There is a splendid little book — I can’t remember the author — called ‘The Specialist’ which consists of dos and don’ts for builders of outdoor privies. It considers such matters as whether the door should open inwards or outwards, the most strategic placing of the building, (near the firewood stack), and the shape of the little ventilation cut-out in the door. It is a fine work, but that is not the kind of specialism I want to write about: My subject is University specialists.
It used to be said of such people that they knew more and more about less and less, until they knew absolutely everything about absolutely nothing. Things have however changed rather; two examples:
I met a French woman who was a professor — a professor, mind — of English Literature at the Sorbonne. I asked her (because I had temporarily forgotten and was sure she would know) who said ‘Ou sont les neiges d’antan?’ She had no idea; had clearly never heard the line before. Later I remembered of course; a case of something being on the tip of one’s mental tongue. ‘Oh, it was François Villon who said that about last year’s snows’, I told her the next time we met. Then I left quickly, because the expression on her face gave me an impression I didn’t want confirmed: it looked horribly as if she had not heard of Villon. Now admittedly her subject was English literature, but surely one might expect any educated European, let alone a French University lecturer, to know Villon and his best-known phrase?
Another specialist I met was an American woman who was doing a postgraduate degree in Anglophone African Literature. She was in fact writing a thesis on Chinua Achebe’s novel ‘Things Fall Apart’. ‘You know, I suppose, where he got the title from?’ I asked. No, she didn’t, and when I told her she seemed quite indifferent. Again, one might think that if the author on whose work she was doing a thesis knew enough about WB Yeats to choose a celebrated line of his for his novel’s title, then she might at least have been mildly curious.
As I said, things have changed rather: instead of knowing absolutely everything about absolutely nothing, the specialist now, it seems, can get a postgraduate degree, or become a university professor, without knowing very much at all.
Villon was, shall we say, not very photogenic, except there weren’t any cameras in 15th Century France, (or anywhere else, come to that), and Yeats sometimes looked the precious pretentious prat he all too often was. Nevertheless, here are pictures of the pair of them: