The academic inn


When the fascist regimes rose in Europe, scholars could continue their work by taking refuge in countries whose universities remained unaffected by government pressure. They could go to France, Canada, the United States. But since then, a new and infinitely vaster danger has arisen to unfettered academic activities. This is the irresistible pressure emanating from the explosive dimensions of modern mass societies, which can educationally be accommodated only by universities of vast scale. Though these are no less destructive to scholarship than tyrannical governments, one can no longer escape their strangulating effect, as was possible under fascism, merely by taking refuge in other countries. There are none left which do not share the mounting pressure of their increasing multitudes. Geographically, only flight to another planet could solve the problem.
Yet, there is one last way out. This is for scholarship to change its location not geographically but institutionally; to flee not from the earth to another planet but from the university to another establishment, an institution which by nature is immune to persecution from mass pressure because of the intrinsic smallness of its material frame; and from ideological pressure because it exerts a dissolvent effect on all solidified ideas as a result of the fragmentising radiation to which it exposes everything. This institution - the last refuge of the humanities - is the inn.
Freedom may disappear from the town hall, the church, the theatre, the campus, under the intimidating weight of Orwellian mass-enforced conformism. But once you enter the inn - the last 'public house' in the original sense of the term, as it was also the first - and begin to sip your drink, you also begin to feel liberated from the fear-inspiring pressures of life 'extra muros', venturing once again to utter what is really on your mind, and continuing to do so as long as you remain in the protection of its disinhibiting as well as tranquillising walls. And so will also the others who join you in the fellowship of 'drinking associates.' In this way, their spirit rendered tolerant as well as tolerable, the conditions are created for the revival of unfettered conversation which, in proper academic fashion, have as their purpose less the defense of positions held than the search for new approaches to truth, and the exploration of unknown continents beyond the horizon.
Even if one of the 'drinking associates' is a secret agent joining for the sake of spying, it will make no difference. For to be a good spy, he too must have a drink; and if he drinks, he too will become disinhibited and tolerant and truthful, as was the case with the Austrian policeman during the 'Schuschnigg' regime. Arresting a citizen in a tavern for having referred to his government as 'lousy,' he answers the evasive trespasser who claimed he was talking not about the Austrian but the Chinese government: 'Don't tell any tall stories, friend. There is only one lousy government - ours. You go to jail.' It is because of the effect the companionship of the tavern table has first on the truthfulness of the 'fellows,' and then on the heightened chance of coming a step nearer to truth, that the inn may not only turn out to be the last refuge of the humanities. It was, in fact, the very place in which the humanities were born.
So the first task in recreating what may be called the 'Academic Inn' as a breeding ground of scholarly thought is to restore to it the essence of the good tavern which, to qualify, must offer not only good food, good drink, good service, and good accommodation, but also good conversation. To ensure the latter, three requirements must be fulfilled in an age in which unorganised spontaneity and initiative are no longer such self-generating products of conviviality as they were at the time of Samuel Johnson.
In the first place, the guests must have the certainty that there will always be two or three individuals present who are likely to provide the spark for thought, dialogue, and discussion. As a university catalogue announces that Professor Johnson will lecture this semester on linguistics Monday and Wednesday at 10 a.m. in classroom 17, the menu of the 'Academic Inn' will inform that Samuel Johnson has his beer or cocktail every day at 5 p.m. at table 2. This will be his only duty. There will be no programme, no other routine; any guest wishing to join, can join his or the table of any other Johnsonian staff member who happens to be in residence for a few days, weeks, or a month or two. If the 'star' is in no mood for talking, his table companions may be encouraged to converse by his mere presence. And if they too fail to come into the appropriate mood, they will enjoy an hour's silent musing and contemplation while watching the reflection of fireplace and setting sun in their glasses filled with a brew of Churchill's 'amber liquid'. From there on, the chain reaction of conversation, sparked by musing silence or animated talk, will continue into dinner and after-dinner hours.
The second requirement concerns the nature of the guests, who need not necessarily have an academic preparation, just as the pilgrims to a religious shrine do not necessarily have to be graduates of a theological seminary. But as it is with pilgrims, they must be attracted to the Academic Inn not only by the sizzling steaks and the excellent service they are sure to find in its halls, but by the conversational spirit of the place, the genius loci, which is likely to take possession of them irrespective of whether they participate actively or passively. This should be strong enough to bring them from as far away as a good bouillabaisse is able to haul a Frenchman from half across France not so much for the stimulating effect it has on his stomach as for the sparkle of conversation which good food unfailingly releases in an animated mind. What identifies the guest of the 'Academic Inn' is thus that he is animated - a spirit that is academically 'charged,' not one that is necessarily academically 'educated'.
Finally, the Academic Inn must have the architectural frame that makes it conducive to fulfilling its special mission. A hotel such as 'Timber Cove Inn', with its spacious wood-decorated hall catching the guests' activities like the hall of a medieval castle or a covered public square; its roaring fireplaces, its fascinating natural environment of majestic redwoods and the white spray of the Pacific wafting upward from the ocean and feathering over the cliffs would seem to offer an ideal enclosure for producing the numerous unplanned encounters which are statistically necessary for minds to be cross-fertilised and a given number of new thoughts to be born. This is why the foremost physical amenity of the great colleges of 'Oxford' and 'Cambridge' has always been the conviviurn of a sumptuously conceived Common Room and the companionship of a great Dining Hall where the scholars drink, and eat, and speculate together under the stimulus of a splendid piece of architecture symbolizing at the same time the university and the inn. All that 'Timber Cove Inn' would need is to add the library.
The first universities of the Western world, the academies of ancient Athens, started out as fellowships of the drinking table. To this day, the most hallowed institution symbolizing the academic mode of production is the symposium, which is Greek for 'drinking together' ('syn' standing for together, and 'pinein' for drinking). And to this day, the great English law schools are called inns -'Lincoln's Inn', 'Gray's Inn' - in which, as is appropriate for an academic tavern, the chief degree requirement is that the student must not have passed that many examinations but attended that many dinners and, as one of them woefully remarked, have eaten them too. It is therefore not surprising that Samuel Johnson, the greatest inn-scholar of them all should have said: 'There is nothing which has yet been contrived by man by which so much happiness is produced as by a good tavern,' and as one may add, so much wisdom as well.
However, as Ortega y Gasset's revolting age of the masses has destroyed the essence of the university, it has also destroyed the essence of the good tavern. It has turned it from an extra-parliamentary meeting place into a dispensary of liquid tranquillisers and a high-speed refuelling station offering television along with the mustard on hot dogs. And instead of lifting its guests from the limbo of their faceless anonymity, it returns them to the street with even less identity than they had when they entered.
The only question is: Would the idea of an 'Academic Inn' appeal to a wide enough public to make it practical?
Having held forth on the subject for two decades, I have rarely encountered a person whose enthusiasm could not be aroused upon the instant by the thought of such an institution. It not only appeals to scholars who, after all, have long experienced on their own skins the subtle effect which the increasing dimensions of their working environment - too many students, too large a faculty, too big a physical plant - exerts on the tenuous body of academic freedom (which, commanding over no armed forces, they are not equipped to withstand); it also appeals to the average person who sees in its convivial informality a compelling inducement to continued post-graduate education such as he would not seek under the more formal circumstances in which it is conventionally offered.
Indeed, so positive and instantaneous is the response to the idea that a Scottish lady reacted quite typically when, hearing of the as yet unborn 'Academic Inn', she immediately asked to enrol her two sons, aged 3 and 5, to secure a place for them in proper time, as is customary for 'Harrow' and 'Eton', where parents enrol their children when they are conceived. And the late Howard Gossage, the genius of American advertising, actually proceeded with putting the idea into practice with a series of seminars in the magnificent frame of 'Timber Cove Inn' in January 1969. Had it not been for his premature death a few months later, I have no doubt that, once the prototype was established, the idea of the 'Academic Inn' would as rapidly have spread across the world as did the idea of music festivals once it was successfully tested in Salzburg and Bayreuth.
Finally, there is the question of finance.
Well, one of the main advantages of the 'Academic Inn', protecting it from interference on the part of those furnishing the funds, is that it is an inn. This means that, once established, it will live not from donations but from the income gained by competent inn-keeping, that is by offering, aside from conversation, the best in food, drink, service, and accommodation. If this can support the engagement of singing stars by attracting those who love music, it should be able to support also the hiring of talking stars by attracting the enormous crowd, which would enjoy conversation if it discovers where it can be found.
The main financial problem concerns therefore not the running but the setting up of the first 'Academic Inns'. And this should encounter no great difficulty either considering that the second main feature of the institution - besides being a good tavern - is that it is also an eminently academic enterprise. As a result, it should be possible to persuade some of the foundations dedicated to the advance of learning and knowledge to make the funds available for the establishment of the first prototype of an institution in which, in this age for, of, and by the masses, the humanities are most likely to find their last refuge.
Besides interesting educational foundations, it should also be possible to engage the financial support of those most closely connected with supplying the inns with their most essential raw-material - the brewers, wine growers, and liquor distillers. Suffering, as they are, from a congenital guilt complex because of their association with dealings in intoxicants, they have, instead of demanding homage from the public for relieving their daily miseries with Johnsonian joys of living, long tried to appease their bad conscience by supporting cultural activities such as the 'St. Louis Symphony Orchestra' or the splendid 'Carlsberg Museum' in Copenhagen, hoping that their name will evoke Beethoven and Praxiteles rather than a wicked glass of beer.
Now if the producers of intoxicants are so ready to support orchestras and exhibitions of art which do not dispense liquor, they should be all the more willing to support a cultural establishment such as an 'Academic Inn' where, in the hallowed fashion of the Symposium, 'drinking together' forms part of the proceedings, being the scholar's most ancient mode of production. (This is why in the renowned 'Princeton Institute of Advanced Studies'; the only duty of the fellows is to sip together their daily cups in the common room).
Moreover, once a first 'Academic Inn' is set up with the help of a great brewer (possibly even carrying his name as the Copenhagen museum carries the name of 'Carlsberg'), other brewers, distillers, and wine growers will be forced by the psychological laws of competition to follow suit for the same reason that, once a bar installed television, all the others had to follow suit in quick succession. In short, the financial problem of the Academic Inn is not one of running but of establishing it, and of establishing not all inns but merely their first few prototypes.
first published in Resurgence in November 1970
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