Month: May 2012

Academic History and Stylish Prose

I missed Helen Sword’s short article last month when it first appeared: “Yes, Even Professors Can Write Stylishly.” She laments the stodgy (her word) style many academics use and rejects the common claim that academic prose needs to be jargon-laden:

Unfortunately, the myth persists, especially among junior faculty still winding their anxious way up the tenure track, that the gates of academic publishing are guarded by grumpy sentries programmed to reject everything but jargon-laden, impersonal prose. In fact, nothing could be further from the truth. Nearly everyone, including the editors of academic journals, would much rather read lively, well-written articles than the slow-moving sludge of the typical scholarly paper.

She encourages academics to pay attention to their audience, to use their writing to communicate concrete ideas, and to “cultivate an authoritative yet conversational voice.”

Academic history should have little difficulty achieving such goals. But I still wonder if we are facing a broader problem that can’t be solved merely by improving our style. Despite Collingwood’s claims in his autobiography about all sciences being a form of historical knowledge, history did not enjoy the rise in social authority and reputation that he predicted.

Universal Vaccination is a Perennial Struggle

Shot@Life’s latest video campaign.

The Shot@Life Campaign is the latest effort to vaccinate less fortunate children in developing countries. Part of the United Nations Foundation, Shot@Life hopes to expand access to vaccines by drawing on “the American public, members of Congress, and civil society partners.” While the Shot@Life seems to result from improved, modern public health, universal vaccination especially for poorer children has clear historical antecedents in 19th-century Philadelphia. Sometime around the middle of the century physicians signed a petition urging Pennsylvania’s senate and house of representatives to support “the universal extension of vaccination” against smallpox.

Edward Jenner developed the smallpox vaccine in the late 1700s—1796 is usually cited as his first successful vaccination. Jenner’s technique was soon introduced into the Boston area. Before long Philadelphia appointed people to locate unvaccinated children so that “physicians duly appointed [could] call upon and vaccinate them free of charge.”

A 19th-century petition urged the state government to pay for vaccinating poor children.

The petition is remarkable for how contemporary it sounds. It raises issues of public health and welfare, government required vaccination programs, vaccinating school children, and the real financial costs of vaccinating children. A copy of this petition signed by 20 local physicians survives in Haverford College’s Quaker & Special Collections. It would be interesting to know if other copies of this petition survive, perhaps in the College of Physicians of Philadelphia and to begin to reconstruct the history of smallpox vaccination in the Philadelphia area.

Here is the full text of the petition:

To the Senate and House of Representatives of Pennsylvania
The undersigned, citizens of Pennsylvania, and practicing physicians, believing that the only safe means of guarding agains the loathsome and fatal disease, smallpox, is by the universal extension of vaccination—which, while it gives absolute protection to a large majority of those who undergo it, in nearly all instances affords security against death and deformity—would respectfully petition your honorable bodies to pass an Act providing for the more general extension of vaccination by the public authorities throughout the Commonwealth. We would call the attention of your honorable bodies to the fact that, in the city of Philadelphia and adjoining incorporated districts, municipal regulations have for many years been in operation for the extension of vaccination gratuitously to the poor, the children of whom are sought out by persons appointed for that purpose, and those found unprotected reported to physicians duly appointed to call upon and vaccinate them free of charge. Similar usages exist elsewhere in this country; while in some of the most enlightened countries of Europe no child is admitted into a public school without bringing with it a certificate of having undergone vaccination.
Your petitioners believe that public provision for the extension of vaccination universally among the citizens of this Commonwealth would confer upon them an inestimable benefit, in consequence of the protection which would be afforded to all against the smallpox—a disease so dangerous and loathsome that its presence in any community is always a source of anxiety and terror. They therefore pray that your honorable bodies will take into consideration a measure of such serious import to the safety and welfare of the community at large, and especially to the less provident classes.

[Reposted at PACHS.]

Speaking at the Wagner

The Wagner looms over 17th and Montgomery.

Yesterday I had the chance to visit The Wagner Free Institute of Science and to speak to a group of students from Drexel University. As part of a class on the history of museums, they had spent considerable time at the Academy of Natural Sciences—last year Drexel acquired (the official term is became affiliated with) the Academy. A visit to the Wagner is a bit of a shift. In the first instance, the Wagner is in a very different part of town. Whereas the Academy is on the parkway, next to the Franklin Institute and across from the Free Library, the Wagner is in a largely residential neighborhood in north Philadelphia. And unlike the Academy, which still bridges the worlds of scientific research and museum display, the Wagner has had to relinquish its scientific efforts and concentrates now on being a “museum of a museum.” Even in its heyday the Wagner was very different from the Academy—it had different goals and served a different demographic.

The Wagner “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.”

Stepping into the Wagner feels like stepping into the past. As the webpage says, the museum “is not a reflection of the past but the past itself.” The institute was founded in 1855 by William Wagner, a wealthy merchant who had amassed a large collection of natural specimens. He established his institute to bring science education to the masses. Admission and lectures were and remain free, and all lectures were held at times when working Philadelphians could attend. Initially, he housed his collection and held his lectures in his home. As his collections and his audiences grew, he had to find a new place for both. The current building was built in 1865. Later the first branch of the Free Library system in Philadelphia opened at the Wagner.

Famously, Joseph Leidy became the director of the Wagner in 1885, when William Wagner died. Leidy supported original research, which was published in the institute’s journal, The Transactions of the Wagner Free Institute of Science, and reorganized the collections. Leidy used the collection to make a visible and physical argument for evolution. He grouped the organisms according to type and arranged them in cases of increasing complexity. He arranged the fossils according to their age. The result is a two-fold argument for evolution. In one half visitors encounter increasingly complex organisms. In the other half visitors move through geological time.

Knowing that Leidy reorganized the collection reveals how museums shape knowledge and provides a way to think about about how and why Leidy’s argument for evolution would have been compelling, about how artifacts deliberately arranged make an argument more powerful or persuasive. At first glance, the arrangement of artifacts seems natural—students today typically show up accepting some form of evolution, even if they can’t articulate it clearly. The challenge is getting students to understand that in reorganizing the collection Leidy redefined the important relationships between artifacts—what those artifact meant.

One way students can begin to see the deliberateness of the collection is by opening the drawers under the display cases. In a sense, the drawers contain the superfluous artifacts. They are the Wagner’s stores. Opening these drawers reveals the chaotic nature of unorganized artifacts and, consequently, the artificiality of organized specimens. Frequently the items in the drawers bear little relationship to those displayed in the case and have fascinating notes on scraps of paper identifying the objects. A number of drawers contain items “from Wagner’s original collection” that “have not been cataloged.” I try to get students to think about how the objects in the cases can be related to those in the drawers and why somebody chose to display some of the objects and not others and what would happen if everything were on display?

A visit to the Wagner is always a poignant reminder of the amount of effort and the resources needed to maintain a collection. One reason the Wagner is “the past itself” is because its endowment has never been sufficient to keep it up to date. It is a museum of a museum because its development ossified in the late 19th or early 20th century, when resources were too constrained to enable it to continue developing. It is an endearing image of the past because it couldn’t continue to be a reflection of the present.

Thoughtful Dissent

In late 1951 Bertrand Russell composed “A Liberal Decalogue” in response to growing fanaticism. We would all do well to recall daily Russell’s ten commandments for the teacher:

  1. Do not feel absolutely certain of anything.
  2. Do not think it worth while to proceed by concealing evidence, for the evidence is sure to come to light.
  3. Never try to discourage thinking for you are sure to succeed.
  4. When you meet with opposition, even if it should be from your husband or your children, endeavor to overcome it by argument and not by authority, for a victory dependent upon authority is unreal and illusory.
  5. Have no respect for the authority of others, for there are always contrary authorities to be found.
  6. Do not use power to suppress opinions you think pernicious, for if you do the opinions will suppress you.
  7. Do not fear to be eccentric in opinion, for every opinion now accepted was once eccentric.
  8. Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.
  9. Be scrupulously truthful, even if the truth is inconvenient, for it is more inconvenient when you try to conceal it.
  10. Do not feel envious of the happiness of those who live in a fool’s paradise, for only a fool will think that it is happiness.

Today, at the end of the semester as I read final papers, number 8 stands out as particularly poignant:
“Find more pleasure in intelligent dissent than in passive agreement, for, if you value intelligence as you should, the former implies a deeper agreement than the latter.”

It reminds me of Jorge Louis Borges’s story, “Circular Ruins,” when the stranger recounts his disappointment in confronting assent:

The man lectured his pupils on anatomy, cosmography, and magic: the faces listened anxiously and tried to answer understandingly, as if they guessed the importance of that examination which would redeem one of them from his condition of empty illusion and interpolate him into the real world. Asleep or awake, the man thought over the answers of his phantoms, did not allow himself to be deceived by imposters, and in certain perplexities he sensed a growing intelligence. He was seeking a soul worthy of participating in the universe.

After nine or ten nights he understood with a certain bitterness that he could expect nothing from those pupils who accepted his doctrine passively, but that he could expect something from those who occasionally dared to oppose him. The former group, although worthy of love and affection, could not ascend to the level of individuals; the latter pre-existed to a slightly greater degree.

In all interactions thoughtful opposition and intelligent dissent is better than polite agreement, but especially in the classroom.

(For more on Russell’s decalogue, see A Liberal Decalogue.)