- Example the first:
Apparently Victor Davis Hanson has a new article out in the National Review.
Hanson is a former classicist who became increasingly disenchanted with the changes brought on by the ‘culture wars’ and ended up writing a well known and much-derided (in some circles) (e.g., mine) monograph, Who Killed Homer?, which is a book that makes the case for classical education (I’m on board!) and derides academe for being overly politically correct and obsessed with not offending anyone and what-not (I’m significantly less on board with this part).
He has since left academe, and made his way as a conservative commentator, and has written a number of pieces for the National Review (perhaps he’s a regular there; I don’t really follow him or that magazine closely enough to know), and he would be content to be placed in the Buckley tradition of American conservatism, I expect.
So his new piece is about how diversity has destroyed civilizations.
Which is tiresome, and, as a classicist friend who put it on facebook noted, just flat-out factually incorrect: Rome was an incredibly multicultural empire throughout its ‘golden age’, and the Ottoman Empire was generally pretty comfortable letting people go on with the lives they liked according to their own cultural standards, so long as they paid taxes and so on.
(I can’t really recommend reading the piece, but it’s here if you really want to.)
Full disclosure: I did not read past the inane first paragraph. Yes, I am criticizing an article I haven’t read. I trust my friend who commented on it, and I trust that Hanson’s history will be a reasonably good predictor of this piece’s argument.
- Example the second:
Earlier today I read a very interesting overview of the history of African American studies (mostly avant la lettre) scholarship. The author identified four distinct ‘generations’ of scholars, and summarized their main concerns and questions and methodologies and models.
For instance, you have the late 19th century, when scholarship is more Biblically inspired than really academic, as few people writing on the subject have any significant academic training (what with most of them being black, and that whole slavery thing and all). Then a later generation moved away from that, and the focus of the field shifted to demonstrating the value of the ‘black race’.
(In quotes because we all know that race doesn’t really mean anything stable, but it’s more or less the language of the time.)
Subsequent generations have increasingly focused on identifying and illuminating the agency that underlies the black communities of today – and in fact the assumption that black people in America were active, intelligent, creative agents in the construction of their own cultures and communities – as opposed to being savages, or relying on white saviors, for instance – is currently one of the basic givens of the field.
The author pointed out how all of these academic generations related to their contexts: when the cultural moment was trying to stabilize the country after a war determined that blacks had to be dealt with as humans, it was about demonstrating that black people did some good things too. When it was about Civil Rights and integration, the focus was on creating sympathy and empathy for the black American. When it was on Black Power, the focus was on the fertility of black action and imaginations.
(I’m oversimplifying mightily, you understand, but that gives you a reasonable overview, I think.)
- What these examples have to do with each other
Historiography takes as one of its basic premises that no scholarly inquiry can take place outside of its context. If you aren’t existing in a context that permits the idea that maybe black people are, um, people, your research is probably going to mostly take for granted that they’re not, and work from there. If you are committed to believing that diversity is dangerous, you’re probably going to find a way to support that claim in the face of what looks to me and my friend like incontrovertible and obvious evidence to the contrary.
That is my first objection to the ‘ivory tower’ metaphor.
But let’s step back, briefly, and clear up that term a bit.
In common parlance, the ‘ivory tower’ signifies the rarified air in which academics pass their lives, above the concerns of you petty mortals. It is imagined that they are isolated from the mundane, and never have to worry about anything like laundry or the price of milk or childcare or the human feelings that result from human interactions with human students.
The old tropes of professors – absent-minded, clumsy in the normal world, distracted by higher intellectual matters – reflects this.
It’s all bullshit, of course, as has become increasingly clear as academe becomes more accessible to the ‘lower’ classes and the poors (like me!).
That is partly what forced the culture wars of the 80’s: my intellectual ancestors with working class backgrounds started pointing out that maybe not everyone who ever did anything important was a straight rich white guy, and maybe it mattered a little bit to think about the perspectives of women and non-whites, who were also, allegedly, people.
Obviously some people – Victor Davis Hanson, for example – have found this shift so offensive that they needed to eschew the whole realm of academe as soon as they realized they couldn’t just stay in their ivory towers. Even as they, confusingly, refused to acknowledge the fact that their towers were actually fully embedded in and colored by the world around them.
Which reminds me: ‘ivory tower’, the term itself, apparently comes from the Song of Solomon, where the beloved’s neck was compared to an ivory tower. And later it was applied to the Virgin Mary, and came to signify purity and lack of concern with the banal dirtinesses of worldly affairs.
(The ‘See Also’ of the wikipedia page on ‘Ivory Tower‘, by the way, is amazing, and is comprised of ‘Gates of Horn and Ivory’ [a reference to a passage in the Odyssey]; ‘Liberal Elite’; and ‘Limousine Liberal’. Gag me.)
The confluence of the Hanson article and the article about the history of African American studies scholarship was fortuitous, but there is also a third piece: the University of Chicago wrote an anti-trigger-warning thing that surfaced on the interwebz today.
Time – and the fact that I need to get up early tomorrow for work training, and also finish packing for my luxury weekend in the Hamptons – keeps me from commenting further on this at any length, but I will say that, while I can see legitimate reasons underlying the arguments of both sides, I think the anti-trigger-warning side will turn out to be on the wrong side of history. If only because one of the major trends of scholarship has always been towards acknowledging the value of underrepresented voices, and taking their objections seriously. And ‘trigger warnings’ are, at heart, little more than acknowledging that certain people’s pain is real.
But I’ll leave that there for tonight. Lots on the table. But I always prefer that to simple neat pat answers, because those are nearly always bullshit.
I may or may not be posting this weekend, but in any case you can feel free to imagine me lounging around private pools on Long Island, and sailing leisurely around the Sound, and drinking more than is really recommended in the mid-afternoon.
And, of course, feeling deeply conflicted about it all.
Because that’s basically what I do for a living —