Privilege in Academia: An Extended Note

A slightly extended version of my earlier post today for collaborative history blog, The Dustbin of History.

The Dustbin of History

Today, while scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I spotted a post by Third Level Workplace Watch about a storify on what it means to be from a less well-off background today in academia being done by Caroline Magennis. Reading the storify, I had to add my own small contribution:

Reading each and every response – some angry, some witty, most staunchly determined – has made me think of my own position within academia and my relationship to it. Not that I haven’t done this on many occasions among friends suffering the same anxieties, the same sense of not quite belonging. It’s a question of economics of course, but at some point the economic and the cultural bleed together.

My time as a PhD…

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Privilege in Academia: A Note

Today, while scrolling down my Facebook newsfeed, I spotted a post by Third Level Workplace Watch about a storify on what it means to be from a less well-off background today in academia being done by Caroline Magennis. Reading the storify, I had to add my own small contribution:

Reading each and every response – some angry, some witty, most staunchly determined – has made me think of my own position within academia and my relationship to it. Not that I haven’t done this on many occasions among friends suffering the same anxieties, the same sense of not quite belonging. It’s a question of economics of course, but at some point the economic and the cultural bleed together.

My time as a PhD student coincided with the beginning of, and then the continuation of, the economic recession. It also coincided with the ratcheting up of plans to infuse every area of life from education to healthcare with the same neo-liberal economic, political and social thinking that drove the very same recession. To do a PhD in history about sport, about (mostly) working-class people in the middle of this recession was some experience. The history of working-class people isn’t as sexy as it used to be, and with those same people being hammered politically today, writing their history seemed, and continues to seem, ever more important.

Right now, I am happily living in Prague and teaching English as a second language, away from the sometimes crushing race towards greater self-criticism that academia – and the humanities especially – seem to be coming. But the truth is, I’d probably give it all up in the morning for a post, any post, in a decent university in Ireland or Britain. That’s a kind of stupidity.

I am a historian. I have worked hard to not alone attain that – with the huge help and sacrifices of my family and others – but to even feel comfortable telling people that’s what I do. That’s what privilege in academia is. Comfort in saying that. To anyone. In any context. I rarely self-identify as it, but I am a historian. That’s what I really do. When all is said and done. I historicize. Every situation. Including my own. Including the kind of situation that prompts an academic to pose the question that Caroline Magennis has.

Right now, I don’t do it for a living. At least, not exactly. That is, I don’t have a post in a university somewhere. I do have my PhD. I do have the monograph based on that PhD in the bookshops. I do have a special issue of a journal to co-edit in the coming months. I do have an article to write for a special issue of another journal. In other words, I have everything to do to keep myself active in the world of academia for the next twelve months.

Here’s what I don’t have: an endless supply of cash. Or time. Or patience with a system that is increasingly being reshaped and set up to prevent people like me from being able to work in academia unless you have an endless supply of cash or a boss willing to give you time off to attend conferences. After a certain point you have to start making choices.

Relatively speaking, in the modern world. I have a huge deal of privilege. A white heterosexual male born in a country which when I was a child was an economic miracle. I am aware of that thanks to the high level of educational attainment I have been lucky to receive. But there’s privilege, which I certainly have and then there’s the kind of privilege required to succeed in contemporary academia. That I do not have and as long as I have to work a day job to fund the rest of it, I’m less and less likely to attain that particular form of privilege. I am one of thousands. And what am I doing to change that?

Well, not much, but I try. When Third Level Workplace Watch began a series called postcards from the periphery, I submitted my own picture, just one week before I left for Prague. Today, when I saw the question posed by Caroline Magennis, I favourited, retweeted, tweeted and engaged. I have written this blog post in response. Whenever there are one of the many blogposts. articles or features railing against the neo-liberalised university and the precarity of the academic profession for new entrants, just like this one, I share them on social media. I talk endlessly with friends about it. But action? Real action? I’m not sure I’ve taken any yet except the odd subversive comment to a group of students in a lecture or a tutorial. Hardly the stuff of revolutions.

Like so many other occupations that are being made increasingly precarious, there’s little you can do to transform the position when you are operating in effect outside of it. This is made worse by the fact that you so desperately want to be a member of the club. My story is far from unique, and I’ve had some advantages to get as far as I have. The question now is, how far can any of us who are not possessors of the privilege of academia go without having to give up? There is a building sense that what has happened to our universities cannot be allowed to continue. But it is only by discussing things like academic privilege in this context that we can begin to get to the root of one of what will be the current situation’s illest effects: soon many humanities subjects will be taught – if they are still taught at all – in our universities by people of privilege: economic, racial, sexual and cultural and social privilege. This will impoverish our public discourse and ensure the continuation of real actual impoverishment of people.

Jan Hus: radical proto-protestant, martyr, or nationalist myth?

Alfons Mucha’s painting of Jan Hus preaching in the Bethlehem Chapel.

In the formulation of the national and nationalist narratives that were such a part of nineteenth century European political and state formation, most countries sought to reach back into their disparate histories and to pluck from them figures who it might be politically expedient to present as being as being harbingers of a nation later to emerge. Jan Hus is one such figure from Czech history and since today is his day, I thought I’d take a quick look at some of the ways Hus has emerged as a figure of the Czech nation.

If July 6th is Jan Hus day in Czech Republic, a notoriously atheist country, then many who are unfamiliar with the country, will also be surprised to learn that the day before is also a national holiday, for Ss. Cyril and Methodius, thought to have played a significant role in the emergence of the Czech language. In both cases then, Cyril and Methodius on the 5th and Hus on the 6th, the primary reasons for celebrating these men is not religious but instead national.

To understand Hus as a figure of nationalism first, it might be best to start with Alfons Mucha’s extraordinary series of paintings, Slovanská epopej (The Slav Epic). This extraordinary cycle of over 20 paintings was completed between 1910 and 1928, and tells the story of the Slav people’s from their mythical prehistory to the apotheosis of the foundation of the first Czechoslovak Republic in 1918.

The eighth painting in the cycle, “Master Jan Hus Preaching at the Bethlehem Chapel” is subtitled “Truth prevails”. In the painting, at the top of the post, we can see Hus almost rapturously revealing the truth to those congregated. Hus was appointed to the chapel from the Prague University and was deeply involved in the debates around the various ideas of Oxford theologian, John Wycliffe. As Peter Demetz notes of Hus:

[Hus] was surely a man of quiet decisions, and he was far from being a belligerent radical, even though he looked like one to many. He grew with the events, in which schismatic popes, legitimate and illegitimate kings, comfortable prelates enjoying many benefices and ascetic theologians, the church’s legal establishment and the resolution to live in the truth of Jesus Christ, conservative Bohemian patriots and early defenders of the idea of a nation based on language rather than territory – all these were chaotically pitted against each other.” (Prague in Black and Gold, 132-133).

This, it might be fair to say, is an attempt to strip back from Hus the national connotations which he gained as a proto-protestant, national hero figure from the time of Frantisek Palacky’s five-volume History of the Czech Nation in Bohemia and Moravia (1836-67). As Mary Heinemann has noted:

A Moravian Protestant, Palacky took a particular interest in rehabilitating the reputation of Jan Hus, whom he presented, in the first volume of his History to be written and published in Czech, as at once a proto-Protestant and a proto-nationalist martyr. This view was to have a profound influence upon – among others – the man who was eventually to found the first state ever to to be named for the Czechs and the Slovaks: lapsed Catholic and fellow Moravian Tomas Masaryk. (Czechoslovakia: the state that failed, 13).

Heinemann’s observations are especially astute on Hus, who she sees as being moulded in the following way in order to help legitimate the initial claims for what eventually became the first Czechoslovak republic:

The Czech-speaking Bohemian priest and activist Jan Hus (John Huss), presented as a sort of Martin Luther, becomes the chief symbol of Czech resoluteness and independence; while the Taborite (radical Hussite) Jan Zizka, a kind of Oliver Cromwell figure, is cast in the role of proto-nationalist and primitive socialist. (Czechoslovakia, 3).

And this is not just Heinemann’s view, which is stridently myth-busting in her approach, but is also backed up by other scholars looking at how the myth of the First Czechoslovak Republic, led by Masaryk and Benes, was cultivated. As historian Andrea Orzoff notes of Palacky’s famous nationalist history, for Palacky – and thus for Masaryk et al. – Hus and his followers were not merely engaged in a discussion over church doctrine but became

freedom-loving, democratic, tolerant, egalitarian, morally righteous, and pacifistic until unjustly attacked. These were the qualities permanently bred into the Czechs by their national history, Palacky implied. (Battle for the Castle: The Myth of Czechoslovakia in Europe, 1914-1918, 27).

This view of Hus and the Hussites was reinforced in paintings like Mucha’s Slav Epic and also in the staggering art nouveau statue of Hus which dominates the heart of historical Prague, Staromestske Namesti (Old Town Square), designed by Ladislav Saloun and erected there on his 500th anniversary in 1915, three years before the foundation of the first Czechoslovak republic.

The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.
The Jan Hus Memorial in Old Town Square.

Jan Hus,the Hussites and also Jan Zizka and the Taborites, all have come to represent in the Czech Republic, a kind of ant-authoritarian resistance – whether it was Hus preaching the words of Wycliffe to his congregation, or the view of Czechs as a Protestant “nation” crushed and controlled by a Catholic empire – they have all come to represent something closer to the vision of Palacky than their real historical personages or that their own contexts could possibly have allowed. National identity and myth are built on such figures, however remote they end up being from the person who once lived, breathed and preached.