I’ve been reading Denis Judd’s Empire: The British Imperial Experience from 1765 to the Present. In the chapter on Cecil Rhodes he writes:

The intellectual influences which Rhodes absorbed during his lengthy and disjointed period of study at Oxford University gave him a coherent framework for his political convictions. He was later to confide to the journalist and editor W.T. Stead that at Oxford he had been deeply impressed by Aristotle’s statement that it was supremely important to have an aim in life sufficently lofty to justify spending one’s entire career in endeavoring to reach it.

I don’t know enough about Aristotelian teleology to know which of Aristotle’s writings that’s referring to – I’m also not a fan of Cecil Rhodes – but the passage got me thinking about people whose careers embody that kind of dedication.

Around 2004 I took a class at the TU Berlin on storage technology (Speichertechnik). It was taught by Horst Völz, who was partially retired by that time but still taught that course and one on information theory at the Universities in Berlin.

What impressed me about the lectures was how comprehensive they were, and how deeply Professor Völz understood the subject. By then he had been studying it for decades, and had just published the three-volume Handbuch der Speicherung von Information. I’m awed by people who can completely immerse themselves in a subject and still articulate it in a way that’s simple enough to engage students who are new to the subject.

I wonder whether that kind of immersion is possible for academics today, especially early in their careers. There’s so much pressure to publish at certain conferences every year, and the fear of getting left behind by the pack, which drives researchers to flit from one subject to the next.

The publishing cycle wasn’t always as intense as it is now, the competition wasn’t always as fierce, but most careers in the past still produced a steady stream of ephemera, which by definition doesn’t have much impact on future generations. No doubt Professor Völz has published his share of forgettable papers, as well, but he also managed to spend a significant amount of time focusing on and writing about bigger questions and longer-term concerns. The interesting question is: How? Did institutions support him? Or did he find a way despite the system?