Is poverty a professorial virtue?
Maybe I’ve got it all wrong: to “demonstrate by example,” as I wrote here, that mathematics is one of the “few islands within the larger society that are not … thoroughly subordinated to the entrepreneurial mindset,” maybe we need to take a huge pay cut! This idea, which long predates the turn to adjuncts, has a distinguished pedigree in governing circles.
The theory that for the good of everyone concerned professors ought to be poor became the basis of a committee report of the Iowa legislature which in 1874 recommended severe salary reductions: “Those who labor in the work of education, to be successful, must be endowed with such love of their profession as will make them content with less remuneration than can be obtained in ordinary business.”
This and many other quotes like it can be found in Frederick Rudolph’s. American College and University : A History.* For example:
“No professor worth his salt,” glowed The New York Times in 1883, “ever devoted himself to learning for any other reason than that he loved learning.”… Said The Nation: “Boost the professors as a group into the high salaried class . . . and you create a strongly intrenched university vested interest in the status quo. . . . Rich professors are all too often social bourbons.” Low salaries, said The New Republic, free professors from “the pecuniary criterion of value.”
In his 1868 inaugural address as President of Harvard, Charles William Eliot wrote
The poverty of scholars is of inestimable worth in this money-getting nation. It maintains the true standards of virtue and honor. The poor friars, not the bishops, saved the Church. The poor scholars and preachers of duty defend the modern community against its own material prosperity.
And in 1908, as his tenure neared an end, he hadn’t changed his mind:
To young men who grow up in humble circumstances, the probable income of a college professor sometimes looks large ; but to the sons of well-to-do families it always looks small, and, on the average, the college or university salary in the United States is really small in comparison with the intellectual outlook of the recipients and their reasonable needs. Undoubtedly college and university salaries need to be raised above their present level in the United States ; but it should be distinctly understood that the profession can never be properly recruited by holding out pecuniary inducements. In drawing good men from one institution to another, the prevailing inducements are apt to be, not increase of salary, but wider companionship, better access to books, better schools for the children, a wholesomer life for the family, more social and educational advantages, and the general prestige of the inviting institution.
If I were still writing the book I would spend some time looking into just what it meant to be poor in Eliot’s day. I suspect that the “poverty” to which he referred was not so different from what we would today consider a middle-class lifestyle. Bella Wilfer, daughter of a “poor clerk,” complains halfway through Dickens’s Our Mutual Friend:
“I love money, and want money—want it dreadfully. I hate to be poor, and we are degradingly poor, offensively poor, miserably poor, beastly poor.”
The Wilfers probably did their own laundry, but I doubt the same can be said of Eugene Wrayburn, of whom Jenny Wren asked: ” I wonder whether he’s rich!” Lizzie Hexam answers:
“No, not rich.”
“I think so, for a gentleman.”
I’ve started reading Lewis Hyde’s The Gift to try to sort this out. Hyde’s book, a great favorite among writers, argues that the value of a creative work should be understand in the language of gift exchange, not commodities. He was thinking about the arts but the reasoning applies as well to mathematics and the theoretical sciences.
I haven’t yet reached the part where Hyde explains who, if anyone, is supposed to keep the artist alive to continue to provide us with gifts. Meanwhile, when I wrote this piece I was relieved to learn that, at least in the United States, a $3000000 Breakthrough Prize does not suffice to catapult its recipient into the richest 1% of the population, even if it were not subject to state and federal income taxes.
*Athens, GA, USA: University of Georgia Press, 1991. ProQuest ebrary. Web. 9 April 2015.
Copyright © 1991. University of Georgia Press. All rights reserved.