According to yesterday’s press reports, former White House Chief of Staff Andrew Card has complained about Obama’s new informal dress code which he finds disrespectful of the office (“a locker room experience”).

I’ve read somewhere that military historians operate with a rule-of-thumb about who is a historical winner and who is a loser, viz., that the fanciest brass predicts a loser. Whereas informal military dress code signals a winner (any military historians out there who can confirm this?). The reason is quite obvious, of course: spending time and energy on fancy uniforms tends to reflect a lack of attention to the real job.

Which reminds me of an experience that I probably share with many others but haven’t heard anyone express explicitly, namely, that there seems to be some kind of correspondence with the formality of scholarly/scientific environments and their level of quality.

For example, in my experience, the more formal a meeting setting is — with introductory talks by university dignitaries, receptions in the city hall, accomodation in five star hotels, programs full of academic titles, etc. — the less interesting the meeting usually is. Not because of the formality of the meeting as such, of course, but because the level of formality often is a symptom of a lack of interest in the basic intellectual problems at hand.

Could it be that the more formal a scholary area is, the less successful it is bound to be? So if you are looking for a vibrating intellectual field, look out for not-so-fancy websites and meeting announcements in courier font, for blog discussions and on-line journals, and for meetings which definitely don’t have a city hall reception on the programme. Socities that present an array of prestigious price winners during the annual conference dinner are probably on their way towards stagnation too.

Share →