news from the 19th century


These are tense days at State of Art U.  Over the next two weeks long-running battles will culminate on several fronts, relating to core beliefs about curriculum, learning, and even institutional research.

Suddenly nothing is routine, and every meeting is charged.  And these are mostly open-minded, unselfish educators; when they get this stubborn it usually means they believe giving in will harm students, and at that point compromise is impossible.

The resumption of the academic year adds to the pressure at all levels.  Yesterday my new boss flew last-minute to a distant campus, to mediate what I think of as the Wars of Northern Succession.  He has been on the job for seven weeks.  Today will be the fourth day of class.

Such times call for a bit of perspective, and maybe as a result I’ve been engrossed in Gordon Wood’s Empire of Liberty, about the first quarter-century of the United States.  It’s part of a series I’ve been enjoying over the years, and reading out of order.  (That’s the thing about history; you don’t need spoiler alerts.)

Even in calm times I would find this hard to put down; it’s not escapism so much as immersion in a fascinating, pivotal time.  And it’s beautifully written.  (Click on the cover image above to read more at Amazon.)  Highly recommended.

In case you can’t get to it — say, if you’re too busy excoriating colleagues over the difference between a C- and a C — I’ll thumbnail one bit here.

First, the setup.  Like many of us I have been through the chronology of western civ many times.  In each telling, 18th century neoclassicism is cast in contrast to its successor, romanticism.  The former was austere and rational, the latter mystical and emotional.  Simple, right?  But of course, drenched in hindsight.

What I like when Wood gets to this part is that he doesn’t even mention the Romantics.  He’s so completely absorbed in his story that he sees the contrast only to what came before, as contemporaries did.  And what came before neoclassicism was the clutter of baroque and rococo, something that struck early Americans as decadent, aristocratic.  For them, neoclassicism wasn’t austere, it was just clean.  It was intelligible to the masses.  It was a relief.

Here’s how he explains it:

By the middle of the eighteenth century European and English philosophers were already redirecting the content and form of art away from frivolous and voluptuous private pleasure toward moral education and civic ennoblement.  Infused with dignity and morality and made subservient to some ideological force outside themselves, the arts could become something more than charming ornaments of an idle aristocracy; they could become public agents of reformation and refinement for the whole society.

Isn’t that awesome?  It’s so eloquent, concise, and — steeped as I am in the received counter-narrative of hindsight — refreshing to have this presented the way it felt at the time.

hqdefaultWhich kind of brings me back to the present, and our academic cage fighting.

These are real struggles, and my friends on all sides who feel our students’ lives in their hands are right.  And we’re a big system; this is a lot of lives.

But however fraught our actions feel to us in our fascinating, pivotal time, it’s all lopsided, and past-facing only.

We will be judged differently than how we seem to ourselves, by people who weigh our decisions against what came after as well as before, and know how our stories turn out.


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