My super ironic life

In the bizarreness of bizarro land, the most devastating criticism that you can make in the academic environment is that someone is being "relativistic." Which is fascinating in a "huh, where'd the sixties go?" kind of way. Relativism got "dirty" when academics realized that not only can you use it to defend feminist/Marxist deconstructionalist intepretations (of just about anything), people in Kansas can also use it to defend "intelligent design" (creationism). Which is seriously amusing, when you really think about it.

I mention it because I've run up against the accusation of relativism this past semester. This is due mostly to the fact that I am much more vocal this semester than in previous semesters about my distaste for what I call dot-to-dot formulations (and what I've heard called "mechanistic constructions"). Basically, dot-to-dot formulations means listening to someone use the word "ideological" about twenty times in the same sentence about the same topic.

I complain about this. I made it to my 34th year without hearing people use the word "ideological" twenty times in the same sentence, and I figure it's academic speechifying (rather than a real effort at communication). That is, it's a nifty way of trying to catalog and quantify a bunch of stuff that happened way back when. And it's a nifty way of creating a dot-to-dot formulations. "After all," says I, "it's us looking back at something and labeling it."

"But," is the answer, "that's what ALL historians do."

"But," says I, ignoring yet another generalization that may be completely ungrounded, "it prevents us from really looking at what's going on because we're so busy labeling stuff."

"Well," I am told, "you are being relativistic."

This exchange has become fairly standard since I've begun to verbally balk (hey, it's the end of the semester; all my serious brain cells have been used up; when all my serious brain cells get used up, my mental eyeballs start rolling all over the place), anyway, balk at this continual tidying of the past.

So, I'm relativistic. Except that I'm not. And I've determined that the problem is that my professors are so fixated on teaching the whole "history is a narrative" concept, that my balkings are just a huge nuisance.

The whole point of the "history of a narrative" concept is that the history that we tell each other is not necessarily the TRUTH. The TRUTH is out there; the story we tell utilizes facts and events and opinions about true events, but it's a selection (we can't capture everything that happened) and for that matter, what we are utilizing may not have been written down correctly or told correctly to begin with. My professors think this is REALLY IMPORTANT. They also think I should be shocked, well, not shocked, but surprised that people (like the Colonial Revivialists and such) have been allowed to get away with this selection process for so long. I think it's just human nature and a survival mechanism and my professors do it too, but, eh, everybody loves a conspiracy.

Don't get me wrong. I think understanding "history as a narrative" is important, but once you figure it out (which I did well before I left undergraduate school), it is kind of tedious to keep going on about it.

But my professors aren't concerned about me. They are all bent out of shape about all those IGNORANT, partially educated, GULLIBLE, victimized by their high school teachers, UNKNOWLEDGEABLE, dunce-like people out there who believe what they see on television and believe what they are told in museums and believe all those myths about Americana. THEY MUST BE SAVED. It's very Calvinistic. (And I'd like to note here that my professors--and a fair number of the students--really do believe that outsiders, people not in our program, are like that; seriously. It's one of those non-debatable assumptions. Now, I'm a religious person; I attend an organized church, and I'd like to say that I feel much more pressure to adopt certain attitudes about "the other" at school than I ever do at church.)

Fact is, I make a lousy Calvinist, besides which I already know all this "history is a narrative" stuff. I also took a class on Ideology in Literature when I was a senior at BYU, and then, well, I got over it. (At the time, I called it the "house of cards" syndrome; the desire to come up with a theory that explains EVERYTHING but which has to be continually discarded because, of course, it doesn't explain everything and because, too, theories tend to be dry and formulaic and miss the feeling or character or balance of an event. I ran into the "house of cards" syndrome when I was trying to come up with a theory that explained what makes a good book and what makes a bad book, and I had to keep changing the theory because there were too many exceptions. On the other hand, I'm a huge fan of "M" theory. If there is a theory of everything, I think it is like string theory: it will make the universe a bigger, more complicated, more wonderful place, rather than not.) In any case, I don't believe what my professors tell me anymore than I believe the television, high school teachers, or museums.

Don't get me wrong--I'm in a good program, and this semester has been much, much better than my last semesters, partly because I figured out that my professors were trying to SAVE me and decided to go ahead and not be saved; partly because I'm in elective classes which tend to be less heavy-handed than the core classes and partly because the students themselves seem less prone to ideological theorizing. And partly, because I finally figured out that most people are just there to get the class done. I'm the only one worried about the long-term consequences.

Which is super ironic, when you think about it.

CATEGORY: HISTORY & LEARNING

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