Then As Now

From Wallace Stegner’s novel Crossing to Safety about 1930s in the US:

I don’t know how English departments are now, for I escaped them years ago. But I know how they used to look. . . They used to look like high serene lamaseries where the elect lived in both comfort and grace. Up there, scholars as learned and harmless as Chaucer’s Clerk of Oxenford moved among books and ideas, eating and drinking well, sleeping soft, having three-month summer vacations during which they had only to cultivate their inclinations. . . Freed by tenure, by an assured salary, by modest wants, by an inherited competence, or by all four, they were untouched by the scrabbling and scuffling that went on outside the walls.

Sound recognizable? Some things never change, I guess. And just like now, back then some of them were

men of brains and learning and disinterested goodwill, but some were stuffed shirts, and some incompetents, and some timid souls escaping from the fray, and some climbers, and some as bitter and jealous as some of us were at being inadequately appreciated.

Obviously, I’m not talking exclusively about English departments and not even mostly about them. “Inherited competence” fits other disciplines much better.

P.S. Who knew the word “lamaseries” before today? Not me!

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