The Heyman Center continued its exceptional series of lectures on Thursday night with a presentation by Professor Steven Shapin of Harvard. Bwog’s Academic Exceptionalism Correspondent Dane Cook was there.

Steven Shapin indulged an overflowing audience of (presumably) Ivory Tower affiliates at the Heyman Center last night with a presentation of his most recent work entitled, “The Ivory Tower: A History of an Idea about Knowledge and Politics.” A professor of history and sociology of science at Harvard—Shapin is an unabashed resident of the proverbial Ivory Tower himself, and he has traced its origins and evolution through his research.

Shapin began by expelling all speculation that a material Ivory Tower ever existed. “There never was an Ivory Tower,” he said. Appropriate to our contemporary connotation of the phrase, the “Ivory Tower” abides entirely in the abstract. It is a symbol, an idea—merely a figure of speech.

However, according to Shapin the meaning of the phrase has changed drastically overtime. Its first known formulation takes root in a religious context, referring to the Virgin Mary as a “Tower of Ivory, House of Gold.” In 1837, French poet Charles Augustin Sainte-Beuve was the first to describe the figurative tower as a retreat. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, “Ivory Tower” was used exclusively in reference to artists, and around the time of the First World War, many artists faced harsh criticism for being disengaged, aloof, and trivial. As Shapin said, “The Ivory Tower became only a place for bad art, bad people, and bad consequences.”

Not until World War II did academia become a target of the phrase “Ivory Tower,” as people began to view the university as an impractical and self-indulgent institution—disconnected from society and reality. However, universities would not cede such slander without a fight: Shapin extensively quoted Columbia philosopher Irwin Edman, who stated, “Nor can a university whose very stationery reminds one that it is in the City of New York be described as an Ivory Tower.” Shapin also noted similar remarks from Eisenhower during his tenure as Columbia’s president.

Since WWII, “Ivory Tower” has retained a definite stigma of disengagement and austerity. It has become a pathology that demands a cure. Shapin cited title upon title of scholarly books calling for the renovation or destruction of the Ivory Tower. Ultimately, Shapin argued that the Ivory Tower has become an instantiation of the age-old debate between the active and contemplative life—a debate that has never been more one-sided.

But, as Shapin aptly pointed out, if the university bends to the demands of pragmatism, and becomes merely a reflection of the immediate, practical world—the world beyond our Ivory Tower—how can we hope to offer any unique contribution to it at all?