History, Not Politics

WASHINGTON -- Jonathan Spence came here to deliver a speech, but don't let that fool you: his address -- the 39th Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which took place Thursday -- in no way resembled the sort typically associated with D.C.

May 21, 2010

WASHINGTON -- Jonathan Spence came here to deliver a speech, but don't let that fool you: his address -- the 39th Annual Jefferson Lecture in the Humanities, which took place Thursday -- in no way resembled the sort typically associated with D.C.

The Jefferson Lecture is sponsored by the National Endowment for the Humanities, which describes the lecture as "the most prestigious honor the federal government bestows for distinguished intellectual achievement in the humanities." Those chosen for the distinction are typically academics or creative types (or both) -- but, given the setting, the sponsor, and the nature of the award (which "recognizes an individual... who has the ability to communicate the knowledge and wisdom of the humanities in a broad, appealing way"), Jefferson Lecturers have historically taken the opportunity to make a larger (and sometimes tacitly political) point related to the humanities. Last year, controversial bioethicist Leon Kass used his lecture to criticize the way the humanities are taught and researched at American universities; in 2007, Harvey Mansfield argued, with many subtle political allusions, that the social sciences are in dire need of "the help of literature and history"; Tom Wolfe's 2006 lecture discussed how the humanities shed light on modern culture (and lamented the current state of the culture on campuses); and 2005 lecturer Donald Kagan and 2004 lecturer Helen Vendler offered opposing views on which disciplines of the humanities are most crucial, and why.

If any of those in the crowd (noticeably larger than last year's) at the Warner Theatre last night were familiar with the Jefferson Lectures of years prior, they were in for a surprise.

Spence is Sterling Professor of History Emeritus at Yale University, whose faculty he joined in 1966. His specialty has always been China -- his 14 books on Chinese history include 1990's The Search for Modern China, upon whose publication the New York Times accurately predicted that it would "undoubtedly become a standard text on the subject" -- and his lecture was entitled "When Minds Met: China and the West in the Seventeenth Century." Even this relatively specific appellation, however, conveys a misleading breadth, for Spence's lecture focused almost exclusively on three men -- Shen Fuzong, an exceptionally learned Chinese traveler; Thomas Hyde, an English scholar of history and language; and Robert Boyle, also English, a scientist and philosopher of considerable renown -- and one year: 1687.

In his lecture, Spence gave what may (or may not) have been one brief acknowledgment that he'd chosen an unusually narrow topic of discourse: "It is a commonplace, I think, that the sources that underpin our concept of the humanities, as a focus for our thinking, are expected to be broadly inclusive." But, for himself, Spence dismissed that notion in one more sentence: "...as a historian I have always been drawn to the apparently small-scale happenings in circumscribed settings, out of which we can tease a more expansive story."

Thus he dedicated the rest of his lecture to an account of those three historical figures in the year 1687. Shen had traveled to Europe in the company of one of his teachers, a Flemish Jesuit priest who was co-editing a book of the sayings of Confucius from Chinese into Latin. Hyde, librarian at the University of Oxford's Bodleian Library, invited Shen there to assist him with the cataloging of some Chinese books -- and also because Hyde, who in that era would have been called an Orientalist, wanted to learn Chinese himself. After a brief stay at Oxford, Shen returned to London, bearing a letter of introduction from Hyde to his friend Boyle; the letter recommended that Boyle meet and converse with the Chinese scholar. The letter had to be convincing, Spence explained, because Boyle's reputation was by then widespread, and "he was so inundated with curious visitors that at times he had to withdraw into self-enforced seclusion...."

Shen did meet Boyle at least once; Boyle's work diary mentions their discussion of the Chinese language and its scholars (a conversation that, like all of those between Shen and Hyde, must have taken place in Latin: Shen's Latin was excellent, but he did not, evidently, know English). And Hyde maintained correspondence not only with his old friend Boyle -- over the years, the two had "discussed Arabic and Persian texts, Malay grammars... and how to access books from Tangier, Constantinople and Bombay" as well as "the chemical constituents of sal ammoniac and amber, the effectiveness of certain Mexican herbs... current studies of human blood and air, the nature of papyrus, the writings of Ramon Llull and the use of elixirs and alchemy in the treatment of illnesses" -- but also with Shen, until around the time of the latter's departure from England for Portugal in the spring of 1688. The letters between Shen and Hyde covered such topics as "Chinese vocabulary... China's units of weights and measurements... the workings of the Chinese examination system and bureaucracy... [and] the Chinese Buddhist belief in the transmigration of souls."

"All three men," Spence ultimately concluded, "though so different, shared certain basic ideas about human knowledge: these included... the importance of linguistic precision, the need for broad-based comparative studies, the role of clarity in argument, the need for thorough scrutiny of philosophical and theological principles.... Theirs, though brief, had been a real meeting of the minds. And the values they shared remain, well over three hundred years later, the kind that we can seek to practice even in our own hurried lives."

That final point was the closest Spence came to suggesting a particular take-home message for his audience; however, in an interview with Inside Higher Ed, held earlier that day in the lobby of the Willard Hotel, he did mention a few ideas that he intended to convey. For one thing, Spence said, given the current importance of U.S.-China relations, he hoped this much older, smaller-scale example of dialogue between the East and West would "give some perspective to that."

"Historians," he said, "try to get people away from just focusing on the present; they try to give them some sort of stronger sense of continuity, human continuity. And I just like the range of things, these three people that draw together, and they're writing their letters to each other, and their few meetings... and in that short time they talk about examination systems, they talk about language, competition, they talk about medicine, they talk about -- I was fascinated, they talk about chess..... All these things seemed to me to flow together, and I think they'd make an interesting -- I hope they'd make an interesting -- package about cultural contact."

There's a lesson in that, Spence said: "to make our range of contact as wide as possible, and to use our intelligence about how to do this."

Another issue raised in the lecture, Spence said -- "maybe a small point, but perhaps worth making" -- has to do with the teaching and learning of languages; Hyde dreamed of bringing native speakers of various Eastern languages to Oxford, to establish a college there. "Why should everybody else on the planet speak English?" Spence asked. "I mean, why should they?"

But on the larger importance of the humanities, and their present status in higher education and society at large, Spence was reluctant to make a strong argument: "It's not just a case of encouraging humanities in the abstract; it's having something to say.... The main search should be for what is the most meaningful thing you can achieve with the humanities, how can you share some kind of broader cultural values, or how can you learn things about yourself or other societies. The challenge is to use the humane intelligence and see what can be built on that."

And when it comes to funding, "any government has to put its priorities somewhere, and this does usually mean cutting something."

His lecture, Spence said, wasn't "meant to be exactly a political speech, you know. I hope people understand that."

For the most part, those in attendance seemed more than satisfied. Spence's talk was punctuated frequently by warm laughter from the audience -- whom he indulged shamelessly, often departing from his prepared remarks to expound upon details that interested him, or to make additional jokes whenever the crowd found some part of the story especially humorous. When he finished, the applause was long and loud, and one woman commented audibly, "That was amazing!"; her companion replied, "Nice, really nice!"

But at least a few people reacted with more ambivalence. One group of young attendees, who identified themselves as fans of Spence, having been students of his as undergraduates at Yale, said that while they'd enjoyed the lecture, they'd been hoping their former professor would make a more explicit connection between his topic and issues of contemporary cultural or political relevance. One noted that, in his introductory remarks that evening, NEH Chairman James Leach had described the purpose of the Jefferson Lecture as being "to narrow the gap between the world of academia and public affairs," and had emphasized the Endowment's goal of "bridging cultures."

There was an "irony," this young man said, in the fact that Spence's lecture precisely addressed the bridging of two cultures, but Spence hadn't made a bridge between his own narrative -- which the audience member interpreted as "a clarion call for better scholarship" -- and any other realm. "Listeners," he said (possibly referring to himself), "want something that's cut and dry, something that's tweetable."

The possibility of such criticism of his speech had arisen during Inside Higher Ed's interview with Spence that morning, but he hadn't seemed concerned. "I'm not going to sort of over-apologize to the audience... they've chosen to come to hear about the seventeenth century" -- he chuckled -- "I think we announced that!"


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