Persis Charles

on leave spring semester

BA, Bryn Mawr College. MA, Brown University. PhD, Tufts University. Special interest in modern social and women’s history, with particular emphasis on British and French history. SLC, 1977–

Undergraduate Courses 2018-2019

History

Effort, Merit, Privilege

Open , Seminar—Fall

This course is a history of ideas and practices connected to the notion of advancement by merit rather than by inherited status or wealth. This comparatively modern idea is more complex than it may appear. We will focus on four epochs in which personal merit came increasingly to the fore. The first is the age of the French Revolution and Napoleon. With the cry, “The career open to talent,” and the abolition of feudal privilege, the revolutionaries helped to further the development of individualism, self-assertion, and personal ambition while, at the same time, implicating the citizen more and more deeply in the apparatus of the state. The second era will be 1859 to 1870 in Britain, from the publication of The Origin of Species and the anxieties that it provoked about the struggle for existence to the education act of 1870. That act, which followed a major liberalization of the suffrage, set popular education on its feet as a national project. We will study the right to vote and to get an education as the means by which the culture created marks of merit. We will also look at the struggles of those excluded, such as women and the very poor. The next period is the aftermath of the American Civil War, from Reconstruction to Jim Crow. The slaves—now free—what was to become of them? Should they compete in society at large, or was it their lot to be kept permanently in a kind of quasi-slavery without the right to vote or to go to school? The last period brings us up to the present with its many instances of meritocracy. The postwar foundation of the welfare state will be examined in the light of the many challenges to it, especially from the forces promoting inequality that coexist with unprecedented opportunities for talented individuals. We will look at the problems that this poses for education, wealth, and social well-being. This course is best for students with some previous exposure to history or the social sciences.

Faculty

Previous Courses

Good to Think With: The Culture of Food

Open , Seminar—Spring

Drawing on perspectives from the historical past and the present day, this course will focus on the social and cultural aspects of how we grow and consume food. We will explore issues such as how food production and presentation have changed over time and how different consumption patterns have affected identity and sociability. An example of this would be the rivalry between wheat and corn that dogged world civilization for centuries, influencing issues such as how bread was made, what constituted the best diet for convicts, and of what material communion wafers should be made. We will look at how authors shape narratives about food, social change, conflict, and accommodation. Subjects of study will include the early modern trade in coffee, tea, and spices; the voyages to the New World and the attendant disruptions of various populations; the effects of the French Revolution; the Irish potato famine; and Hitler’s and Stalin’s policies of imposing famine on conquered peoples. We will examine the role of science and modernity in creating the agricultural systems that provide us with our food. This will include a look at agribusiness, its friends and enemies, and various possible alternatives to it. The problem posed by the overabundance of food and food wastage will be addressed.

Faculty

Leisure and Danger

Sophomore and above , Seminar—Year

The interaction between work and play has taken various forms in history. Our project in this course will be to examine the changes and continuities in the idea of leisure. Beginning in early modern Europe, we will trace the concept up to the present—concentrating on Europe and America and reflecting on subjects such as travel and the pursuit of the exotic and the realm of nature, the theatrical, consumerism, luxury, and display. In the 19th century, leisure became democratized, and an anxious debate grew louder. What were the implications of making leisure available to masses of people? From romance novels to cheap liquor, from shopping to the cinema, new avenues of leisure aroused both fear and excitement. Moralists felt a need to police both public and private space and to reassert the primacy of work, thrift, and duty. We will study them and the various forms of accommodations and resistance that met their efforts. Class, ethnicity, gender, and geography all acted to structure people’s access to leisure. We will look at struggles over race, class, gender, and popular culture; the way certain groups became designated as providers of entertainment; and how certain locations were created as places of pleasure. To set the terms of the debate, we will begin with some 18th-century readings about the theatre and the market, the salon and the court, the changing modern household, bourgeois and aristocratic, slave quarters, automobiles, bars, and garden suburbs. Readings will include the work of Montesquieu, Rousseau, Charlotte Brontë, Dickens, Wilde, and Fitzgerald. In addition, we will read works of nonfiction that show how leisure helped to create new forms of subjectivity and interiority. Students will be encouraged to work on conference topics linking leisure to a variety of subjects such as childhood and education, the construction of racial identities, or the changing nature of parenthood as birth control became more and more widely available, to name just a few areas. Potentially, this course—through the study of complex oppositions such as need and desire, purpose and aimlessness, the necessary and gratuitous—can give us a sense of the dizzying questions about life’s very meaning that present themselves when we aim at a life of leisure.

Faculty

First-Year Studies: Leisure and Danger in History and Literature

Open , FYS

The interaction between work and play has taken various forms in history. Our project in this course will be to examine the changes and continuities in the idea of leisure. Beginning in early modern Europe, we will trace the concept up to the present—concentrating on Europe and America and reflecting on subjects such as travel and the pursuit of the exotic, theatricality, consumerism, luxury, and display. In the 19th century, leisure became democratized, and an anxious debate grew louder. What were the implications of making leisure available to masses of people? From romance novels to cheap liquor, from shopping to the cinema, new avenues of leisure aroused both fear and excitement. Moralists felt a need to police both public and private space and to reassert the primacy of work, thrift, and duty. We will study them and the various forms of accommodations and resistance that met their efforts. Class, ethnicity, gender, and geography all acted to structure people’s access to leisure. We will look at struggles over race, gender, and popular culture; the way certain groups became designated as providers of entertainment; or how certain locations were created as places of pleasure. To set the terms of the debate, we will begin with some 18th-century readings about the theatre and the market, the salon and the court. Readings will include work of Montesquieu, Flaubert, Wilde, Wharton, George Eliot, and Fitzgerald. In addition, we will read works of nonfiction that show how leisure helped to create new forms of subjectivity and interiority. Students will be encouraged to work on conference topics linking leisure to a variety of subjects such as childhood and education, the construction of racial identities, or the changing nature of parenthood as birth control became more and more widely available, to name just a few areas. Potentially, this course—through the study of complex oppositions such as need and desire, purpose and aimlessness, the necessary and gratuitous—can give us a sense of the dizzying questions about life’s very meaning that present themselves when we aim at a life of leisure.

Faculty