Cambridge in the Classroom

Darryl Campbell’s essay on Orwell and the Tea Party has me thinking about the way in which books are taught in both secondary and university classrooms. Campbell describes how teaching Orwell’s books out of the context of the author, and in the context of the (adolescent) reader, breaks the reader’s connection to Orwell’s intent and has led to misunderstanding of Orwell’s themes by both the left and right wing. (The political centre is notably absent from Campbell’s analysis, perhaps because Orwell’s work seems to come up in the context of hyperbole, which has more appeal to activists than the uncommitted or moderate.)

Campbell’s essay instantly reminded me of the Cambridge School methodology. Emphasizing “ideas in context” (now the name of historical series by Cambridge University Press) the Cambridge School methodology interprets writing through linguistic analysis and historical context. Thus, reading an original work of philosophy or literature, and truly understanding it, requires examining the book in the context of the ideas in place at the time of its writing. A Cambridge School approach would not Salingerize Orwell by appealing to the identity of an adolescent reader; instead, as Campbell writes, the authors who influenced Orwell would be referenced as well as the political events and Orwell’s own biography.

What strikes me is that the Cambridge School is nicely consonant with interdisciplinary studies, which are the current vogue as traditional departments of literature and philosophy are phased out in favor of regional and cultural studies (such as Middle Eastern Studies, Arab Studies, Russian Studies, etc.). The question then is: does the Cambridge School have utility in secondary and/or undergraduate classrooms?

Your average offering from the “Ideas in Context” series is readable only by a few experts in the field; they are written for a select audience with expertise in the subject area and are more challenging than most undergraduates would be able to deal with, with the exception of some gifted final year students. Ideas in Context books are mainly useful to postgraduate students and faculty. So the Cambridge School’s flagship series of books themselves are of only limited use in undergraduate classrooms, and none at all in secondary education.

The value of the Cambridge School approach thus needs to be delivered to educators themselves, so that they can adapt the Cambridge School’s insights in their own way. History departments with expertise in the Cambridge School approach would be well-advised to reach out to education departments in their respective universities in order to discuss ways in which they can help train teachers of history and literature. They might also be of assistance in helping educational institutions and governments to design curricula that effectively teach complex ideas without dumbing them down by allowing the shortcut of appealing to one’s own experience rather than that of the author’s.

What is a humanist education good for? For one, it is good for teaching a person how to empathize with another on an intellectual level rather than an emotional one. Human interaction involves not only empathizing with another person’s feelings but also empathizing with their ideas. Such everyday tasks as workplace communication and personal conflict resolution require a well-developed sense of empathy for ideas, because people are motivated by ideas just as they are by feelings. An educational approach using the Cambridge School would help students develop this skill, a life skill that will not create jobs but will make existing jobs better.


About Daniel Clinkman

I recently completed my PhD in History at the University of Edinburgh. My academic interest is in the transition from feudalism to liberalism in early modern Britain and its empire. My non-academic interests include public policy, political thought, international politics, social institutions, and travel. I grew up near Boston before attending the American University in Washington, DC. I now live in the San Francisco Bay Area. Follow me @dclinkman on Twitter.
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