Two Inches off the Ground
by Mark English
Sorting through some old papers, I came across a letter from John Spencer Hill who taught a Master’s course on Romanticism that I took. The letter had been written not long after his return to Canada to take up a position at the University of Ottawa. He would have been in his mid-to-late thirties and he was very upbeat and full of enthusiasm for his job and praise for his colleagues. (In fact, this praise constituted an implicit criticism of his former colleagues; he had not been particularly happy in his previous position.)
I googled his name to see what he was up to these days. Details for his courses for what looked like the following semester at the University of Ottawa came up. Only they were not for the following semester at all. These notes – frozen in time – were well over a decade old. John Hill, I realized, was dead.
I want to set out here a few recollections of the man, with some thoughts on recent changes in higher education.
I had known that he had a bit of a heart problem, but he had always seemed very energetic and fit. He played tennis. And he had planned out the books he was going to write. The final one was going to be on John’s Gospel, treated as a literary rather than a religious text. He made no secret of his personal Platonism, even if his assertion that he habitually walked two inches above the ground derives from Zen Buddhist sources (via D.T. Suzuki).
His course on Romanticism was probably the most pleasant and enjoyable course I have ever taken. This had a lot to do with his personality (very open and generous) but also with his level of expertise. He was at that time already a recognized authority on the English Romantics, and had published a number of books including The Romantic Imagination, an annotated collection of primary documents. His book A Coleridge Companion is still highly regarded.
After the late-afternoon seminars, I would often walk home with him. His house was not far from the campus. He had a wife and children, and you could usually hear the raucous sounds of play or children’s television as we bid each other farewell by the front gate.
Of an evening he liked to watch TV himself – especially police/detective dramas – as an alternative (as he put it) to going into town and smashing department store windows. There were obviously sources of stress in his life, but our conversations, though often personal, were always light and happy.
Niceness can be bland if it is unadulterated. John’s niceness was palpable but, fortunately, it was not unadulterated.
I could mention his intellectual elitism, for example. Some may see this as a serious flaw, but I don’t. He was an elitist in that he had a strong sense of intellectual values, and recognized that the sort of knowledge he was in the business of promoting and fostering was only ever going to be grasped and appreciated by a small minority.
But he was not a social elitist or a snob, and he was repulsed by any forms of elitism which rate worth merely according to external criteria.
In this connection, he told a revealing anecdote about an exchange he had with Stanley Fish. He had encountered Fish – an established and quite famous author and academic – at some kind of social-academic gathering. Hill was a graduate student at the time. Apparently he was conversing quite satisfactorily with the Great Man until the latter realized that Hill was enrolled as a Master’s rather than as a PhD student. (Hill completed a Master’s at Queen’s University, Kingston, Ontario, before going on to the University of Toronto for his PhD.) At that point in the conversation, Fish abruptly turned away to seek out someone more worthy of his time. This snub clearly made an impact on Hill. He was not the gossipy or resentful type, and he was obviously meaning to make a serious (moral?) point.
I doubt that his telling of the story was motivated by disapproval of Fish’s opinions. Though Hill did not share Fish’s worldview or his radical relativism, I never had the sense that he was bothered by differing opinions. And I’m sure that he would have sided with Fish on a number of important topics and issues. In fact, you could see these two very different men as having certain old-fashioned, scholarly values in common. They were both gifted teachers who shared a love of and respect for language as well as a strong commitment to freedom of speech. These common causes and preoccupations would – given the general drift of the culture – have become increasingly evident over time, and I’d like to think that Hill made his peace with Fish in later years. There would have been opportunities: their paths almost certainly would have crossed again.
John and I never talked much about politics, but I have since become interested in the way Romantic and idealist commitments play into the broader social and political sphere. On the one hand, you can see Romanticism as a revolutionary doctrine in the Jacobin sense. But Romantics influenced by the aesthetics of idealism tended to reject egalitarianism and plebiscitary forms of governance in favor of elitist forms. Such views were very common on the Continent. Names that come immediately to mind are Ernest Renan and Hippolyte Taine in France, and Benedetto Croce in Italy. But – apart from radical leftists – very few European intellectuals of the time were not influenced by this tradition of thought.
I suspect Hill would have been very sympathetic to the general outlook of some of these continental European elitist liberals. That their hopes to replace traditional ideas of aristocracy based on birth with a meritocratic system based on intellectual and moral achievement were doomed to be disappointed does not entirely extinguish the appeal of their ideas.
He was not really a political animal, however. All he wanted, I think, was a congenial space in which to work through, discuss and teach a set of ideas and values tracing back to Plato which have been – more so during certain periods than others – a leitmotif and driving force of European intellectual and cultural history.
My interactions with John Hill occurred at a time of rapid change in the academic climate but prior to the politicization of English departments. At that time you would still find a wide variety of political and social opinion amongst academics, and generally these views were kept private. Scholarly values still held sway.
In fact, I doubt – despite his natural gift for teaching – that Hill could or would have pursued the vocation he did in today’s academic environment. Interestingly, he had begun writing crime fiction and had published two novels before his untimely death. (He is holding a Sherlock Holmes-style pipe in one of the two (very low-res) photographs of him available on the internet.)
A general point I want to raise here relates to what I see as the artificiality and arbitrariness of many (but not all) lines of demarcation between academic disciplines within the humanities.
Hill’s course was conducted within the English department and was ostensibly on Romantic poetry. But his interests (like mine) were broadly intellectual and historical and focused more on ideas than on specifically literary or stylistic questions. The two research papers I wrote for that course were really in the areas of aesthetics and the history of ideas (and focused mainly on Coleridge’s prose writings).
Over the years, the authors of books and papers on thinkers of the past and intellectual history more generally have been based in various academic departments: history, politics/political science, philosophy, classics, English, other modern language departments, etc.. As some of these and other traditional discipline areas face existential threats, opportunities arise for new structures and alliances. I am inclined to think that, as a label, intellectual history might be quite useful, especially as an umbrella term, encompassing as it does considerable parts of mainstream history as well as historical and biographical aspects of the various sciences, mainstream philosophy, aesthetics, and political and social theory. I will not make specific suggestions here, however, beyond observing that new alignments are inevitable in the face of current (and likely future) funding constraints; and also that competition for space in the curriculum, coupled with the current emphasis on skills-based disciplines, means that any attempts to introduce new (or to reinstate older) non-practical, stand-alone disciplines have little chance of success.
In the end, perhaps disciplinary (or departmental) labels don’t matter that much. It does matter, however, that various kinds of traditional scholarship be kept alive.
We need to recognize that scientific and technical knowledge is vitally – and even, perhaps, increasingly – important, for all sorts of reasons. But this kind of knowledge is not enough. There is also a need for other kinds of knowledge, specifically knowledge that is socially and historically based. We need to have knowledge of various protocols, a good grasp of our native language, and a degree of practical wisdom. We also need to have a sound understanding of where we came from, socially and culturally speaking, if we aspire to any form of intellectual maturity. Only then will we have a realistic sense of what we are and what we may become.
As things stand, basic practical skills relating to language and communication are not being well or effectively taught, except to a small minority. And the intellectual disciplines devoted to uncovering and understanding various aspects of our cultural past are fighting for their very existence. If they go, we are (I would suggest) entirely at the mercy of the social and political fads and fashions which constitute such a large component of what passes for contemporary Western culture.