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Microcosmographia Academica

The Microcosmographia Academica is a satirical pamphlet on the bureaucratic politics of the “tiny academic world” published in 1908 by Trinity College, Cambridge professor FM Cornford. It is a short and savage excoriation of groupthink, inaction, sycophancy and other procrastinative tendencies found in academia or any group of humans finding themselves in a hierarchy.

Cornford directs his advice to the “pitiful young academic politician”, introducing a series of principles and maxims. It is highly worth the read. I experienced just a touch of insider academic life as a graduate student, mostly vicariously through my friends in the PhD program. I have included a few choice quotes below.

Political influence may be acquired in exactly the same way as the gout; indeed, the two ends ought to be pursued concurrently. The method is to sit tight and drink port wine.


University printing presses exist, and are subsidised by the Government for the purpose of producing books which no one can read; and they are true to their high calling.

Just look at my master’s thesis.

It is impossible to enjoy the contemplation of truth if one is vexed and distracted by the sense of responsibility.

Nobody really wants to engage in all this politicking, right? Everybody wants to retire to their office to read, in tenured solitude. Sometimes though, action has to be taken:

When other methods of obstruction fail, you should have recourse to Wasting Time; for, although it is recognised in academic circles that time in general is of no value, considerable importance is attached to tea-time, and by deferring this, you may exasperate any body of men to the point of voting against anything.

To which it follows:

No academic person is ever voted into the chair until he has reached an age at which he has forgotten the meaning of the word ‘irrelevant’

Cornford writes the driving force behind the political motive in academics is Fear, and lists a number of fear-inducing “bugbears” such as:

  • Giving yourself away;
  • Females;
  • What Dr __________ will say;
  • The Public Washing of Linen;
  • Socialism, otherwise Atheism;
  • The Great World; etc., etc., etc.

If you have ever worked for government, you will recognize the following:

This most important branch of political activity is, of course, closely connected with Jobs. These fall into two classes, My Jobs and Your Jobs. My Jobs are public-spirited proposals, which happen (much to my regret) to involve the advancement of a personal friend, or (still more to my regret) of myself. Your Jobs are insidious intrigues for the advancement of yourself and your friends, speciously disguised as public-spirited proposals.

The following quotes describe succinctly the thought processes of the Everyman, the “average” citizen. I take these to heart in my general political life as an ironic guide.

There is only one argument for doing something; the rest are arguments for doing nothing.

… the only justifiable attitude of mind is suspense of judgment; and this attitude, besides being peculiarly congenial to the academic temperament, has the advantage of being comparatively easy to attain.

… it is a mere theorist’s paradox that doing nothing has just as many consequences as doing something. It is obvious that inaction can have no consequences at all.