WARNING: SEASON THREE SPOILERS AHEAD
If the liberal arts college really is Downton Abbey, as I somewhat facetiously suggested last week, then I think we’re in trouble. It’s been clear all season that despite paying some lip service to progressivism, the series’ ideological commitments are conservative: the preservation of the stately manor is the pre-eminent goal of the family and of the story. We in the academy want to preserve our way of life as well, of course, and our commitments can be profoundly conservative in the best sense, as we strive to conserve the best traditions of the past while at the same time creating new knowledge. But Downton’s conservatism is often unthinking, unyielding—the traditions of class hierarchy, patriarchy, and imperialism are not, perhaps, absolutely necessary to the maintenance of the estate, but are nonetheless part and parcel of the story. And, worse, the series seems determined to kill off or exile whoever tries to bring new ideas in to the estate. If that’s the fate of progressives in the academy, we’re in trouble. Last week I suggested that perhaps we are like Matthew Crawley or Tom Branson, trying to save the system from within. But Matthew is now gone, having served his real function of providing the family with a male heir—and, perhaps, some new ideas, though it remains to be seen whether those ideas can survive without him to carry them out.
Thankfully, Downton Abbey is a fiction, and not necessarily a predictive one. Matthew’s death doesn’t mean anything for the academy except that we need to find someone else to root for next season—and that long serial narratives require constant refreshment. In that, perhaps, as well, the academy resembles the drama. I hope we don’t lose our own Matthews, but I know we’ll keep changing.