Benton is hardly the first person to lament the fact that contemporary academic culture has been impoverished by its capitulation to the cult of academic celebrity. But he goes further than that, taking aim at the fallacy undergirding the cult: our obsession with “individual genius.” The very idea that the Ph.D. dissertation ought to be an “original contribution to knowledge,” a precept that was already well entrenched when William James wrote against it a century ago, has helped to feed this romantic fallacy. But, as Benton shows, the fallacy has metastasized into something downright ludicrous. In a job interview for an entry-level position at a second-tier state university, Benton was asked how his scholarly work might “redraw the boundaries of the profession.” To his credit, he was unable to manufacture a glib and confident answer to such a breathtakingly stupid question, and was too modest to put himself forward as the next Derrida. And instantly, he says, “I could feel the temperature of the room drop as if I had just stepped into a meat locker.” The interview was over.
In retrospect, one might have wanted Benton to respond, “If this ‘profession’ is so fragile and unstable as to have its boundaries redrawn by any freshly minted Ph.D. to come down the pike, who would want to be a part of it? And just who do you people think you are? Would interviewers for an entry-level job in, say, physics, at Mega State U. in Oshkosh ask each applicant how their work would comprehensively reorder our understanding of the physical universe?” Such impertinent questions would not have gotten him the job, but he could at least have gotten some truth-telling satisfaction out of the encounter.
Like Henry James, Chesterton noted a similar habit long ago:
But the man we see every day -- the worker in Mr. Gradgrind's factory, the little clerk in Mr. Gradgrind's office -- he is too mentally worried to believe in freedom. He is kept quiet with revolutionary literature. He is calmed and kept in his place by a constant succession of wild philosophies. He is a Marxian one day, a Nietzscheite the next day, a Superman (probably) the next day; and a slave every day. The only thing that remains after all the philosophies is the factory. The only man who gains by all the philosophies is Gradgrind. It would be worth his while to keep his commercial helotry supplied with sceptical literature. And now I come to think of it, of course, Gradgrind is famous for giving libraries. He shows his sense. All modern books are on his side. As long as the vision of heaven is always changing, the vision of earth will be exactly the same. No ideal will remain long enough to be realized, or even partly realized. The modern young man will never change his environment; for he will always change his mind.