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Sunday, December 23, 2012

Jane Austen's Persuasion and Academic Freedom


Jane Austen's final novel, Persuasion, is my favourite.  I might think Pride and Prejudce the most skilfully built (though I only think this in certain moods); I might concede that Emma is an astute attempt at psychology that involves the reader in an interestingly conflicted relationship with the too-privileged Miss Woodhouse.  But Persuasion is the most visual of Austen's novels; its autumnal notes are fully present to our inner eyes.  It also has a rather startling heroine in Anne Eliott, a woman in her later twenties who, unlike so many of Austen's unfortunate heroines, decides to take her fate into her own hands.  It's the most egalitarian of Austen's novels; the gentlemen from the British Navy turn out to be more principled, more domestic, more sensitive and humane than the landowners who have been living beyond their means, have failed to play leading roles in their communities, and only seek social connections based on status.

But I would also argue that it's Austen's most philosophical novel.  Austen's work is firmly situated between the Enlightenment and Romantic eras:  although she wrote what appear to be courtship novels, she was more concerned with development of her heroine's abilility to think clearly about and judge her conduct, her preconceptions, and her society.  We see this most dramatically in Pride and Prejudice, when Elizabeth Bennet reads and re-reads Darcy's post-proposal letter, cross-referencing it with what she has observed and what she has ignored and what is probable in Darcy's account of Wickham's life and her family's unconventional (and not very proper) behaviour, finally uttering "Until this moment I have never known myself!"  In a way that also echoes Austen's engagement with the Enlightenment, the word "persuasion" recurs over and over in her last novel, allowing us to see persuasion in all its manifestations and to consider what role it plays in our civil lives. 

The first kind of persuasion Austen explores is a kind of top-down variety.  Seven years before the novel opens, Anne Eliott had been persuaded by Lady Russell to give up her engagement to Captain Wentworth, because he "had nothing but himself to recommend him."  Wentworth is convinced he will be successful--in Austen's time members of the Navy were awarded the spoils of the ships they took in Naval battles--and indeed he is.  But Lady Russell doesn't entirely believe in character alone as a predictor of success:  there must be some aristocratic or at least propertied family behind a young man to guarantee that he would get on in the world.  And of course Lady Russell's advice is wrong.

Indeed, if we shuffle through our memories of Austen's novels, we come up with a number of characters who believe they can use their powers of persuasion in this way.  Lady Catherine De Bourgh, with her tendency to look into Charlotte Collins's linen closets and advise on other ways of arranging them, is one such character.  Darcy's decision to persuade Bingley to give up Jane Bennet because she's not really attached to the latter is another example of this kind of persuasion gone wrong.  And of course, Emma could have been subtitled Persuasion, so disastrously flawed are Emma's efforts to arrange the lives of the people who live in her community.  Austen is suggesting, then, that when the powerful or the privileged think they know what is best for us, they risk, in Anne Elliot's words, giving "advice which is good or bad only as the event decides."  Those authoritarian persuaders often risk giving bad advice not only because humankind doesn't see the future particularly well, but also because it s difficult for any of us to comprehend another person's wishes, dreams, desires, or another's capabilities complete with secret strengths and weaknesses.

Yet persuasion is crucial to our social lives.  Those characters who are not "persuadable," like Anne's two sisters, Elizabeth Elliot and the hypochrondiacal Mary Musgrove,  and Anne's father, Sir Walter Elliot, are locked in their own world views.  These characters are treated satirically by Austen and shown to be individuals who are incapable of reality checks on either their finances, their social pretensions, or their beliefs about their own health.  We see these individuals locked inside their own perspectives and thus self-involved and unable to undertake their social obligations as members of the gentry.

This issue of being persuadable is most dramatically explored when Louisa Musgrove, who presents herself as someone of a determined mind not easily persuaded, decides against Wentworth's advice to take a second leap down the stairs at Lyme Regis onto the stony Cobb and falls, probably giving herself a concussion.  Anne Elliot wonders at the time if it occurred to Wentworth "to question the justness of his own previous opinion as to the universal felicity and advantage of firmness of character; and whether it might not strike him, that, like all other qualities of the mind, it should have its proportions and limits.  She thought t could scarcely escape him to feel that a persuadable temper might sometimes be as much in favour of happiness, as a very resolute character."

Like so many aspects of our social lives, persuasion works best as part of a conversation, not an edict.  When Anne attempts to persuade Captain Harville to moderate the grief he feels at the death of his betrothed, Fanny,  Anne talks to him about the literature they both love:  "He was evidently a young man of considerable taste in reading, though principally in poetry; and besides the persuasion of having given him at least an evening's indulgence in the discussion of subjects, which his usual companions had probably no concern in, she had the hope of being of real use to him in some suggestions as to the duty and benefit of struggling against affliction, which had naturally grown out of their conversation."  Such a conversation occurs again at the end of the novel in the life-changing moment when Anne realizes that her conversation with Harville's friend, Captain Benwick, about whether men or women have the most long-lasting feelings, is being heard by her former lover, Captain Wentworth, and she has a chance to speak to him indirectly about her feelings for him by suggesting that women continue to love long after it serves any purpose.  Benwick, of course, thinks that this is a quality of men:  as they have the hardiest bodies, so do they have the most long-lasting feelings.  Besides, he continues to argue, women's inconstancy is continually written about in "songs and proverbs." Anne argues that these songs and proverbs were written by men.  Benwick, frustrated, asks "How shall we prove any thing?"  Anne responds "We never shall.  We never can expect to prove any thing upon such a point.  It s a difference of opinion which does not admit of proof.  We each begin probably with a little bias towards our own sex, and upon that bias build every circumstance in favour of it which has occurred within our own circle."

Here Anne and Austen, far ahead of twenty-first century psychologists, observes the effects of "confirmation bias"  which my friend Katherine Arbuthnott has taught me about.  Because the world is complicated and at every turn we attempt to tame its chaos to make it manageable,  we tend to offer ourselves simplified narratives and explanations which feel comfortable to us because they accord with our beliefs.  As in Anne's explanation to Benwick, we choose to attend to or note only those cases which confirm our account.  This s probably not a significant problem in our daily lives; as Kahneman points out, most of the time we make "good enough" decisions based on our impressions.

But when we are making large-reaching and long-lasting decisions, "good enough" is not good enough.  Then we need to be aware of our confirmation bias and find ourselves a kind of devil's advocate who can see what we are inadvertently ignoring.  And here is where Jane Austen meets the academy and persuasion as a conversation meets academic freedom.

Canadian university administrators have recently reconsidered the issue of academic freedom, and have decided that the freedom of its teachers and researchers is limited to the scope of their scholarly expertise; we are not to question the administration's decisions unless we have the special knowledge that bears on the question at hand.  Not uncoincidentally, many of those university administrators now need to lead their institutions through a time of decreasing budgets.  This is precisely not the time to silence dissent, because one of those cranky and opinionated voices is going to see something the administrators themselves do not see in their quest for a coherent strategy.  As decisions are made about which programs to cut, which to support and develop, decisions about what the university of the future should look like in a society increasingly faced with more and more difficult decisions about scarce resources, social trends, new technologies, and the meanings of our lives, confirmation bias is going to become more, not less of a problem.  We simply can't afford at this critical moment to silence individuals who see beyond our coherent but simplified view of the future towards strategies that might be, in Austen's words, "good or bad only as the event decides."

We are seeing this trend in government, in the Saskatchewan government's refusal to consult widely about the community pastures, beyond those voices who will confirm the government's  already-made decision that "the market" is the most reliable means of determining what should happen to them.  We are also seeing this tendency in the Federal Government's decision to limit environmental protection at every turn.  If you are only looking at these issue through the lens that tells you that private ownership, growth in jobs, the development of natural resources--and thus the market--are the most important factors for deciding what to do with your land, you are not going to see what a species means to an ecosystem or understand what clean water contributes to peoples' lives.

I have worked in the academy for 36 years, and for much of that time have seen that one of its roles is to challenge the direction other parts of the culture is inadvertently--or advertently--taking.  Just as persuasion was central to the responsible conduct of Austen's characters, academic freedom is a central ballast for the wider culture, a way of questioning and perhaps moderating its values and goals through conversation.  Now is not the time to limit it.  In fact, it is self-defeating to do so.

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