Recuperating Intellectual History

I’ve just finished reading James Kirby’s wonderful book Historians and the Church of England. I have to say that the title did not make me feel optimistic, and I sat down to the book with a certain grimness, not unlike the feeling one has when one has no choice but to cycle several miles in the pouring rain. But it didn’t take long for me to set those assumptions aside. This is intellectual history at its best, making dry and complicated ideas clear and engaging and elucidating the relationship of the ideas to material causes and consequences. James doesn’t just read texts (though he does that very well); he also pays attention to national, church, and university politics, economic recessions, international cross-fertilizations, and more, showing us what historians who work in different subfields might gain from engaging with intellectual history/history of ideas, and what intellectual history/history of ideas can learn from other subfields.

I’m writing a real review for a journal, where I’ll be able to tell you more about the really creative and helpful interventions that the book makes. But I just wanted to say something a bit more personal here. Having spent the last three years editing one of the more public venues for writing in intellectual history/history of ideas, having along the way had a number of negative personal experiences with particularly cliquish, pretentious, and sexist intellectual historians, and having read an orals field in intellectual history and becoming frustrated with the persecution complex but simultaneous barrier-erecting/gate-keeping displayed by many of intellectual history’s most famous practitioners (sorry not sorry), I had resolved to wash my hands of the whole thing. For me, James’s book offers a kind of redemption for the field (which I’m sure would have pleased his Anglican historians!). It’s unapologetic in its core subject of historiography and its core method of analysis of published primary sources; to ask it to do something else (I found myself wishing that it had more to say about popular reception of the ideas under discussion) would be outside its remit. But it can do that without being crabbish or sententious or dull. I don’t think I knew that a book could do that until I read this one.

When I was a child I found mathematics unspeakably dull, didn’t put in any effort, and viewed myself as rather bad at it—having been placed, unlike most of my peers in the gifted program, into the second-from-top instead of the top stream. In an educational environment in which only success at math and science was valued, and in which boys clever at math and science in particular were regarded as the heroes of the school, this meant that I often didn’t view myself as especially intelligent, and had a constant vague sense of being short-changed or undervalued (it was my parents who noticed the gendered element to all this). Not only was I surprised when I was accepted to Princeton (which I persisted for several years in thinking must have been some sort of mistake—now I understand how lotteries and class privilege work), I was also surprised when, in my final year of school, I at last had a really great math teacher. I came to find calculus exciting, felt motivated to make endless neat little pencil columns of derivatives and proofs, and did very well in the class. Like many, I think, who didn’t have a good early education in a particular subject, I feel a sense of loss and regret that I didn’t have the opportunity to fulfill my potential in math, and that in particular a sexist environment told me that I wasn’t as capable of succeeding or being rewarded for my efforts as boys were. This is not to say that I would ever have been a brilliant mathematician, or that I’m not thrilled to be a historian and history teacher and far better suited to these roles than I have ever been to mathematical or scientific work. But I suppose it says something about how our ideas about intelligence and mental aptitude are socially/culturally constituted, and about how climates for learning matter as much as the ideas imparted or the pedagogical techniques used to impart them. (It also, by the by, says something about how understanding the history of ideas might well be aided by historians who also seek to understand the material contexts in which ideas are produced.)

I rehearse all this as an analogy for why we need more intellectual-history work like James Kirby’s. It would be nice if intellectual history were a field I might primarily associate with the tools that it brings to aid our understanding of the past, rather than with cliquishness and making me feel stupid. (This is not unlike how, at about the same age as I thought myself irredeemably stupid because I wasn’t in top-set math, I thought the primary criteria for being a Christian were opposing evolution and hating gay people—those were the main views espoused by the self-identified Christians I met and heard about in the Bush era.) It would be nice if it were a field like any other, that might be more open to engaging profitably with other fields of historical research and that were accessible to new voices and to those who prefer not to do their intellectual work in a tendentious, argumentative style or who seek to demonstrate their credentials through the greatest use of jargon and name-dropping. When I read James’s excellent prose, I feel like he takes the reader seriously and seeks to have a conversation with her (or with the historical profession more widely, as in his judicious reference to the work of the other historians with whom he engages). I don’t feel as if—as has happened when I am representing an intellectual-history publication at an intellectual-history event—he is walking straight past me in order to speak to my male colleague. His writing style shows that he views it as his responsibility to express his arguments clearly, not the responsibility of the reader to keep up with arcanities if she doesn’t want to be thought stupid. I want to assign all the awful intellectual historians I’ve met in the past few years to read Historians and the Church of England, to show them what it really means to be intelligent and generous, how to make their field a little less alienating, and how to write something from which even those of us who no longer consider ourselves intellectual historians might take some value.

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