Identity Politics

From my friend Lachlan Mead, a report from the Institute of Public Affairs, a think tank based in Melbourne, Australia, entitled The Rise of Identity Politics: An Audit of History Teaching at Australian Universities in 2017. A choice excerpt, with which I happen to agree:

The teaching of history in Australian universities has become a bastion of the cultural theory of Identity Politics, whereby people are divided by their class, race, gender and their individuality is denied. Students studying history in Australia are at risk of finishing their degrees with a distorted view of the world in which the past is viewed as a contest between the oppressors and the oppressed.

As Brendan O’Neill commented, ‘ Western Campuses in particular have become hotbeds of identity politics, or what is sometimes referred to as the ‘identitarian left’ which now defines itself, and engages with others, through the prism of identity rather than on the basis of ideas…’

There is a direct correlation between the recent rise of the ‘snowflake’ generation, a neologism used to describe young adults of the twenty-first century as being less resistant and more inclined to taking offence and being offended. These ‘coddled students’, encouraged by both university administrators and academics are eager to restrict freedom of speech and freedom of academic enquiry through mechanisms such as ‘trigger warnings’ and ‘safe spaces’ on campus. Jonathan Haidt, Professor of Ethical Leadership at New York University, calls this phenomenon ‘the purification of the universities.’

But there’s hope! Click on the link to read about the IPA’s Foundations of Western Civilization Program.

“College Misery”

I discovered this evening a blog entitled College Misery, which ran from 2010 to 2016. I was unaware of it at the time. I am not endorsing everything on it, but I did admire a story told by one of the bloggers, Henchminion, in a post from 2011:

Back in 2005 I did an evil, evil thing. Discovering the proliferation of websites where student plagiarists could copy essays, I wrote a Trojan horse paper about the Magna Carta and seeded it on a few plagiarism sites. The essay is basically wrong from beginning to end. Amongst other silliness, it claims that King John’s titles included Duke of Hazzard, and observes that “peasants were reduced to eating burage and socage.” It also invents a fictitious war against Flanders Fland (a region on the coast of Luxembourg) and cites such scholarly tomes as Bollock and Maidenhead’s classic Interminable History of the English Law.

Every once in awhile, I google a few phrases from the paper to see how it’s gettting along in the wild. Over the years, the two seed essays I planted have spawned a dozen or so Google hits at various disreputable sites. Sometimes they even want you to pay to see the whole text. However, for years I had no idea if any student had actually handed the thing in.

Until tonight.

Oh my, oh my. The wording has been changed somewhat and some of the jokes were excised, but that’s my essay there. Ranulf de Glanville has been changed from the Sheriff of Nottingham to “a mercenary of John,” which totally wrecks the reference to Alan Rickman in the bibliography. (The student is probably too young to have seen that movie.) But since he’s not Canadian, the bit about the notwithstanding clause sailed right past him.

He quotes the words “Discipulus tuus hunc tractatum non scripsit” in caps lock, but the professor for the course was an Americanist, so maybe he didn’t get it? Did the paper pass? The student seems to have managed to graduate. Apparently he even minored in Latin!

The Latin reads “Your student did not write this essay.” Burgage and socage are forms of land tenure. Pollock and Maitland wrote The History of English Law (it comprises only two volumes; it is not “interminable”). I especially appreciated her reference, in the full body of the text, to the “climactic battle in the forest of Runnymede, near the village of Bloor West.” Runnymede (“swampy meadow”) was indeed where the barons forced Magna Carta on King John; it is also the name of a Toronto neighborhood and subway station on the Bloor-Danforth line, thus the reference to Bloor West, which took me back. Her reference to the idea that Magna Carta “can only be rewritten if the changes are agreed to by the House of Commons, the monarch, and seven out of the ten shires representing fifty percent plus one of the population” is in fact an amendment formula proposed for the Canadian Constitution in 1987 (the Meech Lake Accord).

I don’t think that seeding this essay was an “evil, evil thing.” I think that it is laudatory. If you purchase an essay and submit it as your own work, you deserve everything you get. Just as circulating counterfeit currency destabilizes a country’s economy, so also do Trojan Horse essays undermine the economy of paper mills, which can only be a good thing. In fact, I think I might try composing one of these some time.

The Symbolic Middle Ages

According to Dorothy Kim, assistant professor of English at Vassar:

Today, medievalists have to understand that the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists. The medieval western European Christian past is being weaponized by white supremacist/white nationalist/KKK/nazi extremist groups who also frequently happen to be college students… What are you doing, medievalists, in your classrooms? Because you are the authorities teaching medieval subjects in the classroom, you are, in fact, ideological arms dealers. So, are you going to be apathetic weapons dealers not caring how your material and tools will be used? Do you care who your buyers are in the classroom? Choose a side.

You really have no excuse to address whether your medieval studies is a white supremacist medieval studies or not. You also do not have a choice in whether you are part of this debate because the debate is already prevalent and public. Our students are watching and will make judgements and calls on what side you are really on. I suggest overt signaling of how you are not a white supremacist and how your medieval studies is one that does not uphold white supremacy. Neutrality is not optional.

OK, I’ll choose a side, and that side is a firm stand against this sort of twaddle. I really hate moral bullying – “If it’s important to me, then it needs to be important to you! You’re not allowed not to care – if you deny the problem, you’re part of the problem!”

But maybe the only “problem” is your own warped perception of reality?

Apparently the “alt-right,” whatever that is, takes inspiration from the Middle Ages (and from the Classics too). They like the idea of Crusaders cracking Muslim skulls, and they also like to contemplate a Europe before the advent of mass non-European and non-Christian immigration. But how many people are we actually talking about here? And how big of a problem is this, really? People can idealize any era of history that they want, for whatever reason they want. We always feel sad when other people don’t share our enthusiasm for our subject – well, here are people who love the Middle Ages! How about harnessing that enthusiasm and nudging it towards the academic consensus – on the off chance that one of these types should actually appear in our classrooms? It’s really no different from how one treats students who idealize ancient Egypt, Native Americans, the Caliphate, matriarchal prehistory, or pseudo-history of the Da Vinci Code variety. You accept the students where they are, and gently explain that their vision of the past might not be entirely accurate – and you make sure to explain that whatever happened in the past doesn’t necessarily make for good policy today.

I really don’t believe that “the public and our students will see us as potential white supremacists or white supremacist sympathizers because we are medievalists.” I think that most ordinary Americans are fully capable of distinguishing between professors of medieval studies and young men dressing up as Knights Templar. It would not occur to them to think that we are endorsing the Charlottesville rally, any more than we are endorsing Knight Transportation or King Arthur Flour (or, for that matter, that the classics department is endorsing the Atlanta Gladiators or the American Legion). To suggest that they can’t is condescending and rude, and more than a little self-dramatizing. In fact, I would say that Prof. Kim’s post is an example of Joseph Epstein‘s observation that much in current academic life is “either boring or crazy,” and for whom publishing an article about it was like “opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, ‘Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.'” Most people roll their eyes at the sheer craziness of much academic dispute, and shed no tears when politicians cut our funding.

So let me turn Prof. Kim’s invitation on its head: what have you done, medievalist, to combat this craziness? What have you done to prove to Middle America that your discipline and profession deserve to be taken seriously?

An Investment in You!

There are numerous theories about why the rate of increase in university tuition fees has outstripped the rate of inflation for the past thirty or so years:

• State legislators have cut back universities’ budgets, and the universities have to make it up by charging more in fees. This is a favorite of liberal friends of mine.

• Easy credit and government grants encouraged universities to grab as much of it as they can. Why leave money on the table?

• Higher education “expanded” (both in terms of numbers of students and of campuses) – and at the first drop in the number of warm bodies they needed to make up the shortfall.

• “Baumol’s cost disease,” i.e. “costs in industries without much productivity growth tend to rise, because they have to compete for labor with more productive industries.”

• From Dartblog: Many universities have succumbed to bureaucratization, that is, they are being run, not for their ostensible purpose, but for the sake of their staffers:

As any competent manager will tell you, the very nature of a bureaucracy is to grow, unless restrained by vigilant leaders. Bureaucrats always want to manage more people (the better to justify salary increases), and dismissing non-productive employees is against the ethos of these sprawling offices. In fact, each time a mistake is made in hiring, extra hiring takes place beyond it to compensate for the low productivity of the mistaken hire. And so it goes.

In industry, the pressure of competition obliges companies to run as leanly as possible; at the College, a surging endowment and the ability to raise tuition at rates far above inflation have ensured that there is no need to exercise any budget discipline at all — except after the market crash in 2008. Of course, private sector companies are not immune to such temptations: America’s car companies were so rich in the 1960s and 1970s that the size of their head offices and administrative functions soared. The same thing occurred at market-dominating IBM in the same period. Only after punishing competition hurt these behemoths did they put their houses in order.

• My personal favorite, as much as I hate it: the market has in fact spoken. Universities don’t compete on price, they compete on prestige. So if you run a university, you’re practically compelled to charge and arm and a leg (which itself signals prestige), and then furnish in return the lazy river, the rock-climbing wall, the beautiful campus with extensive plantings and sculpture, luxury dorms, gourmet food, and constant propaganda burnishing the university’s image in order to assure the customers that their purchase has been a wise one.

• Related to this: technology, regulation and fear of lawsuits. In 1970, no university needed an office of ten people whose sole job was to keep the Internet going. No university needed an institutional researcher (making more than any faculty member) to keep it in compliance with the accrediting agency. No university needed a psychologist and an army of hand-holding student life busybodies and academic advisors, because people seemed a little more mentally resourceful and robust (and less willing to sue the place if things didn’t work out). All of these people cost money.

• Related to the last two points: the expansion of the administration. Time was when faculty were expected to serve as dean for a couple of years. Now the university hires full-time deans. This suits the faculty just fine, because who wants to serve as dean? So not only are there more employees, they all have to be paid enough to entice people to take on the work. (You’d have to pay me a lot of scratch to become provost!) So now there is a class of full-time administrators for whom demand might outstrip supply, the complete inverse of tenure-track faculty positions.

But whatever the cause, I really hate it (especially as it does not seem to have had much effect on my salary!). I am certainly not looking forward to paying university fees for my own kids in the next few years. And the more that it costs, the more that university necessarily becomes a purely functional career preparation service (viz. the QEP that we have recently selected, which is all about making students “job-ready”). How can a university charge so much without explicitly promising that gainful employment shall surely follow? And how can an instructor possibly fail anyone who has “paid for this,” no matter how indifferent their performance? It saddens me that the idea that a university education should encourage critical thinking, informed citizenship, elegant composition, familiarity with great art and literature, and the development of a meaningful life philosophy, sounds more and more quaint with each passing year.

Medievalism and the Alt-Right

From a Facebook friend:

Apparently, I’m the only academic historian who isn’t terrified of the “alt-right.” Every medieval studies thing seems to be consumed with a wave of fear… fear that somewhere in a basement somewhere, a white supremacist Trump-loving gun-toter is blogging about how great the early Middle Ages were.

And, as a result, witch-hunts and general tomfoolery have broken out among the “woke” medievalists. “Why does the Alt-Right love our period so much?” they cry. Why is there so much hatred out there?

I’ll ignore the second question for now (I don’t want to argue ad hominem), and not to be flip, but I think the question is being asked wrongly. It isn’t why do “they” love the Middle Ages, but why do “we” notice it and worry?

Many, many, many parts of the past are attractive to various agenda-driven nuts, not just the Middle Ages and not just the “alt-right.” Take a look at the historiography of the Israel/Palestine conflict and what that does; both sides have many “activists” working to erase the other group’s past (and to a vicious level). Look at various Celtic Studies, Irish or Scottish history, nineteenth century American history, almost any historical narrative of much of the past in the Balkans, Eastern Europe, the Aegean, South Asia, Korea, and on and on. Far right (often actual fascists) make sure that sources like Wikipedia are useless for topics like the early history of India, anything to do with Kurds or Armenians, and so on.

On the medieval world, yes some members of the alt-right fetishize certain aspects of the period, e.g. the Crusades or the Vikings or the myth of the Norman yoke, all of which are regular features of west European self-conceptions and all of which are hardly new inventions. Need we point out that there’s a straight line back to Walter Scott & Co. that connects Crusaders and Klansmen?

Or should we point out that those same now labelled “alt-right” fantasies have had pretty solid backing? Why is Louis IX the saintly king of France? What, after all, did the French military first do upon entry into Damascus? Crusades fantasies play into twentieth and twenty-first century European dealings with Muslims.

And in Muslim views of Europeans. Arab nationalists hold up the counter-crusade, and many of the more violent Islamist groups are heavily medievalist-driven to an extent almost no one else is. (There’s a self-proclaimed Almoravid army in North Africa, ISIS models itself – down to reinstating slavery! – on a close reading of seventh century texts, Salafis dress as though it were 632, and so on.)

One could go on; how many discussions of politics and conflicts are full of World War II mythohistory? How many US discussions are about a mythic eighteenth century?

Looking to the past for better models is, inherently, a conservative move. “The past was better” is basically conservatism in brief. So, of course conservatives are interested in history. And, with the breakdown of authoritative knowledge via the Internet (and some fashionable intellectual trends), those who are loudest get noticed – and they don’t need to be correct.

Where I teach, I know that I will run into people who are part of what has been termed the “ankh right” and there will be hoteps in my classroom in a few weeks when we cover ancient Egypt. I will aim to get them into thinking about ancient Egypt on its own terms and not through modern nationalist fantasies but the way to do that is not by saying “oh they are terrible and liars.” (Unfortunately, for me, because I actually engage in non-aggressive pedagogy with said hoteps, I was labelled in a job interview as too black for a well-known US school by a classicist!)

The past is the past. Looking to it for comforting myths (of any sort, left , right, north, south, white, black, whatever) is never going to do anything but create fiction. Getting upset about one group’s unwholesome influence makes me wonder: How is it possible you just noticed this?

Addendum

Quite a bit of this is about “they were selling a symbol of Odinism at Leeds and that is sometimes used by far-right groups or individuals” (or Celtic crosses or terms like Anglo-Saxon and so on and so forth) “so any use of those is by definition tainted” and similar lines on other things.

The logic (and the panic) could have been scripted by Pamela Geller and Robert Spencer (and so on) if one were to substitute “shahadeh banner” for Thor’s hammer or anything else. Now, there are real world (as opposed to online only) far right Islamist activists; they actually control actual territory and they actually kill actual human beings, and they base their actions on their interpretations of early medieval texts (many of their leaders actually have advanced degrees in early medieval studies) but we have a word for people who would ban all symbols and activities and studies that those folks are involved in.

In other words, I bet a lot of the people in the panic over evil Odinists would probably be up in arms over an attempt to ban sales of items that have symbols used by ISIS – and rightly so – even if one is threat is much more real.

The Academic Life

I used to subscribe to the American Scholar, a quarterly literary magazine sponsored by the Phi Beta Kappa Society, edited between 1974 and 1998 by the witty and literate Joseph Epstein, who always contributed an essay under the pseudonym “Aristides.” His last one, “I’m History,” was particularly good; two quotations that stayed with me over the years:

The truth was, I found much in current academic life either boring or crazy, and I didn’t want to devote much space to things in which I could not take any serious interest. I tended to view the occasional article that we ran on these strictly academic subjects as, in effect, opening the blinds to reveal the baboons at play, as if to say, “Betcha didn’t think their behinds were quite so purple as that.”

And:

In academic argument… the radicals almost always win, even though they rarely constitute a majority. Conservatives, dependably a minority, usually don’t care enough to take a strong stand against them. Liberals, the poor darlings, though generally the majority, are terrified about seeming to be on the wrong side of things and so seek compromises that inevitably favor the radicals. The model here is the Russian Duma, with the minority of Bolsheviks cracking the moderation and ultimately the backs of the Mensheviks.

Slightly related, a Facebook friend notes the following, about the Chronicle piece on the Leeds Conference, with which I happen to agree:

Okay, so several weeks later, I’m still hung up on this:

“[Medieval studies] has been rather proud of its resistance to critical theory, which then just attracts even more people to the field who themselves want to be resistant to theory and see medieval studies as a safe place — a safe place to be elitist, a safe place to be white, a safe place to be Christian, Eurocentric, misogynist, etc.”

It’s really intellectually dishonest to equate skepticism about critical theory and being a Christian with being a neo-Nazi.

To say nothing about how we can easily turn this critique on its head: “American Studies has been especially welcome to critical theory, which then just attracts other people interested in critical theory to the field and turns it into a safe space for them, marginalizing everyone else interested in different approaches…” etc. No one seems to think that that’s a problem.

Also related: the accusation that the expression “Anglo-Saxon” is inherently racist. This essentially boils down to the fact that at one point it did not simply refer to a set of dialects spoken in early medieval England, but also described white people of English descent (as in “WASP”), sometimes approvingly. So in true wet-blanket, Debbie-Downer fashion, we have to throw out the baby with the bathwater. A certain Tom had something to say about this:

There’s been a lot of traffic in my little corner of the internet lately that suggests that the field of early medieval studies, and Anglo-Saxon studies in particular, has a problem. The problem, not to put too fine a point on it, is racism, with a side helping, it seems, of sexism. I don’t think I have any insights that can solve such serious problems, I am sorry to say, but I think I do have some observations to make that might help us understand where our discipline is now, how we have gotten here, and what we can—and cannot, or should not—do in the present moment.

The whole discipline, the claim has been made, is tainted by the way in which the very terms “Anglo-Saxon” and “Anglo-Saxonist” have been employed, from the nineteenth century to the present, in ways that explicitly or implicitly align with ideas of whiteness and white racial superiority. There can be no real argument with this point that the terms have been used by racists: it is true, and it has long been known. But the notion that these terms are now irrevocably tainted is one that I am not (yet?) persuaded of: different speech communities often use identical words with differing senses. Like even the worst characterizations of Anglo-Saxon studies, America, too, has a long history of both open and institutional racism, and yet I am not sure that we should wish to change the name of the country, just because the politics of some Americans includes white supremacist attitudes.

Also, whenever someone tells me that I need to steep myself in the “critical discourses that address systemic racism both explicit and implicit,” as does a “Collective Statement by Medievalists of Color” (none of whom actually has the courage to sign their names to it), I want to reply that wish that more medievalists would educate themselves on the dialectical materialist process that drives all of history, and from which everything else is a distraction. After all, both “systemic racism” and “dialectical materialism” are unfalsifiable Theories whose adherents essentially tell everyone “either you agree with me, or you’ve got false consciousness,” and who will thus inflate all data points in accord with their worldview into cosmic significance, while dismissing everything that isn’t as completely inconsequential. Whenever I hear that “systemic racism dictates that we are all entangled in its articulations and practices,” I can’t help but think of Ben Kenobi saying that The Force “surrounds us, it penetrates us, it binds the galaxy together.” This is fine for the Star Wars universe, but needlessly mystical when considering our own.

Finally, from another Facebook friend, the following amusing observation:

I’m too tired to read sentences like: “Scientists create spaces of representation through graphemic concatenations that represent their epistemic traces as engravings, that is, generalized forms of ‘writing.'”

Christianizing

Christians like to believe that they are the heirs to the covenant, but they don’t like you confusing them with the original holders of the covenant. Thus they retain some Jewish practice, but they make sure to change it in certain ways, e.g.:

• they take one day off per week, but it’s Sunday, not Saturday.

• they use the Psalms in worship, but will often Christianize them by adding the Gloria Patri at the end of each one.

• Easter, like Passover, is a moveable feast, but Christians have arranged things so that Easter is never on the same day as Passover.

• something that until recently escaped my notice: a detail from the seal of Dartmouth College:

The Hebrew reads “El Shaddai” and means “God Almighty,” but note what it’s on – a triangle, obviously referring to the Holy Trinity. It’s as though to say, “Look at us, we know Hebrew! But please don’t confuse us with actual Hebrews.”

If you’re interested, more information on the Dartmouth seal may be found in “Notes from the Special Collections: The Dartmouth College Seal,” which appeared in the April 1997 number of the Dartmouth College Library Bulletin. I’m still proud of my first real article but I would like to note that Sir William Johnson, 1st Baronet, was not an Anglican priest, the mangled Hebrew in figure 1 does not look like “Arabic” (or any script at all really), and the seal of the Society for the Propagation of the Gospel in Foreign Parts, on which the Dartmouth seal is based, looks like this (this image was not included in the original article):

Wikipedia.

The Leeds Conference

An article on the annual Leeds conference in the Chronicle of Higher Education has been making the rounds, but I liked this commentary from… Commentary:

Apparently, There Is an Academic Medievalist Far Left

Even “Game of Thrones” has not quite rescued medieval studies from its reputation for stodginess. Yet the organizers of this year’s International Medieval Congress must have thought their fellow scholars would think them a teensy bit cool for selecting the theme “otherness.”

There were plenty of panels on gender, gendering, ungendering, and various gendered things. There was one devoted to “Hagiography Beyond Gender Essentialism: Trans and Genderqueer Sanctity: Rethinking the Status Quo.” There was plenty on ethnicity, a bit on race, and, for those who like their politics unsauced, a panel entitled “The Historical Is Political: Understanding the Backlash against the Study of Race, Gender, and Representation in Medievalism.”

I note these titles not to bash the conference, whose program contains many interesting things, or to suggest that medieval studies can cast no light on contemporary problems. I am saying only that the 2,400 scholars from 56 countries who descended on England’s University of Leeds earlier this month may have thought they’d gone some way toward appeasing the academic left.

Nope. Some of their fellow medievalists are accusing them of abetting white supremacy.

This remarkable charge, though related to longstanding discontent about the field of medieval studies, is at the moment tied to a panel entitled “The Medieval Concept of Otherness.” For the sake of focus, invited panelists were all historians of the early Middle Ages. The idea behind the panel was that whatever the medieval understanding of “us” and “them” or “self” and “other” was, it is was quite different from what ours is today. So the Leeds International Medieval Conference had a white supremacy problem because—no, really—this one panel consisted of “white Europeans” who were not steeped in critical race and postcolonial theory. You cannot have a discussion of how people in the early Middle Ages thought of “the other” without panelists of color versed in highly politicized contemporary theories of oppression.

More at the link.

Washington’s Teeth

An update to the post below about Mount Vernon, in particular about the nature of George Washington’s dentures. A web comic that goes by the name of The Oatmeal, earlier this year, used Washington’s false teeth as an example of beliefs that fundamentally challenge us. I recall that this one was widely shared on Facebook. The relevant bits:

You may have heard that Washington had wooden teeth. He lost most of his teeth in his twenties and had a set of dentures made out of wood.

Except it isn’t true. In 2005, at the National Museum of Dentistry in Baltimore, laser scans were performed on Washington’s two-hundred-year old dentures, and found them to be made of gold, lead, hippopotamus ivory, horse, and donkey teeth.

Upon learning this information, how did you feel about George Washington’s teeth?

I stated a thing, I provided evidence of that thing, and presumably you now believe in the thing I stated. Presumably, your belief in the composition of George Washington’s teeth has changed with little or no friction.

But what if I told you George Washington had another set of false teeth? What if I told you this other set wasn’t made from wood, ivory, or any of the aforementioned materials?

What if I told you it was made from the teeth of slaves? (Source 1, Source 2, Source 3)

Now, let’s try this again. How did it feel to learn this fact about George Washington?

Any of the friction I mentioned earlier?

You may have noticed that the first fact about George Washington’s teeth was rather easy to accept. But when I told you the second fact, you immediately checked my sources and are now furiously composing an informed-yet-incendiary retort which you will boldly deliver to me in the form of a sour, blustering Facebook comment.

Matthew Inman, author of The Oatmeal, goes on to examine this so-called “backfire effect,” which occurs when we encounter beliefs that fundamentally challenge us and prompt our limbic system to respond as though we are being threatened with physical danger. This phenomenon deserves wider attention, if only to make people ashamed of it and encourage them to get over it, perhaps through Cognitive Behavioral Therapy. After all, we cannot have universities, devoted to the free pursuit and communication of ideas, if everyone is running around being “triggered” by ideas they disagree with, equating those ideas with “violence,” requiring “safe spaces” as protection from them and soothing expressions of parental concern from the university administration, who have better things to do. Alas, this fundamentally adolescent mode of behavior is becoming all the more common in American academia, doubtlessly because the anti-bullying movement has encouraged people to believe that any difficulty they encounter is not only unpleasant, but morally illegitimate (requiring “emotional labor” to overcome), because university staffers feel the need to justify their employment by “doing something” about whatever is brought to their attention, and because liberal academics are desperate to be seen as being on the correct side of things politically.

But I digress.

I swear that I was not particularly upset to discover that Washington’s dentures were made of the teeth of slaves, although it doesn’t reflect all that well on him. My first thought was that surely they extracted them from dead bodies, in an early form of organ donation? Apparently not! But the evidence is somewhat oblique. It comes in the form of an entry in one of Wasington’s account books, which:

details Washington’s purchase of 9 teeth from “Negroes” for 122 shillings. It’s not clear if Washington intended to use these teeth as implants or within a new set of dentures or if he employed the teeth at all. While this transaction might seem morbid to a modern audience, purchasing human teeth was a fairly common practice in the 18th century for affluent individuals.

“Source 2” above (the Washington Papers Project at UVA) provides more information:

The only documentation of which we are aware of George Washington purchasing teeth from slaves is a brief notation in his ledger books. The physical evidence, a pair of Washington’s dentures that includes human teeth, is part of the collection at Mount Vernon. As to the circumstances surrounding the creation of these dentures, the best historians can do is make an educated guess.  Like all historical theories, this conclusion should be grounded in historical context, supplemental primary and secondary documents, and sound reasoning. But without further documentation, it is impossible to describe the scenario in definitive terms. We are not even entirely positive that the teeth whose price is recorded in the Ledger Book are the same as those in the dentures.

Lund Washington, George’s distant cousin who managed Mount Vernon during the Revolution, made a notation in the plantation ledger books for May 1784: “By Cash pd Negroes for 9 Teeth on Acct of Dr. Lemoire.” This “Dr. Lemoire” was almost certainly George Washington’s dentist, Dr. Jean Le Mayeur, who corresponded with George Washington about his visit to Mount Vernon that summer.

Wherever Dr. Le Mayeur practiced, he sought out through newspaper ads “Persons who are willing to dispose of their Front Teeth.” While in New York, he advertised that he would pay two guineas each for good front teeth; in Richmond, he stipulated “slaves excepted.” That could explain why the price noted by Lund Washington was so low. Nine teeth sold for two guineas each would be worth almost nineteen pounds; Washington paid only slightly more than six pounds.

Without further documentation, we can only speculate on the sequence of events leading to the inclusion of human teeth in George Washington’s dentures. Perhaps Dr. Le Mayeur offered George Washington a deal in which Washington saved on teeth by buying them at a much-discounted rate from his own slaves rather than from Dr. Le Mayeur. It is also possible that George or Lund Washington forced one or more of their enslaved people to part with their teeth, paying them a drastically reduced price. Under Virginia’s laws at the time, no plantation owner would have faced legal consequences for such an action.

Sad, if true. But at least he paid something for them, rather than just taking them without any compensation at all…

The Uses of History

From AHA Today. I appreciate this demonstration of the value of the study of history to everyday life (even if I don’t quite agree with the politics…)

***

Thinking Like a Historian in Scrubs: How I Use My BA in History
By David Glenn

Twenty seven years ago, I was a newly declared sophomore history major. I’d fallen hard for labor history. I wanted to study the American workplace as a site of both solidarity and alienation, a place where people can sometimes break free of the chains of class, caste, and gender, while at the same time falling prey to other kinds of oppression. I wanted to write books like Christine Stansell’s City of Women: Sex and Class in New York, 1789–1860 (1986) or Walter Licht’s Working for the Railroad: The Organization of Work in the Nineteenth Century (1983).

It turned out that I don’t have the discipline to sift through archives without getting distracted. (I thankfully realized that early, and never applied to grad school.) Instead, I found an internship at a political magazine, freelanced for several years, and then was offered a job as a reporter at the Chronicle of Higher Education. Eventually I got sick of sitting in a cubicle and decided to find an exit.

Today I’m a nurse. I work 12-hour shifts on an oncology unit. I spend my time double-checking chemotherapy orders, taking vital signs, managing Foley catheters, comforting family members, paging pharmacists and physical therapists, changing central-line dressings, and listening to patients’ stories. I love this work. I wish I’d started it 20 years earlier. Sometimes I think that if I could live my life again, at age 18 I’d go straight into nursing school (at Hunter College; this is a very specific daydream). But then I catch myself—I wouldn’t be the nurse I am if I hadn’t spent four formative years as an ambitious-but-undistinguished history student.

Every day at work I draw on skills and habits of mind that I absorbed in my undergraduate history program. I start each shift at 0700 by synthesizing data: Spoken handoff reports from the night shift, lab numbers from the morning blood draw, physicians’ progress notes. That task isn’t so far removed from what I was asked to do in 1989: weave together credible interpretations of 19th-century newspapers, diaries, and census data.

The history major also taught me how errors and fables can take on the mantle of fact through sheer repetition. Just as a sloppy or sensationalized newspaper account of a military battle can feed decades of popular myth, a single inaccurate note in a medical record can propagate itself hundreds of times over. This is especially true in the emerging era of highly integrated electronic medical record systems. If someone at one hospital erroneously charts that you have diabetes or schizophrenia, your primary care physician a thousand miles away might still be fed that “fact” six years later. When I write nursing notes, I try to create reliable artifacts.

If nothing else, my college years taught me to be a decent reader of history. Two books in particular have helped sharpen my understanding of the things I see at work. Patricia D’Antonio’s American Nursing: A History of Knowledge, Authority, and the Meaning of Work (2010) and Barbara Melosh’s “The Physician’s Hand”: Work Culture and Conflict in American Nursing (1983) are both subtle accounts of how gender ideologies, racism, and hospitals’ bureaucratic imperatives have shaped workers’ and patients’ experiences. I’m still thinking about the questions about work, autonomy, professionalism, and resistance that Christine Stansell and Walter Licht opened up for me in 1989. I just didn’t realize that I’d be doing it in scrubs.