Tag Archives: The humanities

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.

More thoughts about Bill Gates and Big History

My last post commented on the enthusiasm and money that Bill Gates has been pouring into Big History, a way of teaching history that focuses on very, very long-term processes of change. There I mostly talked about the institutional sides of the story– what it means to have one not-very-well-informed rich guy making decisions about what everyone else should learn.

Here I want to talk content. I want to ask about the messages conveyed in a Big History approach to the past and the background assumptions that it seems to embody.

But before going any farther, readers should probably glance back at the consumer warning that’s at the top of this Opinions section. It explains that the opinions here are just that, opinions, not scholarship or value-neutral reporting, and that’s double extra true when it comes to Big History. I haven’t read up on the details or tried to see all the arguments in its favor. I haven’t looked into the pedagogy side either. It may be that Big History works great in classrooms full of teenagers– we’d still want to know whether it was worth teaching in the first place.

So today we’re skipping the nuances and subtleties, and getting straight to Big History’s Big Implications. What would it mean to make a Big History perspective the foundation of young people’s understanding of the past? David Christian, whose ideas so inspired Bill Gates, describes the intent as providing “a clear vision of humanity as a whole.” In a Guardian article, Gates himself is quoted as saying that the approach will help students “understand what it means to be human.” So what kind of answer is he funding?

One answer is, it’s a vision in which human beings don’t count for too much. In the Gates-funded version of Big History, we’re a speed bump on a long highway. We humans only showed up recently; relatively speaking, we’re not going to be here much longer, and the rest of the universe will get along just fine after we’re gone.

We also don’t have too much influence while we’re here, because so much of “what it means to be human” was fixed long ago: first by the geology, chemistry, and biology of the earth we inhabit, then by our earliest neuro-wiring as humans, for things like language and community life.

Within those parameters, there’s not much room for difference or transformation– the gaps separating us 21st-century Americans from, say, ancient Egyptians count for much less than the basics we share. Seen within the 250,000-year history of humanity, Aristophanes, Shakespeare, and Amy Heckerling might as well be the same person. Ditto for Confucius, Thomas Aquinas, Mary Shelley, Karl Marx, and Rosalind Franklin.

You get my drift: Big History sure sounds like a training in resignation to all the inevitabilities that have built up over the last few hundred thousand years, not to mention the millions of years before we humans arrived. The changes that matter are bound up with enormous processes that we can’t do much about, and whatever we humans can achieve doesn’t match up against all that we can’t change. Bringing fast food workers’ wages up to $15 from the current $8?  Does that issue really amount to a hill of beans from the Big History perspective? Workers and activists should save themselves a lot of heartbreak and just accept the world as it is.

Is it unkind to suggest that a billionaire in today’s America might think that’s a great lesson to teach?