History and Scholarship As Anti-Academic Vocation? From Macaulay to Dupree

Garden parties like the one I attended this afternoon at Rhodes House in Oxford are a lovely experience. Everyone stands outside, dressed, ideally, in sundresses and men’s summerwear, feasts on some mix of fruit, champagne, sandwiches, tea, coffee, and biscuits, and, if you’re lucky, something grilled or warm – there’s nothing better than eating well and looking good while doing it. But being England, there’s a twist. Even if it’s July, there’s a good chance there has already been a downpour earlier in the day, and so everyone retreats a bit. Women’s shoulders are covered in the overcast July weather (…), and men like myself opt for rainjackets instead of blazers. The catering staff shiver in their tents, which are unlikely to protect them in the event of true rain.

Still, even given the English conditions, it’s a good time. I found myself in many pleasant conversations. I spoke with Pakistanis on the Pashtunistan issue in Afghan-Pakistan national politics. (Put simply, around the time of Partition, Pashtun nationalists, especially in Afghanistan, wanted that Pashtuns in Pakistan could have the right to secede and form their own Pashtun state, rather than just having the choice to be part of India or Pakistan, or, in many cases, not have the choice at all. The non-decision that left Pashtuns in Pakistan is a major cause of troubles between the two countries today.) One Indian friend from Delhi reports to me about the anti-corruption protests there. A stressed-out Newfoundlander reports of troubles with her dissertation. The mix of the cosmopolitan and the academic familiar goes on.

Baba Ramdev

Baba Ramdev, an Indian health guru and entrepreneur, has become the ringleader of anti-corruption protests in Delhi recently. Such are some of the topics that come up at Oxford garden parties ... !

Still, one of my most interesting conversations came with a fellow historian, a New Zealander who recently submitted his D.Phil. on the Soviet Union’s policy towards the Lutheran and Catholic Churches in the occupied zones of what would become East Germany. After doing his research in archives in Germany and Moscow for this dissertation, he is going to work for a gun control NGO in London for six months or so, both because, well, why not, and because he feels a sense of exhaustion with history and academics. He doesn’t want to turn his back on it, and he likes writing, but after three intensive years of postgraduate research on a relatively obscure topic, one of the last things he wants to do is to revise the same thing he’s been working on for the last several years into a book, get on the postdoc treadmill, and keep striving towards … the grim prospects of academic unemployment? Sure, there’s the prospect of applying for postdoctoral fellowships a year or two for now, but he experiences a sense of ambivalence towards the values of the historical profession, at least at Oxford, where there’s often a sharp line between whether you’re in the academy (= successful) and not (= out the door).

The current system, I explained to him, does not make much sense to me, and I worry about its long-term viability. Perhaps, as some professors have said in eloquent discussions of the current situation, we’re using the wrong metaphors to think about academic employment and the way the humanities actually works in the academy. People became too used to the model of the 1960s and 1970s, an era of rising college enrollments and the expansion of higher education in the United States. Back then, accomplished young historians like Abbott Gleason, graduating from Harvard in 1969, literally had their pick of academic jobs between great institutions like Harvard and the University of Wisconsin. Once there, they could count on living life according to what Walter Russell Mead has called the “blue social model” – lifelong employment with one institution, full-time employment, ample benefits, and the ability to create, if not luxuriously so, a family and a middle-class existence on one salary.

As Anthony Grafton’s talk linked above suggests, however, the right metaphor to think about higher education today is less that of blue-collar factory work (albeit one with absurdly long rites of training) and more one of professional basketball, or orchestras. Just as you need to put a hell of a lot of kids through AAU or Pop Warner or middle school orchestra to get one really accomplished pianist, you need to put a lot of people through undergraduate and graduate programs to get figures whom I admire, like Mark Mazower, whose work combines regional accomplishment with a broader panorama of longer-term intellectual history.

Springfield, Ohio

Springfield, Ohio: a nice place, but I'm not sure if Harvard PhDs dream of teaching there

But as others have pointed out to me in confidence, there are several big difference between the orchestra example and the situation with universities. If you’re playing Rachmaninoff even at 80% brilliance in your community college theater, it can still be tremendous. But teaching 16th-century French history in Dismal Seepage, Ohio? Two of my favorite friends are the sons and daughters of academics from rural Ohio (Wittenberg College in Springfield and Ohio University in Athens), and while I certainly have complex feelings towards my own childhood in Los Angeles, they have both spoken about the dearth of intellectual dynamism that can mark more provincial campuses at times. At a certain point, when you have an overproduction of PhDs, this leads to intense competition even for these more provincial spots, without the hope that a minor league baseball player can have of being called up to the majors one day. Having more Harvard PhDs teaching at community colleges around the United States is probably a good thing all things considered, but I suspect lifelong low-wage employment at community colleges in rural Alaska is what most people have in mind when they sign up for a six- or seven-year education.

This factor conspires with the above-mentioned insularity of academic life to lead to what I view as one of the most disturbing trends among some graduate students today, the narrowing of intellectual horizons. Everything in your academic life becomes reduced to whether you can use it to get a job somewhere in the future. If current or, God forbid, historical events, are out of your contingently defined “field,” then there’s little need to integrate them into a global perspective of how to understand history. Academics, rather than being cosmopolitan, vigorous, erudite people with a stake in middle-class society, who happen to teach at universities, become a monkish, Casaubonesque (Eliot’s Casaubon, not the actually super-erudite original) class. They see themselves less as members of a broad educated class, and more as a narrowly-defined subset whose sole ideology is careerism.

Increasingly, I wonder if there’s not another way than giving into this path which I have seen some follow. I have written before on “The Wise Men” – that generation of WASPs in early 20th-century American who, as a friend of mine suggested, were able to be so successful, confident, and dynamic as leaders in refining a postwar order precisely because they were all intellectuals who had excelled in spheres where they had some cause bigger than promoting themselves as celebrities or know-it-all experts. But I can think of other models that might be suggestive of possibly interesting directions, especially at a time of mass unemployment, and, given the prospects of the collapse of the education bubble, severe cutbacks in academic employment for many would-be Casaubons in the future.


Thomas Macaulay, Intellectual Badass

One example whom I think of often – although the example he set is from a world so far from my own it’s hard to think of what concrete lessons to draw from it – is Thomas Babbington Macaulay, a 19th-century British historian who may be best known for his Whiggish History of England but who accomplished many other things in his life. While attending Trinity College, Cambridge, Macaulay distinguished himself as a poet, winning the Chancellor’s Gold Medal (a Cambridge prize for accomplishment in poetry), and wrote widely on the history of English literature. Note that the words “general exams” do not appear in the previous sentence. Rather, Macaulay belonged to a wider literary culture that didn’t know the disciplinary boundaries (or the lingo of “multidisciplinarity”) that feature in university life today.

After university, Macaulay turned down a legal career to participate in politics (which, we have to say, was not democratic in pre-1832 England). Again, running for the House, or State Assembly is hardly the first thing on most graduate students’ minds these days. Macaulay participated in the reform politics of the period, but his career took a more unusual turn when he went to Calcutta, then the capital of British India, from 1834-1838, where he played a fundamental role in forming many Indian institutions. He helped draft a version of what would eventually become the Indian Penal Code, a legal code with a huge legacy across the former British world.

Salman Rushdie

Macaulay's Children? Anglophone Indians like Salman Rushdie (author of the Satanic Verses) are arguably Macaulay's greatest legacy given his influence on language politics in South Asia

More controversially, Macaulay was one of the leading intellectual figures behind the 1835 English Education Act in India, an act of education policy reform which scorned traditions of South Asian learning, as well as education in Hindustani, Sanskrit, or Persian, and reformed much of Indian education along the lines of Western curricula and the English language. Many critics since then have criticized Macaulay for his patronizing relationship with the Subcontinent’s intellectual tradition, but the broader point I am trying to make here is that Macaulay was engaging with a huge range of spheres still relatively early in his life (he was 35 when drafting the memos on the English Education Act). By the standards of celebrity culture in the USA today, people might have considered him a flop.

It was in the midst of this peripatetic (and decidedly non-Casaubonesqe) career that Macaulay blossomed as a writer and thinker. He composed several of his Lays of Ancient Rome, a book of ballads that became immensely popular in Victorian literary culture, while traveling around the Subcontinent. I’m not familiar enough with Macaulay’s biography to speculate on the link between geography and literary inspiration here, but Macaulay wrote at one point that “The plan [for the Lays] occurred to me in the jungle at the foot of the Neilgherry hills; and most of the verses were made during a dreary sojorn at Ootacamund and a disagreeable voyage in the Bay of Bengal.”

Who has time for this kind of literary reflection anymore? Studying at a college home to many, many classics scholars, I fear that the educational path for a “successful” classicist (which is not the same thing as being a composer of ballads glorifying the Greco-Roman tradition, granted), more resembles Casaubon’s life than Macaulay: many, many years spent in Gothic quadrangles looking at manuscripts, less time spent feeling disagreeable in Bengal.

Christ Church Quadrangle

A nice place for reflection, but you'll find me writing in a galleon in the Bay of Bengal

Macaulay spent much of the later years of his life engaged in The History of England, which he never finished. While inaccurate and, by present standards, unscholarly at many moments, it’s a work of literary genius, the product of a mind blessed with literary as well as analytic talent. One of my favorite passages, which hints at the edges of Macaulay’s Victorian maximalist style, describes Lord Jeffreys, a 17th century English judge whom Macaulay despised:

The person selected was Sir George Jeffreys, Chief Justice of the  Court of King’s Bench. The depravity of this man has passed into a proverb. Both the great English parties have attacked his memory with emulous violence : for the Whigs considered him as their most barbarous enemy ; and the Tories found it convenient to throw on him the blame of all the crimes which had sullied their triumph. A diligent and candid enquiry will show that some frightful stories which have been told concerning him are false or exaggerated. Yet the dispassionate historian will be able to make very little deduction from the vast mass of infamy with which the memory of the wicked judge has been loaded. 

He was a man of quick and vigorous parts, but constitutionally prone to insolence and to the angry passions. When just emerging from boyhood he had risen into practice at the Old Bailey bar, a bar where advocates have always used a license of tongue unknown in Westminster Hall. Here, during many years his chief business was to examine and crossexamine the most hardened miscreants of a great capital. Daily conflicts with prostitutes and thieves called out and exercised his powers so effectually that he became the most consummate bully ever known in his profession. Tenderness for others and respect for himself were feelings alike unknown to him. He acquired a boundless command of the rhetoric in which the vulgar express hatred and contempt. The profusion of maledictions and vituperative epithets which composed his vocabulary could hardly have been rivalled in the fishmarket or the beargarden. His countenance and his voice must always have been unamiable.

But these natural advantages, for such lie seems to have thought them, — he had improved to such a degree that there were few who, in his paroxysms of rage, could see or hear him without emotion. Impudence and ferocity sate upon his brow. The glare of his eyes had a fascination for the unhappy victim on whom they were fixed. Yet his brow and his eye were less terrible than the savage lines of his mouth. His yell of fury, as was said by one who had often heard it, sounded like the thunder of the judgment day. These qualifications he carried, while still a young man, from the bar to the bench. He early became Common Serjeant, and then Recorder of London. As a judge at the City sessions he exhibited the same propensities which afterwards, in a higher post, gained for him an unenviable immortality. Already might be remarked in him the most odious vice which is incident to human nature, a delight in misery merely as misery. There was a fiendish exultation in the way in which he pronounced sentence on offenders. Their weeping and imploring seemed to titillate him voluptuously; and he loved to scare them into fits by dilating with luxuriant amplification on all the details of what they were to suffer. 

This passage brims with a joy for language and polemic. It is written almost to be read aloud, not just for academic or specialized audiences, and while it is tremendously unfair to Jeffreys, it bars no holds as it goes after him. Macaulay’s language here, while not precisely scholarly, would never fit into an academic journal – and thank goodness for that.

But as earlier moments in his career demonstrated, he was hardly unprofessional. He had published well-received essays in The Edinburgh Review and other high-fallutin’ magazines of the day, and he approached his work in India and Parliament, flawed as it now appears to us with the benefit of postcolonial hindsight, with vigor and seriousness. What he represents – admirably for me – is the scholar and writer who wears his or her erudition and love for scholarship and writing while not allowing this side of them to subsume their whole personality through any ideology of professionalism, of being the professional scholar. Macaulay never worked at Oxford or Cambridge in spite of having been one of the most brilliant graduates of the places, and he ended up writing more interesting works than many of the dons of his time. While he came from privilege and had access to other opportunities, like the India work, that were arguably more interesting than what he would have done otherwise, he did not, I think, view his non-presence in academic institutions as a loss for him, nor did he feel a sense that he had become irrelevant by not participating in the mainstream institutions.

Are we capable of producing such figures today?


Louis Dupree (right), another inspirational figure, taking receipt of Afghan instruments

Still, Macaulay’s time and imperial situation seems so different from ours that his life might offer only limited possibility for inspiration. A more recent example that I take great solace in is that of Louis Dupree, an American scholar and specialist on Afghanistan whose 1973 magnum opus, Afghanistan, I’m reading at the moment. Dupree was born in Greenville, South Carolina, in 1925, and, like many writers and scholars of his generation, would serve in the military (he in the Merchant Marine and, later, the US Army in the Phillippines and Okinawa in the late 1940s). After his service, he received his Bachelor’s, Master’s, and doctorate from Harvard, focusing on what was then called Asian Studies (and what we might recognize as anthropology, although less professionalized than it is today). He applies to go do further research in Southeast Asia, but was denied funding, and ended up pursuing a career with American Universities Field Staff, a remarkable Cold War-era American academic program. Scholars would spend two out of every three years working in a country or region of interest to the United States (Dupree ended up working on Afghanistan and Pakistan, primarily the former), and in the third year they would rotate to work as an adjunct professor at one of a network of twelve American colleges. (The program itself was initiated and partly funded by Charles Crane and Walter Rogers, two early 20th-century American businessmen who wanted to improve American information services with respect to foreign countries of interest).

As a result, from 1959 to 1983, Dupree was able to pursue a career that combined over a decade of life living all around Afghanistan with a serious connection with American higher education. As I am looking through archives in the United States that contain much of the material he wrote, it is clear that he had a journalist’s eye for stories, but works like his 1973 Afghanistan are impressive pieces of scholarship. Reports about his work ethic and life suggest how he combined an attitude of adventure and cosmopolitanism with intellectual seriousness. In 1961, for example, while researching the British retreat from Kabul to Jalalabad during the First Anglo-Afghan War (which took place from January to April 1842), he insisted that he and an assistant walk the same route in the dead of the Afghan winter to understand more viscerally what those men must have felt. In a 1980 essay on his work habits while at home in Kabul (which indeed became his home), he wrote:

“Nancy [his wife] and I spent about 50 percent of our time outside Kabul. When in Kabul, we let it be known that we did not appreciate being disturbed during the day. We were writing. However, at 5 p.m., the bar opened and all were welcome. And many came. Some days only two or three, other days 20 to 30. It became a tradition. Even Russians came. So did Pakistanis, Indians, Koreans, Germans, French, Swiss, British, etc. . . . Discussions and arguments of all kinds raged, covering all disciplines.”

Now there’s an attitude towards writing and scholarship I can get behind: a day spent actually writing (sans Internet distractions or the angst that plagues so many scholars), a reliance on deep knowledge of a place rather than nit-picking about whether one has read the very latest essay or nor, combined with actual contact with the outside world, a genuine spirit of cosmopolitanism in Kabul that was unique for almost anywhere in the Cold War world.


Currently in my reading queue …

What to do? I’m not entirely certain, but some negative pieces of advice jump out. It strikes me that it might not be entirely wise to rush headlong into the vision of being a 45-year-old historian in khakis and a button down that some people seem to buy into. On the other hand, since the era of Dupree, and certainly since that of Macaulay, creeping professionalization has made it more difficult for adventurer-scholar types (as opposed to celebrities) to prosper without being written off. A friend who has worked in Congress tells me that former Peace Corps Volunteers as largely written off as too idealistic, too irrelevant, and, frankly, not wanted in many offices because they lack Hill experience (which makes sense if they are still young and have been out of the United States for two years). Some development professionals in Tajikistan were incredibly eager to write off scholars or researchers as people who were utterly irrelevant, as it seemed, in some effort to buttress their own confidence or lack thereof. The common criticisms of how economists or professionals at institutions like the World Bank will deploy the same list of prescriptions for economic reform in a country, only copying and pasting Tajikistan for Angola, are sadly true. I can recall eating dinner with a Tajik professional for the World Bank who was very proud of all of the work the Bank had done in building small dams across the country for power generation, while at the same time hinting that people like myself (on an IREX grant at the time) or the Fulbright Scholars in Tajikistan at the time were useless, irrelevant, and clearly less important than he was. Days later, one of the same Fulbrighters in Tajikistan, researching dams, reported to me that over 95% of the World Bank-funded dams were nonfunctional or had never been properly maintained.

World Bank

The World Bank has huge potential, but I have been disappointed by some of its representatives in Tajikistan

To me, it seems we’ve come to a point where navigating the divide between cloistered professional circles, serious exploration, and celebrity has become much more difficult than what Macaulay and Dupree had to negotiate. I know that sometimes friends, and I certainly, often feel like we have a lot left that we want to accomplish – scholarship, working in government, spending serious time in places X, Y, and Z – but that at various stages you can be faced by a now-classic Great Recession trope, the one of the employer or opportunity that won’t give you a chance because you don’t have enough experience, but you can’t get experience because no one will give you an opportunity. For some, the route of high-prestige stints in management consulting firms or other vaguely prestigious “young professional” lifestyle jobs seems like the best escape valve. It can all seem difficult to navigate at times. For now, I’m back to reading Dupree’s Afghanistan and plotting – while also fretting a bit, I admit – on how to find my path through it.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s