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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:

redaction-art-by-wragge

Please send in any contributions.

tardis2

The TARDIS can transport its occupants to any point in time and space.

Historians too often get a bad rap for being out of touch. Stuck in the ivory tower, so the story goes, neck deep in dusty archives and lost in their contemplation of dead white men and forgotten pasts. Where’s the relevance? is frequently the refrain.

Yet my Facebook feed tells a different story. The number of articles I see written by colleagues for public audiences seems to increase all the time.

Thinking temporally in public has got to be one of the most important things we can do as historians in a period of uncertainty and change. This means going beyond the ‘Historians Politely Remind Nation To Check What’s Happened In Past Before Making Any Big Decisions’ version of public commentary (although let’s be frank, sometimes the temptation to do that is just overwhelming) and instead thinking in public about time, its politics and its effects.

The uneven and unequal legacies of empire and capitalism are all around us, but so too – if we know how to look – are the tangible reminders that as a society we once thought social change possible and were prepared to back up our dreams with money and action. I can’t help thinking that the destruction of these reminders, as Oliver Watts points out in in his piece listed below, is part of a larger project of alienating us both from our history and the possibility of a different kind of future.

Because although not a template, history can be a inspiration, showing us that, through collective action, inherited structures can be changed. Institutionalised slavery can be abolisheduniversal public health free at the point of delivery can be establishedthe Franklin River can be saved. The long-term ramifications of our own society’s policies and actions are, therefore, also a matter for critical temporal thinking.

Time is not just an axis on which processes play out, it is political in itself. In this world of distributed digital processes and the marketisation of our everyday life we increasingly ‘spend’ our leisure time shopping for essential services – deciding which financial, educational or health ‘product’ to buy, and ferrying ourselves and family members across town to access them. Meanwhile hundreds of thousands of people work on low-paid ‘zero hours’ contracts that leave them desperately insecure.

Universities are repositories of time in all of these senses. Produced by uneven structural processes (have you every wondered where the wealth that funded the bequests of Australia’s early universities came from?) they increasingly rely on casualised labour and the mortgaged futures of their debt-laden students.

But for all their faults, universities do still work with an understanding of time and human capacity that stretches beyond the frames of annual reports, funding cycles, government elections or even of individual careers. They draw the future into them with each new intake of students; they mix up the generations, and bring the living into contact with those long dead. They are places where deep and slow thinking is still possible. Not everyone wants or needs to live like this, but now, more than ever, as a society we need people who do.

If historians don’t think temporally, who will?

So Yay! to temporal thinking in the public domain. Yay! to the dexterity of the historical mind (cough). Yay! to a critical eye and longer view on questions that would otherwise appear to be of this moment only.

Here is this week’s haul of recent #PublicHist pieces by people wot I know, writing about stuff not always entirely within their field. If you can, give them the time (and the retweet) they deserve.

PS. I foresee a regular series on this #PublicHist friend-puff business, so please alert me to anything you have published that is directed at a public audience and I’ll add it to the next instalment.

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