in their day

What was scholarship like back in the golden days?

When I started reading blogs a few years ago, I paid a lot of attention to the kinds of discussions of higher education discussed in that link. Partly because I was then still a graduate student and still thinking of becoming an academic; partly because, though I did not know this then, such discussions are a staple of the academic blogosphere and it was hard to avoid them; and partly because, in those early days, it felt like they were heading somewhere productive.

I no longer read those discussions as closely, partly because I am no longer a graduate student and no longer thinking about an academic career; partly because they are staples of the academic blogosphere and I’ve changed my reading habits; and partly because I grew increasingly frustrated reading them.

I’m not really invested in this anymore – I, of course, continue to care about higher education, but I’m not currently in a position where I can do much to affect it – so I’ll just leave it at that. (Though I should note that I’m not criticizing Tim Burke here; I’m linking to his post because it’s about the kind of discussions I’ve largely stopped reading closely, not because it’s an example of one.) I read a bunch of discussions, I got frustrated, I began to focus on other things. But before I turned away, I briefly turned even more towards.

Almost invariably discussions of the present and future of higher education involve claims about the past, but quite often these claims are made without explicit reference to such scholarship as may exist on the subject. Was it really the case that professors/students/universities used to do/know X? While an answer to that question cannot, by itself, answer the question of whether professors/students/universities should, currently or in the future, do/know X, it would still be valuable to have an answer, if there is one (and to acknowledge that there is a legitimate historical question when there is not). I became convinced that rather than read fewer discussions of higher education I should read more – and not just online, but in book form.

I was already interested in the history of the practice and study of history, and as a result had been thinking about the history of higher education anyway. I had also begun to pick up an interest in intellectual history which gradually led me to start reading about humanism and the Renaissance. And as luck would have it, around the same time I came across a couple of podcasts of Anthony Grafton talking about the history of history (probably related to this book, which has been published since I listened to the lectures, and which I hope to read some day).

And that led me to a book Grafton wrote with Lisa Jardine about the history of education, From Humanism to the Humanities, which came out in 1986. I lack the background – I don’t know Latin, for instance – to understand some of the specific issues or examples they discuss but found it a worthwhile read nevertheless; Grafton and Jardine have a lot to say about humanism and education conceptually that should be valuable whatever your favored time period. Rather than try to summarize the book myself, here’s Grafton looking back over a decade later:

More than twenty years ago, Lisa Jardine and I began work on what became, in 1986, From Humanism to the Humanities. In those distant days, when leisure suits were worn without irony and disco was the object not of nostalgia but of passion, the culture wars had not yet begun. A single issue fascinated both of us–one more or less the reverse of the issue that most engages Findlen and Gouwens, and one quite unconnected with the problems of the age of Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan. In histories of humanist education, we read what amounted to vivid, three-dimensional evocations of the humanist school–re-creations of it as a theater of pleasure and passion, a place of direct contact between students of high sensibility and the ancients with whom they hoped to speak. In the primary documents, by contrast, we encountered the remains of something quite different–a system apparently based on, and often confined to, drill and indoctrination. We found the contradiction exciting–not because we thought the various forms of evidence we uncovered could tell “the whole story” of humanist education but because we thought that they must be used by anyone who wanted to create an account of the humanist school that did some justice to the lived experience of its pupils. We never claimed that classroom notes–or any other single source–offered a complete record of the transactions among teacher, text, and pupil. In fact, we cited a wide range of evidence, from the notes of students to the rituals of teachers, and even attended to the ways in which some teachers tried to make their students speak and act as Romans, in classical settings. We wanted to argue that a three-dimensional re-creation of humanist education had to include, and in part to rest on, these materials–as opposed to the educational manifestoes, the equivalent of modern college catalogues and web sites, in which teachers described what they offered. In advancing this argument, as we said, we followed the lead offered by historians of classical education in antiquity–above all, H.-I. Marrou. But we also had in mind our own experiences as teachers, which had led us to believe that any full account of modern university life must pay attention to the messages students actually receive–as opposed to those that teachers transmit. A recording of a lecture tells one less about the students’ experience than the teacher’s erudition and eloquence, unless one can read against it the notes that students actually took and the exams on which they tried to use what they learned.

Using a language that, read in retrospect, resounds quaintly with the struggles of the 1960s, we set out to argue that the school, for most of its inhabitants, did not resemble Machiavelli’s study or Colocci’s dinner parties. We also tried to suggest some of the reasons why a system of education that did not sparkle when examined closely still won the loyalty of so many patrons and parents. But by the time our book finally appeared, ignorant–and learned–armies were clashing by night over the canon. Both our conservative and our radical readers often interpreted our book in ways hardly consonant with our intentions–and connected it with intellectual movements that had not existed when we began work. Even though we succeeded in stimulating debate over what had previously been a staid realm of Renaissance studies, much of it hardly followed the paths we had expected, and not all of it was productive. This personal note, moreover, suggests a second point of wider methodological interest. In describing the humanist school as we did, Lisa Jardine and I meant to suggest that Renaissance experiences of antiquity differed radically. The differences depended in part on whether the one doing the experiencing was male or female, child or adult, patrician or plebeian; in part on where, and in what circumstances, the reader went to work. Some intellectuals met the ancients as adults, colliding with them head on, asking personal questions and receiving detailed answers (our “charismatic teachers” certainly had such experiences)–especially in the long years they lived after school was out. But others met the ancients as texts, on paper; they never saw Cicero, in their minds’ eyes, standing at his podium to denounce the enemies of Rome, but they memorized many lists of adjectives and figures of speech, which they later obediently reproduced in endless passages of patchwork Latin prose. The Renaissance could be, and sometimes was, a passionately lived revival of the antique. But it could also be, and often was, a long subjection to a discipline, the ultimate purpose of which remained unclear.

[From Anthony Grafton, “The Revival of Antiquity: A Fan’s Notes on Recent Work” [JSTOR] AHR, Vol. 103, No. 1. (Feb., 1998), pp. 118-121 (part of a forum [JSTOR link to journal issue] on “The Persistance of the Renaissance”)]