Tag Archives: religion

Why study history, Monday update

Ta-Nehesi Coates has a terrific essay in The Atlantic about last week’s great National Prayer Breakfast Controversy.

Apparently Barack Obama had been asked to address this annual confab of Christian power-players, and in his remarks he suggested that today’s Islamic fundamentalists aren’t uniquely barbarous, crazy, or evil; in the course of history, Christians– even American Christians!!– had also occasionally killed, kidnapped, looted, and enslaved in the name of their God. Naturally, outrage ensued, with the Best In Class award going to a Virginia politician: Obama’s remarks, he explained afterward, were “‘the most offensive I’ve ever heard a president make.’

Now, I’m assuming readers here don’t need me to underline the ridiculousness of such talk. (On the other hand, the normally sensible Christian Science Monitor presents this as a debate with two more or less legitimate sides, so maybe the underlining is needed; if so, take it as given.)

But the great NPB Controversy does offer a worthwhile reminder of something else, which has been a big theme on this blog: our society needs historical study, and it needs the specific kinds of historical study that historians undertake. Meaning, it’s not enough just to look to the past for data about economic trends, or battlefield success, or the values that led some societies to develop stable democratic governments.

Economists, generals, and political scientists do all those things, sometimes usefully– but we also need more. We need the whole past, complete with its losers and victims, its crimes and craziness, its miseries.  We especially need to know about our own crimes, follies, and victims, as well as those of other people. That’s the kind of thing that historians dig up.

We need that kind of knowledge for the most obvious ethical and practical reasons. Even we non-Christians know it’s just wrong to view ourselves as fundamentally superior to other peoples, immune to their criminialities and fanaticisms. It also doesn’t work, as we Americans ought to have learned from our last fifteen years of foreign policy disasters. If we don’t want to learn humility for its own sake or to honor Jesus, how about we do it to avoid another fifteen years of expensive, bloody, planet-wrecking military failure?

The great NPB Controversy also illustrates a second thread running through these posts: we have a collective need for history of this kind, but we can’t expect private individuals to meet it, not unless we provide them way more collective support. The outraged prayer breakfasters didn’t hesitate to trash The Most Powerful Man On Earth ™–are they really going to hesitate to trash untenured academics saying the same thing in stronger terms?

That’s why we historians make a big mistake when we defend our enterprise in terms of its career-making benefits, all those skills that are supposed to get our students good jobs and bright futures. Those benefits exist, but along with them come career-endangering risks; the good jobs aren’t going to go to young people who’ve been accused of negativism by some southern politician or angry blogger.  Individualizing the virtues and rewards of historical study means drifting toward feel-good, accentuate-the-positive histories, the kind that will please employers– and it means that history will lose the central place it might have had in national debates.

The great NPB Controversy shows us that feel-good historical culture is already here– it’s time to push back.

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Listening to Trollope

I’m a big fan of the mid-Victorian novelist Anthony Trollope.

For those who haven’t encountered him, Trollope combines in one package just about everything you might have heard about nineteenth-century English fiction. His novels are long, with dozens of characters, all of them prosperous, some of them super-rich. There’s a whole series just dealing with squabbles among Church of England clerics, and another series about a very rich duke. Typically the plots end in marriages, often between relatively poor young women and rich young men. There’s even fox-hunting, described in loving detail– Trollope himself rode and hunted.

So it’s not self-evident that Trollope would grab the attention of a leftist atheist rust-belt professor like me.

He does, though– partly because he’s among the all-time great writing technicians, able to delineate characters, emotions, and scenes in just a few lines, and partly because his sympathies are so deep. He persuades us that we can learn as much about the human condition from Archdeacon Grantly, Marie Goesler, the dukes of Omnium, and their friends as from anyone else in literature. As a bonus, he’s also an inspiration to anyone who writes even part-time. Trollope wrote for three full hours every morning before starting his day job; if he finished a novel before the time was up, he started in on the next one.

But there’s another reason for thinking about Trollope these days, more particularly for thinking about those six Church of England novels. One of their central themes is an experience that we in the twenty-first century university are reliving– the travails of tradition-minded institutions in rapidly-changing societies. Trollope has a lot to teach us about that situation.

To Trollope’s credit, he doesn’t sugarcoat or simplify his lessons. His fictional Church of England mixes good and bad qualities, and so do the individual clergymen who work for it. They do lots of good, but they also bask in their social privileges, and few of them work very hard; some are greedy, and most have moments of envy and anger. Weird inequalities run through the Church, because so many of its practices were set up centuries earlier. As vicar of Framley, Mark Robarts gets a fine income and a beautiful house; as perpetual curate of Hogglestock, the more learned, pious, and hardworking Josiah Crawley can barely feed his family.

Anyone familiar with the American university today can see the parallels. Like Trollope’s Church of England, we have our rich and poor institutions, our underpaid adjuncts and overpaid stars, our vanities and trivial feuds. We do some good, but we don’t do it very efficiently. At times, we cling to medieval arrangements that don’t serve obvious functions today.

The parallels are just as obvious when it comes to the challenges that face Trollope’s Church. In all the Church of England novels, calls for reform loom in the background, and sometimes they hit the characters hard.   Just like our own university reformers, Trollope’s Church-reformers want to make the institution more useful to society. They’re troubled by its inefficiencies and failure to change with the times. They see privileged clergymen who are stuck in the past and don’t contribute to the real world. They see an institution that needs to bring its practices into line with its mission statements.

Sound familiar?

So one lesson from Trollope is that our contemporary debates about the university recycle old battles and old arguments. The talk we hear every day– about how the university needs to serve new social needs, deliver services more efficiently, modernize — is about 150 years old. That doesn’t necessarily make it false or irrelevant. But it does mean it’s not based only on observation and brave new thinking. It’s a trope, as they say in the English Department.

Trollope’s traditionalists don’t have good answers to the criticisms they face. Pretty much all they can come up with is some mix of “we’ve always done it this way,” “God wants it this way,” and “society will fall apart if we shake things up.” Nowadays, we professors mostly avoid the “God wants it this way” answer, but updated versions of the other two are still going strong.

But Trollope’s sympathies are with the traditionalists anyway, despite the feebleness of their self-defense, and over the course of the novels we readers come to look differently at them. He never fully explains this alternate view, and his characters seem unaware of it, but the point eventually comes through: in Trollope’s Church, ideas, preaching, and rituals matter less than the possibility the institution allows for living out certain values.

He illustrates that idea with two of his clergmen, the only 100-percent Christians he comes up with in the whole series of novels. They’re both more or less failures in real life. The one is impossibly rigid and impractical, angering everyone he meets; the other is lovable but dithery and not very smart. Neither is much of a minister, though both of them try hard; neither would survive long without the sheltering protection of the Church. But their survival matters, because they walk the Christian walk, exemplifying for their friends what Christianity is really supposed to be. Without them, all we’d have would be the inert Christian texts, a series of empty formulas and content-free injunctions.

Values need to be lived, not just thought or believed in, Trollope tells us, and they can only be lived in the right conditions. Trollope’s Church provides those conditions.

Now, providing a safe space for saints isn’t a big concern for the twenty-first-century university. Over the years I’ve met one or two academic saints, but they’re not a key demographic in my world.

What is basic to my world is another version of Trollope’s encounter between inanimate texts and living human beings. For Trollope, the encounter was about living out the Bible’s demands. For us, it’s about keeping alive the texts and other forms of knowledge that make up civilization.

Of course, like the Bible, our civilizational texts will live on in the libraries and storage drives whether anyone looks at them or not. But they don’t really exist unless they’re read by actual human beings, living in the specific conditions of their own times. Read and grappled with in a serious way, meaning that someone has learned the languages and done all the other legwork that real understanding requires.

In different ways, this applies to every university discipline. Somebody has to do the heavy lifting– learn the technical vocabularies, dates, and names, practice arpeggios, perform experiments, study old manuscripts, travel to weird places.

Just like Trollope’s clerics, we knowers don’t see ourselves or what we’re doing very clearly, and we do a bad job of explaining ourselves to the outside world. When asked to explain all that reading, practicing, and experimenting, we talk about the importance of our “research,” the books we’re writing, the journal articles we’ve published. Then we’re left flat-footed when someone asks whether the world actually needs another new book on Shakespeare’s sonnets or the French nobility.  Why invest so much effort in a book that’s going to reach about six hundred readers?

Trollope points us to the real answer. We may not need the new books, and certainly the books themselves aren’t going to change the world. What we need are the years of studying and the strange kinds of knowledge that go into the books. We need people who walk the cultural walk, and we need quite a few of them if knowledge is going to survive in any meaningful way.

In our world, the university is the only safe haven for those people.