A sermon and a pep talk for the morning of Wednesday of 13th week

With tomorrow’s lesson on James Baldwin’s The Fire Next Time in my head, Will Pooley’s evocative blog post as my text, and two more weeks of this crazy semester to go.

There is far to much anxiety and negativity among the apprentices in my trade, and it has an extraordinary capacity to feed off itself and grow.

People who know me well know that I am so anxious, that I am too quick to let my academic work define my self-worth, that I can so easily come up with excuses to hate myself for not working hard enough. I have been lying awake at night the last few weeks worrying because in mid-May I know I am going to hand in a term paper—my last term paper—that will fall short of the highest intellectual standard of which I am capable. But the reason I know I am going to do that is because the term paper actually isn’t important and I actually don’t care.

Instead it is important that the sun is shining and the weather is warmer; that I have wonderful students whom I am teaching an interesting book this week; that I have a roof over my head and a salary that allows me to live comfortably, to eat well, to give to charity, to travel; that I am going to the UK in just six weeks; that my house will be filled with old friends this weekend; that, no matter what happens on the job market in four or five years, I have so many structural advantages that I will have no difficulty landing on my feet in some sort of middle-class, professional employment that uses my skills.

There are things that one can do to make oneself a stronger candidate for an academic job: other competitions (for grants, for publications) that one can practice winning, hours that one can put in on one’s intellectual work as well as the other aspects of being a professional university teacher. There are also structural inequalities that make some people more likely to get academic jobs than others. I am sure I will carry to my grave the shame and sadness that by virtue of being born into an academic family (though not, it must be said, a particularly wealthy or elite one) and by virtue of the extraordinary post-secondary educational opportunities I have had, I have a greater chance at success than some. But I think there are ways to work constructively around that unavoidable problem: to do one’s duty, to be a responsible and hardworking holder of that place that one didn’t deserve, and to make at least modest efforts towards widening access for those who will come after.

I also think—and I know that I have said this to many of you—that there are countless ways in which all of us who are engaged in pursuing a fully-funded PhD at a top program are extraordinarily, jaw-droppingly lucky. I kind of cannot believe how extraordinary it is that I live in New York, that I make a decent living, that I get to teach bright, fun students, that I have access to such good library and information technology resources, that I live a life where going to Europe every summer is normal. I also, sometimes, get to think and to write, and despite how hard it is to be clever enough, I think I want to keep thinking and writing for a long time to come. I think I will be doing this even if I am not paid to do it, because I have been doing it all my life thus far, and in any case if I am fortunate enough to obtain an academic job what I will be paid to do is to instruct the young, anyway.

Will Pooley’s advice is right: we have to stop behaving as if our advisors are monstrous parental figures of one’s worst psychoanalytic nightmare, sitting in judgment on us. We have to have the confidence to live into being the scholars and teachers that we want to be, even if our efforts don’t have immediate external reward. We have to do the work that we are willing and able to do, and not the work that we are not. And we have to accept that all this may not be enough, or the right sort of thing, to get us the Oxbridge JRF or its moral equivalent—but if not, we have accrued a breathtaking quantity of advantages that others in the US or in our home countries do not have. We will be. just. fine.

What we need to do is to ensure we are advocating for our colleagues around the world who are not making a middle-class salary, to dispense the one good piece of advice—that in this day and age it is not worthwhile to do a PhD unless you are fully funded—to give other such pep talks where they are needed, to ourselves as much as others; and also to remember that the poor are always with us—that there are many in this country and around the world who do need our material and spiritual help, that we need to think about how we as humanities academics can find our ways of being a voice for the voiceless, whether as activists or, for those who do not feel called that way, as teachers of the western humanities tradition or other traditions, or simply with our financial donations or volunteering time.

For unto whomsoever much is given, of him shall much be required.

Some Things I Wish I Could Have Said in a Meeting Today; or, An Agnostic’s Sermon for Good Friday

It is Friday of 9th week (there are 16 weeks in our term), and I am exceedingly tired.

There are lots of ways that I could feel inadequate as a teacher, student, and colleague right now, and lots of things I have to do. But I cannot be strong and organized and involved every day, and right now I am going to do things for myself: make a pie, listen to Bach, start playing cut and paste on the bedroom floor while beginning a new manuscript (a dissertation chapter, even?).

My values—the things that make me feel whole and purposeful—may not be your values. In some ways it is unfortunate that the things that keep me going were forged in a childhood of suburban middle-class academic-brat privilege and a higher education at two of the more conservative and traditional elite universities in the Anglo world. It makes me sad, often, that this is the person that I am: that I am enough of a lily-livered liberal to identify as much with university faculty and administrators (the people who made me) than with the proletariat with which, as a graduate student, I am meant to identify.

In the past few weeks my teaching in American intellectual history has introduced my students to a range of topics—old topics, from Europe, rooted in the things I see when I look at the nineteenth century as a scholar. We’ve covered notions of democratic culture and education; we’ve covered Marx and marxisms; through quotation and paraphrase in twentieth-century American texts, some students heard about the Sermon on the Mount for the first time. I’ve done more talking in section than I would like the past few weeks, and I’ve not always been as flexible as I ought in indulging students’ desires to relate these texts to their present of racial, class, and regional conflict instead of to the past which I arguably too readily inhabit. But I left the present long ago, when I decided not to do another Washington internship or organize another LGBT protest; when I took the political buttons off my jacket and my bag.

It is so hard to put into words to those who weren’t there where I’ve come from: so hard to explain that the political resolve and personal self-confidence I needed to survive suburban San Diego in the years after 9/11 have transmuted into something quite different after eight years of higher education, a couple continents’ worth of passport stamps, hundreds of new friends, colleagues and acquaintances with radically different life experiences to my own. The farther I go, the less who or what I would vote for in an election has to do with what makes life worth living. It takes all my strength to do my duty to my vocation, my profession, and my university and then with what I have left to seek out some connection to loved ones, to the earth, to something spiritually greater than myself, against all the stresses and hurts of this city. Those who weren’t there can’t know, I think, what it meant then, those three times I did it, to live in a community that observed the rhythms of Lent, Holy Week, and Easter. You don’t have to believe anything about what might or might not have happened to Jesus to be less satisfied, when you come to the metropolis, by something that is lost when life does not stop to take account of the slow unfolding bounty of spring—to feel unmoored, to feel as if you have lost some assurances of what would constitute a good or moral life and how you might go about deciding it. As I said when I left Oxford (knowing I had made the right decision), there is something gravely perverted about philosophy that needs to posit the cocoon of high table and evensong and eight-week terms in order to evaluate ethical questions. But now there is something fantastically seductive in the knowledge that, 3,500 miles away, there is a paradise that for almost eight hundred years has existed with the stated purpose of learning with the intention of glorifying God. What I have found—as shameful as this may be—is that it is difficult to remain a committed American leftist when you know that such a place exists.

I think what I wind up concluding is that if we are to believe in self-care, in the dignity of work, in the place of universities and university teachers in modern Western intellectual and cultural life, that needs to encompass the possibility that university teachers will tell themselves a wide variety of stories in order to explain to themselves why they have taken on a job that has always been difficult, has always required some sacrifice of material comfort, less freedom than we might wish, and, of course, the constant presence of the young, which is both a delight and (particularly when they have midnight frat parties across the street from you) a burden. To survive Columbia, I tell myself a story that comes from Oxford and Princeton, from Arthur Sidgwick, Rose Sidgwick, Benjamin Jowett, T.H. Green, my teachers, my parents. My story is different to the ones my own teachers tell. It is very different to the ones my leftist colleagues tell. Maybe if I am fortunate enough to teach in a university for the next forty years, it will be rewritten over and over again.

I don’t wish to suggest that anyone else should adopt my story, my perspective. Sometimes I look someone in the eye and know that they understand what I mean when I say that it is my duty to serve the past, my students, my university, my professional community. More often than not, I realize that this perspective rests on having had what for me is the great fortune to have been raised with these values, and that what to me is the ultimate reason to carry on is to others simply a statement of their relative lack of advantages and opportunities. My perspective isn’t one about which it is possible to evangelize. But if I am to carry on in this line of work and way of life, I do think it is necessary to explain that it is as radical a statement against the neoliberalization of the university, or what have you, as any invocation of a class struggle.

This is a sermon for Good Friday because, this Easter weekend, many Christian faith leaders have said and will say something or other about the radicalism of Jesus’s message. I am sympathetic to the reading that (according to the story which may or may not have actually happened) Jesus died at the hands of an imperial authority and its collaborators because he spoke truth to power in a way that was seen as threatening to the stability of the regime. That that regime came ultimately to adopt some of the tenets of the faith his followers founded, that today in Manhattan people say together words that people in the Roman Empire were saying together almost a thousand years ago, is a jaw-dropping world-historical narrative, at which I think historians of all faiths and none ought to be astounded. But it’s also a story which is not completely assimilable to a narrative of anti-imperialism, struggles for social justice, organizing around political causes. Those who attended a Maundy Thursday service yesterday celebrated the night that Jesus, knowing that he was to be arrested for his sedition and immediately undergo an excruciating death, chose to observe the Passover seder with his closest friends (a group which, many scholars believe, included more women than the European Christian tradition has typically recognized) and to celebrate his love for and communion with them.

A couple weeks ago, I attended a spiritual retreat day in the Ignatian prayer tradition: looking for peace and space away from the city, and curious to learn more about a spiritual practice I had read about. In one exercise, we were asked to imagine ourselves as guests at the Last Supper. Reader, I don’t know what I think about Jesus or the Last Supper or his martyrdom or what he stands for, but I have been to many Passover seders. An image came into my head of Jesus saying the Hebrew blessing over the wine, and I burst into tears. That image left me emotionally raw for the rest of the weekend. At the time I was bewildered, but now, reflecting on it, I think I know why. The story is that Jesus was a brave, loving, charismatic figure who convinced many to follow him and who died for a cause of justice and equality—particularly for the poor—for which millions are still fighting. But it is also that, on the night before he was betrayed, Jesus not only sat at supper with his friends: he sat at supper in the observance of a holy ritual that, by then, his people had already been observing for centuries: a feast of thanksgiving for God’s deliverance, but also a set of customs rich in ritual meanings, conducted in a specific order, that are done simply because they must be done.

Even in the face of the greatest challenges for ourselves as workers, as Americans, as fellow humans, then, there is a place for the past, for tradition, for awareness of ourselves as belonging to a longer and grander human story. We might admire those who can both expel the money-changers from the Temple and preside over the ritual of a religious festival, but we can’t all be Jesus. But we can keep working as we are moved to work, keep loving as we are moved to love, and respect the most honest and heartfelt convictions of others as to what will build a better world as well as heal their own hurts and anxieties.

26th Birthday

Five years ago, Facebook reminded me this morning, I was celebrating my first birthday outside North America. It was a Sunday. I had been in Oxford less than a month, and hadn’t yet made most of the friends who keep me coming back whenever I can. I took myself to the Ashmolean, ate lunch in the cafe, and in the evening went to the pub with the Lincoln College Choir, because they did that after they sang on Sundays and a friend who sang tenor very kindly gave me somewhere to be.

I think often of those two terms, though particularly of late: my therapist tells me that, at the age of 26, it is “developmentally appropriate” to have some nostalgia for one’s undergraduate years. But I also think of them because I learned rather more in them than how to hold my liquor. Many of my memories are of criss-crossing Oxford in search of books, writing essays in the Rad Cam and poring over Symonds’ letters in the Upper Reading Room; the time that my tutor told me to read Thomas Arnold’s preface to his edition of Thucydides and, when I found the book—a first edition, natch—in the Trinity college library, realizing in astonishment that the main text was in Greek. I had never seen a book in Greek before, and as it dawned on me that many a 16-year-old would have slogged through this edition I began slowly and laboriously to trace the letters of that foreign alphabet in a notebook and sound out the phrases I found in the archive: σωφροσύνη. ἔρως τῶν ἀδυνάτων.

There was so much I didn’t know then about what my life would be like now. I might have been starting to think about grad school, but I certainly couldn’t have told you that most days out of the week I wear a skirt and heels, that I sit at the head of a seminar table and answer endless emails about information that could have been gleaned from the syllabus. I didn’t know that I would go back to Oxford, and then that I would live in New York, as if that is a normal thing that people do. I didn’t know how successful my research on Symonds would be. I didn’t imagine that, just a couple years later, I would experience a romantic relationship, couldn’t guess how changed I would feel after it ended.

Yet there are a few things I could probably have guessed then. I could have imagined that my mental landscape is still largely composed of green fields, Cotswold stone, incessant church bells, and the nagging sense that one has completely bungled an invisible social cue, and that when I look out my window at the frat houses of 113th Street I see the views from other rooms: Broad Street and the Bod; the Magdalen College School cricket pitch and the hills beyond. I could have guessed how often I think of the friends I made those terms, perhaps even how many of their birthday, handing-in and viva drinks I have been fortunate enough to be there to partake in. And surely, surely I could have guessed that on my birthday five years later, I would still, as I did this morning, be writing essays with this paragraph in—and how much love stirs in my soul every time I have the great privilege to write it:

The 1890s and 1900s, when Warren’s collecting business and his community at Lewes House were at their height, were a pivotal moment in the development of ideas about what it meant to be a man who was sexually and romantically attracted to men. Men had always formed sexual and romantic attachments to each other, and male prostitutes always plied their trade. But at the turn of the twentieth century, men of all classes—as well as doctors, the law, and moral opprobrium—began to see same-sex desire not as an activity, but as who you were as a person: part of your identity even if you never acted on it. Highly-educated men in particular could draw on a range of information to contextualize this notion, from ancient and early modern history to the burgeoning new field of sexual science. Men who had studied at Oxford, where a wide-ranging course in the literature, history, and philosophy of Greece and Rome was the hallmark of the curriculum, made a particular contribution to the belief that what they called “inversion,” “Urningliebe,” or “eros ton adunaton [the love of impossible things]” was rooted in ancient Greece. In the Athens of Socrates, they believed, elite men like themselves enjoyed social respect for the erotic and educative relationships they formed with adolescents and young men. Oxford-educated intellectuals such as Walter Pater, John Addington Symonds, and Oscar Wilde often emphasized the “purity” of these relationships: because they involved much longing gazing at young men’s athletic physiques, but no sordid physical contact, they could be assimilated to norms of Victorian propriety without too much difficulty.

More on the trouble with benefactors

Posted on FB last week in response to this Guardian piece.

It’s entirely appropriate that the RMF activists have had a strong response to Oriel’s decision, but I think the views expressed in this piece demonstrate the need for greater understanding of how institutions work, particularly how they are funded.

I remember when I expressed frustration to the convenor of my master’s course that the History Faculty did a disservice to students by accepting so many onto my course, with a very wide range of abilities (some not well-prepared for postgraduate study at all) and many of whom were up against greater odds because they were accepted without funding. The convenor told me a bit about the numbers, and showed me a spreadsheet: without the revenue from those unfunded students’ fees, the Faculty literally couldn’t afford to keep the lights on in the George Street building—much less funding other things students demanded as important components of a rigorous graduate program in history, like research travel grants.

There are involved historical reasons why the Faculties at Oxford are particularly poor, but this experience made me keenly aware of how many difficult (and ethically questionable) decisions faculty and administrators have to make to generate the revenue that allows their institutions to operate. For some elite institutions, even those far from Harvard and Princeton’s financial league, there are obvious places to reprioritize the budget, such as astronomical administrative salaries and, you know, “global” programs. For others, especially smaller ones, there is much more limited room for flexibility when student campaigns push for divestment from a particular industry or for the institution to take a particular decision that will alienate donors; institutions may reasonably conclude (as much as one might disagree with that decision) that prioritizing students’ needs is best done by taking money that allows them to continue offering student services, rather than taking a political stance that will lead to a loss of revenue. Still other institutions may make the troubling decision to admit students of less academic merit because their admittance might yield donations that will allow more students of great merit to receive financial aid that they need in order to study at that institution. It is possible to raise sound ethical objections to all these decisions, and I respect the opinions of those who in recent weeks have compellingly argued that the principle of the thing means that the money isn’t worth it. But I think it’s important to recognize that there is a real choice here, and that it isn’t so easy to turn down money that you can put to good educational use (or even money that you can put to shitty neocorporate use). Those of us who have ever been made to write a letter of thanks to someone who endowed a scholarship for us, as I have every year since beginning higher education, should be aware of this. Another time I learned this lesson is from the many good people who made thoughtful, reasoned objections to my principled decision not to donate to Princeton. They haven’t convinced me to change my mind, but they’ve got a point too.

It’s hard to say how I would vote if I were on Oriel’s governing body (and how extraordinary that Oxbridge colleges still retain a form of collective decision-making entirely lost at most institutions of HE today—there are some forms of small-c conservatism not wholly evil). Probably, sort of like my vote in the Democratic primary, it would have to do in part with a constellation of strategic and emotional reasons not necessarily based in a rational, philosophically-minded weighing of the pure ethical factors at play. I’m not a philosopher, and I don’t have a rigorous logical method for weighing what is Right in situations like these. I think the history of institutions demonstrates that what is Right can often get really muddled by other pragmatic considerations; my study in this respect has led me to prefer forms of politics, philosophy, and ordinary living that take this into account. As much as I deeply respect the convictions of those who live otherwise, I just can’t get on that page, as much as I may be sorry for it.

Some things I’ve posted on Facebook recently about history of universities and statues of dead racists

Edited to remove identifying information about interlocutors. I know I haven’t posted here in months—we can take this as my ‘2015 Year in Review’ post since 2015 was also the year that I became more qualified to have something worthwhile to say about British imperial history—and the RMF campaign is nothing if not the working-out of British imperial history.

4 November, in response to a discussion about whether it is morally wrong for a white person to take up a Rhodes Scholarship:

My instinct is to disagree. Of the Rhodes countries I think South Africa might be a special case that I don’t really know enough about to comment, but if we look at Canada and the US, for instance (and yes, the US is an ex-colony, but a bit different to what we think of as the 19th-/20th-century “white settler” colonies) you would be hard-pressed to find enough Indigenous people who would be qualified for or interested in taking up the scholarship–sadly, that’s just a very small percentage of the population in both countries, and an even smaller percentage of those who pursue higher education. In the US, the Rhodies basically represent the demographics of elite US higher education from which they come. And we can and should be critical of this, but IMHO it’s part of a more regionally specific system that has more to say about race and class in America than it does about the initial intention of Rhodes’ will, which is no longer followed to any great extent by the selection committees. I suppose that one could view all of these factors as part of a transnational racist system, but I’m inclined to disaggregate them because they seem so historically specific. You’d have to go SO far back before the Rhodes period to make the case that British empire was at the source of all of them that, while that’s in some sense historically true, I don’t think it’s the most helpful way to think about it.

As an American and Canadian citizen and final-year student at Princeton (and blah blah blah all my advantages) I made a decision not to apply for the Rhodes in part because of my discomfort with the origins of the scholarship. I now believe that decision was mistaken. I received a different scholarship, the Marshall, which was instituted by the UK government in the ’50s (a Conservative government if I’m not mistaken) to express thanks to the US for the postwar Marshall aid and also to express an ideal of symbolic connection between these English-speaking nations. So that’s a racial ideal–Churchill was one of those to proclaim it as such in his Iron Curtain speech–even if the scholarship is part of the public UK HE budget and doesn’t have its origins in someone as manifestly evil as Cecil Rhodes. When I got to Ox for my master’s, I found Rhodies and other white people from the US and the Empire doing all kinds of things with their Oxford postgrad degrees and the money they (some of them) had received to do them. There were plenty of Americans and others of all kinds who I thought were wasting their time and someone’s money. There were many Rhodies who were doing truly wonderful things with their time in Ox and who were going to go out and do something good with their lives in academia or another profession. I think there is a place for policies of affirmative action and for complete transparency in how admissions are done that can help us to right historic wrongs, rid ourselves of unconscious bias, and ensure that everyone is given a fair hearing, but I think it’s also a good educational thing to do to give people of all races a chance to do something good with opportunities that they’ve had the good fortune to receive, and to give white people a chance to make our lives as best we can into something that isn’t actively exploitative. I think making all Rhodies conscious of the extent to which the money they have taken is tainted is perhaps a better learning opportunity for white Rhodies than letting them stay in their home countries and never knowing that such imperial legacies exist at all. But it does sadden and frustrate me when many Rhodies seem not to be aware of that history.

Running late now, but last point: one thing I have learned in my time in higher ed is that so much money is dirty and there are often really frustrating legal restrictions on why this can’t be fixed. In some sense it would be ideal if all these different bequests from slave traders and diamond miners and so on could be stripped of their significance and their ties to these particular individuals and aggregated into a general fund that could be used to provide need-based financial aid to all students on an equal basis. But not only are there really tight legal restrictions on doing so (and we can debate the justice of this, but when you’re going up against UK and EU law about bequests things get really complicated), one thing you lose in the process is the ability to force students to be aware of where that money is come from. We have so much cultural amnesia in the UK today about how everything that the UK is in 2015 has an imperial legacy. The names of buildings and institutions and pots of money allow those of us who teach British history to give our students a way in to this challenging and troubling topic. If we erase those visible remnants of the history, we risk even greater amnesia. Maybe it’s worth it, and I’m willing to be persuaded that’s the case. But it is a factor.

Sorry, I know I don’t toe the party line on this, but I guess my study of British and imperial history has given me a different way in to understanding the same issues and I hope we can eventually wind up on more or less the same page by different means. Also, I’m someone who has benefitted immeasurably from elite education, which continues to perpetuate racial and class equality in the anglo world today, but that–as a Jewish lady–I have only recently been able to partake of on equal terms. Inequality fucking sucks. And who has access to elite education is sometimes random and sometimes systematically unjust. But as someone who has decided to take the money and try to be good with it, I think it would be really disingenuous for me to proclaim that another approach is the more morally correct one.

20 December, in response to Mary Beard and some comments critical of my endorsement of her POV:

Hi folks – sorry that I don’t have the time to give this a proper lengthy reply, but I am sorry that instead of giving a proper lengthy comment on this post last night I also posted just two words. I rarely agree with every word of the things I post on FB, and this is no exception; I have also posted many things that express other views so hopefully this doesn’t stand for everything I’ve ever said or thought about the RMF/Woodrow Wilson/etc. debates. I’ve explained at great length in other FB comments what I think about RMF and the problem of statues, names, and legacies, so hopefully I don’t need to rehash it all again. I do think there is a flippancy to M.B.’s comments here that is not in good taste and suggests she hasn’t had very many conversations with students of color and other underprivileged students at her own university. She might also do well to remember the ugly, violent history of women’s call to be included at Cambridge. I’m with — on this one: maybe he and I, as Jews and me as a woman, can use our experiences of trying to take ownership of institutions that were not made for us to empathize with this situation; maybe that’s completely inadequate. But on the basis of the historical research I have done my current belief is that it isn’t possible completely to transform an institution like Oxford or Princeton, that was founded explicitly on exclusion of many populations, so that it will feel welcoming to all. I can see as feasible introducing certain policy measures that will make incremental progress towards that end, but I think we’re still ultimately caught in a double bind between denying history (which I believe is wrong) and allowing that history to exist and to oppress by its existence. I completely see why someone would make an argument that that means these places should not be allowed to exist and should be destroyed. I can’t agree because, well, they’ve given me a sense of belonging, purpose and joy that my life outside them hasn’t, and my life would not be worth living without them. So my responsibility as someone in that situation is to do as Beard says and take the money and try to be better with it, and I think she’s right that that’s what we can do with histories like that–we can take the money they give us, now thankfully accessible to people like me, and we can become historians. I think it would be really disingenuous for someone who has made the life choices I have to suggest something else, so I can see why Beard makes the argument she does.

Also P.S. my expert opinion is contra M.B. that Rhodes was worse than many of his contemporaries (rather like Wilson but with none of Wilson’s redeeming features).

Also thanks for disagreeing – I worry when people don’t disagree on FB that I’ve shocked, offended, and upset them so much as to stun them into silence, so I appreciate you engaging and voicing another POV because I don’t want to be hammering people over the head with something that is hurtful to them without being stopped.

29 December, in response to this, posted on a friend’s wall and roundly condemned by the ensuing FB conversation:

I don’t know. I’m not hugely sympathetic to the RMF claims or the style in which they frame them, but I also see that they are mostly coming from black students and that most of the people questioning them are white, which makes me second-guess my reaction. I can’t know what it’s like to be a black South African student come to Oxford, but I can imagine it’s a more difficult and troubling culture shock than the one I experienced when I came–and also why South African students might want instinctively to import a similar kind of cultural decolonization to the process they’ve gone through to remake their own country into something other than a settler colony. Even though there may well be some generic student activists who have jumped on to RMF as a vehicle for shouting at something or other, there’s also a serious story about what happens when the “empire strikes back”: what kinds of claims for inclusion are those whose ancestors were once British subjects entitled to make within Britain? (As a Canadian, I have the national franchise in Britain–South Africans don’t; EU citizens don’t.) So I actually see this as a story about history and about the kind of historical-mindedness that British (elite) culture has and maybe that former colonies’ self-determining national identity has been predicated on rejecting–and not primarily a story about coddled students even if there are elements of that. Personally I don’t think it’s possible to remake such a deeply, intrinsically historicist and conservative institution as Oxford in the image of another way of relating to the past and to present society, and so any gains that RMF make by way of statues are going to be decidedly illusory. To create more comfortable environments within Ox (which is to some extent worth doing, in terms of the fact that institutionalized racism is still a thing) probably entails working with the grain of the culture, and using history and historically-minded thinking in effective ways. But it remains the case that Ox last underwent major structural reforms in the mid-19th century and that most of those who now live and study in it now would not have been imagined as potential students then (as recently as the mid-20th century less than 10% of the UK population went to university at all). Culture shock is an inevitable part of the experience of coming to Ox for most students–and that may go double for Rhodes Scholars who (at least in the US) often apply for the scholarship because it is prestigious in their home country and not necessarily because doing a graduate degree at Ox is particularly enticing to them. They are often surprised to discover how little Ox resembles the university experiences of their home countries, which is probably for most students more like going to a redbrick. Cultural assimilation (of the kind that I tried to practice) is only going to seem like a worthy goal if you don’t view the culture of Ox as part of the heyday of empire (which in as much as it was constituted at around the same time of the heyday of empire and was part and parcel of the imperial project, it is); if you come to know what Ox is and then decide that it’s something in which you can’t ethically participate because you associate it with the white settlers who ruined your country, well, it’s going to be pretty hard to do anything other than find symbols to lash out at, like the Rhodes statue.

I haven’t read the Prof. of Divinity’s letter, and hadn’t heard about it before, but I’m in the process of qualifying as an expert in British & imperial history and my sense is that Rhodes is one of the real baddies: someone who was behind the curve on ideas about race even for his own time. I think Rhodies could probably be more honest with themselves about the fact that they are taking his money, but can see why that’s a difficult and confusing position for a young adult to be in, that only really becomes apparent once she or he leaves her own culture with its own standards of political correctness and goes somewhere else.

Sorry for the long comment!! I’m just on a bit of a crusade to bring historians’ voices to this conversation, since what is at issue really is history and how it’s interpreted. Even if I’m not sure that I buy RMF’s critique, I can see why they’re making it.

6 January, in response to this and an ensuing FB discussion:

Well… now we’re getting a bit into what I said I wouldn’t do (give an opinion on the controversy–I’m trying to do less of that) but my response to that would be to say that these things are very complicated. Almost everything Oxford is (now that there is next to no state funding for HE) is old, old money, tied up in the legacies of a lot of mess of British and imperial history: the dissolution of the monasteries, the Atlantic slave trade, the diamond mines of southern Africa. It would take a hell of a lot of work–a dedicated campaign that the entire university and its constituent colleges would have to get behind–to disentangle all that money. It would be illegal in some cases to discard or change the terms of certain bequests; in almost all cases I am sure that cash-strapped dons and administrators wouldn’t want to decline even what seem like regrettable bequests. And there aren’t easy solutions: the South African Rhodes Scholarships now also bear Nelson Mandela’s name, but I’m not sure anyone thinks that’s a comfortable or satisfactory response to the fact that they once explicitly excluded black students.

Oxford is a deeply conservative institution and British society more widely has deep and committed cultural amnesia about how empire has affected it and its history. I’m not at all surprised that a conversation about Cecil Rhodes’ relation to Oxford (which is considerable–his scholarships brought some of the very first foreign students in considerable numbers to the UK) on the terms of modern politics hasn’t been had before now. It’s obviously a good thing this conversation is being had. Things are being brought into the open that weren’t talked about before. Will it change anything substantive? I have to say I share some of the skepticism of the above op-ed author. But when you start digging into old institutions like this, evil often isn’t far from the surface. I sure hope there’s good there too, and I think one of the lessons we learn from institutional history is that it isn’t so easy to disentangle the two, that history and moral judgment can’t be made easily to go hand in hand.

On Decolonisation

some thoughts written in response to a Guardian article entitled “Oxford Uni must decolonise its campus and curriculum, say students”:

I am sure a lot of people won’t like what I have to say here, but I think it is a good opportunity for “history matters” so I’ll roll that line out even though I have some misgivings about whether it is the right take/argument here and am perfectly willing to be proven wrong.

I. Okay so I don’t know how you would go about “decolonising” Oxford—Codrington aside, the modern institutional structure of the university was created through a series of government commissions from the 1860s on—just like all of us whose lives are bound up in some way with the UK and the Commonwealth and the other parts of the globe the British Empire touched, there’s some part of our lives that is complicit in empire. Some of us have ancestors who profited from the slave trade; some of us have ancestors who were slaves; some of us might think, “My ancestors never left their farm in Cumbria; what did they know about any of that?” and we have to remember where their tea and sugar came from.

II. You could burn the whole institution down and start completely over—with what? It wouldn’t be Oxford, whatever it was; I’m sure that would be great for many people; it isn’t enough for me because history matters and erasing its physical presence doesn’t ever help.

III. I think we can disaggregate fights against racism, fights to modernise and widen frankly shitty Oxford curricula, fights to improve the climate for students of ‘nontraditional’ backgrounds (all of which are clear and laudable goals) from whether Rhodes and Codrington oppress by their dead, sculpted presence. (It always makes me especially happy when Rhodes Scholars do things that would make Rhodes turn in his grave—like, you know, being not white, or female.) I think a country where the past is so very, very physically present offers us opportunities to assess how far our visions of civic inclusion have come—and how much the political ideologies of the era of the Reform Bills continue to shape the former Empire, something that isn’t changed by disavowing benefactors and statues.

IV. I remember William Whyte giving a sermon for the Commemoration of Benefactors at CCC Chapel that at the time I was a bit peeved about because he took some cheap shots at EP Warren whom I don’t think really deserved them. But on reflection I think Whyte had something more important to say about the need to grapple with benefactors we don’t like. EP Warren endowed a fellowship whose conditions forbade the postholder from teaching—or even encountering—women. Corpus had to go to court to challenge the terms and today the postholder is a brilliant woman. It is justice that Warren has been made, all these years after his death, to pay her salary.

V. This week I am reading about men who, like Warren, often preferred their college enclaves to nasty businesses like the First World War and the rough and tumble of politics. They dabbled, of course, and were delighted to count politicians and social reformers among their correspondents and dinner-guests, but like anyone who’s anyone in Oxford they’d take a dinner over a serious meeting any day. Most of the men I’ve been reading about this week opposed women’s suffrage. Most of them wouldn’t have seen themselves as homosexual, but they saw themselves like so many fifth-century Athenians who found in the dull prattle of teenage schoolboys and the minutiae of school and college life something richer than what they thought their wives and daughters could offer.

VI. On the face of it these men are frankly despicable. I was spending all day today reading their letters—and thinking about all that goes unsaid in letters—and realizing that even if I had the historian’s longed-for time machine I would never in a million years have been allowed into the spaces where they said to each other what they could not say in letters. It is not simply the passage of time that denies me the knowledge of why Oscar Browning took such an, err, active interest in the totally mundane life of a particular fifth-form pupil at Norwich Grammar School in the 1880s; it is that I am a woman, and when women encroach upon male homosocial worlds the men clam up and won’t say to you what they might say to each other behind closed doors or in languages to the knowledge of which you are not granted access.

VII. All of this is the case and perhaps it goes doubly for race, in the name of which hierarchies it is arguable far grosser evils have been committed than in the name of a gender hierarchy. And then I spent all day in the reading room looking out the window across the court at King’s Chapel and chills went down my spine. When I came home along the river after dinner in golden evening light (and hit one after another the cliché trifecta of swans, church bells, and Morris dancers) a sense of something longer and deeper than any past I can access caught in my stomach—and also a sense of what power nineteenth-century historians have in understanding how that construct of an English past was first crafted. And empire, of course, is there too. It’s everywhere. You can’t get rid of it—you can only apologise, if you like me or rather my great-grandparents are a settler colonial and had to come to England to know how that is so—and you can study history, and you can teach history to anyone who will listen and then some. And perhaps go home and have a quiet reckoning with yourself about where the money comes from that stewards institutions, and that protects those institutions that are safest from the ravages of trendy government diktats. It is not a happy story, any more than is your sugar or your tea. It is a story to be told.

VIII. What we can do—what does, I might even hazard, more good than questioning the Codrington—is tell the dysfunctional, solipsistic Oxford bloody History Faculty to update its syllabi to reflect historiographical developments that have occurred since I was born, to take responsibility for its own institutional story. American history professors have done great things in recent years by taking undergraduates into the university archives and helping them to piece together the university’s implication in slavery and enduring racism. I guarantee you that there are documents that could tell similar stories in every Oxford college founded before the twentieth century—and students should be asking to see them.

——

Postscript: the main thing that I learned intellectually this year is the extent to which the lives and stories of most people in the world are implicated in empire. I first learned it not from postcolonial theory but when David Cannadine’s Ornamentalism led me to think about how my own life was shaped by British empire. Since then, I’ve been realising over and again the extent to which that is such a fundamental world-historical paradigm that needs to be understood on a concrete, personal, individualised, persisting level.

#provingoxbridgehistoryrelevantoneguardianarticleatatime

Sermon for Trinity Sunday

Because I am at heart nothing more than a boring liturgically conservative Anglican, I wandered round the corner to evensong today with the expectation of hearing a sermon attempting to describe the nature of the Trinity and hopefully getting to sing “St Patrick’s Breastplate.” Instead, this being St John the Divine, today had been designated “queer evensong,” all male pronouns referring to God had been replaced with female ones, and no reference to the liturgical calendar was made.

During the Magnificat a storm broke out, and the music was almost drowned out by loud thunder. So many idiots over the decades have tried to link extreme weather with their belief in their religious tradition’s condemnation of homosexuality. But I was reuniting with old friends in Princeton yesterday, who some years ago helped me to see love and fellowship in the defiant, catty, camp mockery of that kind of appeal to a higher power.

When I watched Russell Davies’ new TV series Cucumber last week, I remembered that what is so enduringly right about a certain camp gay tradition is the way so much of it is about putting up a bold front against self-hatred, fear, and shame, fiercely asserting one’s right to love and to be loved. Camp is not transhistorical, but the need to love and to be loved is, and it makes a certain amount of sense that the Christian and the gay traditions might have something to say to each other about that.

Bibliography:


Acknowledgements: You know who you are.