Category Archive 'Simon Schama'

15 Apr 2018


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The late Kenneth Clark.

The BBC has decided to attempt to rebut Kenneth Clark’s magisterial tour d’horizon of Western Art, the 13-part 1969 television series “Civilization.” This rejoinder on behalf of our contemporary Woke Multicultural Establishment begins appearing Tuesday evening in the United States on PBS.

Kenneth Clark singlehandedly took viewers from Greek Antiquity to the 20th Century, but correcting Clark’s Eurocentric emphasis on Dead White Great Men apparently requires three presenters: Classicist Mary Beard, the talented (but respectably progressive) historian Simon Schama, and (the Nigerian and therefore full-fledged representative of the viewpoint of persons and cultures of Color) David Olusoga.

Andrew Ferguson, at the Weekly Standard, has seen the series, and warns us what to expect:

[Civilizations] is kind of Clark-like —a catalogue of glorious creations followed by a vision of an art form in an advanced state of spiritual exhaustion. The difference is that the decline of an art form saddened Clark. Each of the episodes of Civilisations that I’ve seen ends with a celebratory profile of a contemporary artist. Invariably their work suffers in comparison with what’s gone before—how could it not?—but the moments serve a summary purpose.

The episode called “How Do We Look?” closes with Kehinde Wiley, the artist who recently completed the official presidential portrait of Barack Obama. The narrator describes Wiley as a practitioner of “the modern art of the body,” which “draws its power” from “challenging the tradition of classical art.” Of course he lives in Brooklyn but “he has traveled all over the world to explore the legacy of colonialism and the different ways we see.” Suddenly we see him in the Metropolitan Museum of Art, moving from masterpiece to masterpiece. A tinny ensemble plays Vivaldi—a fusty reminder of the distant past. “I love the history of art,” he tells the camera. “I love looking at these beautiful images. But I also recognize that there’s something quite sinister about their past.”

“Sinister” sounds judgmental, doesn’t it? So judgmental indeed that I don’t think even Clark used it at all in his Civilisation. But it nicely summarizes the attitude toward the West that viewers of the new Civilisations will find unavoidable, even if they’re confident enough to find it unpersuasive.

Next to life-enhancing, the most important word in Clark’s account of civilization was confidence. Several things came together to make a civilization, Clark said: a measure of material prosperity, a sense of history, a range of vision, and a feeling of permanence, of being situated in a particular moment between past and future, that makes it worthwhile to construct things meant to last.

“But far more,” he said, “it requires confidence—confidence in the society in which one lives, belief in its philosophy, belief in its laws, confidence in one’s own mental powers.” His program was an effort to persuade his audience that confidence in their inherited civilization was well-earned.

In the closing moments of the final episode of Civilisation, Clark intended to strike a note of optimism. “When I look at the world about me in the light of these programs, I don’t at all feel as though we are entering on a new period of barbarism,” he said. He shows us the campus of the then-new University of East Anglia. Apple-cheeked college students pop in and out of classrooms, labor over books—the baby boomers as Clark hoped they were in 1969. “These inheritors of all our catastrophes look cheerful enough. . . . In fact, I should doubt if so many people have ever been as well-fed, as well-read, as bright-minded, as curious, and as critical as the young are today.”

Watching at home, we can assume, was the 14-year-old Mary Beard, all a-tingle and raring to go to college herself, where she could use her curiosity and reading and bright-mindedness to prove the great man and his theory wrong.



A recent biography of Kenneth Clark and his “Civilization” series was recently discussed here.

10 Apr 2016

Mark Steyn on the European Refugee Crisis

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Mark Steyn makes mincemeat of bien pensant liberals former UN Human Rights Commissioner Louise Arbour and historian Simon Schama in this debate excerpt.


Full debate here.

25 Oct 2007

Abolishing the Ivies

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The New York Society for Ethical Culture, as part of the New Yorker Festival, earlier this month held a somewhat tongue-in-cheek debate, moderated by Simon Schama, featuring two of the magazine’s staff writers, Malcolm Gladwell versus Adam Gopnik on the question: “Resolved: The Ivy League Should Be Abolished.”

NY Sun (10/5)

IvyGate (10/10)

Thomas Bartlett, in the Chronicle of Higher Education, describes the silliness.

It’s easy to hate the Ivy League. Also, it’s fun.

Yet rarely do hundreds of people cheer wildly as some crazy-haired guy calls for Harvard, Yale, and Princeton to be shut down. That’s right: closed entirely. Their campuses turned into luxury condos. Their students distributed evenly throughout the colleges of the Big Ten. Their endowments donated to charity, or used to purchase Canada.

But cheering is exactly what happened on a recent Saturday night during a somewhat tongue-in-cheek debate on the abolition of the Ivy League. The guy with the crazy hair was Malcolm Gladwell, author of two best-selling works of counterintuitive nonfiction, The Tipping Point and Blink. His opponent, the essayist Adam Gopnik, took the opposite view, arguing that — whatever their faults — we shouldn’t shutter those three prestigious institutions. Both men are staff writers for The New Yorker, and the event was part of the magazine’s annual literary festival.

Mr. Gladwell (University of Toronto, ’84) is a well-known Ivy hater. In a 2005 article, he argued that the admissions process for Ivy League colleges is odd, arbitrary, and more or less ridiculous. On this particular evening he pushed that view to its most extreme: that Harvard, Yale, and Princeton should be made extinct (the other five Ivies can, presumably, rest easy). The heart of his argument was that the Big Three do a lousy job of promoting social mobility. He also asserted that they have come to be valued as “consumption preferences” rather than places where people, you know, go to learn.

But more interesting than the debate itself was the audience reaction. Anti-Ivy proclamations were greeted with enthusiastic whoops. It was as if everyone had finally been given permission to voice their long-held antipathy toward the elite. It was a mob scene, or as close as you’re likely to get at a wine-and-cheese gathering on the Upper West Side.

It’s all part of a current Ivy backlash, according to Alexandra Robbins, author of The Overachievers: The Secret Lives of Driven Kids and Secrets of the Tomb: Skull and Bones, the Ivy League, and the Hidden Paths of Power. Ms. Robbins thinks the mystique of the Ivy League is starting to wear thin — even though, as she acknowledges, it’s harder than ever to get into those colleges. “Other schools have caught up and surpassed the Ivy League,” she says.

An Ivy League degree can even be a hindrance. Ms. Robbins says she recently talked to the chief executive of a major company who has an unofficial policy against hiring Ivy grads. “There is an assumption that if you went to an Ivy League school, you have a sense of entitlement,” she says.

Ms. Robbins, a Yale graduate herself, is sometimes sheepish about her pedigree, preferring to avoid the topic.

Jim Newell knows the feeling. He writes for IvyGate, a snarky Ivy League gossip blog. Mr. Newell attended the University of Pennsylvania, “one of the lesser Ivies” (his words). His alma mater often gets confused with Penn State, and he’d rather not correct people: “God forbid I’d say, ‘That’s the one in the Ivy League.’ I’d rather run away than say that.”

He thinks a lot of the resentment toward the Ivy League is based on an outdated image. “There is some foundation for the hatred,” he says. “There are a lot of stereotypes about WASPs smoking cigars with stuffed moose heads by the fireplace.”

Of course, it also has a lot to do with admissions. Harvard, Yale, and Princeton reject a lot of applicants, and that can create some hard feelings.

It’s Michele Hernandez’s job to get kids into Ivy League colleges. Ms. Hernandez is one of the most prominent college consultants around. Plenty of people are willing to pay a gulp-inducing $40,000 for her five-year package, which begins in the eighth grade. Ms. Hernandez made about a million dollars last year helping to craft applications.

Still, she tries to dissuade clients — frequently without success — from the idea that it’s Ivy or nothing. “I don’t find anything special about Harvard, Yale, or Princeton,” she says.

But she would hardly celebrate their demise. “Other elite schools would spring up in their place, like a Hydra,” she says, demonstrating a knack for entrance-essay allusions.

There is a “perception issue” when it comes to Ivy League colleges, says Robert Franek, author of The Best 366 Colleges, published by Princeton Review. “I think students and parents may be fed up with the hierarchy,” he says. “They’re starting to take a harder look at other colleges, even if they might be in a position to go to an Ivy.”

But that doesn’t explain where the hate comes from. James Twitchell, a professor of English and advertising at the University of Florida, who writes about branding and popular culture, says it’s simple: “Because so much of what most of us have at the mass-supplier level is interchangeable, we resent those who have something more or better or different.”

Another word for that is envy. Sarah E. Hill, an assistant professor of psychology at California State University at Fullerton, who studies envy, says The New Yorker debate was an opportunity to revel in that feeling. “The audience obviously perceives that these people in the Ivy League receive some kind of unfair advantage,” she says. “The idea of removing them is exciting. It’s like, ‘Ha, ha, ha,’ we took away your label!'”

Representatives of Harvard, Yale, and Princeton would not comment for this article. But, really, what did you expect?


If you don’t happen to be part of the pitchfork-waving mob of anti-elitists and actually attended one of the Ivies, be informed that GoCrossCampus is conducting an Ivy League Championship Risk Tournament, which will be starting its very first combats today. Yale has a bit of an advantage right now, which is only right.


Hat tips to David Nix and AJ.

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