C.S. Lewis is best known as the author of “The Chronicles of Narnia,” but he was first and foremost a great scholar. One gets a sense of what that word can mean from a passage in “A Grief Observed,” a short book Lewis wrote after his wife was killed by cancer at the age of 45.
Lewis was devastated by his wife’s death — so much so that he found his religious faith profoundly shaken. The book traces his path back toward faith, but also chronicles a newfound humility in the face of grief. Lewis wonders if his faith will hold up when “a fatal disease is diagnosed in my body too, or war breaks out, or I have ruined myself by some ghastly mistake in my work.”
A scholar of medieval and Renaissance literature, Lewis taught at Oxford and Cambridge. While at Oxford, he agreed to write the volume covering the 16th century in the multi-volume series that became the Oxford History of English Literature. Lewis was both an extraordinarily learned man and a fluent writer, and he could have produced a credible contribution to the series in a matter of months. Instead, he spent nine years on the project.
To begin with, Lewis read the entire collected works of around 200 English writers. But this was only the beginning. For example, as part of the background research for writing a small section of the book entitled “Religious Controversy and Translation,” he read the complete works of several 16th century theologians, including Martin Luther, John Calvin, Thomas More, and William Tyndale.
He spent even more time reading immense numbers of obscure articles by other scholars. As he explained to a friend, “views often disappear not because someone has proved them false but merely because they have gone out of fashion. In any forgotten article the really illuminating thing might be hid: though (the odds are) about 90 to 10 against.”
Two years later, he wrote to the same friend that “I am, between ourselves, pleased with the manner of it _ but afraid of hidden errors … A mistake in a history of literature walks in silence till the day it turns irrevocable in a printed book and the book goes for review to the only man in England who would have known it was a mistake. This, I suppose, is good for one’s soul.”
Lewis and those like him provide a daunting but valuable model for ordinary scholars, just as writers like Tolstoy and Joyce provide models for ordinary novelists. (On the other hand, I have a novelist friend who tells me that reading a few paragraphs of Tolstoy can prevent him from writing for weeks at a time, since it makes further efforts seem rather pointless.)
Ward Churchill provides us with another sort of model. Reading the 120-page report prepared by scholars from the University of Colorado and elsewhere, which evaluates charges of academic fraud against Churchill, should be a profoundly disturbing experience for any academic, and especially for anyone associated with the university that hired, tenured, and promoted him.
The report, which is available on line, uncovers a level of personal corruption and institutional negligence that is difficult to believe. I was almost literally sickened by it.
The claims of people like David Horowitz that universities have become havens for all sorts of politically motivated nonsense are exaggerated, but they aren’t baseless. It would be hard to imagine a more compelling brief for those claims than the substance of the Churchill report.
Yet the report itself illustrates that tough-minded academics are capable of producing unsparingly honest criticism of their own institution, and of a colleague who has disgraced it. And indeed there are many good and even great scholars at the University of Colorado _ which if anything makes the institution’s role in this fiasco that much worse.
It’s in the nature of academic work that mistakes will be made, theories will prove false, and whole lines of inquiry will turn out to be fruitless. This will be true even if everyone involved in the enterprise is scrupulously honest. Among scholars, perhaps more than anywhere else, conscious dishonesty is intolerable.
The most astonishing aspect of the Churchill affair is that even now, after he has been caught in the most egregious frauds imaginable, he continues to deny any wrongdoing.
That a man can sink to such depths should be a cautionary tale for all of us who have chosen the academic life.
(Paul Campos is a law professor at the University of Colorado and can be reached at Paul.Campos(at)Colorado.edu.)