U.S. Intellectual History Blog

An Overheard Conversation: Loving History, a Sixteenth Birthday, Blogging, and Youth against the Youth Culture

By Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn

Yesterday, I suddenly found myself in the position of a fly on the wall in a conversation
between a graduate student in her late twenties and someone who was just about to
turn sixteen–today. It made me think of a different side of the subject of my recent posts
here regarding the drastically increased role of electronics technologies in early twentyfirst-
century life. While I’ve been voicing my concerns, of necessity, given my focus on
the fate of letter writing, in the more somber registers, I want to sound a different note
here. It’s a rather simple one, and hardly new. I just want to add my own hope and
enthusiasm to that of others who see true benefit in some uses of the new medium.
Technology’s role is all in how we use it and today some people are using it to
undermine illegitimate hierarchies and unfair limits on aspiration that are placed by the
dominant culture. While there are other examples, I’m thinking of the truly remarkable
blogs–the USIH blog is at the forefront of my mind, of course–that have arisen, outside
of the usual corridors of cultural power and influence. Some of these represent a true
alternative to prevailing practices and, because an alternative is so badly needed, in our
profession as in many others, I want to acknowledge this most emphatically. For all of
the drawbacks, there are heartening developments. One of them is the way in which the
art of blogging can allow people to move forward to fruition of their creative powers even
when the powers that be may never grant them permission or entrance to the club. As
the autodidacts inside and outside of professions prove again and again, industry and
true passion for a subject can constitute their own invitation to the table.

First, the conversation; then just a hint of one of the many reasons why some of the
more penetrating blogs out there today can be so inspiring to someone probably
basically a Luddite at heart (my preference will always be for the real, no matter how
you spin it).

The near sixteen-year-old began by expressing her passion for the liberal arts,
especially history. While to date she had done well at the full range of subjects taught in
school, and cultivated an interest in all aspects of the curriculum, which worked well in
accordance with her aims of doing well, she admitted to being less than excited about
what was on offer in her eleventh-grade science and math classes. She revealed this in
a set of questions revolving around a two-pronged issue for her: what difference there
might be, if any, between the pursuit of science and math, which she saw as lying on
one part of the spectrum, and another part involving history and literature, where she
confessed her greatest interests lay; and whether it was acceptable, at her level, to feel
a strong preference for the history, in particular, over science. Of vital importance in
understanding her tentativeness, perhaps, and the rather turgid response her inquiry
drew, in turn, was that her interlocutor declared herself to be pursuing a doctorate in
The graduate student began with a dubious claim, which maybe you have heard before,
or even hold to be the case. The 15-year old had not heard it before, and, in fact, I too
had been previously spared. It is the idea that the liberal arts has to do with people
whereas science concerns “the world.” (The latter words even seemed to be uttered
with a kind of breathlessness that seemed to underscore the limited horizons of the
former, but I could have been hearing things.)

Well, this dichotomy did not sit well with the teenager and I must say, more power to her.
With the utmost respect and even deference, she begged to differ, mostly by means of a
quiet yet persistent line of inquiry. She got across her sense that history, her favorite
subject, also has to do with the world, just as science can have rather a lot to do with
people; in fact, people and the world are so closely entwined as to be difficult to
extricate from one another. The graduate student, conceding nothing, pulled out all the
stops, including referring to the great many people she knew who thought as she did.
The teenager’s argument, for it really was one, however cloaked in query, continued to
be conveyed in this deft manner until the topic changed somewhat, along with the tenor
of the conversation, into a question of whether it is really possible to know, at such an
early age, whether one’s main interests lay in history and literature or the hard sciences.
The youngster momentarily sought the firmer grounding, usually a sure-fire argument
winner in this age of personal preference, the emotivism Alasdair MacIntyre criticizes,
by reiterating and underscoring the depth of her interest in matters of interpretation over
scientific empiricism, but this was a no go and she soon returned to her style of goodnatured
yet relentless questioning. It was a formidable modus operandi. Her stealth
would have put many a trained rhetorician to shame.

The 15-year-old unfurled a line of reasoning qua inquiry that ran something like this (I’m
paraphrasing for brevity’s sake): if she herself already knew that this was where her
greatest passion lay, and that the subject was simply pregnant with potential illumination
and exciting beyond one’s wildest imagination, wasn’t it okay to go ahead and choose
now, before her own inner judge and jury, securing a verdict that it was fine to cultivate a
vision of a future for herself that involved the liberal arts somehow and did not
necessarily involve math and science? Was it normal and healthy to have this
inclination? It seems to me she was wondering, as teenagers are wont to do, though
often regarding matters less academic, whether her desires were natural and legitimate.
She seemed to be referring to the allowances we tend either to allow or deprive
ourselves regarding the hopes and dreams that populate our hours and days; in the
case of the young, as we desperately await the chance to grow up and enter into adult
work life as equal partners.

The graduate student’s response interested and, I admit, surprised me by its certainty.
The years separating the conversation partners couldn’t have been much more than
eight or ten. Yet they didn’t seem close to seeing eye to eye on this, at least in that
sitting. For the older person, who had clearly now opted for role of advisor, insisted that
the advisee was way too young to cast her lot–that it was premature to bestow her
scholarly affections in this way. Look at me, she said. At your age I thought I would be a
nurse and “now I am a chemist.” When asked by her companion whether being a nurse
wasn’t also a profession, she was told it is “more of a trade.”

There are all sorts of points latent in this rich (for someone in hearing range) exchange,
and you will take from it what you will. But the one that stands out for my purposes is
that here I saw a young person, poised right on the brink of the birthday we often think
of as a kind of landmark or turning point, the onset of adulthood, asking piercing
questions of herself and others about her present and future.

It was impressive.

What was she getting at, really, with this line of questioning? Did she really think she
needed someone else’s permission to like some subjects and not others in high school?
Probably not. Did she want confirmation that it was okay not to like science? I doubt it,
as she seemed well aware the graduate student, given her own evident passion for her
own subject, would not provide anything of the sort. What were they arguing over and
why would neither budge?

Maybe it was just an obvious case of love of history coming head to head with love of
science. And the subtext might have been each subject’s relative merits in representing
and illuminating “the world.”

But also at stake seemed to be the meaning of childhood and adulthood and when and
where the one was to phase into the next. Unconsciously perhaps the fifteen-year-old
was thinking about what it meant to turn sixteen and the twenty-something
unconsciously reminding her that sixteen is not twenty something. We won’t know the
inner workings of the unconscious and conscious minds of these incredibly bright and
thoughtful individuals.

It reminded me of the Cat Stevens song from 1970, “Father and Son,” that non-duet duet in which the singer-songwriter sings both parts, expressing the tension in the intimate
generational bond, the father’s primordial instinct to protect coming up against the son’s
desire to be free–to get away from authority, yes, in the sixties’ generation gap sort of
way but also to be free to enter full adulthood in that small “r” republican way we study
so much in our field. The song seems to be suggesting that the son wants to be freed
up so he can follow his own dreams in order to find out what unique contribution he can
make. The father counsels patience and conformity:

“It’s not time to make a change,
Just relax, take it easy.
You’re still young, that’s your fault,
There’s so much you have to know.
Find a girl, settle down,
If you want you can marry.
Look at me, I am old, but I’m happy.

I was once like you are now, and I know that it’s not easy,
To be calm when you’ve found something going on.
But take your time, think a lot,
Why, think of everything you’ve got.
For you will still be here tomorrow, but your dreams may not.”

It seems to me that the conversation to which I was privy had elements of this same
tension. The dominant culture we have inherited, charted in too-painful detail by recent
historians and social critics, is one that supposedly holds youth in high regard. Yet, as
we know well, by placing youth on a pedestal for people of all ages, as the most
desirable state, it fosters a basic defeatism or nihilism, since our nature, the fortunate
ones among us, is to grow and to age. If we cannot muster enthusiasm for those things,
the very definition of what it is to be alive, can we about anything?

One of the things that is so glorious about bløgging, as I’ve spelled it elsewhere in order
to distinguish the elegant, deep, worthwhile, and meaningful variety from the not-so, is
that it is, in some cases anyway, turning the mainstream cult of youth on its head, and
along with it some other cultish practices such as a kind of professionalism that
discourages free thought and speech until such time as a person has all of the proper
passports, visas, degrees, tenure and promotion votes–until all of the working papers
are in order. At the foundation of today’s culture rests an unquestioned assumption–that
the longer we delay the onset of adulthood the better. This might be partially true
enough when we have an adult world of such dreary predictability as so much of ours
today, which is protected from any serious questioning by elephantine bureaucracies,
protracted credentialing systems, and narrow notions of professionalism that really
mean gatekeeping and homogenization. But it is sure to cut us off from the sustainable
practices and renewable intellectual energies we so badly need in order to marshal
forces against just such stultifying realities. Continually depleting the influx of the sorely
needed powers of new energy and fresh perspectives, all in the name of the protection
and extension of youth, has become a way of life. It never makes sense, but is
especially useless when there aren’t even very many credentialized, overprofessionalized
jobs to speak of.

I think high-quality blogging is one of the more exciting things to appear on the
intellectual horizon in recent years. In the case of the contribution of newer scholars,
especially in a time in which the terrible outlook for the future of our field and the
humanities generally is a given, this public intellectual activity has potentially farreaching
ramifications for the prospects of our field and profession–and, to a certain
degree, the state of intellectual, social, and political life more broadly.

I think a lot about that line, the father’s charge that you are young and it’s your fault. Of
course, that charge is unfair; it goes without saying. How young we are is precisely one
of the only things for which we cannot possibly be held responsible. Then I remember
the wisdom and yearning of that remarkable conversationalist, who turns sixteen this
very day, and I am forced to ask…or can we?

She was quietly insistent on winning the case for at least a hypothetical acceptance that
her scholarly passions and goals might be real ones in the long-term, as if presciently
aware that if she does not press and even win the case now in behalf of her visions of
contribution and fulfillment she might be here tomorrow but her dreams may not. It was
as if she couldn’t rest her case until the question was answered in the affirmative.

Happy Birthday, passionate young scholar, wherever you are. I have a feeling your
dreams will still be there with you, wherever you choose to go.