Quite understandably, faculty try to instill in their students the same attitudes that enabled them to succeed. Unfortunately, those qualities are often counterproductive for any life outside of academia. But in order to fully grasp why this fact is so important, you have to understand a little bit about how careers are made and lost in academia.
Success as a faculty member requires one thing above all else: a good reputation in your field. During the tenure and promotion process, perhaps the most crucial step will be when your department solicits letters of reference from well-known senior faculty in your chosen specialty. They will review your research output and write a candid assessment of your work. Bad letters from these faculty will destroy your chances of being awarded tenure. And because tenure is an “up-or-out” system, failing to receive tenure means that you’re fired. Furthermore, in this economy, it usually means that your career is over, too.
The very worst thing that can happen is for your letter-writers to be unfamiliar with your work. Accordingly, savvy junior faculty members will direct their research to a very specific sub-specialty so that they increase their chances of becoming known within a particular group of senior researchers. That way, even though the junior faculty member won’t know who’s being solicited for letters during their tenure review, they can be reasonably certain that their work will be known to the right people. Because it’s so time-consuming to conduct research and submit papers and books for publication (it often takes well over a year for a paper to be published in a good journal, for example), a junior faculty member can’t afford to waste any time or effort. It’s almost suicidal to write a series of papers on different topics, even if those papers are very high-quality. Instead, it’s a far better strategy to try to achieve a “critical mass” of research output in a small, narrowly-focused area. Research areas, types of output (papers, presentations, books, grant proposals, etc), venues, and everything else are selected to maximize the probability that the right people will learn about one’s work. The math is terrible—rejection rates for top journals in my field, for example, are way above 90%, and this is quite typical. With a six-year window between being hired and beginning the tenure process, it can easily take a year to get one’s research off the ground. Between the end of any particular research work and publication (assuming it’s accepted for publication), there can easily be a year or more. This is why it’s so important to relentlessly focus on a narrow specialty; there is no time to waste.
Of course, it’s possible that after being awarded tenure, a faculty member might broaden her horizons and pursue a variety of different intellectual pursuits. This would be in keeping with one major purpose of tenure—to enable an established researcher to set her own research agenda without fear of losing her job. To be sure, this does happen. But in my experience at least, it’s very rare. The reason why it’s so rare is pretty simple: the tenure process filters out the people who would be most likely to pursue diverse intellectual interests. Having survived college, graduate school, and the tenure track, it’s very likely that whoever is left standing is the sort of person who fits comfortably into the existing structure. Someone who is prone to pursuing a diverse set of interests or (worse yet) interdisciplinary research will run a much larger risk of losing her job during the tenure review process. And of course, even if you started out with a lot of intellectual interests, the sheer habit of limiting yourself to the narrow range of acceptable work can change you over the course of a decade.
In this way, faculty are like columnists for major newspapers. Columnists for, say, the New York Times are perfectly free to write whatever they like (within appropriate professional guidelines, of course). But the range of opinion expressed in those columns is terribly narrow. The problem is not that the Times is exerting pressure on its columnists. The problem is that in order to be a columnist for the New York Times to begin with, you have to be the kind of person whose opinions already fall within a specific range. The same goes for faculty. Universities are generally pretty good about not exerting overt pressure on faculty and their research. Intellectual freedom is generally respected. But the university doesn’t need to exert any pressure, because it’s already filtered out the people who would need to be pressured. Those who survive are, for the most part, narrow specialists who care little about what’s happening outside their own area of specialization.
The same is true of faculty opinions about the university itself. With a six year pre-tenure filtering process, those who are granted the freedom to change the way their courses are run, try something new, or (gasp!) criticize the university have largely been eliminated. Those who remain are perfectly free to teach, conduct research, or express themselves however they like. But the people who would actually take advantage of that privilege are gone.
68-year-old Particle Physicist Paul Frampton was divorced and in the market for a new wife, hopefully a woman “between the ages of 18 and 35, which Frampton understood to be the period when women are most fertile.”
And what do you know? The lucky guy had only to log onto the Internet and start playing with one dating site, and he ran into the internationally-famous-for-her-enormous-upper-endowment supermodel Denise Milani. The couple exchanged texts and photos, and fell madly in love, though the apparently-shy model kept refusing to speak to him on the phone.
Finally, Denise Milani agreed to meet the professor in person… in La Paz, Bolivia. Alas! when he got to Bolivia, the lovely lady had been unexpectedly called away to another photo shoot in Brussels, and would he do her a favor and bring her a suitcase she’d left behind in La Paz?
Peter Frampton was arrested in Buenos Aires and received a 4 year 10 month sentence for smuggling cocaine. The real Denise Milani could not be reached for comment.
Maxine Swann tells the whole sad story in the New York Times Magazine.
On April 30th, Naomi Schaefer Riley, in a Chronicle of Higher Education blog posting, cursorily described three recent dissertation theses produced by students in Northwestern’s Black Studies department, featured in a recent Chronicle (subscribers-only) posting, and offered her own opinion that the dismal list of thesis topics listed in a sidebar constituted proof of the unscholarly futility of Black Studies as a field as currently conducted.
If ever there were a case for eliminating the discipline, the sidebar explaining some of the dissertations being offered by the best and the brightest of black-studies graduate students has made it. What a collection of left-wing victimization claptrap. The best that can be said of these topics is that they’re so irrelevant no one will ever look at them.
Everyone with two brain cells to rub together, of course, knows perfectly well that Black Studies is, and has always been, a post-1960s academical kind of N-word-geld, a blackmail payment on the part of university administrations conceded to the radical left’s demonstrations and demands for “representation” of designated victim groups within their faculties and curriculums.
Black Studies, and its allied fields Women’s Studies and Queer Studies, exist simply in order to redistribute and share the prestige and salaried positions of elite educational institutions with activist representatives of victim groups while allowing the former to disseminate agitprop pretending to be scholarship.
No one, however, is allowed to say such things, especially not from a Chronicle of Higher Education blog.
Naomi Schaefer Riley’s posting provoked one of those major temper tantrums on the part of the left which have in the past brought presidents of Harvard to book.
Initially apparently, the Chronicle defended its own policy of diversity of opinion and offered space to the authors of the dissertations Riley criticized to respond and more space to Riley to reply. They even published an indignant rejoinder by Riley to criticisms that she was racist, that it was mean of her to pick on poor little graduate students, that not having a doctorate herself she was unqualified to opine on dissertation topics, and that she had not bothered to read the dissertations she dissed in their entirety.
But the left turned up the heat, the African American Studies department at Northwestern played the race card, left-wing bloggers denounced Riley’s posting as “cruel” and “offensive,” and a hurricane of tweets went out on Twitter.
The Chronicle is really representative of the American academic community so, of course, the Chronicle, faced with left-wing pressure, caved, and editor Liz McMillen grovelled.
We’ve heard you, and we have taken to heart what you said.
We now agree that Ms. Riley’s blog posting did not meet The Chronicle’s basic editorial standards for reporting and fairness in opinion articles. As a result, we have asked Ms. Riley to leave the Brainstorm blog.
Since Brainstorm was created five years ago, we have sought out bloggers representing a range of intellectual and political views, and we have allowed them broad freedom in topics and approach. As part of that freedom, Brainstorm writers were able to post independently; Ms. Riley’s post was not reviewed until after it was posted.
I realize we have made mistakes. We will thoroughly review our editorial practices on Brainstorm and other blogs and strengthen our guidelines for bloggers.
John S. Rosenberg, at Minding the Campus, calls the Chronicle’s firing of Ms. Riley “a disgraceful capitulation to the mob,” tells us that the petition demanding Riley be fired had received around 6500 signatures. He also informs us that the allegedly racist Ms. Riley is married to an African-American who is the father of her two children.
Megan McArdle contemplates yesterday’s New York Times academic bias against conservatives article. She does not pretend to have a solution, but thinks it would be nice if liberals actually recognized their own biases.
[L]iberals, who are usually quick to assume that underrepresentation represents some form of discrimination—structural or personal—suddenly become, as Haidt notes, fierce critics of the notion that numerical representation means anything. Moreover, they start generating explanations for the disparity that sound suspiciously like some old reactionary explaining that blacks don’t really want to go into management because they’re much happier without all the responsibility. Conservatives are too stupid to become academics; they aren’t open new ideas; they’re too aggressive and hierarchical; they don’t care about ideas, just money. In other words, it’s not our fault that they’re not worthy.
Besides, liberals suddenly argue, we shouldn’t look for every sub-population to mirror the composition of the population at large; just as Greeks gravitated towards diners in 1980s New York, and the small market business was dominated by Koreans, liberals are attracted to academia, and conservatives to, well, some other profession. ...
I don’t actually know many conservatives who want quotas for conservatives, either—I’m sure they’re out there, but even David Horowitz didn’t go that far. Most of the people I talk to think, like James Joyner, that this may be a problem without a solution. It is just my impression, but I think what conservatives want most of all is simply recognition that they are being shut out. It is a double indignity to be discriminated against, and then be told unctuously that your group’s underrepresentation is proof that almost none of you are as good as “us”. Haidt notes that his correspondence with conservative students (anonymously) “reminded him of closeted gay students in the 1980s”:
He quoted—anonymously—from their e-mails describing how they hid their feelings when colleagues made political small talk and jokes predicated on the assumption that everyone was a liberal. “I consider myself very middle-of-the-road politically: a social liberal but fiscal conservative. Nonetheless, I avoid the topic of politics around work,” one student wrote. “Given what I’ve read of the literature, I am certain any research I conducted in political psychology would provide contrary findings and, therefore, go unpublished. Although I think I could make a substantial contribution to the knowledge base, and would be excited to do so, I will not.”
Beyond that, mostly they would like academics to be conscious of the bias, and try to counter it where possible. As the quote above suggests, this isn’t just for the benefit of conservatives, either. Just as excluding blacks and women from academia by tacit agreement allowed for a certain amount of wrong-headed groupthink, so does excluding people with different political views. No, I’m not saying you have to hire a Young Earth Creationist to be a biology professor, but I don’t see why it should matter in a professor of Mathematics or Sociology.
Trying to be more conscious of one’s own bias, and even to attempt to work against it, should not be such a hard task for people as brilliant, open-minded, and committed to equality and social justice as I keep hearing that liberal academics are. So it doesn’t really seem like so much to ask.
The New York Times has an amusing item about the professional bias investigators of the modern academic world finding themselves confronted with powerful evidence of a very large beam in their own collective eye.
Discrimination is always high on the agenda at the Society for Personality and Social Psychology’s conference, where psychologists discuss their research on racial prejudice, homophobia, sexism, stereotype threat and unconscious bias against minorities. But the most talked-about speech at this year’s meeting, which ended Jan. 30, involved a new “outgroup.”
It was identified by Jonathan Haidt, a social psychologist at the University of Virginia who studies the intuitive foundations of morality and ideology. He polled his audience at the San Antonio Convention Center, starting by asking how many considered themselves politically liberal. A sea of hands appeared, and Dr. Haidt estimated that liberals made up 80 percent of the 1,000 psychologists in the ballroom. When he asked for centrists and libertarians, he spotted fewer than three dozen hands. And then, when he asked for conservatives, he counted a grand total of three.
“This is a statistically impossible lack of diversity,” Dr. Haidt concluded, noting polls showing that 40 percent of Americans are conservative and 20 percent are liberal. In his speech and in an interview, Dr. Haidt argued that social psychologists are a “tribal-moral community” united by “sacred values” that hinder research and damage their credibility — and blind them to the hostile climate they’ve created for non-liberals.
“Anywhere in the world that social psychologists see women or minorities underrepresented by a factor of two or three, our minds jump to discrimination as the explanation,” said Dr. Haidt, who called himself a longtime liberal turned centrist. “But when we find out that conservatives are underrepresented among us by a factor of more than 100, suddenly everyone finds it quite easy to generate alternate explanations.”
The social sciences are build around left-wing assumptions and perspectives, so it isn’t all that surprising to me that Sociology and Anthro departments are overwhelmingly populated by left-wing democrats, but lack of political diversity in American colleges and universities notoriously extends far beyond the social sciences. English and History departments are scarcely more diverse in their political representation.
Steven Hayward, at Power-Line, describes the well-known phenomenon of conservative fear and isolation on the modern university faculty.
I have a good friend—I won’t name out him here though—who is a tenured faculty member in a premier humanities department at a leading east coast university, and he’s . . . a conservative! How did he slip by the PC police? Simple: he kept his head down in graduate school and as a junior faculty member, practicing self-censorship and publishing boring journal articles that said little or nothing. When he finally got tenure review, he told his closest friend on the faculty, sotto voce, that “Actually I’m a Republican.” His faculty friend, similarly sotto voce, said, “Really? I’m a Republican, too!”
That’s the scandalous state of things in American universities today. Here and there—Hillsdale College, George Mason Law School, Ashland University come to mind—the administration is able to hire first rate conservative scholars at below market rates because they are actively discriminated against at probably 90 percent of American colleges and universities. Other universities will tolerate a token conservative, but having a second conservative in a department is beyond the pale.
A few weeks ago, I posted a link referred to in private email correspondence by a younger person from Yale, now teaching English at a major university. As is the custom, I mentioned his name as my source for the post in a final “hat tip.” A few hours later, I received an email from that university professor, thanking me for the courtesy, but asking me to remove his name from this blog for fear that the association with Never Yet Melted might possibly out his unacceptable personal political views and jeopardize his candidacy for tenure. Conservative faculty members all over America today live in real, and well-founded, fear of being victimized by discrimination on the basis of their political views.
A survivor of an Alabama university shooting said the professor charged in the attack that claimed three lives methodically shot the victims in the head until her gun apparently jammed and she was pushed out of the room.
Associate professor Joseph Ng told The Associated Press on Tuesday he was one of 12 people at the biology department meeting Friday at the University of Alabama-Huntsville. He described the details in an e-mail to a colleague at the University of California-Irvine.
Ng said the meeting had been going on for about half an hour when Amy Bishop “got up suddenly, took out a gun and started shooting at each one of us. She started with the one closest to her and went down the row shooting her targets in the head.”...
Ng said the meeting was held around an oval table. The six people on one side were all shot.
“The remaining 5 including myself were on the other side of the table (and) immediately dropped to the floor,” he wrote.
Ng told the AP the shooting stopped almost as soon as it started. Ng said the gun seemed to jam and he and others rushed Bishop out of the room and then barricaded the door shut with a table.
Ng said the charge was led by Debra Moriarity, a professor of biochemistry, after Bishop aimed the gun at her and attempted to fire but it didn’t shoot. He said Moriarity pushed her way to Bishop, urged her to stop, and then helped force her out the door.
“Moriarity was probably the one that saved our lives. She was the one that initiated the rush,” he told the AP. “It took a lot of guts to just go up to her.”
Ng said the survivors worried she would shoot her way through the door, and frantically worked up backup plan in case she burst through. But she never did.
I thought it was interesting to read how when Amy Bishop’s gun jammed (or was simply empty), after she had shot six people, several of the remaining biologists were sufficiently driven by survival instinct to rise from hiding on the floor, ask her to stop shooting people(!), and then, as she presumably gaped at them in astonishment, employ superior numbers to push her out the door. After which, they proceeded to try to barricade themselves inside. It would be just too bad, of course, for anybody else who had recently offended Amy Bishop who happened along after she reloaded or cleared her jam.
Five people made no attempt to apprehend or disarm a woman who was obviously, temporarily at least, unable to fire any more rounds. As far as they were concerned, short term personal survival was the key priority. Dealing with Professor Bishop would be a job for the authorities. Let the police and the rest of the university community take their own chances. And when I look over the list of department members (not named in the article), it does seem to be the case that the majority of the persons potentially present, and not otherwise accounted for, would have been male.
Peter Berkowitz discusses prominent cases in recent years of the response to controversy at Duke, Yale, and Harvard, in each of which instances faculty and administrators failed to defend freedom of thought and expression or members of their own community against the excesses of political correctness.
Professors have a professional interest in—indeed a professional duty to uphold—liberty of thought and discussion. But in recent years, precisely where they should be most engaged and outspoken they have been apathetic and inarticulate.
Consider Yale. On Oct. 1, the university hosted Danish cartoonist Kurt Westergaard. His drawing of Muhammad with a bomb in his turban became the best known of 12 cartoons published by the Danish newspaper Jyllands-Posten in September 2005. That led to deadly protests throughout the Muslim world. On the same day, at an unrelated event, Yale hosted Brandeis Prof. Jytte Klausen. Her new book, “The Cartoons that Shook the World,” was subject in August to a last minute prepublication decision by Yale President Richard Levin and Yale University Press to remove not only the 12 cartoons but also all representations of Muhammad, including respected works of art. ...
To be sure, Yale’s censorship—the right word because Yale suppressed content on moral and political grounds—raised difficult questions. Can’t rights, including freedom of speech and press, be limited to accommodate other rights and goods? What if reprinting the cartoons and other depictions gave thugs and extremists a new opportunity to inflame passions and unleash violence? Can’t the consequences of the cartoons’ original publication be understood without reproducing them? Weren’t the cartoons really akin, as Yale Senior Lecturer Charles Hill pointed out in a letter to the Yale Alumni magazine, to the depictions of Jews as grotesque monsters that successive American administrations have sought to persuade Arab newspapers to cease publishing? And isn’t it true, as Mr. Hill also observed, that Yale’s obligation to defend free speech does not oblige it to subsidize gratuitously offensive or intellectually worthless speech?
These are good questions—to which there are good answers.
Rights are subject to limits, but a right as fundamental to the university and the nation as freedom of speech and press should only be limited in cases of imminent danger and not in deference to speculation about possible violence at an indeterminate future date. One can’t properly evaluate Ms. Klausen’s contention that the cartoons were cynically manipulated without assessing with one’s own eyes whether the images passed beyond mockery and ridicule to the direct incitement of violence.
Even if the cartoons exhibited a kinship to anti-Semitic caricatures, it would cut in favor of publication: a scholar would be derelict in his duties if he published a work on anti-Semitic images without including examples. And finally, if Yale chooses to publish a rigorous analysis of the Danish cartoon controversy, which affected the national interest and roiled world affairs, then the university does incur a scholarly obligation to include all the relevant information and evidence including the cartoons at the center, regardless of whether they are in themselves gratuitously offensive and intellectually worthless.
The wonder is that Yale’s censorship has excited so little debate at Yale. The American Association of University Professors condemned Yale for caving in to terrorists’ “anticipated demands.” And a group of distinguished alumni formed the Yale Committee for a Free Press and published a letter protesting Yale’s “surrender to potential unknown billigerents” and calling on the university to correct its error by reprinting Ms. Klausen’s book with the cartoons and other images intact. But the Yale faculty has mostly yawned. Even the famously activist Yale Law School has, according to its director of public affairs, sponsored no programs on censorship and the university.
Alas, there is good reason to suppose that in its complacency about threats to freedom on campus the Yale faculty is typical of faculties at our leading universities. In 2006, even as the police had barely begun their investigation, Duke University President Richard Brodhead lent the prestige of his office to faculty members’ prosecution and conviction in the court of public opinion of three members of the Duke lacrosse team falsely accused of gang raping an African-American exotic dancer. It turned out they were being pursued by a rogue prosecutor. To be sure, it was only a vocal minority at Duke who led the public rush to judgment. But the vast majority of the faculty stood idly by, never rising to defend the presumption of innocence and the requirements of fair process. Perhaps Duke faculty members did not realize or perhaps they did not care that these formal and fundamental protections against the abuse of power belong among the conditions essential to the lively exchange of ideas at the heart of liberal education.
Similarly, in 2005, Harvard President Lawrence Summers sparked a faculty revolt that ultimately led to his ouster by floating at a closed-door, off-the-record meeting the hypothesis—which he gave reasons for rejecting only a few breaths after posing it—that women were poorly represented among natural science faculties because significantly fewer women than men are born with the extraordinary theoretical intelligence necessary to succeed at the highest scientific levels. Before he was forced to resign, Mr. Summers did his part to set back the cause of unfettered intellectual inquiry by taking the side of his accusers and apologizing repeatedly for having dared to expose an unpopular idea to rational analysis. Apart from a few honorable exceptions, the Harvard faculty could not find a principle worth defending in the controversy over Mr. Summer’s remarks.
As the controversies at Yale, Duke and Harvard captured national attention, professors from other universities haven’t had much to say in defense of liberty of thought and discussion either. This silence represents a collective failure of America’s professors of colossal proportions. What could be a clearer sign of our professors’ loss of understanding of the requirements of liberal education than their failure to defend liberty of thought and discussion where it touches them most directly?
Willam M. Chace, in the American Scholar, identifies the decline in study of the Humanities in general with the internal collapse of the English Department following the overthrow of the idea of the canon.
Perhaps the most telling sign of the near bankruptcy of the discipline is the silence from within its ranks. In the face of one skeptical and disenchanted critique after another, no one has come forward in years to assert that the study of English (or comparative literature or similar undertakings in other languages) is coherent, does have self-limiting boundaries, and can be described as this but not that.
Such silence strongly suggests a complicity of understanding, with the practitioners in agreement that to teach English today is to do, intellectually, what one pleases. No sense of duty remains toward works of English or American literature; amateur sociology or anthropology or philosophy or comic books or studies of trauma among soldiers or survivors of the Holocaust will do. You need not even believe that works of literature have intelligible meaning; you can announce that they bear no relationship at all to the world beyond the text. Nor do you need to believe that literary history is helpful in understanding the books you teach; history itself can be shucked aside as misleading, irrelevant, or even unknowable. In short, there are few, if any, fixed rules or operating principles to which those teaching English and American literature are obliged to conform. With everything on the table, and with foundational principles abandoned, everyone is free, in the classroom or in prose, to exercise intellectual laissez-faire in the largest possible way—I won’t interfere with what you do and am happy to see that you will return the favor. Yet all around them a rich literature exists, extraordinary books to be taught to younger minds.
Consider the English department at Harvard University. It has now agreed to remove its survey of English literature for undergraduates, replacing it and much else with four new “affinity groups”—“Arrivals,” “Poets,” “Diffusions,” and “Shakespeares.” The first would examine outside influences on English literature; the second would look at whatever poets the given instructor would select; the third would study various writings (again, picked by the given instructor) resulting from the spread of English around the globe; and the final grouping would direct attention to Shakespeare and his contemporaries.
Daniel Donoghue, the department’s director of undergraduate studies, told The Harvard Crimson last December that “our approach was to start with a completely clean slate.” And Harvard’s well-known Shakespeare scholar Stephen Greenblatt also told the Crimson that the substance of the old survey will “trickle down to students through the professors themselves who, after all, specialize in each of these areas of English literature.” But under the proposal, there would be no one book, or family of books, that every English major at Harvard would have read by the time he or she graduates. The direction to which Harvard would lead its students in this “clean slate” or “trickle down” experiment is to suspend literary history, thrusting into the hands of undergraduates the job of cobbling together intellectual coherence for themselves. Greenblatt puts it this way: students should craft their own literary “journeys.” The professors might have little idea of where those journeys might lead, or how their paths might become errant. There will be no common destination.
As Harvard goes, so often go the nation’s other colleges and universities. Those who once strove to give order to the curriculum will have learned, from Harvard, that terms like core knowledge and foundational experience only trigger acrimony, turf protection, and faculty mutinies. No one has the stomach anymore to refight the Western culture wars. Let the students find their own way to knowledge.
In our day, many historians do not have a problem with Attila or any other “Great Man of History.” They accept the very personal role of Hitler, Stalin, Mao, and the rest in shaping history, “bottom-up” history notwithstanding; and so they can accept Attila’s importance as a historical factor as their Marxist predecessors could not. But they have a terrific problem with the Huns, and the reason for this is simple. It is the nullification of military historiography in contemporary academia. “Strategy” exists in a few government or political science departments, but such “strategists” steer clear of military history. The academic consensus that all wars are pointless apparently extends also to the study of their history.
There is almost no place, and almost no prestige, for anyone who wants to research and teach how and why battles and wars were won or lost—that is, military history strictly defined—as opposed to social history, economic history, and some forms of political history, including newly rehabilitated biographical approaches but excluding “kings and battles.” Even research on “presidents and wars” is unwelcome unless there are cognitive or psychological pathologies to be studied. And there is the added impediment that military historiography is an arcane field, requiring serious archival research, often in languages other than English.
While scholarly readers have an insatiable demand for military historiography, and students are very keenly interested in battles and wars, the faculties at our universities prefer to scant both. Appoint a military historian? The eminent Chicago Byzantinist Walter Emil Kaegi has explained why it almost never happens: tactics cannot matter, weapon techniques cannot matter, operational methods cannot matter, theater strategies cannot matter, because wars do not matter—as a subject of their own, rather than as epiphenomenal expressions of other causes and realities. Given the academic consensus that wars are almost entirely decided by social, economic, and political factors, there is simply no room for military history as such.
That makes it impossible to explain why anyone would have been bothered by the arrival of the Huns. ...
The days are past when Christianity, poisoning by lead pipes, or any other cause could be invoked to explain the fall of one-half of the Roman Empire while disregarding the survival of the other half, though it was just as Christian or just as poisoned. Only the possibility that a military difference, a difference in strategy between east and west, might have determined the outcome has remained unexplored—until now
William Sidney Mount (1807-1868), Eel Spearing at Setauket, 1845
Oil on canvas; 28 1/2×36 in. (72.4×91.4 cm)
New York State Historical Association, Cooperstown
John Wilmerding, in the Wall Street Journal, rhapsodizes over a pleasant enough America genre painting, dragging in the Ancient Greeks, and homing in unerringly on the real subtext of the painting: the sublimely important themes of race and inequality.
Following a period of renovation and curatorial research, “Eel Spearing at Setauket” (1845) by the American genre painter William Sidney Mount (1807-1868) has gone back on view at the Fenimore Art Museum in Cooperstown, N.Y. The star of the museum’s collection, the work is also generally acknowledged to be one of the classics in the history of American art. Why? Because it is both a beautiful and a significant painting. First is its formal beauty, the serene clarity of its composition, organized around its multiple pairings and reflections…
The structure is classical, consisting mainly of stable horizontals and verticals, along with the dominant triangle formed by paddle, boat and fishing spear, reminiscent of a Greek revival pediment dominant in American architecture at the time. The boat is centered in the nearground, parallel both to the picture plane and to the shoreline behind. In its solid volume and monumental stance the standing figure recalls the spirit of Greco-Roman statuary, such as that of the spearbearer. (Mount could have seen casts of ancient sculpture in his years of study in New York.) But the stillness, harmony and sense of equipoise are also an expression of nature’s hold on the American imagination in the mid-19th century, the country’s self-confident spirit, and Mount’s personal celebration of memory and meditation…
“Eel Spearing” appears to be apolitical, though its thoughtful mood and stable structure suit the sense of racial harmony. Mount achieves this by telling his story with characters marginalized in American society at the time—the child, the woman, the black. (Imagine how much more provocative his work would have been had the dominant figure been a black male.)
Wilmerding, astonishingly, overlooks the degree to which small dogs (not to mention: eels!) were not only marginalized in the wicked America of James K. Polk, but remain marginalized today.
Power to the pointy-eared terriers and the slimey anguilliformes!
The insensitive, of course, would say the painting merely represents a pleasant and nostalgic bucolic sporting idyll.