Carol Weisbrod


David Damrosch, We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1995. Pp. 225. $32.50

We have various images of the life of the scholar. One is suggested by Wordsworth's description of a statue of Newton: "The marble index of a mind for ever / Voyaging through strange seas of Thought, alone." Another image is less noble, as Jaroslav Pelikan has recently reminded us, though no less isolated. Dr. Causabon, the infinitely disappointing husband of George Eliot's Dorothea Brooke, is a scholar hard at work on a pointless inquiry, independently and forever. In his recent book, We Scholars: Changing the Culture of the University, David Damrosch, Professor of English and Comparative Literature at Columbia, intends to propose a "new model of the scholarly community and of its relation to society at large." In so doing, he adds two unusual figures to our set of scholarly images, Tamino and Papageno. Tamino and Papageno are Mozart's seekers after truth in the Magic Flute, in a setting described by Professor Damrosch as Sarastro's dungeon. In effect, these two can be seen as the contemporary graduate student and the contemporary academic, seeking enlightment not alone in an ivory tower, but in the silent depths and isolation of a separated community.

We Scholars is a "secular sermon," polemical while still tentative. Its basic point is that what is called the academic community should become a real community. Damrosch's goal is not to argue against the values represented by the traditional academic, individualist model but to argue against the monopoly presently exercised by the association of isolation and research. Professor Damrosch has a wide circle of friends. They include people from varied disciplines. He also knows people outside the university. His friends and colleagues appear throughout the book, adding their perspectives and comments to his account. Finally, they testify to his point and show Damrosch as an embodiment of his thesis.