Progress Report; or, Some Thoughts Delivered in the Vague Direction of Michael Gove

When I do outreach workshops with teenagers, trying to get them excited about coming to university (and maybe even studying history!) I make myself out to be a bit like Indiana Jones. To the 15-year-olds from inner-city London or rural North Wales who come to visit Oxford on a programme that seeks to demystify the supposedly (or maybe actually) posh university and give them the same sort of university-application resources that students from independent schools get, I’m an eccentric, renegade American on an adventure who dives headfirst into archives and comes up for air ready to wave manuscripts in their faces and lecture them about Victorian women’s menstrual cycles. This is, naturally, exactly the sort of persona one wants to cultivate in stints as a schoolteacher, but it sure obscures the dull reality of the days spent in the library trying day after day to pull together the motivation to write master’s essays on the history of political thought (“this needs to be less about sex and more about political theory,” my supervisor said upon reading a draft), all the while thinking to myself that at least if I stay in Britain for my doctorate, I’ll never have to write another term paper. It’s been a long term.

But it’s nearly over, it’s staying light ever later, and doing these outreach sessions helps to remind me of the big picture of what the hell I’m doing here aside from what seems like just another year of term papers. After all, my funding is grounded in the idea of furthering mutual understanding between Britons and Americans, and I received that funding, I presume, in part because I spent 25 minutes in a conference room in Los Angeles telling a panel of interviewers how much I believed in universities and cared about what’s happening these days in the politics surrounding British education at the secondary and higher levels. Happily, this happens to be true, and actually having the opportunity to talk regularly with ordinary schoolkids—the ones I work with come specifically from schools who do not have a history of sending students to Russell Group universities—is an extremely effective way of putting what the newspapers have to say about British education, and the changes it has undergone since the ascent of the coalition government and Education Secretary Michael Gove, into perspective.

This became particularly apparent to me today. My lesson is centered on a handout including some excerpts from a primary source I’m particularly interested in at the moment, the diaries/daybooks of a Victorian classicist called Arthur Sidgwick. Sidgwick faithfully records everything—and I mean everything—that happens to him in his daily life, but the part that I’m most focused on—and that I discuss with the kids—is the story of his courtship, engagement, marriage and children. We look (or try to look) at the way he discusses getting to know and falling in love with his wife (after the first session, I ditched the section where he falls in love with a student—call me a whitewasher of the queer experience in history if you like, but that was just too complicated to take on in an hour with school groups), and what that can or can’t tell us about love, desire, and relationships in Britain c. 1850-1914. I make clear to the kids that this is my actual research question at the moment, that I don’t know the answers to the questions I’m asking them, and just see what happens and hope that it gets them excited.

When it doesn’t, however (like today), I veer off into more general conversation. Today, mindful of Michael Gove’s proposal to re-orient history education around narrative, I asked them what they thought about the fact that their history education has been entirely in isolated, thematic chunks (for instance, as one girl said she was doing this year, the American West and the history of medicine). To a student, they said they couldn’t imagine that a chronological approach would seem as fun or as accessible—they looked very bored indeed when I said that I had done all of American history from the Pilgrims to the present three times over in school! One boy said he felt that the anti-chronological approach had led him to make unexpected connections across different time periods, and that narrative would give you set answers about how one thing led to another and not allow you to draw your own conclusions. It was an interesting statement, and one that if I were a more experienced teacher I might have picked up and run with: what about things that are actually different in the past, not the same? Isn’t it important to know how different social or cultural contexts came about, and to assess whether change over the time is the same thing as progress or regress over time? Admittedly, these weren’t concepts that I truly started to grapple with until I started taking history classes in college, but the reason that my college classes—particularly those in American history—got me so excited was because they upended my preconceived, progressive narrative of American history. Getting that narrative drilled into me from a young age gave me a base of general knowledge that my college teachers were able to query and fill in, particularly about complicated topics such as gender, race and sexuality that often defy our attempts to make them into progressive narratives.

Anyway. Wary of digressing like that in my class, I returned the discussion back to Sidgwick’s diaries. A girl asked if Sidgwick’s obsessive recording of the minute details of his life was typical or representative, and by way of comparison I brought up the diaries of the prime minister W.E. Gladstone. Not one of my twenty students had ever heard of him at all. While I was explaining him and comparing his diaries to Sidgwick’s, I tried to figure out of this was worrisome or even remarkable. How many US Civil War-era politicians could I name, for instance? Certainly not as many as I could abolitionists, which is no doubt a result of historians’ and history teachers’ increasing acknowledgement over the past decades that history is made as much by people outside the corridors of power as within them. A central criticism of the new National Curriculum for history has been that it restores focus to dead white men that had been removed by a Labour curriculum that sought to emphasize the everyday experiences of ordinary people, and the contributions of minority and women figures to history. Gladstone and Disraeli get their own bullet point, however, in the new curriculum, and while I do hope that means that a new generation of schoolchildren will have the opportunity to titter at Gladstone’s “reform” of prostitutes, I still don’t know whether I think that matters. After all, just like David Cameron and Ed Milliband, Gladstone went to Oxford; like Nick Clegg, Arthur Sidgwick went to Cambridge. What it says about modern Britain that twenty kids from “nontraditional” university backgrounds have come up to Oxford for an open day attempting to demystify elite universities and encourage them to apply, only to sit in a fancy classroom in a sixteenth-century college and have an American grad student teach them their own country’s fairly recent history, menstrual cycles and all, is a question far above my pay grade, but it’s certainly one that I feel duty-bound to keep thinking about.

Either that, or it’s just that it beats writing about utilitarianism.

QOTD (2011-12-09)

E.H. Gombrich, “In Search of Cultural History.” From 1969, but more relevant than ever today:

Our own past is moving away from us at frightening speed, and if we want to keep open the lines of communication which permit us to understand the greatest creations of mankind we must study and teach the history of culture more deeply and more intensely than was necessary a generation ago, when many more of such resonances were still to be expected as a matter of course. If cultural history did not exist, it would have to be invented now.

[…]

I know that sermons against specialization are two a penny and that they are unlikely to make an impression on those who know how hard it is even to master a small field of research. But I should like to urge here the essential difference, in this respect, between the role of research in the sciences and in the humanities. The scientist, if I understand the situation, must always work on the frontiers of knowledge. He must therefore select a small sector in which hypotheses can be tested and revised by means of experiments which may be costly and time-consuming. He, too, no doubt, should be able to survey a larger field, and be well-read in the neighbouring disciplines, but what he is ultimately valued for is his discoveries rather than his knowledge. It is different, I contend, with the humanist. Humanistic education aims first and foremost at knowledge, that knowledge that used to be called ‘culture’. In the past this culture was largely transmitted and absorbed in the home or on travels. The universities did not concern themselves with such subjects as history or literature, art or music. Their aim was mainly vocational, and even a training in the Classics, though valued by society, had its vocational reasons. Nobody thought that it was the purpose of a university education to tell students about Shakespeare or Dickens, Michelangelo or Bach. These were things the ‘cultured’ person knew. They were neither fit objects for examinations nor for research. I happen to have some sympathy for this old-fashioned approach, for I think that the humanist really differs from the scientist in his relative valuation of knowledge or research. It is more relevant to know Shakespeare, or Michelangelo than to ‘do research’ about them. Research may yield nothing fresh, but knowledge yields pleasure and enrichment. It seems a thousand pities that our universities are so organized that this difference is not acknowledged. Much of the malaise of the humanities might disappear overnight if it became clear that they need not ape the sciences in order to remain respectable. There may be a science of culture, but this belongs to anthropology and sociology. The cultural historian wants to be scholar, not a scientist. He wants to give his students and his readers access to the creations of other minds; research, here, is incidental. Not that it is never necessary. We may suspect current interpretations of Shakespeare or the way Bach is performed and want to get at the truth of the matter. But in all this research the cultural historian really aims at serving culture rather than at feeding the academic industry.

This industry, I fear, threatens to become an enemy of culture and of cultural history…. But who, today, still feels this reproach? In our world it is the phrase ‘a cloistered scholar’ that reverberates with reproach. The cultural historian draws his salary from the taxpayer and should serve him as best he can.

I hope I have made it clear in what his service can consist. For good or ill the universities have taken over from the home much of the function of transmitting the values of our civilization. We cannot expect them to get more thanks for this from some of the students than the parental home sometimes got in the past. We surely want these values to be probed and scrutinized, but to do so effectively their critics must know them. Hence I do not see why we should feel apologetic towards those who urge us to concern ourselves with the present rather than with the past.

Past and Present; or, Sesame Street and Lilies: A Scene of Academic Life

I remember when I was a radical, and when I was an activist. I remember my “welcome to college” moment, in the days before I was a historian, before I discovered Symonds, when I sat up late with some friends and a guitar writing comedic and ultimately nonsensical lyrics about keeping freshmen off the grass to the tune of “This Land is Your Land” because my friends and I had a bright idea about how to make fun of California’s Proposition 8. I remember meeting one of my best friends when we got together to blast “It’s Raining Men” at the headquarters of the so-called National Organization for Marriage across the street from our dining hall. I remember going alone to talk to the Board of Trustees about gender-neutral housing. I remember being attacked for being too masculine-looking in the right-wing press from here to Washington. I remember when I took the early morning bus down to Washington and marched in the streets.

A couple weeks ago I was walking with a friend through a collegiate neo-Gothic arch at dusk, prattling on about virtue ethics, or the evils of political economy, or the value of agrarianism, or maybe that particular neo-Gothic arch, or something, and this friend—whom I had not hitherto taken as particularly familiar with the canonical Victorian essayists—said to me, “You’re really a Ruskinian conservative, aren’t you?”

Reader, I am.

The thing is, I am honestly exhausted by social engagement, by participating in a marketplace of ideas whose undergirding metaphor I am uninterested by. I do not believe in the values enshrined by the government of the country in whose elections I have voted, and I cannot be bothered to play along with its discourse to the extent required to try to fix it. I have never made change through statistics and “accountability,” and I have no intention of starting now. I don’t believe in “winning the future,” or indeed in winning full-stop. And I haven’t marched in the streets many times, but I have marched in the streets enough times to have gained the sense that the great change marching in the streets promises is not something I can believe in.

What can I believe in, then? Well, a lot actually. I can believe in going to class or going to a meeting with my advisor or another professor and coming home with a new idea. I can believe in spending an hour over lunch in hall bitching with my friend about the school newspaper, and coming up with a cogent critique of a campus problem; or in spending months with the same friend building up complex theoretical models to describe the world around us and the texts we’re reading. I can believe in helping the freshman advisee who wants course advice, or the fellow senior who wants to vent to me about her job hunt, or the sophomore torn between joining her friends’ eating club and her general distaste for the Street, or the junior who wants to know how I handled my workload when I was writing my first JP. I can believe in the community of my cooking co-op, where we all (mostly) do our part absent any reward but each other’s satisfaction. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of seeing Symonds work his ponderous Victorian dialectical way to a vision of sexual freedom no one has ever had before. I can believe in the transcendent beauty of a freshman, coming out for the first time, recreating that process, or an upperclass student, redefining his sexual identity having gained a little more theoretical apparatus, doing the same. I can believe in the big-government best intentions of our administration’s efforts to keep grading fair and to make sure there are social options on campus in which everyone can feel included. I can believe in the camaraderie in my college, in my co-op, and in my new home, the History Graduate Study Room. I can believe in the value of a place that tells undergraduates, “Here are four years that are yours. We’re fortunate enough to be able to give you all the resources you could ever possibly want to realize your best self in those four years. Use them well.” And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, part of an institution that helps young people have a shot at being better. I can believe in the value of a place that, to its graduate students and its faculty and its staff, embodies the only lifestyle they could ever possibly live and live well. And I can believe in the value of being, year after year, there for the next kid who comes through it and needs to discover that there is actually a place for those who love knowledge and wisdom above all else, and that they can be taken care of, respected, and even perhaps loved in turn therein.

Defending the ivory tower—the impregnable fortress of the world’s knowledge, guarded by its lovers of wisdom—is, as readers will no doubt know, nearly impossible in today’s politico-economic discourse. In a world whose terms are so much set by the calculus of utility, how can we defend something whose virtue lies precisely in its un-usefulness? Well, after years of asking this question, I’m beginning to think that we can’t—not in so many words.

Instead, we have to live it. We have to turn conversations toward why we love what we study and away from our anxiety about what we’re going to do about it afterwards. We have to make space for unstructured free time in our lives, and we have to talk about not why you should do one job instead of another, but why everyone, no matter their job, deserves the right to an eight-hour day and a forty-hour week. We have to demonstrate that two hours spent playfully joking and arguing over after-dinner cups of tea isn’t (as one friend suggested to me last night) a luxury, but is rather the just desserts of stepping off the hamster wheel. Think of it like slow food: this is slow college. This is living deliberately, learning deliberately, learning for its own sake, and loving to learn: about our fields of academic study, yes, but also about others and about ourselves. And maybe, in the process, some of us will become conscious of our own alienation, and resent that the wringer of elite universities in the western world today has turned us into automatons trained to produce. And maybe we will think more about how to be good, whole, loving beings.

Why haven’t I picked up shop and moved to Occupy Wall Street? Because refusing to engage with the terms of a discourse of wealth and production that I loathe is my job. Because spending every day in a basement three floors underground writing about a subject I adore is my job. Because helping freshmen—and everyone—find their way is my job. Because making food and eating it with my friends at my co-op is my job. Because being home if someone knocks on my door needing to talk is my job. Because I love any one of these things that I do more than a job, and more than I love standing outside with a sign. I love that I make a living—a spiritual as well as a material living—through my mind, through my pen, and through my conversation. I love that my conversations have the power to change hearts, and minds, and lives—or, well, if they don’t now, they will someday. I love that when the world seems very, very dark and I feel very, very alone, it is a life full of books and ideas that makes me feel as if I can go on.

This is my world. This is a world that I believe in—that I will always believe in—and that I will always fight for. I may have long since ceased to be “the campus radical,” may have long since stopped caring about gay marriage, but I will always be on the front lines for the right to sit and think. Knock on my door, and sit on my window seat next to my Bert and Ernie plush figures, and let me make you a cup of tea.

Failing to fetch me at first keep encouraged,
Missing me one place search another,
I stop somewhere waiting for you.

And then sing with me: Solidarity forever. We shall not be moved.

Gay Greats: Questions of Canonicity; or, In Which I Am a Fuddy-Duddy

As an undergraduate in the heady atmosphere of mid-19th-century Oxford, John Addington Symonds studied something called “Literae humaniores,” or “Greats.” It was a curriculum of what we might today call western civ (indeed, Columbia still calls its western civ core curriculum “Lit. Hum.”): mostly classics, Greek and Latin literature and history, with some modern philosophy and ethics thrown in. It was the first secular course introduced to Oxford, a curriculum that, especially in Benjamin Jowett’s Balliol, hoped to prepare successful graduates to govern the empire. It prepared Symonds, recipient of one of the highest Firsts in his year and a variety of very prestigious university prizes, to write a sweepingly comprehensive cultural history of the Italian Renaissance, and then to formulate what I argue was the first academic theory of homosexual identity. It was a rigorous curriculum, and a curriculum that defined the education of individuals from Symonds (and Pater, Swinburne, Wilde, etc.) right down to some of my friends in Oxford today. Greats has changed from its 19th-century incarnation: a lot of knowledge has been added to classics and philosophy in the past 150 years; Oxford no longer (universally) wants its graduates to govern the empire or enter the clergy; and its students are no longer (universally) public-schoolboys who have been drilled relentlessly in Greek and Latin grammar from the age of seven onwards. But one of the facts that bowled me over when I was at Oxford—and that did much to sum up what was strange and otherworldly about that city of dreaming spires—is that I actually hung out with people who studied the same stuff Symonds did. Time moves slowly in Oxford. It’s conservative. It cares about canon.

Anyone with an inkling of a 21st-century liberal-arts education will have been trained to read that preceding paragraph for all the old-boyism, all the white male upper-class privilege, Greats enshrines. It’s the old wrinkled center of what Oxford is: academic conservatism all the way down. And yet, puzzlingly, I was well and truly seduced by that strange fairy city. Like Sue says in Jude the Obscure, Jude, and indeed, I, think “it is a great centre of high and fearless thought, instead of what it is, a nest of commonplace schoolmasters whose characteristic is timid obsequiousness to tradition.” And thus I sit here in my annual August exile far away in rural British Columbia: organizing my Symonds research, listening to my Oxford playlist, and throbbing with a dull ache of love for a city that is about nothing so much as it is about canon, about doing things because that is the way they have always been done.

The thing is, I grew up with canon. I was raised in the western humanist tradition, with Great Books and dead languages. I come from a family who decided it would be a fun bonding activity one Thanksgiving to read Paradise Lost out loud together, and my parents feared for my safety when I climbed on top of the toy car to recite monologues from Macbeth. Growing up, my favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language was the one that illustrated the Indo-European language family by listing the Lord’s Prayer in a variety of Indo-European languages. Growing up, I had a favorite page in the Cambridge Encyclopedia of Language. I read Victorian novels because as a Victorianist, it’s my job, but also because, if you were raised in the western humanist tradition, that’s what you do. I was raised to think—despite everything that I know about the privilege the western civ narrative enjoys, and how problematic that is—that someone needs to study these books, to remember them, to cherish them (I keep telling people I’m really quite conservative, and no one believes me… well, guys, here’s the proof). And I was raised to follow my intellectual passions, so I have guiltily burrowed my way deep inside some American child’s version of Arnoldian Culture, and wormed my way out the other end only to find myself an adult writing a thesis about John Addington Symonds.

What I’m doing with Symonds doesn’t necessarily bespeak “Greats” on the face of it. I’m writing about the construction of male homosexuality, engaged enough with the world of queer theory to know that I am making an intercession into the scholarly literature by challenging the Foucauldian presumption that only regulating entities were interested in defining homosexuality, rather than just going with the flow. I know that this is something professional historians are interested in these days. I’m happy to get bogged down in deconstructive wordplay as much as the next person with a smattering of lit-crit background. But at the same time, this isn’t a project in gender studies or queer theory, as much as I respect those fields and the people who work in them. It’s a project for which I’ve started to learn Greek and dusted off my Latin. It’s a project that’s involved teaching myself Greek literature, Renaissance art, Victorian politics and culture, Anglo-American utopian socialist literature, and generally trying to get inside the mind of an Oxford-educated Victorian man of letters and to see the world through his eyes. I am trying to figure out why Symonds was as a young man unable to find words to express “l’amour de l’impossible,” and why later in his life he found those words and set out on a crusade to spread them, by understanding what he thought was important—and why his narrative of what homosexual identity is encompassed Plato and Michelangelo and Walt Whitman.

I’m doing this in part because I was already at least halfway there myself. I work easily within this kind of cultural narrative. Recently, I realized that although in my academic work I try to be distanced and critical and deconstruct my own narratives, what I call “the homoerotic literary tradition” is really just “gay Greats.” This idea that stretches throughout the late 19th, 20th, and now the 21st centuries of privileged white gay men finding out who they are through reading is nothing more than a recasting of the western canon, looking at the same core curriculum through, er, lavender-colored glasses. And if you like, the Wizard of Oz allusion there is even deliberate: now the gay canon extends on its own path from the gay liberation era onwards, encompassing modern literary figures reclaimed and the new phenomenon of cultural figures who are openly gay from the start of their careers; a musical narrative in which Lady Gaga is the heir to ’70s disco; gay places and gay spaces; and increased points of contact between the stereotypical gay male culture and the other multivalent queer cultures that now challenge and undermine its hegemony.

I have been wondering more or less since I became involved in queer politics, culture, and history about issues of canon and hegemonic cultural narratives: does it matter that many young queer people have never heard of or read anything by Oscar Wilde? do gay people have to support same-sex marriage? are allies allowed into gay parties? to what extent is Lady Gaga’s “Born This Way” a problematic song? Making the queer-theoretical move of disengaging a homosexual sexual orientation that is in some sense intrinsic to one’s biology and/or psychology from a gay culture that treats these very specific cultural flashpoints as shibboleths solves some of the problems but not all of them. For me, my recourse to the gay canon as a woman—even as a woman scholar—is a fraught issue; that isn’t even the tip of the iceberg of identity-politics questions about who has access to this narrative and whom it speaks to.

But I think it can help us if we treat this canon like we do the old Greats curriculum, or American western civ à la the Columbia or Chicago core curricula. Greats is one path of study among many at Oxford; Columbia and Chicago are two universities among many with different approaches to the idea of liberal-arts education. (C.f. Princeton, which offers an optional rigorous first-year western civ sequence, an option availed of by only a few freshmen exceptionally passionate about the concept.) And so is gay Greats only one route among many to a sense of self-worth and self-understanding. We all make our own cultural compasses.

But as something of an expert about this canon, I do have a couple caveats. At risk of sounding like the conservative elite that I am, I think we should respect this tradition, even if at a distance, for the breathtaking goodness it has done for those to whom it speaks. We need to destabilize its hegemony, yes, but that doesn’t mean disavowing the fact that a litany of lives have been saved by Plato’s Symposium. (And people repurpose the canon in unconventional ways: the avant-garde musical Hedwig and the Angry Inch, whose protagonist exhibits an ambivalent and complicated relationship to gender and to privilege, borrows the creation myth that Aristophanes relates in the Symposium, of two-person people cut in half by Zeus, as the show’s central motif.) I also think that the need to respect this tradition for what it is means that if you are going to do it, you should do it right. You don’t have to speak about Oscar Wilde as one of your heroes to be a member of the club. But if you are going to plant your lipsticked lips on his tomb in Père Lachaise, you should learn a little about his life and read Dorian Gray and some of his plays and essays. If you are going to play gay anthems in your bar, you should know what the lyrics are, and what meanings lie behind the messages-of-self-empowerment-set-to-disco-beats of the moment (or of yesteryear). We are fortunate today that there are many ways to be queer, and that many people don’t even feel the need to label their sexual identities at all. But while getting a degree in non-western area studies and shaking free of the expectation to care about dead white men is totally awesome, that doesn’t mean it’s right to actually misquote Shakespeare.

Canons are constructs. Symonds, who didn’t think his feelings for men were precisely sexual until he was in middle age, and who struggled in his later work theorizing about homosexual identities and communities to pinpoint a difference between “congenital” and “acquired sexual inversion,” could certainly have told you that “Born This Way” we aren’t. But I, for one, am still in guilty shamefaced love with Oxford, “timid obsequiousness to tradition” and all. After all (and here’s where the conservatism comes in again) you know what doesn’t crumble into dust at the slight prod of a deconstructive finger? “The best moments in reading are when you come across something—a thought, a feeling, a way of looking at things—that you’d thought special, particular, to you; and here it is, set down by someone else, a person you’ve never met—maybe even someone long-dead. And it’s as if a hand has come out and taken yours.”

A Brief Moral Lesson

American Historical Association President Anthony Grafton wrote in last month’s Perspectives on History (only just brought in front of the paywall for non-AHA members) about, among other things, the gap between the work professional historians do and the public’s perception of that work (full, as they say in the biz, disclosure: I am lucky enough to be Grafton’s student and advisee):

Ann Little and Jeremy Young, the bloggers who responded at length, pointed out, in different ways, that my title was imprecise: “it is not history, but historians, who are under attack.” They’re absolutely right. Americans love history. Tens of thousands of them reenact battles, hundreds of thousands visit historical sites and exhibits, and a million a week on average watch the History Channel. Thousands of them buy the works of history that appear on best-seller lists. From Tea Partiers to Ta-Nehisi Coates’s readers debating the Civil War, they’re passionate about the past. What they don’t love, to the same extent, are professional historians.

Many believe that professional historians are no better than, or indeed worse than, amateurs (a traditional American view that often encompasses experts in other fields, from medicine to climate). Some find that professionals are too politically correct to see the past as it really was. Many, especially journalists, insist that professionals just can’t write.

The biggest problem, though, is rooted in the core of our practices. Professional historians, Little argues, “are, by nature, splitters rather than lumpers. We aren’t united by a methodology or single set of disciplinary practices, and our writing and teaching more often than not seeks not to impose order on a given topic but rather to provide nuance and complexity. This is intellectually satisfying, but it sure makes it difficult for us to explain to the general public what we do and why it’s important that professionally trained historians do it rather than Cokie Roberts or Glenn Beck.”

This resounds with me today because yesterday I was reading Tocqueville’s Democracy in America, a work which I have been learning about for much of my school-going life, but never read in its entirety. In eighth-grade US history in Massachusetts, we were taught how special Tocqueville thought this new American kind of democracy was; in eleventh-grade AP US history in California, we likewise learned about de Tocqueville as someone excited and optimistic about this new liberal, democratic project. In a college class at Princeton called “American Society and Politics,” taught out of the sociology department, we read Tocqueville on voluntary organizations, and Americans’ unique predilection for being heavily involved in civil society on their own terms. In the past eight years, the people without Ph.D.s in history who have taught me Tocqueville have never suggested that Tocqueville was in the least bit skeptical about the American experiment—and yet there the skepticism is in the document itself. The first volume of Democracy in America ends with some uncertainty; though Tocqueville believes that “the Anglo-Americans will alone cover the immense space contained between the Polar regions and the Tropics,” he is not so certain that the American political system will endure, or that the rule of the majority will not become tyrannical. He, like his British translator, who introduces the book some twenty years later at the height of the Civil War, is not as taken in by the rhetoric of American exceptionalism as the American teachers who taught Tocqueville to me. (He does, however, accurately predict the Cold War a hundred years early, which is rather impressive.)

My incredulity, as a reasonably-well-educated American who did well in high-school history, on reading Tocqueville yesterday illustrates to me why we need professional historians, and why professional historians need to work harder to bridge the gap between them and the people who teach history to the general public. I would have thought that, by this time in my life, I would have overcome the ability to be surprised by historical fact that differs from what I was taught at school. Clearly those of us thinking about careers as professional historians need to ensure that we can reach and preach not only to our own choir, but also to those who would prefer to attend a gospel of American exceptionalism—or who, as per a QOTD last week, don’t think gender has a role to play as a historical lens.

QOTD (2011-02-12); or, Past and Present

Today’s episode of History and Morality dawned on me on an absolutely glorious sunny Saturday morning in the Upper Reading Room, as I sat at my usual desk, U95, with the dreaming spires of All Souls pricking the beams of sunlight right in my field of vision, reading Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy:

Oxford, the Oxford of the past, has many faults; and she has heavily paid for them in defeat, in isolation, in want of hold upon the modern world. Yet we in Oxford, brought up amidst the beauty and sweetness of that beautiful place, have not failed to seize one truth, – the truth that beauty and sweetness are essential characters of a complete human perfection. When I insist on this, I am all in the faith and tradition of Oxford. I say boldly that this our sentiment for beauty and sweetness, our sentiment against hideousness and rawness, has been at the bottom of our attachment to so many beaten causes, of our opposition to so many triumphant movements. And the sentiment is true, and has never been wholly defeated, and has shown its power even in its defeat. We have not won our political battles, we have not carried our main points, we have not stopped our adversaries’ advance, we have not marched victoriously with the modern world; but we have told silently upon the mind of the country, we have prepared currents of feeling which sap our adversaries’ position when it seems gained, we have kept up our own communications with the future….

And who will estimate how much the currents of feeling created by Dr. Newman’s movement, the keen desire for beauty and sweetness which it nourished, the deep aversion it manifested to the hardness and vulgarity of middle-class liberalism, the strong light it turned on the hideous and grotesque illusions of middle-class Protestantism, – who will estimate how much all these contributed to swell the tide of secret dissatisfaction which has mined the ground under the self-confident liberalism of the last thirty years, and has prepared the way for its sudden collapse and supersession? It is in this manner that the sentiment of Oxford for beauty and sweetness conquers, and in this manner long may it continue to conquer!

My essay this week is on how criticism and the role of the critic were gendered in Victorian Britain, and it is this critical-of-the-critics attitude I had in the back of my mind as I read the passage in Arnold. I remembered a conversation I had a few days ago with a fellow history student who told me that she couldn’t get interested in Ruskin because of the strangeness, to us today, of his relationships with young women; that, as someone who studied women’s history, she didn’t approve. Sitting in the Upper Reading Room, I remembered that it is always difficult to reconcile romance with reality, the seductive allure of the city of aquatint with the knowledge that it seemingly only was so because so many women for so many centuries were denied a place in it. When Arnold sings his hymn to Oxford, and locates culture there and in the Church and in Hellenism and in the other great institutions of Victorian homosociality, it is important to remember that there are many who are and have been excluded from the promise of perfection through “sweetness and light.”

But there’s something about sunlight that encourages optimism, and the sweetness and light in the air of the Upper Reading Room this morning caused me to remember that our human impulse to perfect ourselves and our institutions and our culture has exceeded Arnold’s intentions, because here I am doing right by my academic ancestors, the early faculty wives who fought for their Bodleian readers’ tickets before there was even any such thing as an Oxbridge women’s college, and reading about culture in their time from the vantage point of my Upper Reading Room desk. Here I am, a woman in academia with a room of my own, and trying to live by a version of “sweetness and light” that I’ve learned by carefully paying my respects to my Victorians, men and women alike. My job right now, learning to be a critic of the critics, must entail goodwill and generosity: the moral character not to overlook the faults by our measures of writers like Arnold and Ruskin, but to forgive them; to take from them and their contemporaries what they give us as decriers of Mammon and Moloch, as believers in truth and beauty, but to retain enough critical distance to know that seeing them as they really are entails realizing that they are not the apogee of the perfection they promise.

I love my Victorians despite their faults because their utopianism can transcend their own time while still retaining the values that their time caused them to hold dear. I love my Victorians because they were not perfect, but they wanted to be. I love my Victorians because they gave those of us who labor in a world changed (but not so changed) the language to say that our lives must be guided by more than material concerns, and that the fight against evil—the fight for sweetness and light—can take many forms, and can be furthered by many kinds of people.

The Trauma of Theory: A Cautionary Tale

I had my first run-in with literary theory in the spring of my freshman year. I was halfway through my first college English class and thought I knew everything; I figured that because I’d read Paradise Lost and was increasingly able to follow along when I heard graduate students talk about their work, I’d be able to listen to a faculty member I knew give a paper on a panel concerning a topic in which I was interested, and know when to smile and nod. I let some people talk me into attending this panel, and I knocked off my work-study job to stand in the back of an overflowing auditorium, full of optimism and full of myself.

And boy, was I sure mistaken. Not only did I not understand the poem the speaker was discussing when she passed around photocopies of it; I didn’t understand a single word she said about it. I don’t remember, today, what the title of the talk was, or what argument she might have said she was intending to make; I only remember blank incomprehension, and confusion, and shame. I remember becoming increasingly worried and upset as I failed to grasp anything, failed to understand why what the speaker was saying was important to an understanding of the poem, failed to nod or chuckle with the rest of the audience. I ducked out before the end of the panel, too ashamed of my lack of understanding to drink the coffee, pick over the fruit tray, and say hi to the people in the audience whom I knew. I went home and cried. Though surely no one in the audience even noticed me, much less knew how confused I was, I felt as if I’d been exposed as a pretentious fool, and I realized how ridiculous I’d been to think that half a semester of intro lit could have prepared me for the rigors of professional literary criticism, or indeed the realities of the professional academic world. A few English classes and theory talks later, I have learned enough to watch the people in the audience whom I think are clever and nod when they nod; I have learned to stay for the fruit tray and let myself be introduced to people no doubt wondering what this awkward undergrad was doing at their talk; every so often I can grab hold of a sentence out of the paper which relates to something I’ve read or learned from a class, something which reminds me that the speaker isn’t talking in a foreign language after all. And I have come to accept that, as an undergrad, as not even an English major, as someone of merely average intellect who hasn’t read the theorists the academics make use of in their talks, there is no reason why I should understand the strange language they speak, their inscrutable methods of making sense out of a text which to the uninitiated sound quite all Greek (or perhaps all French, given the context, except that I actually do understand French, and what they say doesn’t sound like any of the French I know). Even if I can cope, now, with this incomprehension—enough to keep masochistically putting myself through the routine, in the hopes that someday I will understand—that afternoon at that first panel remains one of the most frightening and embarrassing moments of the first half of my undergraduate career. For someone such as me whose sense of self-worth is rooted nearly entirely in the degree to which she’s taken seriously by professional academics, there is nothing quite so awful as it being so matter-of-factly demonstrated to you what an outsider you are.

I was reminded of this episode today not only because, with twelve days to go until I’m back on campus, I can think of nothing other than the academic world; but because I read Adam Kirsch’s brief obit of Frank Kermode in Slate. Kermode is one of the people whose name has entered my sphere of awareness through the academic conversations on which I habitually eavesdrop; like so many such names, I’ve never actually read his work, a fact which, like it does with so many other such names, never fails to produce a distinct feeling of shame. The point, however, is that I can’t comment on Kermode’s views of the state of literary criticism today except through Kirsch’s interpretation of them, which will no doubt expose me as a charlatan far more obviously than my failure to understand theory talks does; however, what Kirsch says does have some bearing on that very problem of failure to understand theory talks. According to Kirsch, Kermode expressed considerable concern about the inaccessibility and hyperspecialization of literary theory, and the modern habit of scholars of literature of keeping the public (like me) unable to understand what it is they do—due, I suppose, to their reliance on a particularly inscrutable and difficult set of secondary literature. Kirsch pays tribute to Kermode’s status as a consummate generalist and a popular critic in the London Review of Books (which he helped to found) and other publications, labeling this manner of practicing lit crit a dying breed in favorable contrast to the theorists.

And, well, it’s difficult not to sympathize with this perspective. As cognizant as I am that my failure to understand theory is probably due either to my own stupidity or my lack of initiative at studying on my own the fundamental theory texts which would help my understanding of that world, I must to some extent think that the sense of alienation I feel isn’t entirely my fault. I’ve taken a number of English classes for someone who isn’t a major, have dabbled in theory, have done my best to understand what it is my friends and my colleagues in my sister department do. And I have come to believe in the relevance of theory to understanding our world: when it’s explained in a simplistic way for undergrads to understand, I’ve gotten excited by it; I’ve seen firsthand the transformative power of, for example, queer theory on a queer person’s understanding of hirself and the world, and that’s a good thing. But I do find myself agreeing with Kirsch (and perhaps Kermode, though as I said, I don’t have a good sense of how much Kirsch is quoting Kermode, and how much he’s offering his own take) that what the academic practice of literary criticism and theory so insulates itself from the world of people who don’t have advanced degrees in the subject, we have a serious cultural problem which matters a great deal.

But why does it matter so much? After all, one Ivy-League-brat-with-self-esteem-issues’ self-absorbed feelings of alienation are probably not that important in the scheme of things. Recasting the language of literary criticism such that someone who hasn’t read a single post-structuralist could still engage with the process of thinking about literature won’t help to eliminate world poverty and hunger or stop global warming or bring relief to the flood victims in Pakistan. But a citizenry which sees the practice of humanistic inquiry as part of its time could restore reason and civility to the political sphere. It could find in itself a desire to reinvest in education and the arts in the name of the next generation. It could, regardless of whether there is such a thing as narrative or such a thing as reality or such a thing as authorial intent, become interested in scrutinizing the claims of politicians and pundits who take even more fast-and-furious approaches to Truth than do literary critics. Because, see, the fact is that we need the humanities. The practice of the close study of texts makes us better citizens, better thinkers, perhaps even better people. But if that study is not just hidden in an ivory tower, but hidden behind a wall of words, it’s going to be very difficult indeed to make the case for its survival to a public which cannot understand what it is that humanists do.

Of course, it would be lovely if we lived in a world in which people said, “I do not have the knowledge or cultural capital to understand your work or the culture in which it exists, and yet I will take your word for its importance.” But, as we all know by reading daily news which attests to the systematic defunding and vocationalizing of higher education, this is not the world in which we live. We live in a world in which intellectual culture must be rigorously defended as a good in itself, and in which a discourse which can bridge the gap between the closed circle of the academic conference panel and the larger western culture of anti-intellectualism is yet to be outlined. In order to do this, it seems to me as if it is necessary to rethink academic culture into something which is not dedicated to separating insiders from outsiders, and to rethink literary studies in particular into something which does not reward mere inscrutability and punish and induce shame in those who are not members of the club. This is not to say that theory has no place in the practice of understanding the world and its texts (or films, or music, or art, or culture), but rather simply to point out how difficult it will be to make a case for the humanities going forward, if the Frank Kermodes of this world really are such a dying breed. We have our work cut out for us—and I especially. Not only do I feel as if I need to begin to consider what it means to belong to the next generation of humanists still in the process of learning what it means to be engaged in this project of understanding the world through its texts; I need also, I feel, to do the reading and listening necessary such that I can loiter unseen in the back of an auditorium, listen to a scholar speak, and not feel quite so hopelessly, shamefully left out of a culture in which I want so desperately to be taken seriously and to belong. Once I feel I have moved beyond the stage of twenty-year-old charlatan, perhaps I can start to articulate a humanism I can call my own—but is it too much to ask that the theorists should meet me halfway?