Why is all this reading making me feel stupid?

At some point in higher education a student crosses an invisible threshold which turns what was once smug satisfaction and certainty about the world into a painful awareness of just how little one actually knows about anything. You can tell which side of that barrier you stand depending on how you react to a question like this:

“Did European women gain anything from the Renaissance?”

If your first thought is “no, men were still in charge and blah blah” you are still safe in that warm, snug, self-deluded space of limited ignorance (and I don’t mean that in a negative way, it’s great to feel like there are right and wrong answers to these sorts of questions). However, if you start by asking more questions: “it’s hard to measure the effect of the Renaissance on the place of women because of the incomplete nature of the historical record and we need to consider what could be considered a ‘gain’, because, as Bennett demonstrates, women were not really participants and our perspective…” then you are lost in the cold wilderness of historical reality, what Žižek would call (because he loves his Lacanian turns of phrase) ‘the academic real.’1

If you learn anything in higher education, it’s that there is far more to learn than any one person could possibly manage and actually accomplish anything at the end. I’m thinking of this in anticipation of the Oxford trip and that Test. The Test appears to be a ‘thing’ since I have had no news to the contrary yet. I worry about all of this because I know enough to know what I don’t know. I have no real grip on political history. My days in survey classes are very (very) long gone and if my dim memory is accurate, I actually failed one or two of them. When it comes to the structures of 15th century English parliaments or the relative efficiency of Royal finances, I have little more than the rudimentary knowledge you pick up along the way, reading about gentry using the courts for personal display or about the Pastons and John Fastolf and their adventures in aspirational violence. I know even less about the religious problems of the time, unless you want to know about University age men and their taste for learned magic. I have read most of Cameron’s solid book on the Reformation and I am re-reading Bucholz and Key, mostly for major names and policies, but this remains rudimentary level stuff.

This insecurity comes with the academic territory. The more I learn, the more acutely aware I am of what I don’t know which turns seemingly innocuous questions like that quoted above into a twisting nest of vipers with names I can’t remember.2 While this may seem like a crippling problem, it’s actually part of the maturing process of the historian and I am of the opinion, that anyone who does not struggle with this, has missed something in the whole process.

As much as we may like cute, tidy answers, we know that history (and historical scholarship) is an obscene mess once you pull off the siding we use on our general interest books and BBC documentaries. The heavy work of history mostly is a slow, inglorious struggle through the tangled underbrush of research, far from the sight of that invisible threshold between content ignorance and dizzying uncertainty. This effects our writing, and I can’t see how I could write anything for The Test that is free of it.

There is a photo—a still from some film footage taken during the early days of the German offensive in the Ardennes that was eventually called the Battle of the Bulge—that reminds me of this difference between the new student of history and the weary veteran. The still shows a young grenadier, a machine gunner, with a Browning HiPower automatic in one hand and a pack of captured Lucky Strike in the other. He wears a rubberized poncho against the damp. He has tucked a trench shovel into the front of his belt, so the blade covers the lower half of his chest and a non-regulation fighting knife is clipped to the collar of the poncho. Only the shape of his helmet makes it clear he is German; most other indications are lost in the grime and he is as far from parade-ground order as one could get, but this is all evidence that the soldier knew what he was doing. I hope that the readers for That Test will recognize the same adaptations for survival made by the student who has seen some unpleasant action in the past. I hope they recognize that some uncertainty is a good sign and that they see it as the academic equivalent of the trench shovel, tucked into the belt, to protect the vitals. It isn’t fit for the parade ground, but it keeps you alive.


1      I borrow from the most impenetrable of his books I have tried to read, The Sublime Object of Ideology, (New York: Verso, 1989). I have a soft spot for Źiźek, and although he writes in a particular idiom that I normally criticize as overly ‘academic’ he does it for good reasons, and because the controlled language of cultural philosophy requires it. That being said, he does like to toss out a line like this on the assumption his readers are still following him closely: “Furthermore, the Capitalist thus accomplishes the shift from eros to thymos, from the perverted ‘erotic’ logic of accumulation to public recognition and reputation.” Good luck unpacking an entire book worth of that (from Slavoj Źiźek, Violence: Six Sideways Reflections, (New York: Picador, 2008), 23.

2      I’m pleased that I actually remembered this author correctly. I read a paper by her in my Honours historiography course and although I’m not positive she had anything specific to say about women and the Renaissance, she is a good example of studies of gender that get into trouble and controversy because of the spotty nature of documentary history of women. Specifically, I was thinking of J. M. Bennett, ‘”Lesbian-Like” and the Social History of Lesbianisms’, Journal of the History of Sexuality, 9, 1/2 (2000), 1–24.


4 thoughts on “Why is all this reading making me feel stupid?

  1. Are tests for research students a new thing or has Oxford always had them? When I did my PhD we were allowed to do what we wanted for 3 years and the viva at the end was the only test.

    I think learning to love the uncertainty is part of becoming a historian. Having my assumptions challenged was uncomfortable at first but it’s made me a better person in the long term. I sometimes get frustrated when I write a subtle blog post about how complicated and hard to know something is, then a know-nothing commenter uncritically repeats the old cliches that I’m trying to get away from.

    • The test I speak of is this one, which I refer to euphemistically because I got too much unhelpful traffic on the earlier posts where I mention it.

      That uncertainty is the beauty of this discipline. Without it, there would be no point in continuing to study the past. John Morrill wrote something I often quote to students; “Almost every historian believes but struggles to prove that knowledge of the past helps us to understand the present. It is so much easier to see how experience of the present helps us to understand the past” (in Armitage, British Political Thought in History, Literature and Theory, 1500-1800 2006, 23). And I feel your pain over the cliches. To toss out another one of my favourite quotes about history, from Patrick Collinson “The historian is not a scientist in a laboratory… but an artist confronting the whole messy world, a vast landscape of contingency” (2003, 203).

  2. The phenomenon you refer to is not limited to higher education. I’d been reading about Medieval History as a hobby for two or three years when I started to think I knew something. Today I’m heartily embarrassed by some of the things I said and very hopeful that nobody remembers them.

    • That’s a good point, and one reason why I struggle, on occasion, to write for this blog. Uninformed opinions are a dime a dozen and it’s a rare experience to see or read someone say ‘you know what? I don’t know.’ An awareness of one’s ignorance and a willingness to admit to it, should not be treated like a weakness. I console myself with the knowledge that everyone who takes history seriously (as either a professional or a dedicated reader) feels the same way. Embarrassment loves company I think.

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