To a Young Man Bent on Entering the Professoriat

I JUDGE from your last letter that nothing will deter you from this step, that you are determined to become a teacher, and a university teacher at that. My counsel has, I see, like most counsel, been futile.

Well, you ought to make an interesting professor, but you will never make a successful one.

You are too sophisticated. You do not believe that Marmion is a great poem; you are bored by Dickens; you do not think that teaching is Service; you cannot edify people; you are not fond of inchoate minds; you do not think that business men are inherently swine; you do not think that professors are inherently intelligent; you are not enthusiastic about social reform; you are skeptical in religion and philosophy; you are epicurean in your enjoyment of ideas; you take nothing seriously; you have no violent prejudices; your written style does not imitate Lamb’s, and you do not write of pipe and bowl and the fireside.

With all that sophistication, you naïvely think that you can be happy in an academic chair. What will you find there?

You will find that every step you make is an approach to death. Some day, for instance, you will say something ironic in your lectures. It will be spotted as ironic by one student — who will not see its target — and will be taken as literal by the others. They will repeat what they think you have said, and the people to whom they repeat it will repeat what they think they have heard. Soon at the Faculty Club one of your colleagues will say, ‘So you don’t believe in God?’ Or you will be dining out — oh, those dinners! — and someone will say, with half-serious jocosity, ‘So you’re trying to dechristianize our children?’ You will look puzzled. It will finally appear that you said in class that God does not exist. You will feel somewhat foolish and will dart a look at your wife — for you will have a wife — to see if she heard. You will spend the rest of the evening trying to discover which of your students could have spread this report, so that you may infer the remark which was its source.

Finally you will remember.

You said one day in class, ‘If God existed, there would be no room in the world for men who spend their days trying to prove the obvious.’

Learn above all things never to speak in metaphors or similes, in tropes or other figures of speech. Never be ironical. State facts as literally as possible, and, if you make a joke, be sure that, like the old Greek dramas, its plot is already familiar to your audience.

The penalty of irony is a reputation for cleverness, and, when that reputation is gained, no amount of serious work will balance it. ‘Oh, he’s a clever fellow, but no scholar.’ Or, ‘He’s a good lecturer, but that’s all.’ You may make a discovery as important as the atomic structure of matter. The world will say, ‘Another of his little jokes.’ You may come to the aid of a noble cause. Your aid will damn it. You will find yourself admired by a few of the less rustic students, feared by the more stupid of your colleagues, shunned by serious scholars lest your name contaminate theirs. Your penetration will be called ‘destructive criticism,’ as if that phrase answered it. Your most superficial observations will be suspected of having some hidden meaning. People will quote you and you will be accused of seeking a cheap notoriety.

No — above all, be literal.

But, you are thinking, some of the younger men will surely appreciate the comic spirit. The younger men in universities are worse than the older, because only prospective failures go into academic work nowadays — or men like yourself. Many of them will appreciate you. And it is they who will be your ruination. For you are doomed to be the man about whom they will cluster. There is in every university a number of révoltés. Some of them are genuine individuals moving in an orbit of their own. They will do you no harm. The others are just waiting for some larger and more luminous body to attract them, and, when it appears, will spin round it like electrons round the atomic nucleus. You are clever, but not clever enough to select your admirers judiciously. You are somewhat like an actor in your secret love of applause. There is in every artist, however modest, that impulse to show his works to his fellow men, that love of seeing the eye light up and the mouth broaden in a smile of satisfaction. I should not be ashamed of it — it is healthy and sane. But it will lead you to forget that your admirers are no more intelligent than your detractors. Many of them will be simply lazy-minded folk who pick up the latest style in ideas as others pick up the latest style in clothes. You are inexperienced and you won’t be able to distinguish between the people who admire you intelligently and those who admire you stupidly. At the end of a few years you will wake up to the fact that you are a fad, like Mah Jongg, crossword puzzles, or radio.

Worst of all, you will find that you cannot keep up the pace with civilization. You will be stopping occasionally to think — and civilization will have moved on. I give you five years in which to begin intellectual atrophy. After that you will grow more and more like your colleagues, except that, whereas they have been putting in their time building up a reputation for scholarship, you will have put in yours entertaining friends and students. You will find that these magazines which welcome your articles, now that they are gay and insouciant and cynical, will find them somewhat less pleasing when they become thoughtful and perplexed and bitter. Editors who formerly asked you to write for them will now regret that their readers should not share their own keen taste. This stage of receiving polite but regretful letters will last two or three more years, and you will be back at the stage of printed slips — the primordial slime from which your literary career first arose. Then you will pick up a magazine and see three or four of your old classmates on the titlepage, and you will understand that you are behind the times — you, the leader of the advance guard! However intelligent you may be now, will you be intelligent enough then to understand why you are not on that title-page? Or will you make excuses for yourself?

Your wife will tell you that it is because you are too good for the magazines, that you are over the heads of the readers. But she, poor thing, will be wrong. The reason will be that your articles are tiresome. They will dwell on some little point which seems important to you because it is of fundamental philosophic importance. But who cares for philosophy in this merry world? They will be, moreover, written in a vocabulary vitiated by scholastic associations. Their style will be just too burdened — the sentences heavy with qualifiers, the rhythm slow and monotonous, the meaning so nice as to be finicky. Your wife will not see that. She will see only your intent and will hate the editors.

In cold fact the trouble may be worse than that. That bite of yours, which sinks its white teeth into its victim and kills it without a struggle, will grow dull. Your aim will falter. Sometimes the intended victim will escape. Why? Because there is nothing more deadly to a living spirit than the collegiate air. It is poisoned by use; it has been already breathed hundreds of times. You will fight against the suffocation at first with all the vigor of youth. You will rely on your power of stirring the carbon dioxide by your thrashing arms and legs, and thus making it fit to breathe. But you will give in at length and lie down conquered.

Remember that in your formative years your contact will be only with the immature. You will never see or talk with a man of your own capacities. If your associates are not your students, they will be your colleagues, who will be found to be even more immature than your students, for they will have attained that state of arrested development which I predict for you after what your Latin professor would call your first lustrum. There is something which appeals to one’s parental instinct in a child. But there is only horror in the sight of mutilation. These stunted minds will gratify your sense of superiority at first, but soon you will awake to the horror that is in them, to the travesty which they are of the human intellect. They are no longer human beings — they are Philology, Literature, Natural Science, characters in a masque. Between them and the students, you are caught between those who have as yet learned nothing and those who can learn no more. What chance will you have for your own education?

Why go on? I have only just begun. I was told all this years ago — as soon as I showed that I wanted to be a teacher. The man who told it to me had heard it all from another. You will be writing this letter in ten or fifteen years yourself. To no end. Your correspondent will smile, as you are smiling, and say, ‘Poor old codger, he certainly is bitter.’