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Gordon Hirsch: Making the Case

A retiring Victorian scholar argues for the empathy and ambiguity learned via literature
August 24, 2015
Retiring Professor Gordon Hirsch

"There's a value in understanding other cultures, other historical periods, other peoples," Professor Gordon Hirsch declares, relaxed at his desk in a book-lined, tidy Lind Hall office. "You can acquire a breadth and analytical ability by reading things not just from your own time and not just from people who think exactly the way you do."

A Victorian scholar—most recently as a leader in the reconsideration and revaluation of Robert Louis Stevenson, Hirsch has also been a regular teacher of Shakespeare. He enjoys the open-endedness of Shakespeare's plays, he says, which can lead to rich classroom debates about politics, gender, family, ethics, and revenge.

Encouraging student discussion was a lower priority when Hirsch joined the department in 1970. "The whole style of teaching has changed," he notes approvingly, "from formal lecture-style primarily to more interactive discussions."

At the same time, and perhaps not coincidentally, our understanding of classic texts has shifted. "When I was a student myself, and when I began teaching here," Hirsch recalls, "there was a very traditional emphasis--people often viewed Shakespearean tragedy as depicting a world that was highly structured and organized, where various kinds of disorder were eradicated and superseded." He laughs. "And now we teach just the opposite: Shakespeare's world is messy and complicated, and he, in an amazingly self-conscious way, doesn't allow the dissonances and the conflicts to disappear.

"Victorian literature isn't all that different," Hirsch continues. "It's fascinating the way the end of a George Eliot novel, to take a 19th-century writer, doesn't reach much of a resolution either." There isn't a neat solution offered to the problem of how a female character or an idealistic male fits into that world, given the limitations that society places on its young people. "That's the best material," he enthuses. "I love to teach it, whether it's Victorian fiction or Shakespeare."

Hirsch says he'll miss debating complicated ideas in the classroom and assisting in students' development. From 1989 to 2000, he was the director of the Honors Program in the College of Liberal Arts and had "a great deal of fun" working with students and helping them compete for national scholarships. Other aspects of the job may be more cheerfully set aside: "I don't think I'll miss being obliged to reread a long Victorian novel deep into the night because I'm going to teach it the next day," he admits with a rueful smile. "The preparation is something I can say goodbye to."

He hasn't given up on the era: One of his post-retirement goals is reading Victorian fiction he hasn't had time to explore. He doesn't know yet if he'll continue to write about Stevenson, an author he says had been long underestimated as merely a children's and adventure story writer. Over the past two decades, Professor Hirsch mostly wrote Stevenson criticism—in addition to helping found (and serving on the Editorial Board for) The Journal of Stevenson Studies—in order to address Stevenson's overlooked engagement with modern, difficult questions.

He definitely plans on swimming and traveling more. The Twin Cities' thriving theater, art, and music scenes will keep him a Minnesotan. "I went to one of the best concerts I've ever seen last night," he describes animatedly. "Jeremy Denk was playing piano with the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra, performing two Bach concerti—music that I'm very familiar with from recordings. And it was astoundingly moving; I was in tears. I'd never heard them in live performance before."

The arts and humanities promote not only intellectual understanding but empathy, he argues. With drama and fiction, for example, "we learn to put ourselves in someone else's place. It's really the virtue of the humanities, I think, to teach that identification with another person's or another culture's point of view."

"In this time when everything that politicians seem to find of value is science, technology, engineering, and math, we have to make that case to our students and to our politicians, to our graduates and to our college administrators." He leans forward, his face alight. "We have to make that case."

Profesor Hirsch Recommends . . .

I did read a very interesting book by Sandra Peterson, in the Philosophy department. Socrates and Philosophy in the Dialogues of Plato is a book of philosophy. But for me it was like reading a literary text. She makes a case that when you read Plato's Republic and other texts by Socrates, you should read it as if it's fiction (although she wouldn't put it that way). When Socrates makes an argument, don't assume that it necessarily articulates Socrates' own position. Socrates is of course a teacher, and he has his school. He may be expressing a position that represents something that his auditors could understand and respond to, an argument that's based on their assumptions and that responds to them, in an effort to move forward. I thought it was a wonderful model of teaching: what do they need to know, what might they learn from this text, recognizing their assumptions—"I understand what you're saying, but here's another way."
I took some philosophy in college, and I never thought of it as fun to read. But to find a philosopher who's treating philosophy as a literary text, with all the tricks and shenanigans and deceptions of a novel: Socrates and Plato and his collocuters become literary characters! It's fascinating and fun.