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In the Griffith Review Great Reads newsletter this week I give my hearty endorsement to a piece by historian Paul Kramer in the The Chronicle of Higher Education.

What use is history at a time like this? In this beautifully written and tightly argued piece, Paul Kramer of Vanderbilt University reveals that history is not only in political discourse and accounts of causation, but also in the ways individuals narrate their own lives. Kramer outlines what historians are especially good at: showing how current distributions of power emerge from past alignments, helping identify alternative paths, and cultivating empathy for others both past and present. However, talking about the ‘lessons of history’ is elitist and technocratic, so Kramer encourages historians to carry out their work in public and in collaboration with all kinds of citizens.

Neoliberalism works by disconnecting us from our past, from the natural world that sustains us and from each other. History can and should do the opposite. That’s why it matters so much at the moment. In the face of disconnection, it traces lines of connection and forges bonds of solidarity.

The Chronicle piece is behind a pay wall but here’s an open access link to it on Kramer’s own blog.

William C. Lubenow. “Only Connect”: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain, (Boydell Press, 2015) pp. x, 315. $99.00.

The American Historical Review (2016) 121 (5): 1744-1745.

The stated aim of William C. Lubenow’s book “Only Connect”: Learned Societies in Nineteenth-Century Britain is “to locate knowledge formation in the social processes in which members of learned societies participated,” and in the process to recover something of the significance of those who belonged to them (ix). Its six chapters seek to map out different aspects of these social processes.

After using the introduction to offer a “somewhat speculative statement of the nature of knowledge” (ix) that emphasizes the importance of “personal and mental associations” (8), Lubenow turns to the universities of Oxford and Cambridge. Clubs and societies flourished there, he argues, because they offered opportunities for intellectual speculation that were not provided for by the honors examinations, which pushed graduates into the church, college fellowships, and the gentlemanly professions instead. Widening out to include the intellectual world of London, Lubenow suggests that although some of these societies (such as the British Academy) were formally institutionalized, many were ephemeral, flowering for a time only to fade when their members moved on or passed away. Those who belonged to these societies were “miscellaneously constituted” (27). Admission was based, not on wealth or birth, but on “talent, merit and ability” (158). These societies were sites for conjecture and innovation, where streams of thought were brought together in conflict, combination, and contest. Their members worked across an intellectual landscape that was only just beginning to take disciplinary form and held a common set of assumptions and values that constituted what Lubenow calls “commensurability”: a mode of knowledge-making embedded in tacit behaviors and codes rather than in dogmas. Finally, Lubenow argues that the learned societies of nineteenth-century London, Oxford, and Cambridge were political in that “their members were attached to public life and their knowledge had the effect of enlarging civil society” (27).

In making these arguments, Lubenow brings forth a wealth of narrative detail about the lives of nineteenth-century literary and scientific men. But reading his book was a bit like taking a trip back a few decades. The text moves seamlessly back and forth across periods and contexts, between nineteenth-century writings and those of more recent historians. In the midst of this dense historical and biographical detail periodically appear large constative claims about what knowledge is and how it gets made. These are expressed in an authoritative authorial voice that, in the third person singular, speaks of “the historian’s task” (79) and alludes to “sneers [about class] … common in the writings of a particular generation” that “may be effective social criticism, [but] … are bad history” (206).

Admission to the world of learned societies may, as Lubenow points out, have been about more than “merely privilege based on wealth and birth,” with access instead determined by “different forms of merit marked by taste, tact, and intellectual pertinence” (206). But that these qualities were themselves the product of structures of class, gender, and culture is never acknowledged. These structures were being widely challenged in this period. Members of learned societies were overwhelmingly men, says Lubenow, because women were not yet admitted to the universities (160). Yet the second part of the nineteenth century was the period in which women were making inroads to the universities. Additionally, with the foundation of colleges and universities in the great industrial cities of England (not to mention Scotland, which is almost entirely absent from this book on Britain) and with the growth of middle-class education initiatives and applied professional societies, a host of other people were beginning to make claims to knowledge that did not rely on routes through Oxford and Cambridge. The gendered sociability and regimes of taste and tact and “merit” prescribed by the London, Oxford, and Cambridge learned societies were produced alongside this activity. Indeed, in many ways they helped to keep it at bay.

Lubenow is by no means inattentive to recent developments in the history of science, science studies, and the history of ideas that emphasize the social production of knowledge and the historical contingency of its processes. Yet, although we certainly get glimpses of social processes at work, the wood too often gets lost in the trees. I found myself longing for less speculation and more of a chronology that mapped out the foundation dates of various societies, how they changed over time, and their relationship to the larger social, economic, and intellectual changes reshaping Victorian society. Although the final paragraph of the book takes this up, it came too late to help me.

In the nineteenth century, knowledge was on the move. New industrial technologies were disrupting old power alignments, and the growing middle classes were beginning to make demands for education that was both relevant and useful, as well as cultured. In Germany the idea of research had risen to prominence, and a generation of English scholars who traveled there returned home fired by the new methods and the new version of the scholarly life they entailed. But the attempt to foster original research within the ancient universities in England was hampered by the strictures of the examination system, which discouraged independent thinking in its reliance on rote learning. Although new courses such as natural science and history were introduced, they were generally still subject to the prevalent teaching practices evident in the long-established courses in classics and mathematics. This pushed speculation and the quest for new knowledge to the edges of the formal Oxford and Cambridge curriculum and led to the flowering of literary and scientific societies and associations.

The history of learned societies in the nineteenth century is a rich field for historical investigation, not least because these associations are part of a much bigger story about the governance of knowledge in the modern period. Placed alongside not only the universities, but also the journals and magazines, religious organizations, working men’s institutes, medical schools, professional societies, industrial training schemes, teachers’ colleges, apprenticeship schemes, and guilds, the learned societies of nineteenth-century Britain point to the incredibly diverse array of institutions that provided homes to knowledge in that period. Understanding how and why this rich ecosystem gave way to one dominated in the twentieth century by the universities is important. At the start of the twenty-first century, under the pressure of digital technology and shifting economic and political priorities, this twentieth-century order is coming under pressure and new sites of knowledge production are flowering once again.

Episodically collected historians in the world. If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

And this because it is genius:


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