One of the centerpieces of Max Weber's great work Economy and Society is his classification of types of legitimate authority: charismatic authority, traditional authority, and rational – legal authority. Charismatic authority (the term comes from the name of the holy oil used in baptisms and other rites of the Catholic Church) is that personal claim on the loyalty of a group of followers deriving from the extraordinary characteristics of the individual. The military skill of Genghis Khan, the spiritual purity of Joan of Arc or Gandhi or Mohamed, that sort of thing. As Weber notes, after the extraordinary individual dies, his or her authority passes to a successor who quite often lacks the special characteristics that conferred the authority in the first place. So over time what was originally a spontaneous and extraordinary individual event becomes a regular passage from ruler to ruler. Weber called this "the routinization of charisma."
I often reflect on this notion in its application to what happens again and again in the Academy when a course or program created by an exciting – a charismatic – professor is handed off to some young assistant professor who then slogs on following the course outline more or less unthinkingly. 70 years ago when I entered Harvard as a young freshman, Harvard was just phasing in a new program called General Education. Some of the most distinguished senior members of the arts and sciences faculty created exciting new lecture courses for the freshman and sophomores, with two large lectures a week and a discussion section taught by a young Teaching Fellow or Instructor. Each undergraduate was required to take one humanities course, one social sciences course, and – if not a science major – one General Education science course. My year was the second year of the phase-in and we were required to take two of the three. My very first semester I signed up for Social Sciences 2 taught by Samuel Beer. Beer was a dramatic political scientist with a shock of red hair and a bushy red mustache. The course filled Harvard's largest venue, New Lecture Hall, and as we sat there entranced for the year he talked about everything from the Anglo-Saxon wergeld to the Weimar Republic. I don't think I ever came within 50 feet of Beer (although I did once get a job from the Harvard Student Employment Office to wax the floors in his home,) but it was a mesmerizing experience.
Eventually the big wheels got tired of giving the great courses they had created and the jobs were passed on to junior faculty. Decades later, Harvard decided to bring General Education to a close and create some other undergraduate set of distribution requirements. I saw the same thing during my brief time teaching at the University of Chicago. Under the famous president Robert Hutchins a revolutionary new undergraduate curriculum had been fashioned and for a long time put its unique stamp on a succession of students. By the time I got there in 1961, only a few bits and fragments of the great old program still clung on and I spent two years teaching in the second year humanities course that had been created long ago.
I have had a hand in creating four academic programs in my lifetime. The first was Social Studies at Harvard, which has just completed its 60th year. The second was Social Thought and Political Economy at the University of Massachusetts, which is now 47 years old. The third was the doctoral program in Afro-American Studies, also at the University of Massachusetts, which will be 25 next year. The fourth was the so-called Alternative Track in the UMass philosophy department, devoted to social and political philosophy and recent Continental philosophy. It flourished for no more than 10 years, attracting close to half of all the doctoral students in the department before it was summarily terminated by my colleagues, who hated it and thought that it was "not philosophy," the most devastating thing a philosopher can say about what a colleague is doing.
But that is a story I have told at length in my autobiography.