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Sheldon Rothblatt

Sheldon Rothblatt author of Revolution of the Dons, is a professor of history at the University of California, Berkeley.

Deconstructing America

Sheldon Rothblatt, 23 July 1992

The topic of national self-regard falls under the general historical heading of ‘exceptionalism’ – where claims are made as to the unique quality of national experience, or ‘character’. The two are usually connected. How a nation views its elementary virtues or basic inclinations is obviously significant. A shared sense of the whole has a bearing on the fashioning of political campaigns, on the values taught in the family and at school, on social and urban policies, on the construction of the workplace, on definitions of success and failure and on the response of its citizenry to moments of crisis.’

Education and Exclusion

Sheldon Rothblatt, 13 February 1992

In the 1960s President Clark Kerr of the University of California explained why the multiversity can absorb dreamers and utopians without exciting affection. The ‘idea’ of a multiversity is that it has no conception of ‘essence’. The multiversity has a long nave with plentiful seating and many smaller circumjacent chapels. In the next decade, David Riesman and Gerald Grant continued in the same vein but added: ‘Occasionally a visionary from one of the side altars will seize the main pulpit … to lecture the vulgar utilitarians and then march off to found a rival church.’ Among the Luthers they placed Robert Maynard Hutchins.

Uncaging the beast

Sheldon Rothblatt, 16 February 1989

The ‘British School’ stands near the centre of modern anthropology. McLennan and Tylor, Malinowski and Pitt-Rivers come to mind. No one has done more to examine their leading concepts (‘culture’, ‘evolution’) or place them in perspective than George Stocking of the University of Chicago. His brilliant essays and intellectual leadership have virtually built an academic specialty. And Victorian Anthropology is unquestionably his masterpiece, a work of precision, subtlety and historical irony.

The Last Thing Said in Germany

Sheldon Rothblatt, 19 May 1988

In the 1840s a Thomas Carlyle could mimic the German pedantic style and laugh at Herr Teufelsdröckh of Wahngasse of Weissnichtwo (a scatalogical invention worthy of Jonathan Swift), but opposites are known to attract. As the century moved on, Wisenschaft, a portmanteau word connoting the highest possible academic culture, took hold of the British academic imagination. Would be scholars, slogging away at the education of young men who behaved like boys, rose as from the dead to salute the hard-working German professors on their magic mountains who did not have to shape the characters of adolescents or affect an amusing, polished and clubbable style. In 1886 Lord Acton, a student of the great Ignatz Döllinger, defined the ‘familiar type of German scholar’ as ‘the man who complained that the public library allowed him only 13 hours a day to read, the man who spent 30 years on one volume, the man who wrote on Homer in 1806 and who still wrote on Homer in 1870, the man who discovered the 358 passages in which Dictys had imitated Sallust’.

Oxford University’s Long Haul

Sheldon Rothblatt, 21 January 1988

The new History of the University of Oxford, already some twenty years in the making, is a prodigious achievement and a posthumous tribute to its general editor, the late T.H. Aston. To date, some 2500 pages of text, footnotes, tables, plates and indices have appeared, and there are four centuries and five volumes to come. As the centuries advance and the evidence mounts, the volumes become fatter. Those who have laboured in the past through D.A. Winstanley on Cambridge, C.E. Mallett on Oxford and Hastings Rashdall on the Medieval university will find the going even heavier: a reflection of the state of historical research today and the problems of assimilating or reducing unprecedented quantities of information. One reading will certainly not suffice. These are volumes for rereading and reference (and let us hope the indices are up to it, for there appear to be lacunae).

Ideas about Inferiority

Sheldon Rothblatt, 4 April 1985

Since the last century, national success – the capacity to compete in global markets, generate new technologies or produce and sustain a proud, healthy and energetic citizenry – has been linked to schooling as it never had been before (A Nation at Risk is the spectacular title of the Gardner Report on education which has been causing a stir in America.) Until the 1880s or thereabouts, the provision for education was much discussed, but rarely in Britain was the state of popular knowledge equated with national survival. Reading and writing for the poor attending Sunday schools, basic skills for manual workers, a little social science for the class of superior workers, liberal education for future governors and those destined for the professions: allowing for some disquiet on the part of moralists and humanists bothered by questions of justice or high culture, these aims were usually considered sufficient. Making little or no demand upon the Treasury, they were all the more satisfactory.

Academic Self-Interest

Sheldon Rothblatt, 19 January 1984

In the Edwardian age the clerical collar was still worn in the Turl but that was merely a survival. The don was, to adapt an American movie conceit, a ‘watermelon man’, one colour outside and quite another inside. A century’s worth of secularisation had captured Oxford. No longer was Church preferment the first object of a don and so no longer was Oxford merely a caravan stop on the way to another career: university teaching had become an end in itself.

Departure and Arrival Times

Sheldon Rothblatt, 18 August 1983

It takes courage to write a book with the scope attempted here. Omissions of central themes, issues and historians are bound to occur, disagreements bound to arise. Reviewers have already called attention to the absence of the Franco-Scottish link in the Enlightenment, the skimpy treatment of Romanticism, the neglect of Lecky and new-wave social science, the scatological treatment of Thomas Carlyle. Other omissions may be added. Frederic Maitland is not very well realised, which is strange given the historians (Kenyon among them) who believe in his greatness. Maitland’s relationship with Leslie Stephen and avid interest in Meredith’s novels would appear to be precisely the kind of detail Kenyon enjoys. Some room might have been found for Sir Henry Mame’s genius, even while debating whether he fits the category of historian. Much better use could have been made of Robert Brentano’s amazing essay on ‘The Sound of Stubbs’, which gets an endnote. But such lists are unimpressively easy to compile and doing so is a sort of Actonian party game, though one encouraged by Kenyon’s general tone and approach.

Whig History

Sheldon Rothblatt, 21 January 1982

Whig historiography stood four-square to its age; there was no suggestion that it was addressed to the happy few, or that it appealed to the justice of posterity against the spirit of the times. Posterity has on the whole avenged itself for this neglect. Macaulay will presumably not lack readers for a good while to come, and Stubbs will enjoy affectionate and respectful remembrance in the small circle of medievalists. But on the whole the great Victorian histories now seem like the triumphal arches of a past empire, their vaunting inscriptions increasingly unintelligible to the modern inhabitants: visited occasionally, it may be, as a pissoir, a species of visit naturally brief.

Likeable Sage

Sheldon Rothblatt, 17 September 1981

It is impossible not to like Matthew Arnold now that we know him so well. There is no stereotyped Victorian sage in this excellent biography, which is a joy to read, nor are there stereotyped fathers, mothers, sisters, brothers or friends. Yes, the formidable Dr Arnold used the cane, and there was solitary confinement of sorts for sons who wilfully refused to do their lessons. Half-knowing medical men of distinguished metropolitan status did invent mechanical appliances for correcting bone deficiencies that resembled leg-irons fastened on captives. Yes, sisters doted on brothers and followed their careers anxiously, not being given similar opportunities for self-expression through gainful employment. Yes, the Victorian world was filled with status-seekers who complained incessantly about income and nursed social slights while prattling on about duty. Yes, the young Matthew Arnold, even the aging, egregiously corpulent Matthew Arnold, was a dandy who enjoyed titles, women in smart attire, the company of a Rothschild, the compliments of Disraeli, the wealth of a Hudson River estate (where in 1883 he went to see Delanos and Astors), and yes, it mattered to him that his famous lecture tour of the United States netted upwards of £1000, since he was perpetually in debt. Yes, Victorian biographers, memoirists, members of the family worried about propriety and suppressed unflattering information. Sometimes we may forgive them. Arnold’s wife Fanny Lucy (‘Flu’) struck out all favourable references to herself – exactly why? At other times we encounter outright lies or convenient omissions. Matthew skipped out on his sister Jane’s wedding to William Forster of the landmark Education Act. Forster’s personal style was flat, but Matthew was also jealous of his political success. Still, he did not give his sister away – in the Lake Country ‘with the great fells standing sentinel’, as family propaganda put it – because he was chasing his future wife abroad.

Ideas of Decline

Sheldon Rothblatt, 6 August 1981

With a titular allusion to Max Weber’s famous essay on the rise of capitalism, Martin Wiener discusses the bewildering question of Britain’s current economic stagnation, retardation, ‘de-industrialisation’ or decline – the word chosen depends upon how the magnitude and finitude of the situation are assessed. Wiener prefers ‘decline’, since he traces the present worrying business posture of Britain back to the later 19th century. Demonstrating a nice eye for the right quotation and example, he has put together lengthy excerpts and a long list of statements from an exceptionally varied range of sources to argue that cultural even more than economic factors account for Britain’s secular slide. Wiener is too careful a scholar to believe that historical causes can be neatly compartmentalised. As he says, culture and economics cannot be separated: but heuristically he has selected culture as the operative variable. He briefly defines culture as the outlook and mentality of the élites who influence the values of the rest of society.

Redesigning Cambridge

Sheldon Rothblatt, 5 March 1981

The eye is attracted to bright colour and the ear to loud noise, and this is no less true in the writing of history than in the workings of nature. Accordingly, most recent detailed work analysing the transformation of higher education in 19th-century England has concentrated on the period after 1850 or 1860 when the ancient universities conspicuously joined the modern world. The trends are more to our liking, or at least we understand them better. The steep climb in matriculations, the diversification of the curriculum, the creation of professional schools, the spread of extra-mural education, the establishment of women’s colleges and the linkages (or lack of them) between the university and industrial sectors have gone into the making of the 20th century. However, the tendency to emphasise the relevance of the Second Industrial Revolution to our own time has led to a certain imbalance in the writing of university history, leaving the earlier decades to the biographer or the historian of religious movements. ‘Common room history’ is what often springs to mind when pre-Victorian or early Victorian Oxbridge is revisited. The general reader, desirous of knowing what part higher education played in the creation of Victorian England, is usually left with the textbook conclusion that the two senior universities remained in a sound Hanoverian slumber until the century was more than half over. Only occasionally, and then by prodigious effort, did the dons rouse themselves to denounce all attempts at academic reform. The reader’s attention is correspondingly drawn off to other areas of English society where higher education appeared to be responsive and innovative: to the London University, or to the new medical schools and civic universities.

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