There was a time not so very long ago when academic study was free from politics. Universities may have been full of political activity, students went on demonstrations complaining about Margaret Thatcher, but the subjects everyone studied were mainly free from politics. I wonder sometimes if I am part of the last generation in Britain to study in this way.
It’s hard to pinpoint exactly when the change happened, because it happened so gradually. The subjects I studied mainly, philosophy, theology, history and Russian literature were about themselves and nothing else. I would study Hegel and try to understand the text. I would read what some others thought about it and begin a sort of dialogue between Hegel, these others and myself. The task was to produce arguments. The same went for every subject I studied. If I had a tutorial, I never discovered the political position of my tutor. That would have been something superfluous.
Even then however I began to see the beginnings of what has now come to dominate academic study.
I spent a year studying in an Ivy League college in the United States. I found the standard of study to be pitiful. The problem was that the American system of education had not been able to produce a single united school leaving exam and so had to rely on multiple choice aptitude tests. These tests no doubt told the testers something about ability, but they told little about knowledge. The result was that courses of study began from the beginning (101) and assumed no knowledge of a subject whatsoever.
With each course I studied in New Hampshire we were assigned four or five books which we were expected to buy at the local bookshop. During each class we were told to read a few pages. If you read the pages you passed the course. The exams lasted twenty minutes. The essays required minimal levels of thought. The students spent their afternoons napping and their evenings setting up their sister at the sorority. You said Hi to everybody but knew nobody. It was as superficial as people in the supermarket wishing that I had a nice day, when they were not at all interested in either me or my day. It was here that I first came across something called Women’s studies.
It’s hard to explain to people now that the issues that obsess so many academics today and much of society too were once considered fringe issues at best.
Race was a subject that would only come up if you were studying racial conflict in history or some other area of contemporary life. It might involve some subjects, but certainly not every subject.
The college had been almost exclusively white until a short time before, but it wasn’t now. I hadn’t met many black people until then, but they were just like other Americans. They didn’t make an issue about race. No one did. Most people treated others as they found them. There was no overt prejudice that I saw.
Homosexuality was a non-issue. I had only ever met two or three people I knew to be gay. In all Western societies homosexuality was legal and gay people had as much chance as anyone else to become successful, not least because it was generally impossible to tell from someone’s appearance who they went to bed with.
Women I knew were uninterested in feminism. As a subject it was sterile, because only certain answers were acceptable to certain questions. This became clear when I discussed what happened in the Women’s studies course. There were one or two men doing the course, who had apparently been stumped by the requirement that they learned how to examine their breasts. The rest of the course consisted in blaming men for everything and trying to create grievances where none had existed up until then.
I found the American dating customs to be completely baffling. Men and women might be dating any number of people. In Britain a drunken snog usually meant you had begun a relationship, but in America it might mean nothing. In Britain at that time it was common enough that you might sleep with your boyfriend, but generally there was a relationship that had lasted more than a few days. In America they had a concept of “fooling around” which was much more casual. You could fool around with someone who was just a friend, but what was involved was never quite made explicit, nor was it defined.
Drunken fraternity parties could rapidly end up with people who had just met ending up in bed with each other not quite knowing what should happen next. Drunken mistakes were made. No doubt they have been made in such ways since time began. But at that time women still took responsibility for their actions. It was your choice to get drunk and go to the room of a man you’d just met. Nobody forced you to go.
But anyway, it wasn’t much of a problem. While I found Americans more willing to kiss people they’d just met than had been my experience at home and while sex was perhaps a touch more commonplace than in Cambridge, it was still the case that most men and most women normally slept alone and if we did share our beds it was usually with someone we knew well and with whom we had some sort of lasting relationship. But like everything else this was changing.
Transgender was an almost complete non-issue when I was a student. I might have read somewhere about men who thought they were women and women who thought they were men, but if it was a subject to be studied it was part of medicine. There were men who dressed as women. In Britain it had been an established part of theatre and comedy for centuries. There were likewise women who preferred to dress as men. But no one thought that these people wanted literally to change sex. We assumed that they were mostly gay or lesbian. I had never met nor heard of anyone meeting a man who literally thought he could become a woman. The idea never occurred to me. If it had I would have considered it to be simply impossible. I think this is how nearly everyone felt then.
I’m not sure what we really thought about those very few people who had had sex change surgery. Had a man become a woman by means of cutting off some parts and adding other parts? I think we were all willing to treat these people with sympathy, but it rather resembled someone in a war being given a new leg. An amputee might have an artificial leg, but it was just that. It was artificial. It was the closest approximation to a real leg, but it wasn’t the same thing as real leg. It never would be. It never could be. So too the man who had surgery so as to become a woman had been turned into the closest approximation of a woman that was possible. But he wasn’t a woman really. How could he be? I think that is what I would have thought back then if I had thought about this issue. But of course, I didn’t think about it, almost no one did.
This post was originally published by the author on her personal blog: https://www.effiedeans.com/2019/10/the-american-disease-part-one.html