With all due disrespect

Felipe Fernández-Armesto urges students to take on tutors in a war of ideas

July 5, 2012

Master and pupil should be bosom friends and intellectual enemies. We need students to feel loved so that they learn, and outraged so that they can reach beyond their teaching and devise something new for themselves.

We need them to disagree with their teachers. When they submit, debate is impoverished and progress slowed or arrested. Where would Western tradition be if Aristotle had not reacted against Plato, or Epicurus against Pyrrho? How much weaker Chinese thought would look if Chuang Tzu had slavishly followed Hui Shih, on whose mind, he said when the master died, he sharpened his own in friction. What would the modern world have lost if Ferdinand de Saussure had stuck to the programme of the Leipzig Neogrammarians or if Ludwig Wittgenstein had not quibbled in Bertrand Russell’s classes, insisting, for example, that there might be an undetected hippopotamus under the table?

Teachers should therefore be gratified when their students reject their teaching: it is a sign of a job well done, by stimulating independent thought. Unhappily, it rarely happens. Young people nowadays are hobbled by respect. They accept the culture’s silly prejudice against giving offence (which I see as an admirable effect, necessary at times to shake interlocutors out of their complacency). They fear teachers’ revenge and do not always trust them to take criticism as well as they give it. At the University of Notre Dame, where most of my students are well-brought-up bourgeois Catholics, they all have the wit to challenge me, but many lack the will. I have to tease and sometimes torture them with provocations in order to get them arguing. Once they know I welcome dissent, they become lustily liberated, but it requires a lot of perseverance to get a whole class to that point.

Postgraduates tend to be even more sycophantic, because they rely so heavily on the patronage of a single supervisor or adviser, even in the US, where we have whole committees of sometimes mutually antagonistic scholars to help see young people through to the PhD. It can be dangerous to prove your thesis director wrong. The most notorious recent case in my own discipline is that of David Starkey, who studied with Geoffrey Elton and demolished his mentor’s silly theory of a “Tudor revolution in government” and, in particular, the claim that Thomas Cromwell inaugurated England’s modern bureaucratic state. Elton never seemed to me to understand the period he studied. I recall seeing Bruce Macfarlane’s copy of The Tudor Revolution in the legendary tutor’s library at Magdalen College, Oxford, when I was an undergraduate. “A blind Procrustes playing host to phantoms,” Macfarlane wrote on the endpaper, “…a doctrinaire sensationalist”.

Starkey revealed that power under Henry VIII was of a traditional courtly kind and cut Procrustes down to the dimensions of his own bed. Elton never seemed to forgive the slight or retract his error. I have always suspected (although this a speculation or psychological inference, not based on any objective evidence) that lack of support from his supervisor impelled Starkey away from the conventional academic career he began at the London School of Economics and towards independent scholarship and media stardom.

Despite my revulsion for Elton, I have to admit that for most of my career, I (along with a lot of other scholars) espoused a similar theory about the Spanish monarchy in the 16th century, arguing that if Max Weber was right to identify bureaucratic centralisation as a key feature of the modern state, we should seek its origins (in the West, allowing for the priority of Tang China) in the early colonial New World. Here Spanish bureaucrats had an opportunity to create a state after their own hearts, bypassing or over-topping indigenous elites, sidelining the conquistador aristocracy, and instituting a uniform system of centrally appointed, professional officials to run the empire. I may even have gone so far as to say in print somewhere that the Spanish monarchy was the West’s first modern state.

I was wrong, and to my great glee a student of mine has shown me to be so. José-Juan López-Portillo, whom I first met when he was in the audience of my lectures on Mesoamerican and Peruvian materials in Oxford, became my PhD student at Queen Mary, University of London. Rather than follow the lines of most recent Mexican and US researchers (who have focused on indigenous-language sources that disclose the continuity into colonial times of pre-conquest institutions of power), I suggested he take a prosopographical approach to the study of the court of the first viceroy of New Spain. The result - rather like Starkey’s in confronting Elton - has been to reveal an almost unsuspected world, in which appointed officials were trapped in the trammels of faction. The examiners have extolled the thesis and warmly recommended it for publication. I now feel ashamed that I was ever suckered by sociological models of modernity or bothered with a quest as daft as that for anything identifiable as “the modern state”.

Shame is good: the precondition of contrition and self-improvement. I can glory in a teacher’s greatest happiness: a student who has disagreed productively and changed my mind. At my advanced age it is a comfort to think that maybe I still have something to look forward to: being proved (I hope) wrong again.

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