Crisis of Conscience in the Arts and Humanities

The current crises (multiple) in the US and the world has generated a very specific crisis of conscience among practitioners in the arts and humanities.  From the Mellon Foundation’s shift in funding priorities to my daughter-in-law’s small theater company and the anguished discussion on Victorian studies listservs about justifications for teaching/studying Dickens, those practitioners are agonizing over how their work (which they enjoy and want to continue doing) contributes to social justice.  “If you are not part of the solution, you are part of the problem” troubles people of good will with special urgency in the current moment.

Retirement is a time for reflection.  I think of what I have done with my life, of the choices I made.  Those choices were, in one way, quite haphazard.  I did not have a plan; I was opportunistic.  I knocked on the doors that presented themselves and walked through the ones that opened. I almost never turned down an invitation to do something—and one thing led to another.  All of it, however, was within the structures of an academic career, and constituted advances along fairly clearly mapped out career paths.  Once having secured tenure, the choices I made were all safe ones.  I never put myself at serious risk in terms of financial and career security, even as I did not stick to a field or a discipline.  I was more of a free-floating intellectual, but within an institutional place where that carried no significant risks.  In that sense, I was less “careerist” than many academics, but my being a bit of a maverick came at no cost and was hardly anything like significant rebellion.  I maintained a steady distaste for, even contempt of, much academic business as usual, but let my colleagues go their way so long as they let me go mine.

What did I accomplish besides garnering my fair share of rewards?  Not much.  Tops among the rewards was working with students—and enabling some of them to go on to their own successes.  When the fairly obvious paths for a career began to close down, making the possible way forward to students increasingly murky, much of the joy of my work began to dissipate.  I couldn’t justify what I was doing in terms of the ways it provided opportunities for my students to advance.  And while the scholarship itself (as evidenced by this blog), my engagement with ideas and arguments, continued (and continue) to interest me, that pursuit seemed more and more like self-indulgence.  It does no good to anyone—a fitting way to spend my retired time if I wish, but hardly an activity that society should feel any need or responsibility to support.  I am cultivating my own garden, which seems a betrayal of our needy world.  But I can’t figure out where my efforts could be better directed.

All of this as a long preamble to an email I recently sent to a former student, now a professor of Victorian studies, when she wrote to me about the current discussion on those listserv about reading/teaching/studying Dickens.  Here’s what I wrote back”

 

“As for studying Dickens, I share your inability to think straight on the topic.  I have two fairly recent posts on my blog–the titles include the terms “cakes and ale” so searching that way will get you the posts–that are relevant.  I think people will keep reading Dickens in the wider world no matter what the academy does, whereas I think some authors–Smollett, Oliphant, Meredith–would disappear altogether if there weren’t scholars reading and writing on them.

But whether the academy should devote resources to scholarship on Dickens and have courses where students are made to read him is a much tougher question.  I do think it highly, highly likely that Victorian studies will slowly fade out of existence–and I do think that’s a mostly bad thing even though I also understand that Victorian studies does little, if anything, to address the massive problems that our world faces.  That’s the dilemma my posts try to address: how to justify activities and scholarship that are not necessary in the sense of not directed toward issues of social justice.  “Not directed” meaning that, even if that scholarship talks about social justice, it is not doing anything concrete to bring social justice about.

My advice for you remains the same.  Play the game by the rules that currently apply.  Get tenure.  And then, with that security obtained, consider what work you can do with a good conscience, making you feel you are contributing toward something you can affirm.  For me, that mostly meant helping my students make their way forward in the world while writing and reading about things I felt germane to articulating a vision of what we should want a democratic society look like.

But all that definitely often felt very removed from making the world a better place.  The helplessness of looking on, and the guilt of doing that looking on from a secure place, did often make me accuse myself of cowardice.  I should have been putting myself on the line and doing something direct instead of pursuing my very pleasant indirect path.

There is a question of temperament here–although it can also seem a question of selfishness.  I have worked in political campaigns since I was 18, and I find I am not suited to it.  I believe much of what campaigns do is futile make-work (phone banks and canvassing, of which I have done a fair amount without any sense that it is effective) and I also find the focus on winning the election at the expense of much investment in what one is winning the election to achieve troubling.  Finally, in my one experience dealing with Congress (I was part of a team trying to influence the writing of a legal aid bill), the compromises we had to swallow and the pettiness and ignorance of the representatives we had to deal with was a massive turn-off.  The political process–no surprise–is very broken.  So a retreat back into academia, where at least I could control my relations to my colleagues and students, and act in ways I could affirm toward them, was a huge relief.

More than you wanted to hear doubtless.  But how to make one’s way through a life lived in a corrupt and cruel society is a real dilemma.  How to maintain self-respect and some sense of investment in what one is doing day in and day out even as you bemoan the state of the world and feel you should contribute to making it better.  Not a trivial problem. “

 

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