach freshman English. Senator McCarthy and his imitators were stalking subversion throughout the land. The police action in Korea had quieted down but our police were still going there. Television was no longer a novelty but Hollywood was not yet visibly in trouble. The Supreme Court had not yet issued its ruling on Brown v. (Topeka) Board of Education. Detroit’s cars had not yet sprouted fins. Lucky Strikes still meant fine tobacco, the best-known electric guitarist was probably Les Paul, and nobody had heard of pizza.

Ann Arbor was lovely. Dutch elm disease had not yet decimated the main campus, disfigured, then, by only a few buildings suggesting industrial enterprise. There were no apartment buildings around the campus, only rooming houses. The Ivy League look was fashionable: narrow ties, thin belts, tweed, elbow patches, short hair, and close shaves. Mustaches were rare, beards almost inconceivable. Women were still not easy about entering the Union by the front door, but not many came there anyway. Somewhere, I learned from my students, there was a Dean of Women, whose chief concerns seemed to be the chastity of her charges--then known as co-eds--and especially racial apartheid between the sexes. De facto segregation of the races prevailed everywhere, especially in housing, barbershops, bars, and restaurants, mirrored, with only minor variations, throughout the University. On the other hand, at least at the University, there weren't many non-whites to segregate except foreign students from Asian countries. Of the University's perhaps 20,000 students, fewer than 150 were Black, including athletes, graduate, and professional-school students.

Whatever culture shock I had experienced upon my arrival in the United States, and whatever accommodations I had to learn to make to local customs and perspectives in my later moves within the country, I was not prepared either for Ann Arbor or for the Department of English, which to me was the University. Neither, I see now, was something for which I could have been prepared. It was as if I had entered a world in which my realities didn't matter, and in which it was, in fact, unforgivably tasteless to mention them. And taste was almost everything. There was, apparently, no other way to understand the nature of the University, which rested, if not on the eternal verities, then on self-evident values.

At first I thought that the University had admitted me by mistake. My undergraduate record, after an initial two years of very low grades in a pre-medical curriculum, was still nothing to brag about, and my first two years of graduate study, although better, had not been distinguished. Everyone I met at Michigan had read far more than I, admired authors I either had not read or disliked, and was, at best, frigidly polite about my enthusiasms. Much of what we had to read in preparation for our preliminary doctoral examinations seemed worthless to me, and the stern note with which my medieval literature professor returned my journal ("you are now a student of literature, not merely a reader") did little to enhance my understanding of the literary significance of The Wooing of Etain. I discovered that I was expected to be not only familiar with the intricacies of Christian theology and the dicta of Freudian psychology but also respectful toward the one and submissive to the other. Dissembling came hard in these instances. I had been brought up to try to bite my tongue and look blank in the presence of supernaturalists of any kind, but to expect verifiable, empirical evidence for assertions presented as Wissenschaft.

The essential shock I experienced, however, was quite different. It had to do not with what I came to think of as the prevailing Episcopalian ethos of the department but rather with its acceptance by people, faculty members as well as graduate students, who had no more connection with it than I did. That acceptance seemed to involve, first, an implicit but immensely powerful agreement about what constituted the corpus of English and American literature. It was possible to question that agreement in private, sometimes scurrilously so, but never in public. A number of distinguished members of the faculty seemed to have spent a lot of time reading very bad books, whose dates of publication apparently inured them, forever, to esthetic concerns. Graduate students were encouraged to emulate their professors, and so there were always several people writing dissertations whose topics, once mentioned, produced an understanding silence.

Second, there was a much more explicit agreement about the nature of The Profession, as it was known without any but ironic self-deprecation. That agreement encompassed perceptions of the growing threat to and spreading stain on the idea of a university as represented by, for instance, the School of Business Administration and the College of Engineering. It included hostility to specific political concerns, especially if their focus was local. And there was, also as part of this fabric, what amounted to either a condescending tolerance of or a cool indifference to important ideas unrelated to humanistic scholarship. The Profession, like other ministries, knew about salvation in only general terms, but it could be, and it was, specific about sin.

Third, and for me most important, one's origins, if they were not of the proper kind, were to be mentioned only in amusing anecdotes whose real point was to illustrate how far one had come since then.  All the way to Michigan, in fact.  Since the department was very large, we had come from many places and widely differing circumstances, and I was very slow to learn the subtleties that were entailed. There was, for instance, a graduate student who enjoyed lecturing us about what he had learned about life when he had driven a cab in Chicago. I had worked in factories in Toledo, and could match him, I thought, in tales of toil and trouble and certainly in crudities of language. But he had also studied under Adler at Chicago--an institution, he assured us, at which most of our professors would have no hope of employment--whereas I hadn't studied under anybody. I hadn't even heard the phrase.

I think now that, had I had only one set of memories, had my family simply been impoverished immigrants who had arrived shortly after the first world war, or had they been able to leave Germany earlier than they "did and exchanged their middle-class status there, somehow, for instant middle-class status here, I would have been less obtuse about what was expected. But those stories, familiar to my fellows, were not mine.  Ultimately, I had no story, not one with theme and plot and quaint but memorable characters, not a story set in a time or place I could evoke with a judiciously selected allusion to an event or scene sure to be understood by my friends and acquaintances. What I did have, in abundance, was a sense of outrage, expressing itself, mostly, in what was regarded as my fixation on race.

Unknown to us—I am referring to the graduate students I knew—was most of the University and almost all the pulls and pushes, inside and out, changing it even then. There was no orientation to the University for graduate students, even though almost all of us were preparing ourselves for academic careers. What little we learned about Michigan’s history, resources, distinctions, and activities came anecdotally and accidentally. There was only a slow, subtle, incidental orientation to the department, an almost self-contained world, not so much a larger planet in the University’s solar system as a bright star in the nation’s galaxy of English departments, our eventual destination. Within a month of my arrival in Ann Arbor, the first building on the University’s new North Campus was dedicated, the Cooley Electronics Laboratory, housing various sponsored research projects in engineering and physics. Sponsored research was growing at an incredible rate, with support coming from the Atomic Energy Commission, the Department of the Army, the Office of Naval Research, and the then relatively new National Science Foundation. I heard nothing about it. I remember endless discussions of the nature of the academy, the meaning of dedication to a life of teaching and inquiry, the joys not only of scholarship but also of being part of a company of scholars. But not only were we quick to relegate the larger part of that company to limbo, we were also quite certain that we needed no details. The titles of the dissertations coming out of other departments were sufficient. In the meantime, we worked on studies of the novels of Benjamin Disraeli or of the significance of the inflections of John Crowe Ransom's recorded readings of his poems.

I know now that graduate students in most departments cannot be expected to see, let alone understand, very much of the complexity of a university, especially one as large as Michigan. They are beset by requirements whose relationship to their education is often obscure even to those who enforce the requirements. They are confronted by ordeals as onerous to them as they are unenlightening to those who exact them. If they are supporting themselves by teaching undergraduates, they may be subjected to a peculiar kind of schizophrenia, going from a freshman section where they are arbiters of the Good, the True, and the Beautiful to a seminar where their own papers are exposed as ill-conceived and poorly presented. If they are married and, worse, parents, they are likely to be under pressures wholly incompatible with the latest increase in tuition or the date the next paper is due. Still: in later years, when I came to know some of the members of the Department of English in other contexts, I found them to be well acquainted with the University as a whole, no more parochial in their interests and convictions than members of other departments, often better conversationalists, sometimes delightful representatives, even advocates, of that larger view I had sought but failed to find in what they had to say to me in the fifties. Why, then, had my classes been so stultifying, my preliminary examinations so gruesome, my dissertation--and I had written about books close to my heart!--such a millstone? Was it simply a matter of my own development?


Free from Any Traces

It is probably impossible to distinguish, clearly and firmly, what, in the shaping of values and perspectives, may be attributable to personal idiosyncrasies and experiences, to family background, and to participation, willful or otherwise, in whatever is meant by history. But some approximation usually seems worthwhile, if only to try to understand ourselves as both social and solitary beings. Attempts to explain ourselves, how and why we see things as we do, are the stuff of soap opera and literature, of political as well as of psychoanalyses, of interviews, introductions, declamations, street-corner and cocktail-party conversations, and in one such form or another, we seem to engage in them constantly.

Considering the origins and subsequent development of our huge country, that constancy is not really surprising. We are a nation but not a people, and the differences between us are not only matters of individual and collective memories. Nor have those differences been softened by such agreements as we have been able to achieve about the processes that are to govern our relationships with one another. Our diversity may not baffle us quite as much as it does foreigners, but we have by no means come to terms with it. We define ourselves by region and religion, vocation and avocation, party and passion, color or lack of it, origins and ambitions, loyalties and hatreds, by the profession or trade we practice or the organization or institution for which we work, and if the latter, then, soon enough, by our place within it or that corner of it in which we have found a place. Such a complicated mix embraces but is much larger than what we think we have, what we hope to get, and what we are afraid to lose. It incorporates not only specific experiences but also general myths, and of the two, the latter often dominate our perceptions and our thinking. Myths have a great advantage over experience--they are familiar.

One morning, some seventy years ago, at recess in a Louisiana schoolyard, I found myself surrounded by curious classmates. Of course I knew why.  I was the new kid. And I knew what they were going to ask me. The teacher had told them I was from Germany. After two years in the United States, I thought of myself as from New York or New Jersey, but I didn’t mind. It was more interesting to be from Europe, with a war going on there. The inevitable question came soon enough: “Yeah, well, where do you like it better, over there or over here?”

Was it a reversal of the order in which the choice was usually proffered? Was it the unaccustomed Southern speech, drawling the question out?  Was I just too anxious to please? "Oh," I gushed, almost before the boy finished, "Over there!" They turned away, disgusted, and a rush of disbelief and horror overcame me. "I mean here, here, in America!"It was not quite too late. "That's better," one said grudgingly.

Whatever the dangers of delayed introspection, the Freudian nature of my slip seems obvious enough. What I liked better was over there all right, but it was a feeling, not a place. It wasn't so much over there as back there, where I hadn't been a new kid, a curiosity, somebody who had to be inspected, sniffed over, in a school yard. That wasn't Germany. But it wasn't over here.

Were those Louisiana children somehow insensitive to my peculiar situation? Would they have understood me had they had a suitable sixth-grade version of multi-cultural perspectives, bi-lingual education, refugee psychology? Nonsense. Their reaction to my initial response was no different from my answer to their question. We were both affirming our preferences for the familiar, I for mine, they for theirs. That I recognized and was shocked by my error and hastened to correct it, and that they understood what I was doing, proves only that we all knew on whose ground I was standing--and how the ground rules worked.

I grew up in no one place, not even in one region of the United States. All that was familiar to me, and therefore comforting and comfortable, was my family. Home was wherever we were, if we were together. Then home stretched back in time and far away in place to my grandmother's parents, who had had so many children I could never keep track of them, especially not in sequence; then it included the oft-repeated but never tiresome stories and jokes, phrases and expressions, ripostes and recollections creating and affirming, again and again, the warmth of an identity transcending time and place. I grew up in a welter of reminiscences of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, memories of meals and occasions, routines and festivities, teachers and classmates, city streets and summer vacations, of World War I (in which my father and my uncle, my mother's older brother, had fought as German soldiers) and its subsequent chaos, of struggles and setbacks and still more struggles. My mind was peopled with characters, some dead for decades before my birth, others remembered only dimly, but of course especially with my parents as they had been--as children, teen-agers, young adults--in situations that became as real to me as Mercer Street in Princeton, Amsterdam Avenue in Harlem, Willow Street in New Orleans, Gun Hill Road in the Bronx, Irving Street in Toledo. It was also all enormously confusing. How could the great tragedy of my family have been my grandfather's death in Mexico-where my uncle and mother were born--when, had he not died there, my parents would not have met each other--when my father was six and my mother was four--two years later in Berlin? How could we think of ourselves as German Jews when not a single country in the world acknowledged that as legal status or identity? How could being Jewish have amounted to a death sentence in Germany and to total irrelevance everywhere else? Most of all, why (and to this day I cannot empathize fully with all the obvious answers), if the Germans hated us so, was there still so much affection in my family for German literature and music, places, food, especially language-and of that, most especially, Berliner dialekt?

For there was another, totally distinct, much more recent set of memories that refugees like us carried with them to a safe, sane, but often incredulous America. And these memories, my parents knew, were mine, not through oral transmission, but direct experience: of hysterical German mobs in the streets of Berlin, roaring, chanting, yelling as their troops marched by; of the hatred in their eyes, a blue religious hatred most pure, perhaps, in the eyes of boys and girls; of the fear that grew and grew as the prohibitory signs became more and more frequent, as the big men in black SS uniforms swaggered everywhere, as the insolence of janitors and shopkeepers increased, a fear that, in children, could never be allayed once they had seen their own uncomprehending fright mirrored in their parents' faces; of the blows, finally, the fights that were always so unfair, the triumphant German faces looking down at their race's enemy, the shouting voices, pounding feet, stones and clumps of horse manure coming from behind. These, too, were memories kept alive in America. The survivors huddled together, mostly, at first, in New York, and then, when they gradually found permanent homes throughout the country, they still sought each other out for Kaffee und Kuchen, for a weekend's evening's conversation, for the bonds of language and custom and culture. That too was part of the home I grew up in, in New York, New Orleans, Toledo. Inevitably the shoptalk of the men and the woman talk of the women would turn to what had brought them all together, whatever they had done or did now for a living, whatever their dialects, whatever they really thought of each other. Life was hard for many of them in America, and they complained about it--as they complained about Americans, particularly about American Jews.2  But what had happened in Germany--a brother forced by gangsters in uniform to eat grass in a public square, surrounded by a hooting mob; a cousin arrested and never heard from again; friends and relatives dragged off to die in Oranienburg and Theresienstadt, names I heard before I knew of Dachau and Buchenwald—was past complaint.

Considering, then, what I am and when I was born, where the latter event took place turned out to be permanently relevant to whatever sensitivities I was able to develop. And so, I think, was the fact that the multiplicity of worlds I grew up in was one of continents as well as centuries. From segregated and despised Jew in Berlin to equally segregated but mysteriously privileged “white” in New Orleans was not a transformation a small boy could absorb within his knowledge of himself as a single human being. And the effects lasted. Among the bars I frequented in my undergraduate years in Toledo was one where the only other whites seemed to be either whores or cops. One night a man drinking next to me and my friends, after sizing me up for a while, asked if he could ask me a question. “Sure,” I said. “Where are you from?” “Here,” I said. “I live in Toledo.” “No,” he said, “I mean where are you from?” “Oh,” I said, “I was born in Europe.”3 “I knew you couldn’t be from here,” he said, satisfied. “You ain’t a musician.”

A university is not a bar. Theoretically, in fact, its attractions are almost the opposite of those of anybody's favorite saloon: a conscious quest for the strange and new and intellectually stimulating an emphasis on the intangible bonds of minds sifting speculation from fact, preferring possibilities to certainties, impatient with all parochialisms; a commitment not to the comfort of friendly companions in familiar surroundings but to the strains of the lonely competition of scholarship. And some of those attractions are corroborated in varying degrees at an institution like Michigan, not so much because of its size and wealth but because of its freedom and flexibility. Nevertheless, Michigan, as I have known it, is not immune to the dangerous seductions of the conventional, the traditional, the familiar. That is the proposition to which the rest of this essay is devoted: that the familiar is indeed dangerous, especially in and to a university. Whether this view is related to my retrospective horror of what was done to my people in Europe;more, of my people's reluctance to abandon, when they still might have tried to do so, their familiarity with their lives; and more again, of other people's insistence on only familiar definitions of their own concerns--all this is to ask, really, what difference it makes to be different.  I will leave the answer to the reader and tell one more anecdote from my years in Toledo, illustrating, I believe, that professors as well as barflies can look for ways to reduce the strange to the explicable, although not necessarily with as much insight.

Almost sixty years ago, in my first year of doctoral studies in Cleveland, I asked a professor from whom I had taken many courses at the University of Toledo to write a letter of recommendation on my behalf for a graduate assistantship at still another institution. For reasons not important here, I was miserable where I was and determined to get out, and I needed a job to do it. He wrote the letter. Further, he sent me a copy of it, penciling on its top: " ... This is a copy of the letter I sent to B _ _ . You will see that I have been very frank and as objective as possible. Best wishes for your success." And further still—and rather obviously—I have kept the letter all this time, which may be the most remarkable aspect of this anecdote.  His letter began:


I have just received a letter from a former student, asking me that I write you concerning his qualifications for a graduate assistantship in your Department of English.  He has a passionate interest in his subject, certainly a valuable quality in anyone entering our field.  His father is a refugee doctor (Jewish) and I think some of the early experiences had an influence on his son's attitude toward life. My feeling is, however, that through patience and perseverance he has overcome the psychological effects of those earlier days. I think that you would find that in his relations with his students he would be patient and understanding, particularly with anyone of a minority race--negro, Jew, or what have you. He is totally free from any traces of what we sometimes think of as German arrogance. I sincerely hope that you have something to offer him. It would be good for him to be under a scholar of your capacity.


Not remarkable was the outcome: I never heard from Professor B___.  But why have I kept the letter? I am not really sure. Perhaps--or so I think now--to remind myself how I look to "them," how futile it is to expect to be understood, how the absurdity of entering this country as a refugee and being classified as an enemy alien some two and a half years later (when I was eleven and the United States was at war) had its ramifications in academia more than a decade later, long after I had become a citizen. Perhaps it is deeper than that, serving to remind me never to overcome the psychological effects of those earlier days, never to be patient and understanding, particularly not with anyone of a "minority race." It has not often been necessary to re-read the letter. Just knowing that I have it has been a way of keeping faith with what I remember. But of course that is only so much symbolism. In my years at Michigan, other expressions of that letter's profound miscomprehensions gave me ample opportunities to exhibit, far more concretely, whatever traces, of whatever origins, I'm not free from.


Of Search and Research

I left Michigan's Department of English in 1957 to join the Engineering Research Institute—later it evolved into the Office of Research Administration and now has still a different name—as a technical editor. Eventually I had an office in that very Cooley Electronics Laboratory whose dedication I wouldn't have thought of attending, had I known about it, a few weeks after my arrival in Ann Arbor. In 1962 I became an administrator, and in 1970 I joined the School of Education as an assistant dean. My "field" had become money: getting it and spending it. That was of interest to many faculty members of the University, and I worked with many of them, on reports of their research, on proposals to do more of it, on applications for funds for new buildings to do it in, on ideas about doing it with others, and eventually on the accounts that showed at least the financial aspects of what they were doing. I was one of many people doing such work, but for some years I had special responsibilities for proposals for federal funds for new buildings and for money, whether from public or private sources, needed for interdisciplinary projects, new or existing, with instructional and service as well as research components. Inevitably I came to know something about how the pieces were supposed to fit together, not only inside the University itself but also within the larger political arena in which the University was often a competitor and sometimes a regional resource.

My assignments included proposals and other materials for new buildings, centers, programs, and sometimes for prestige (involving attempts to get major federal facilities located on or near the University's campus). Some of these efforts, in which I was always only one of many people, were successful. Some were not. Some involved not only competition with other institutions and regions but also internal dissensions of varying scope and intensity. Some did not. But what emerged for me out of this kaleidoscopic composite of shifting, sometimes conflicting, and still more often unrelated interests and values of the people I worked with was a sense of an over-riding agreement, not about the University's identity and purposes but about the process. That process was (and remains) political; and its clear model was (and remains) the larger political process of the country itself.

There is no question in my mind about how much better a country this is than it was when I arrived in 1939, nor how much better a university Michigan is than it was in 1953. The dissociation of race or ethnicity, and of sex as well, from barriers to opportunity is an excellent index of the distance traveled and the distance still to go. From that perspective, the University is better mostly because the country is better. Is the country also better because the University is better? To the extent that those permitted relatively recently to participate in the University have in turn widened its perspectives of what to teach and how to teach it, and helped enlarge the kinds as well as the number of people whose talents inevitably affect if not determine the possibilities open to us all, the answer has to be yes. But it will be apparent that such a qualification amounts almost to some serious reservations.

The usual litany one finds in "mission statements" and catalogs about the trinity of purposes of colleges and universities customarily identifies them as teaching, research, and service, in that order. Michigan is one of those American universities which, despite its obeisance to the litany's sequence, thinks of itself as primarily a research institution, and with some reason. Awards for excellence as a teacher do not guarantee an assistant professor's promotion to tenure. Service to the profession (as measured by, for instance, offices held in national associations) or to the institution (as made tangible by membership on important committees) may be more important than success as a teacher, perhaps because popular teachers, in the privacy of their classrooms and offices, may (for ail anyone knows) be lowering the very standards that effective committee members can articulate so loftily. Nevertheless, service as an institutional purpose remains nebulous,especially when the individual performing it appears to be one of its beneficiaries, e.g.,in extra income or other fringe benefits.  But research--the creation of knowledge"--is thought to be truly measurable, like the production of automobiles. The types and number of a faculty member's publications can be classified and counted. So can the proposals he writes and the grants he receives. The merit or triviality of his publications can be determined by counting the number of outside reviewers affirming or denying these characteristics, and it is the consensus of the majority that determines events, as in Congress, or truth, as on the Supreme Court. Not only that: research, with considerable plausibility, can be made to appear the sine qua non of excellence in teaching, for it is only the practicing scholar (so goes the argument) who can be assumed to have discarded last year's lecture notes.4

It will be apparent, I hope, that my irreverence is not directed at the idea of the centrality of research at a university like Michigan.It is the institution's behavior, its expression of that idea, that deserves something less than unquestioning allegiance. Emphases on the number of publications, on what they are bound in, on the place of one's name in the list of authors of articles written by groups of investigators, and similar refinements--all these have to do with the careers of the researchers, not with the substance of their research. That is not, I am aware, a remarkable observation. What may be remarkable, however, is that the frequency with which it is made and the assent it generally evokes have not changed anything. In some fields it is possible to extract a dozen or more journal articles out of a single idea, even a single technique, and the astute academician who understands how careers are built, how power is obtained and enlarged, will do exactly that. In others it may be more important to publish a single book, no matter how subverted, than a score of articles, and the sales tables outside of Ann Arbor's book stores in the spring are rarely without examples of somebody's strenuous climb up his career ladder. The variations on the theme are all familiar: the professor launching his graduate students into the scholarly ocean by adding his name (in the appropriate place) to their articles; the reviews of the year's work in the field, delightful opportunities to call attention to one's own contributions; the textbooks, anthologies, and readers; even the in-house reports, the abstracts, anything with a by-1ine--all are evidence of "productivity." The productive scholar ultimately becomes the established scholar. Should someone have the temerity to question the significance of an established scholar's publications, he will be told, in all probability, that this is a matter best left to the experts in the field, i.e., the established scholar's equally established friends in his professional association. But few people have such temerity, at least in public, for the question is a tasteless violation of the unwritten code: all knowledge is our province. To suggest that one might make distinctions between Olympian heights and bottomless swamps in that territory is not only invidious but impolitic. A scholar's contributions to and reputation in his field are matters that can be determined, like a senator's influence and chances for re-election. The intrinsic value of his field, however, is simply to be understood, not discussed. It is one thing to ask whether a certain philatelist's reputation is deserved. It is quite another to declare that philately is somehow a less respectable intellectual discipline than numismatics. Differences in salaries are attributable to the mechanisms of the marketplace.

This is not to suggest that the appropriateness of representing a given field within the array of schools, colleges, and departments is never to be questioned. On the contrary, at Michigan organizational matters command an enormous amount of attention. The debates surrounding them all have predictable rallying cries: budgetary constraints, resource allocations, coordination, new configurations, projections, responsiveness, marketing (the latter is the faculty's and administration's equivalent of "relevance"), cutting edges, innovations, world classes, and excellence. The opposition gathers under banners of tradition, faculty autonomy, academic freedom, equity, longer-range projections, reputation, and excellence. Once the debates are decoded, a task rarely if ever undertaken in public, their substance is clear enough: power. It is no wonder that students are represented only collectively, and then only through their cumulative decisions about what programs to enroll in. And even those decisions are inevitably determined by the University's internal power struggles about what buildings to erect, what departments to reduce, where to put its resource allocations. Ironically, outside of the mockery of the University represented by intercollegiate athletics, excellence appears to be largely a matter of proclamation, especially if the proclamations can be tabulated.

The parallels between the larger American political process and the smaller academic one at institutions like Michigan--I am aware that many universities are operated more like corporations than like interlocking governmental entities--are perhaps more visible in bad times than in good, when money is in short supply or

when students are being obstreperous. Difficulties of either kind have a way of purging pretenses. But if interest in power is easier to disguise when students attend classes instead of demonstrations, it is no less fierce. The differences have to do with defending the territory one thinks one has as opposed to trying to obtain more, not with the nature of the war.

The discrepancies between the American political process and its abilities to address the nations' problems are becoming more apparent year by year. Our system of representative government resting on territorial divisions was conceived at a time when those divisions made some sort of sense, physically, economically, socially, and therefore politically. Today they don't. In the face of acid rain, interstate highways, international oil cartels—examples can be multiplied without end—those divisions have become as quaint as medieval maps of the world. What remains most viable about them is the proud oratory, especially at political conventions, with which we are reminded of their existence. And that oratory is not usually considered helpful to a dispassionate analysis either of the problems confronting the nation or of what might be reasonable attempts to alleviate them.

From my point of view the situation at a university like Michigan is comparable. It is not the territorial divisions between departments, colleges, schools, institutes, and centers that seem impermeable to events. New branch campuses can be established, like the Louisiana Purchase. New departments or schools can be created out of old ones, like Maine or West Virginia. New institutes or centers can be organized, especially with outside funding, like territories. And these might evolve into "hard money" departments (granted statehood, like Alaska and Hawaii) or relinquished (like the Philippines). As for University-wide concerns such as the under-representation of racial minorities or women, these can be addressed with ad hoc or standing committees, or even permanent staff members, offices, centers, whole programs (Washington parallels will suggest themselves), assuring the permanence of the concern and therefore of the problem. It is rather that the idea of the importance of territorial identification—a "home base"—is as much taken for granted within the University as within the country, and that identification has to be more specific than citizenship and profession: not merely American and professor, but Californian and child psychologist. Both are indispensable glandular secretions with which we spray our conversations and debates, marking out our areas of concern, "expertise," turf.

Despite my reservations about orthodoxies of any kind, I am prepared to acknowledge that the dynamic I am describing--the emphasis on career and prestige, on ever-increasing specialization, on all but physically violent competition--appears to be, in the main, good for research. (Only in the main, however: orthodoxy is not the only form of intellectual corruption.) But what appears to be good for research, i.e., good for the careers of people who do research, is not necessarily good for a university, at least, not for a university that makes no behavioral distinctions between its purposes and its processes. What might be good for a university—for instance, to define its obligation to serve the society that supports it in roles critical of, not sycophantic to, that society might, conversely, be very bad for academic research as presently conducted. Protests against the conduct of classified research on a university campus, as a wildly inappropriate place to pursue the refinement of weapons of mass destruction, were not at all helpful in obtaining grants and contracts from the Department of Defense. (They were also, in my view, naive and misguided, but that is a separate issue.) But such protests, when they were conducted with some appreciation of honest differences, were precisely in line with a university's essential function, namely, to question accepted dogma, to encourage unconventional thought, to hold nothing so sacred as to be beyond examination. Similar questions might be raised, I believe, in many other fields, not just in the physical sciences and engineering. Who are the primary beneficiaries of social welfare? For that matter, of social science research? Should universities continue to credential teachers and administrators for the public schools, efforts awash in educational research, when any training program for airplane pilots which produced comparable results would have been shut down long ago? Are universities to have no institutional stance on lines of medical research prolonging the agony of relatives of moribund patients vegetating for months and years? But, as I remember a vice president asking me about a $5,000,000 grant about to arrive from a federal agency for a program that we both thought was nothing but a boondoggle: "But how can we turn down all that money?"

Similarly, if a university were seriously to assert its obligations to the coherent intellectual development of its students as demonstrable in their knowledge and abilities, not merely in their accumulation of "credit hours" or scores on standardized tests, much research as presently conducted at institutions like Michigan might have to take on a quite different character, sharply distinguishing it from research conducted in industry or governmental agencies. The fragmentation of knowledge, so that it can be refined, made ever more precise, and steadily advanced--which I take to be the present business of most academic researchers--is not at all what teachers are to do, especially not in concert. As matters stand, the integration of the curriculum, the synthesis of what we teach, is left to individual students to manage as best they can. Although the University has responded to an astounding variety of their other needs, it has not officially recognized that there may be a difference between credit hours, distribution requirements, and transcripts on the one hand and an educated mind on the other. The reasons are apparent enough in common academic parlance: teaching is a "load,”research is "my own work."

I happen to think that a great public university (and I think Michigan is one) is one of humanity's proudest achievements. A great private university, despite the social affirmation it enjoys as represented by its tax-exempt status, remains, at least to some extent, the vision of its founders and supporters. Whatever credit is due them all, they cannot be said to represent either "the public" or a public yet to be born. The founders and supporters of a public institution, however, represent both, and their work on behalf of that institution amounts to a magnificent act of faith. A great public university, then, is a trust, and those who are entrusted with its functions are among the most privileged men and women I canimagine.

It may well be that my sense of privilege, my notion that, statistically, my luck has been almost incredible, both stem from a survivor's guilt: why me, why not the others? Not all the children in my first-grade class at the Theodor Herzl Schule in Berlin got out In time, nor did all the teachers. But I prefer to think that "the psychological effects of those earlier days" that my former professor thought he had diagnosed so astutely created only an angle of vision rather than freeze a point of view. Academic life at a university like Michigan was (and I believe remains) privileged almost beyond description. Trust in the worthiness of the common enterprise has benefited everyone immeasurably, not only the entrepreneurs. And when I was present at meetings in which the sense of the commonality of the enterprise prevailed, rather than the sense of a local habitation and a name, I almost always found that sense of privilege as well.

None of us can ultimately be free from all traces of our early experiences. It is not surprising that our country, despite the abundance of evidence pointing to the obsolescence of our territorial demarcations, clings fervently to such comforts as familiarity provides. Nor is it surprising that professors and administrators exhibit analogous preferences in their departmental, political roles. But from a refugee's perspective--which tends to seek the least objectionable among various unpalatable alternatives--it is not at all clear that the familiar way is not among the most dangerous. To trust that we will continue to be trusted, to emphasize what sets us apart from one another instead of what binds us together, to pursue our careers without regard to what makes that pursuit not only possible but privileged--these are the familiar ways. But if education is to mean more than training in the ways of the society in which the youth is eventually to take his place as an adult, surely it must have as its focus the liberation of the individual from the confines of the familiar so that we can come to prefer not the knowledge we think we have but the quest for what we need to know.



1. Readers familiar with what lies behind these questions will, I hope, excuse the following explanation. Besides, such readers are in an ever-diminishing minority. The Germans, because we were Jews, defined us as stateless; as far as I know, all other countries defined us either as Germans or as nationals of the countries in which we happened to have been born. To get into the United States, if you were not born in the Western Hemisphere, you had to wait your turn according to a quota system fixed by law depending on your country of origin, presumed to be the country in which you held citizenship. You also had to have a passport, issued by that country, and a visa issued by the U.S. There were two ways to obtain a visa: you could get an affidavit from a resident of the U.S., guaranteeing that you would not become a public burden, or you could show at least $5,000 in cash. Since the Nazis were expert at relieving you of all possessions, especially cash, the latter requirement made the issuance of their passports so much propaganda, demonstrating that they were not the ones blocking emigration of the Jews. But it was the quota system that condemned thousands of people to restrictions as Germans and death as Jews. There were no such restrictions if you had had the foresight to pick a country in the Western Hemisphere as your place of birth. And if you were a man, you could bring your wife and minor children with you. My uncle, who had become a naturalized German to enlist in the Army in 1914, thus had a German passport but entered the U.S. with his wife and daughter (both born in Germany) as, in effect, a Mexican, although he had left Mexico at the age of three. Had my mother been willing to abandon her mother, husband, and children, she could have entered the U.S. similarly. What mattered to the Germans was our race, not religion--they didn't ask whether we attended services at the synagogue. But our race was the one thing the Americans--concerned instead with place of birth, relationship, sex, and age--refused to acknowledge. Money, of course, mattered to everybody. If the various bureaucracies compounded these mazes with a few garden-variety errors, things became still more complicated. An American official in Prague used the wrong code letter to designate my mother's birthplace, resulting in our stay in Ellis Island while papers were sent back to Prague for correction and return. Not fitting into all the definitions that mattered (which never included religion!) was what, in fact, defined us until we became U.S. citizens: an astounding metamorphosis, from enemy aliens (by that time the U.S. was at war with Germany) to citizens in one moment's benediction, which also failed to recognize who we were and why we had come.

2. Besides the usual tensions between those who gave charity and those who had to accept it were the resentments of American Jews descended from Eastern Europeans toward the German Jews who had preceded and been less than hospitable to them, resentments not difficult to transfer to us despite the passage of generations and the press of events. Religious, linguistic, and more general cultural differences were also marked and to this day can remain issues among Jews even of my generation. For example, Gentiles who persist in regarding me of German origin because of my place of birth and native language exhibit an ignorance I understand and can excuse, whereas Jews who call me a German mean to insult me and know that they succeed. I am speaking of academics, not of the Jews in the Bronx who were convinced that we "refused" to speak Yiddish because we were trying to pass ourselves off as Gentiles.

3. I still have difficulty admitting that I was born in Germany.

4. I know of no prestigious university famous for the quality of its teaching. Colleges admired for the education they impart to their students--the image invariably includes huge old shade trees, kindly administrators, avuncular professors, social events, abiding friendships, and many other good things having little to do with intellectual development--are doubtless worthy and worthwhile institutions, but they are not prestigious universities. Research, properly understood, is learning and teaching both, and the reason that most undergraduates generally cannot participate in it is that they have not been prepared for it in the public schools.


Rudolf B. Schmerl (Ph.D., English, 1960), Associate Professor Emeritus of Education, served the University of Michigan as a technical editor, research administrator, and faculty member in the College of Engineering's former Department of English from 1965 to 1968; the College's Program in Technical Communication from 1996 to 2007; and the School of Education, from 1970 to 1988. From 1970 to 1979 he was that School's Assistant Dean for Research under Dean Wilbur J. Cohen. He retired in 1988 to become Director of Research Relations at the University of Hawaii, returning to Ann Arbor in 1995. During much of his career at Michigan, he was involved with the University's inter-institutional program with Tuskegee Institute (now University) in Alabama, teaching and helping to write proposals for support. This led to consultancies with about a dozen other historically Black colleges and universities and other institutions and foundations. He has lectured internationally, e.g., at the Chinese University of Hong Kong and Hebrew University of Jerusalem.

Schmerl's publications include a book co-written with the late Leonard A. Greenbaum of the College's faculty (Course X: A Left Field Guide to Freshman English), another co-edited with David M. Gates, then Director of the University's Biological Station (Perspectives of Biophysical Ecology), and several dozen articles on literature, social concerns, and education, most recently (2010), "Some Multicultural Reservations" in the Australian journal Education and Society. He is also the co-author of a privately printed novel, Gatekeepers, with Sheldon Stone. 

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