“And how many men I have seen in my time made stupid and rash by avidity for learning! Carneades became so mad about it that he had no time left to take care of his hair and nails.”
— Montaigne, The Education of Children
“And how many men I have seen in my time made stupid and rash by avidity for learning! Carneades became so mad about it that he had no time left to take care of his hair and nails.”
— Montaigne, The Education of Children
Many terms are thrown around to define a liberal education. The most common one, I’ve found—at least within universities—is to contrast the “artes liberales” (the liberal arts, or those studies done for their own sake) with the “artes serviles” (‘servile’ arts, or those done out of necessity), as Rome passed the distinction down to us.
I don’t think that definition does much good, and in many cases it might be actively harmful. The single greatest contributor to the education that students receive and which faculty aim to impart is the way that our education is described and discussed; this, because when so many ends of an education are presented to us, we will gravitate towards those talked about most often. So when we define liberal education with reference to that liberal-servile dichotomy, we introduce all sorts of out-dated and anachronistic implications for education today—not least the idea that liberal arts students should not ‘taint’ themselves with ‘worldly’ or ‘servile’ concerns. This definition for the most part simply does not apply to liberal education in the twenty-first century.
The other common definition given is in some ways the opposite of the liberal-servile distinction, and it is to talk about some unique characteristics of liberal arts colleges: “small class sizes”, “residential colleges”, “learning how to think”, “breadth and depth”, and so on. In some ways this definition works, because it does conjure in our minds the idea of what makes a liberal arts college distinct to large research universities, for instance. But on the whole the definition is useless, because it gives students nothing to aim at in our education, and gives faculty nothing to impart: a liberal education is simply defined, here, by institutional structures. Even more than that, the definition is time-limited and in many cases geographically limited too—not all of these aspects are unique to a liberal education. They are by and large the distinct aspects of American liberal arts colleges from the mid twentieth century to the present day.
So where are we left? Is liberal education left forever in the realm of the undefinable, with every new book presenting a different definition? Besides, would clarity through a neat definition reduce what liberal education could mean to different students, somehow limiting us?
I’ve come to define a liberal education as a self-reflexive education. Self-reflexivity is, to my mind, the heart of a liberal education, its feature that is both timeless and common to all countries’ traditions and institutional structures (it shows, too, how a liberal education does not require an institution to be achieved). It is a definition that works not by negating other forms of education, as in the liberal-servile distinction, and nor does it refer to specificities of a liberal arts college in its definition. Here, liberal education is separated from the liberal arts and liberal arts colleges; and, most importantly, understanding liberal education as a self-reflexive education gives students and educators alike something to aim at—it gives us a bigger picture, a bird’s-eye view of ourselves even while we are in the midst of our education.
What does self-reflexivity really mean in relation to a liberal education? What makes a liberal education unique is that one has the freedom to critique and question one’s education even while in the middle of it. Instead of a unidirectional transfer of knowledge, liberal education always has a cycle embedded within, whereby students try to understand what we are learning from broader systems and structures, even if that means questioning and trying to understand the very system of education of which we are a part. It could mean something as small as discussing with a professor a given book or reading to understand its broader context (in which case one is self-reflexive about what else there is to learn and understand); or, at its broadest level, it might mean reading and writing intensely on education itself, seeking to understand what structures shape our education as a whole.
The latter aspect of the self-reflexivity of a liberal education can be seen clearly at almost all liberal arts colleges by the fact that the educational institution itself is one of the most frequent topics of conversation among students and faculty. In my experience, we students always want to see and understand clearly the institution of which we are a part, and then quite often to change it, which means we believe in the power to change the circumstances of our own education. This is the self-reflexivity in action: seeing education at its broadest level, and attempting to see one’s present situation within it—and then, quite often, setting out to alter that situation in order to improve what we’re learning and, ultimately, to improve ourselves.
Taking rigorous notes in a seminar or a lecture, going away later to study them and then remembering them during an exam is not a liberal education. Reflecting on why we have lectures, seminars and exams, how they help us to learn, and what other systems we might have is a liberal education.
Reading a book because a professor assigned it is not a liberal education. Asking why your professor assigned it, and what else they might have assigned instead, is.
Criticising your professor or your university for assigning a given book (perhaps one that reinforces old or dangerous stereotypes) is not a liberal education. Discussing openly in class the value and harms of reading and discussing such a book is.
Writing an essay that you don’t want to write for no other reason than that the syllabus says you need to is not a liberal education. Talking to your professor about what essay you do want to write, and why you should be allowed to write it, is fit for a liberal education.
Thinking your education ends when you graduate may indeed mean you have had an education, but it doesn’t mean you’ve had a liberal education. You’ve only had a liberal education when your high school and college years are seen as the foundations of a life of learning. (Yale’s famous report of 1828 put this: “The Object is not to finish (the student’s) education, but to lay the foundation and to advance as far in rearing the superstructure as the short period of (their) residence here will admit.”
In the first ever lecture I attended at Yale-NUS College (a lecture itself on the nature of a liberal education, during orientation week) my professor spoke about Velásquez’ painting Las Meninas. Typically of an education, four years on I now feel the description was largely lost on me at the time. But it must have done some good to still remain with me now. I remember Professor Rajeev Patke speaking about Modernity, and the rise of self-reflexivity in art and literature: the focus, in Velásquez seventeenth century, gradually moved away from faithful representation of the world as we see it and towards representation of subjective experience. In Las Meninas, Velásquez depicts himself standing before a large canvas which he is painting, but we cannot see what he is depicting; to the figure’s right is a mirror upon the wall, which reflects two figures (themselves outside the scene depicted). Las Meninas becomes an image of self-reflexivity: the painter stands both within and without the canvas he is painting; he gazes forward at his work as his hand creates it, but upon seeing himself reflected there is led to an inevitable and a perpetual reflection about the very nature of the activity he is engaged in. Much like an education—and especially like the process of a liberal education.
The definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education should by now hopefully be clear, but the question remains: why should you pursue it?
You should pursue a liberal education because it provides you with, to use the Yale report’s term, the “superstructure” of lifelong learning. It furnishes you with the “discipline and furniture” of the mind, so that almost nothing throughout life is beyond your intellectual powers. It gives you the freedom to know you can come to know everything, most of all yourself.
You should pursue a liberal education because it allows you to understand not just any one thing, but rather what is common to all things. It gives you a bird’s eye view from which to see the world and any activity you’re engaged in.
Pragmatically, it changes your time at high school or university. When you have the mindset of seeking a liberal education, there are very few things you must do. Rather, you start to see how you can twist every assignment and every class to get exactly what you feel you need out of them.
Far from seeing your education as something to get through, when you pursue a liberal education you start to see your education as something enabling you to get to something else. Your four years at college or university are just the beginning of a life of being able to learn anything and everything you want to learn.
Should I mention grades? Well, only to say that it will likely do your grades no harm to be reflexive about your education and to go about it as an adventure. Professors surely prefer to teach students who are engaged and who know what they want to learn, students who write essays not because they have to write them but because there are ideas they want to test and to figure out.
In short: no. I maintain that you can get a liberal education from within any institution, or even through self-learning alone. What matters is merely that you desire an education, and that you are self-reflective about the process of going about it, seeking always what you know you need to get out of it.
But, in saying that, I firmly believe going to a liberal arts college will make it much easier, and will offer aspects of an education that you simply cannot gain elsewhere. A professor who has helped me more than anyone else to understand the nature of a liberal education describes the experience of being at a liberal arts college by using Emile Durkheim’s term: “collective effervescence”. The experience of being in a “living and learning community” with hundreds of other students and professors all committed to exactly the same end is unlike anything else. You’ve all read the same key books, so can discuss with anyone, during any mealtime, any idea you happen to be thinking about. And, if you’re all equally self-reflexive about your education, a depth of insight is enabled. There’s an emotional and an intellectual seriousness which I believe comes from being a part of such a living and learning community.
Does the definition of a liberal education as a self-reflexive education merely restrict what an education could be? Might it hinder more than it helps, or might it miss too many facets of a liberal education to prove useful?
I believe the definition is valuable because it restores education to being about the individual. If a liberal education is a self-reflexive education then, by definition, only you can get yourself an education, and only I can get myself one. The definition allows us to escape whatever we might dislike about the institution of which we are a part, and to escape even many of the outdated strictures of national education systems which encourage mindless conformity more than anything else. It makes an education all about us, as individuals: and it pushes us to continually challenge ourselves, seeking always a deeper and a greater understanding of our own lives and the world around us. A self-reflexive education is, after all, one that encourages above all the Greek dictum to “know thyself”.
The definition does a number of other valuable things, such as:
Most of all, understanding a liberal education as a self-reflexive education allows us to ignore those aspects of our education done for tradition and institutional requirements alone, and to restore the focus to our own individual experience of an education. Nothing matters but this: that we get out of our education what we need. This applies both to students, and to educators.
Should institutions choose to adopt this understanding of liberal education I believe it would provide much-needed clarity on what ends, subjects, and activities are appropriate to such an education. It may also give, at a time when liberal education’s value is often questioned, a way of responding to critics by escaping dangerous dichotomies like the liberal-servile one.
But ultimately, understanding the self-reflexivity of a liberal education is about you and me, and our own place within an educational institution. Whatever the institution does or does not do then matters far less in the process of getting out of an education what we need from it.
I happened to read a review in The Guardian of Frederick Wiseman’s 2014 movie National Gallery before I saw the film. That review’s title is devastatingly brutal: “A crushingly dull documentary that lacks an eye for art.” It is such a harsh headline that I almost decided not to spend the three hours watching—but I’m grateful I ignored it, because Wiseman’s National Gallery is a masterfully subtle meditation on the role of the world’s great galleries. The film can even be called art itself.
Wiseman’s genius with National Gallery is to document the institution, on the one hand, but on the other to demonstrate the experience of being at such a gallery. The scenes change quickly, and we never really quite get shown a painting for long enough to take it in. The camera angles are at times awkward, or someone happens to wander in front of a painting at the wrong time. There is a lot of talking. There is no music. There is bickering among gallery administrators, and some of these scenes run on for absurdly long lengths of time. But far from being boring, Wiseman gets in subtle humour, letting glimpses of paintings speak for him. A rapid montage of a range of facial expressions in paintings had me laughing out loud, so perfectly were the expressions timed to correspond to the at-times absurdity of such an institution—or simply the beauty of the constant looking-at and being-looked-at. All of this, down to the person wandering in front of a painting at just the wrong time, is exactly the universal and unalterable experience of being in a museum like the National Gallery.
Wiseman’s is a respectful but honest documentary of the National Gallery, and it is artful in how it gets across the essence of the experience of the world’s great museums. Ignore that review in The Guardian—if anything, the reviewer lacked an eye for the subtle art of this film. Far better is the review in The New Yorker; and better yet, just go watch the film.
Today I completed my senior ‘capstone’ thesis at Yale-NUS College. My topic was liberal education—a rather broad and ill-defined topic, but then again part of my project was to uncover what exactly is meant by the term, and what exactly constitutes the education I have supposedly received over the past four years. Supervised by Professor Pericles Lewis, the inaugural president of Yale-NUS, my essay attempted to shed light on the implicit means and ends of a liberal education, all the while moving beyond the kinds of platitudes one might find on a college website.
Two starting points of liberal education, and education in general, as I see them:
These are ideas which have defined my approach to my own education. Perhaps they come as a result of having attended so many educational institutions, where one by necessity begins to see education from a broad perspective. And they are ideas that I tried to demonstrate and shed light on through the capstone, albeit indirectly: by focussing on assessing key rhetorics of liberal education in history, I hoped that both the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ultimate ends would be reflected out of the project. The metaphor for it is best demonstrated by Velásquez’ Las Meninas, where the painter stands before the canvas he paints, and yet sees there himself, and his own reflection: the work is the beginning of a continual questioning and critiquing. My project was both a reflection on liberal education, and a reflection of one.
I end the paper with a call for a modern notion of Bildung, or self-cultivation, as Wilhelm von Humboldt and many of the German Romantics used the term. One of the key dichotomies in education today is how it must be both a private, selfish, individual education, undertaken for no other reason than one’s own personal development; but that at the same time we must educate ourselves to be societally useful, that is, to be useful as citizens. The tension is a defining one for the rhetoric of many educational institutions, and in the daily lives of many students: we want our education to be inwardly-focussed, but know we must contribute through our later work.
The genius of the notion of Bildung is that it links the one notion to the other: that by educating ourselves as individuals, we enable ourselves as citizens. It is therefore no longer either/or—either self-cultivation or citizenship—but one before the other (I have argued this in slightly different terms before). Bildung must be drawn out and untethered from its nineteenth century Romantic roots, but from it, I argue in my capstone, we can develop an institutional rhetoric that escapes the dichotomy. And of course, here we return to the two notions I started with—the self-reflexivity of liberal education and its ends achieved through discourse—for institutional rhetoric has the power to shape the education that we as students seek, and which faculty aim to impart to us.
Perhaps I will publish the thesis here at some point. At the very least, it has been interesting to build upon, in an academic way, many of the ideas that seem to have been floating around this blog since my high school years.
This essay was published in the catalogue of The Collection of Frank and Lyn Corner by Art + Object. My grandparents’ significant collection of New Zealand art was presented to the market on Sunday 18th March 2018.
Growing up with Frank and Lyn as parents and grandparents meant growing roots firmly in New Zealand, no matter where in the world we happened to be. Our eyes became tuned, through the art, books and conversation that surrounded us, to see New Zealand as a firm part of the modern international world, holding its own from the bottom of the South Pacific.
But this view of New Zealand’s place in the world wasn’t always so clear for Frank and Lyn. Their backgrounds—in 1920s and 30s Napier for Frank, and Hamilton, Masterton, and Whanganui for Lyn—were happy but not remarkable ones, apart from a very memorable earthquake and considerable academic self-discipline. Frank always maintained that “Life, for me, began when I came to Wellington.”
It has even been said that, in the 1940s—when Frank and Lyn came to Wellington, met, and started discovering art together—New Zealand didn’t exist yet: “it remains to be created—should I say invented—–by writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers; even a politician might help”, went Curnow’s cry in 1945. That period between when New Zealand “didn’t exist yet”, and now, when New Zealand seems to stand upright here and when we can travel abroad, to Venice, to see our emissaries, is the period of Frank and Lyn’s lives.
When we stand amidst Frank and Lyn’s lifelong collection of artworks, in their lifelong home, we view a record of that invention of New Zealand, a visual and a personal history of New Zealand’s declaration of intellectual independence.
It is not the only record, and nor is it the largest; Frank and Lyn certainly never set out to create a survey collection, and in fact they long resisted entirely the idea that they were “collectors”. But theirs is a unique collection, and a significant one, because of the two sets of eyes that created it—and, as Frank and Lyn would be the first to point out, because of the sheer good fortune of the times that they happened to live in. Through this collection, and in the lives of Frank and Lyn, we see the abundance of New Zealand life.
— — — —
First, the eyes. Frank and Lyn always spoke of “having [their] eyes opened” to the world, and to art, during their years studying at Victoria University. From the time they met in 1941, at the Easter Tournament, theirs was a partnership of minds and of eyes. In their library one can see the intellectual efforts of their university years and of those afterwards. Frank was studying history, and Lyn French; but their books show little of this, so widely did they read. They studied the classics, but seemingly in equal measure would pick up all the latest books that arrived in Wellington from overseas (Forster’s What I Believe, for instance, they found as soon as it arrived, and his case for “tolerance, good temper and sympathy” seems to define Frank and Lyn’s outlook).
The great good fortune of Frank and Lyn’s university years was the intellectual stimulation provided by John Beaglehole and the circle of faculty and students he surrounded himself with. Their first invitation to the Beaglehole house in Messines Road, Karori, was also the occasion of their awakening to art. There, Lyn later recounted, “He [Beaglehole] had art hanging on the walls—including some of the very early breakthrough artists like John Weeks, Colin McCahon and Toss Woollaston. This was different from the tame drawing-room landscapes we’d seen before, and excited us.” It seems important to remember in this context, however, that art was always just a part of Frank and Lyn’s education and of their lives. Frank describes the kind of discussion they would have at the Beagleholes’ house:
“On some occasions he would play Bach’s preludes and fugues, share his delight in newly acquired paintings of John Weeks or Woollaston, or pewter plates, or great examples of typography, or would introduce us to the works of E. M. Forster, or Virginia Woolf and the Bloomsbury set.”
The Beaglehole influence extended through the full range of culture that Curnow described as necessary for the invention of New Zealand, down to architects, and even politicians. Frank and Lyn were later to copy the Beagleholes in their commissioning architect Cedric Firth to design modern cabinetry for their 1930s house; and it was likely in Messines Road that they first heard of the arrival of a distinguished Austrian architect, Ernst Plischke, to Wellington. Frank was intrigued; he arranged for Plishke to give a series of public talks, and they got to know one another. Plischke would later design the modernist pavilion across the garden from the Gray Young-designed, Cedric Firth-renovated house that Frank and Lyn lived in for the best part of their lives.
The Beagleholes and the Corners remained lifelong friends, but after graduating from Victoria in 1942 and joining the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1943 Frank soon began travelling, and the couple continued their informal education overseas. Frank was one of the first to visit postwar Japan in late 1945, and Frank and Lyn both worked in Paris for several months in 1946 during the Peace Conference. Postings took them to Washington D.C. twice, to London and New York. They read widely and kept everything. In their attic are boxes of gallery catalogues, many in French, that they collected while haunting the galleries during their travels.
— — — —
And then there were the times they lived in—times so full of activity and excitement, in both art and world affairs, that from the perspective of grandchildren in 2018 they seemed always to be in the very middle of history in the making. They were in London for the Queen’s coronation, the same day Edmund Hillary summited Mount Everest; they were in New York during the fraught days of the Cuban Missile Crisis; they were in Washington D.C. when Lyndon Johnson visited New Zealand, with Frank overseeing the visit. Yet this was work and everyday life for this diplomatic couple, however thrilling it all may seem from a perspective half a century later.
The upheavals going on in the world of art were almost as grand and exciting as those happening in world affairs, so much so that Lyn later described art during this period being an “automatic, easy addiction.” They certainly appreciated their good fortune to live in London, New York and Washington during these formative decades. While Frank was busy at the United Nations, Lyn would head to the galleries, often with two young children in tow. In London, it was during a brief lunch break that Frank dropped by the Redfern Gallery and returned with Frances Hodgkins’ Pleasure Boat.
As with their eyes, for which art was just one of many great passions, the times they lived in seem to have blurred the boundaries between work and other parts of life. The eyes and the times are one and the same, in the end: so that social and political changes are reflected in the art they bought, and the art they bought influenced diplomatic and political advances. When Lyn was once asked if they had consciously bought artworks that would serve to represent New Zealand well abroad, she rejected any such idea: “We simply purchased the irresistible.” We have to take that statement at face value; and yet Frank and Lyn knew that the art they bought would be the backdrop to so many diplomatic functions, and that art has a unique power to represent and to find commonality. We have always thought of Lyn’s comment as a sign of how inseparable their lives were from the times they lived in, the work they did for New Zealand, and their passion for art, books, music and architecture. What was irresistible to Frank and Lyn Corner, a couple who spent their lives serving New Zealand abroad, was precisely the kind of art that represented the modern, confident and vibrant country they represented and spoke about to countless dignitaries every day.
So when Frank wrote in 1962 that “…for the greater part of the first half of the twentieth-century NZ turned its eyes away from the Pacific”, this was at once a statement of foreign policy and of national and personal outlook. He went on: “Has not a country become in some way unbalanced when it knows little and cares less about its own geographic environment?” He argued over many years, after New Zealand’s two great twentieth century crises—the fall of Singapore, and Britain’s decision to join the European Economic Community—that our future lay in this part of the world, in the Pacific. He made this argument formally for New Zealand’s foreign policy; but it was the argument that increasingly our writers, musicians, artists, architects, publishers, and, yes, even our politicians, were formulating in their own realms. For Frank Corner, the search for national security was also a part of the search for national and cultural identity.
— — — —
In the minds of diplomats one’s country can paradoxically seem closer while living in a foreign capital, for it is while there that your everyday experience is marked entirely by your nationality. You are only in Washington, London or New York by virtue of being a New Zealander; you only meet people as a New Zealander. In many ways you live through your country’s identity, and are forced to understand on a deep level what it is that you are representing. This seems different from the expatriate’s experience: he or she goes abroad by their own volition, and for the duration that they are away from home they are more or less cut off from home. They are ex–patrias. The point is the great extent to which Frank and Lyn’s life experiences were marked by being New Zealanders and, in turn, how their vision for New Zealand affected their art collecting.
To Frank and Lyn Corner New Zealand was a modern, vibrant, educated Pacific nation. Naturally, their art collection—much of which was bought while they were living overseas (including, notably, McCahon’s Landscape Theme and Variations, I and Angus’ Storm, Hawkes Bay)—should be informed by such a view. Now we today inhabit the New Zealand that was created and invented during their lifetimes. To look at the individual works in this collection is to see a New Zealand coming to its modernity, coming to terms with its geography, and coming to understand its identity. But to look at this collection as a whole: well, that is to see the modern, vibrant, educated Pacific New Zealand that we now know. To look at this collection is to see the abundance of New Zealand life.
Before I knew anything about art I longed for a single list—a kind of syllabus—to tell me where to begin learning. I knew so little that I didn’t even know what to search for, what artworks to start looking at or what books to read.
This article is the one I wish I’d found earlier in order to quick-start the process of learning about art.
The reality is, when learning about the history of art, there is no substitute for simply looking at artworks. The more time you spend looking the more you will get out, and that’s why I begin this list with ten artworks from ten very different periods in time—ten entirely different visual cultures. Look at the artworks, reflect on them, see which ones grab your attention, and then use each artwork as a starting point before going down the Google and Wikipedia rabbit holes. I’m purposefully not giving you any information or interpretations about each artwork here—it’s up to you to learn about them, but with this list at least you’ll know what to be searching about.
Then the ten books listed second will give you a world of knowledge about these and so many other artworks. The idea is you should search up each of the books and see which one grabs your attention most, and begin there.
This is not in any way a comprehensive survey of art and art history. But, if you find yourself as I did a few years ago, with a strong desire to learn about art but no idea where to begin, then hopefully this list will help.
2. The Lamentation in the Arena Chapel, by Giotto (1305, Scrovegni Chapel, Padua ).
3. Primavera, by Sandro Botticelli (1470s-80s, held at the Uffizi Gallery in Florence).
4. Las Meninas by Diego Velásquez (1656, held at the Prado Museum in Madrid).
5. The Painter’s Studio: A real allegory summing up seven years of my artistic and moral life, by Gustave Courbet (1855, held at the Musee D’Orsay, Paris).
6. Les Desmoiselles d’Avignon, by Pablo Picasso (1907, held at the Museum of Modern Art, New York City).
7. Black Square, by Kazimir Malevich (1915, held at Tretyakov Gallery, Moscow).
8. Victory Over Death II, by Colin McCahon (1970, held at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra).
9. Quantum Cloud VIII, by Antony Gormley (1999, held at San Francisco Museum of Modern Art).
10. Balloon Swan, by Jeff Koons (2004-2011, 5 versions, private collections).
1. Ernst Gombrich, The Story of Art.
2. Robert Hughes, The Shock of the New.
3. Robert Hughes, Nothing If Not Critical.
4. Richard Shone and John-Paul Stonard, The Books That Shaped Art History.
5. Smarthistory (A wonderful collection of videos about artworks produced by Drs. Beth Harris and Steven Zucker, now run by Khan Academy).
6. Will Gompertz, What Are You Looking At?: 150 Years of Modern Art in the Blink of an Eye.
7. Justin Paton, How to Look at a Painting.
8. Gardner’s Art Through the Ages (classic art history textbook)
9. The Art Story (A website with extensive information about artworks, artists, collectors, writers, and art movements).
There you have it: the list I wish I’d had years ago when I was just starting to learn about art but didn’t know where to begin. I hope you find it useful.
Do you already know about art and have a suggestion for how this list/syllabus could be improved? Let me know.
If there is one New Zealander who has a claim to be the New Zealand scholar, it is John Cawte Beaglehole: authority on Captain James Cook, lifelong professor at Victoria University in Wellington, man of culture and letters. Beaglehole studied Cook, a man whose journeys and discoveries “enlarged the world”, as Allen Curnow’s poem put it, and in doing so Beaglehole both enlarged the world of knowledge and created a tradition of scholarship in this country.
117 years after Ralph Waldo Emerson delivered his lecture on the nature and aspirations of The American Scholar, Beaglehole delivered his own lecture taking up the same question in the New Zealand context. The date was the 21st of April 1954; the occasion, the Margaret Condliffe Memorial Lecture at Canterbury University College. The lecture Beaglehole delivered, later turned into an essay, is a New Zealand classic. When I first read it a couple of years ago on a brief trip back to New Zealand while studying overseas I was stunned by how deftly Beaglehole took up Emerson’s challenge, moved beyond it, and seemed to embed all the while a sense of what New Zealand uniquely needs in its minds.
However, the lecture/essay is notoriously difficult to track down. There is certainly a Digital Emerson, but nothing similar for Beaglehole. The only stand-alone book produced with the essay was done in an edition of 100, and, so far as I can tell, the essay has never been published online. Your best bet in finding the essay has been a book published in 1969 on the occasion of John Beaglehole’s retirement: The Feel of Truth, edited by Peter Munz.
Like Emerson’s was to so many Americans, Beaglehole’s essay is a guiding beacon for New Zealanders wondering where and how to direct their mental energies. It was a particularly bright beacon during a time when New Zealand had little in the way of culture to speak of; but culture and tradition is never-ending, so the beacon should not be much less bright today. Beaglehole calls Emerson’s lecture America’s “intellectual Declaration of Independence”; and I hazard that Beaglehole’s own lecture might be seen in similar terms in this former colony.
Beaglehole’s description of the war of intellectual independence:
“A war of intellectual independence is, in the region of the mind, a pretty bloody, painful and wearing thing. It is a civil war; and it shocks into division not merely society—that would not matter so much perhaps—but also the mind of the individual.”
For America, before the declaration of intellectual independence, Beaglehole says that “Culture, the life of the mind, still came from the east.” Ambitious Americans travelled to England, to be “in contact with the heart of things”:
“The expatriates come not from the colony, but from the province. The individual becomes mature—or rather, the potentially mature individual has the unease, the discontent, the growing pains that afflict him in a limited society, and he turns his eyes and his feet towards the metropolis. Nor is this simply a matter of the ambitious young person wanting to make his fortune; not inadequate fortunes are to be made in the province, as every shrewd metropolitan businessman knows. It is a matter of the provincial wanting more life, as a writer perhaps or an artist—to be in contact with the heart of things, even if the heart of things is felt in poverty in a garrett.”
And for the New Zealander prior to 1954, Beaglehole says (though we can ask whether the same is still true today) that:
“For the New Zealander, to go home was to go into exile; the New Zealander was like an Antaeus who sucked up not life but death from the soil, the death of the mind. Is this too melodramatic? Then consider the plight of the sensitive and articulate New Zealanders who have lived much abroad. They are people torn in twain. They are a Katherine Mansfield, with “New Zealand in her bones”, but with New Zealand perforce taking on a rather romantic distant haze, of her own remembered childhood and youth; they are a Robin Hyde, who (to quote Mr McCormick) “knew her country with an intimacy and an understanding that few have equalled, but… was drawn by an irresistible compulsion to Europe where she was to meet her death”—her physical death; they are a John Mulgan, to the first few paragraphs of whose Report on Experience I refer you; they are others to whom I have talked within the last five years, and for whom it is, now, too soon, or too late, to come back.”
After that declaration of intellectual independence America had its own tradition, its own culture, that meant its citizens were not to go into exile should they come home—and it is that idea of how New Zealand might come to have the same thing that Beaglehole takes up in the rest of the lecture:
“Must we continue to consider him as a “post-graduate scholar”, fleeing to the other end of the earth for salvation, driven back only by circumstance to a state where he feels damned? My autobiographical fragment will show that my own answer to this has become No; and I think that the concept of tradition may give us a lead into the function that should be his.”
Beaglehole is using Emerson’s definition of a scholar as man thinking. This is a broad definition and allows for not only academics but writers and artists and musicians, people of any kind who use their minds to “enlarge the world”. And it is the creation of a tradition by people thinking that can allow life to be “rich and varied” in a place that is not already a cultural ‘centre’:
“Now existence in a provincial context can be very satisfying if the province communicates life: if the individual, however highly cultivated (I do not say the intellectual snob) can feel at home in it, and has demands made upon him that he feels it worth while to meet. The province will communicate life only if it has a rich and varied life; and the province that has a rich and varied life has a rich and varied tradition.”
How, then, can the province have a rich and varied life, and therefore a rich and varied tradition? This takes Beaglehole to the thrust of his lecture, of the very role of the scholar, of anyone thinking deeply in the country. It is this passage that stands out for me of the whole lecture, particularly where Beaglehole draws attention to the double role that thought must play, being both within the “old-world tradition” and the “tradition that is peculiar to ourselves”:
“A tradition is not a thing that just happens, and persists without the conscious knowledge of those it affects. If we are to profit from it in the best possible way, to extract from its riches the maximum nourishment, we must discover it. It needs critical enquiry, conscious exploration. It is the scholar’s job to make the tradition plain. As a scholar, he must be in the tradition; but he must also stand outside it, and with a double duty, to make real in New Zealand both the old-world tradition, that which we share with others, and the tradition that is peculiar to ourselves. He is concerned with the pattern of life we have got from our own past, as a community in this country, and so with our sense of the age we live in, in this place now. Our scholar, for this purpose, tended to be a literary critic; but in a broad sense he must be a historian, whether his subject-matter be literature, art, politics, economic development, social relations of any sort at all… Whatever he is, he must be conscious of what he is doing, he must be critical.”
Beaglehole draws attention to a tension in T. S. Eliot’s writing, where he says at one point that tradition must be “in the blood”, but that we must also obtain it “by great labour”. But, Beaglehole says,
“I do not think the paradox that emerges from the changed emphasis of the Eliotian mind is at all a real contradiction. For our scholar, our critical historian, is also according to the measure of his greatness in some sort a creator. As he disentangles our tradition, as he makes us conscious of ourselves, he gives us ourselves.”
The measure of success of New Zealand’s culture and tradition might be measured not in how many New Zealanders we manage to encourage to stay in this country for study and beyond, but, rather, how many of those New Zealanders who do leave happen to come back:
“We can, I think, discern with due joy some auspicious signs of the coming days. It would not be auspicious if fewer New Zealanders left New Zealand; I would increase the flow from the province to the metropolis… Obviously some, having gone, will never find it in their hearts to come back. But a province with a tradition rich enough, with a pattern of life varied enough, with a sense of its own identity and its own time lively enough, will always bring enough of them back.”
More on Beaglehole:
“I think I am becoming a New Zealander”: Letters of J. C. Beaglehole, edited by Tim Beaglehole
A Life of J. C. Beaglehole, by Tim Beaglehole
J. C. Beaglehole: Public Intellectual, Critical Conscience by Doug Munro