Historiography

I wanted the mind of a scholar, but it seemed that Dr. Kerry saw in me the mind of a roofer. The other students belonged in a library; I belonged in a crane.

The first week passed in a blur of lectures. In the second week, every student was assigned a supervisor to guide their research. My supervisor, I learned, was the eminent Professor Jonathan Steinberg, a former vice-master of Cambridge College, who was much celebrated for his writings on the Holocaust.

My first meeting with Professor Steinberg took place a few days later. I waited at the porter's lodge until a thin man appeared and, producing a set of heavy keys, unlocked a wooden door set into the stone. I followed him up a spiral staircase and into the clock tower itself, where there was a well-lit room with simple furnishings: two chairs and a wooden table.

I could hear the blood pounding behind my ears as I sat down. Professor Steinberg was in his seventies but I would not have described him as an old man. He was lithe, and his eyes moved about the room with probing energy. his speech was measured and fluid.

"I am Professor Steinberg," he said. "What would you like to read?"

I mumbled something about historiography. I had decided to study not history, but historians. I suppose my interest came from the sense of groundlessness I'd felt since learning about the Holocaust and the civil rights movement -- since realizing that what a person knows about the past is limited, and will always be limited, to what they are told by others. I knew what it was to have a misconception corrected -- a misconception of such magnitude that shifting it shifted the world. Now I needed to understand how the great gatekeepers of history had come to terms with their own ignorance and partiality. I thought if I could accept that what they had written was not absolute but was the result of a biased process of conversation and revision, maybe I could reconcile myself with the fact that the history most people agreed upon was not the history I had been taught. Dad could be wrong, and the great historians Carlyle and Macaulay and Trevelyan could be wrong, but from the ashes of their dispute I could construct a world to live in. In knowing the ground was not ground at all, I hoped I could stand on it.

I doubt I managed to communicate any of this. When I finished talking, Professor Steinberg eyed me for a moment, then said, "Tell me about your education. Where did you attend school?"

The air was immediately sucked out of the room.

"I grew up in Idaho," I said.

"And you attended school there?"

It occurs to me in retrospect that someone might have told Professor Steinberg about me, perhaps Dr. Kerry. Or perhaps he perceived that I was avoiding his question, and that made him curious. Whatever the reason, he wasn't satisfied until I admitted that I'd never been to school.

"How marvelous," he said, smiling. It's as if I've stepped into Shaw's Pygmalion."

-- Tara Westover, Educated: A Memoir (New York: Random House, 2018).

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