Welcome to Academe

It started when the professor asked us if there is a difference between history and lore; aren't they really just the same thing?

Okay, I'm game. I spoke up and said that history, or the goal of history, works within the principle of empirical evidence while lore is an attempt to get at the emotional truth or reality of an event, which evidence can't always discover. I didn't make that last bit up. It was in our reading for Tuesday's class, which I cited in class.

At which point, a woman who I have had several classes with in the course of the program, spoke up. I'm going to call her Traci. Traci declared that it really bugged her that history is perceived as true while lore is perceived as false (myth); history, she told us, is male and patriarchal and heirarchal and part of the dominant narrative, and it's all b.s.; she wasn't really responding to me, but I responded nevertheless. I pointed out that her statement was a little over-generalized; I'm a woman, and I happen to think empirical evidence is swell (or words to that effect).

She replied by saying that she wasn't talking about my relationship to history, she was talking about history as it has come down to us (through the schools): "the way we're trained to think," she said.

"Doesn't bother me," I said. At which point, another student pointed out that lore isn't exactly non-patriarchal since many of the stories that are passed down through folk culture are male-oriented and male-told. Traci retreated to the position of "well, it's all about social class" (everyone in this college, except me, eventually retreats to the "it's all about social class" position).

I suppose anyone who has been in a college course where this topic has been discussed knows where this is headed. I knew where it was headed, although I figured the professor would push it off track before it got there. He didn't.

In any case, since I had made myself the object of attention, he directed his next few questions at me. Basically, he was arguing the concept that people live in their own heads; what they perceive as real is true to them. There is a great deal of validity to this idea, but I wasn't prepared to jump on the bandwagon whole-hog, considering the underlying assumptions. I especially wasn't willing to accept that history & lore are just two variations of the same thing: the creation of a narrative. (I realize they can be, but I was thinking of history as it had been defined in the class: male, empirical, academic, factual, etc.)

The professor brought up that book Million Little Bits, or whatever it is called. If the guy who wrote the book really believed that those things happened to him, and the book is based on his memory, can we really get into a bruhaha over his "reality."

"Yes!" I said.

Now, I honestly don't care about the book or the bruhaha, but I said, "The guy went on shows and people believed him and those 'facts' were out there, and we have a responsibility to the truth, to be accurate about things."

Anyway, at this point it was only a matter of time. Sure enough, we hit the biggest issue of them all: the Holocaust. If all reality is relative, and if Holocaust deniers really believe that the Holocaust didn't happen, doesn't that mean that, for them, that "reality" is true.

Which is why, as I tried to point out way at the beginning of the class, you don't confuse history, or the pursuit of history, no matter how male and patriarchal, with lore, or the pursuit of lore.

"After all," said one student, "does it really matter if it was 1 million or 5 million people who died?"

Now, before I continue, I should state that I do not think the student was making a deliberate anti-semitic or denial statement. I think he has no idea that most Holocaust denial centers around reducing the number of Jews who died in concentration camps in Europe. He was (simply) responding to the "it's all about the emotion of the event" relativism that was being promoted (by the professor in the class).

And I went nuts. I said, "Yes, it matters! It matters to the people who died."

"But," he said, "does it matter in terms of the stories that are collected? The stories don't have anything to do with statistics. What's the difference between 5 million and 1 million?"

Now, notice that the business of statistics (empirical history) and lore (emotional content) has gotten conflated. Have I mentioned that the two are distinct and should be dealt with as distinct?

I said, "A lot. It matters. It matters to the people who died; it matters to the families who were affected. It matters what battles were fought in what towns, and what people disappeared from where. Statisticians know--they can figure out--that 5.8 to 6 million Jews disappeared from Europe. And that matters." At which point, I got a tad more sarcastic about the flightiness of relativity.

"You keep saying it matters," he said, "but you can't say why."

And I just gaped. I'd given him some fairly solid emotional reasons. Do I actually have to defend the need for historical veracity?

Another student said, "It matters in terms of the stories that are lost," and then went on to say, "If the number isn't kept consistent, then it changes every time a story is told, and eventually that truth has been lost."

"Look," I broke in, "there is the lore, and then there is the statistical evidence, and I'm willing to say that as far as the lore is concerned, the statistical evidence isn't important," at which point another student sighed as if, well, duh, finally the whacked out chick has gotten on board. I could have hit him. I continued, "But you can't take lore and apply it to evidence. You set it aside. You don't confuse the two. You don't let lore determine evidence." Except I was a lot angrier and hostile than it sounds reading it.

And then, Traci piped up again. I think Traci was a bit dismayed by the direction the conversation had taken. History, according to Traci, isn't all b.s. anymore, but the statisticians miss things, and, she continued, looking at me, she thinks the academic world doesn't take the emotional/lore side of things seriously enough.

I just stared at her. I was so angry, I think I could have chewed concrete at that point. I wasn't the one who decided history was evil (leading to a stupid conversation in which historical facts and relativistic lore were constantly confused); I wasn't the one who made the system oppositional and binary. I never said anything that disagreed with her final statement. As the student next to me said, "We want to keep the baby and the bathwater." (Another student said, "The two [history and lore] have different functions," which I also went along with.)

I kept a very low profile for the rest of class so I wouldn't throw staplers or anything at people, and I realized, actually, yes, Traci and I do disagree. Because when Traci says, "Academe ignores the way people in history are feeling," she doesn't mean, as I do, that the academic world has a tendency to be extremely literal and label-happy. Traci is a literal, label-happy person who constantly makes negative, stereotyped and generalized statements about Christianity, history, people she disagrees with and, for that matter, stuff she does agree with, like paganism (which she romanticizes as female and environmentally friendly). When Traci says, "Academe ignores the way people are feeling," she means, "Academe ignores the lack of power that people have." Or the excessive power that people have. Or how unfair everything in history is.

And I felt, in a very literal way, sick. I honestly can't say whether, if I hadn't been there (and believe me, I wish I hadn't been), anyone would have bothered to argue with the professor's initial point (which was more of a devil's advocate position than anything else). Despite the few students who backed me up, the general attitude was that I was making a fuss out of nothing. Being historically accurate is all very well, but we here in this Master's program are more interested in saying things like, "It's all in people's heads," and bringing up the concept of ideologies: can we blame it on race, class, gender, power? If I had been absent, I think that, with maybe one or two exceptions, the professor's "aren't history and lore just variations on a theme?" idea would have been accepted as a truism.

I don't think this is a minor issue, although it is obviously a pointless battle for me to fight. I realize, in retrospect, that a great deal of confusion was caused by language: history (as an empirical study) versus history (as learned narratives) versus lore (as rumor and hearsay) versus lore (as constructed narratives) versus lore (as experienced realities). However, I was fairly clear that I was referring to history as an empirical study, and the class in general commonly mixed history as an empirical study (statistics, numbers, verifiable data) with the remaining definitions. Have I mentioned that history shouldn't be confused with . . . . oh, never mind. In any case, the difference, as far as I can tell, between me and the general consensus is that I think history (study or narrative) is held to a (male, patriarchal and, by the way, excellent) standard that lore is not. (At one point, when Traci was getting upset about history as it is taught, I said, "But how could you teach lore?" meaning not the study of lore, but the emotional resonance of any subject. Especially, since it is hard enough to get kids to understand that the Civil War happened before WWI.) I actually think lore should be held to a standard as well; to me, the emotional truth of a subject isn't the label (see below) but how well it sits with the evidence. It's all very well for Traci to say that paganism was sweet and matriarchal and environmentally gracious, but that doesn't really fit with what we know about the Roman Empire, the Greeks, Syrians, Babylonians, Celts, Huns, Vikings, Egyptians . . . However, I wasn't going to go down that path; my acceptance of lore as non-empirical and non-verifiable was my concession to the argument.

In any case, it seems to me that everyone else was far more interested in discussing things in terms of theory in which case it doesn't matter, to them at least, whether you mixed statistics with relativity. Label, label, label, who has got the label. As I have stated before, and I will say again, discussions in the academic world about class, race, gender and power are overrated, oversimplified, superficial and unbalanced. Theory and label are all very well, but if you don't accept the evidence, how can you argue about things you know nothing about? And why are you bothering? Make up your own story, already. (I was, I have to admit, really very annoying; at one point, when the teacher was talking about how scholars try to figure out why people tell the stories that they do, I said, "So scholars just throw a bunch of meanings at a folkstory and hope one of them sticks?" He didn't really like that, although Traci laughed.)

It's not like this experience is new to me. I've been in four classes with Traci, for instance, and she says the same kinds of things in every class, things that to me seem outrageously bigoted. But since empirical history is evil and male and patriarchal, she doesn't have to answer for her prejudices (which I honestly believe she thinks she doesn't have). Since she's anti-academe, she finds my anti-academe comments amusing, but knowledge, for Traci, is all about getting power back (from evil, white males). It isn't about truth: factual or emotional. She doesn't even seem to care what people actually experience since she was ready to dismiss my non-angry experience with male academic culture; what she seems to care about is whether she can label what people are experiencing in terms of power or victimhood.

I don't think that most students go as far as Traci, but Tuesday's class made it clear to me that I am even more alone in this higher education experience than I had imagined. Because if the students are more tempered, in general, than Traci, they continue to support the basic, underlying assumptions that frame Traci's thinking.

Welcome to Academe.



Eugene said...

"It is impossible to defeat an ignorant man in argument." (William G. McAdoo)

Mike Cherniske said...

"Most people are idiots.... those who aren't are either dead or friends of mine."
-Mike Cherniske