Oberlin-in-London Blogs

Graveyards etc
››› March 19, 2012 | Posted By David Tisel '13

One thing that I have loved about Oberlin is how interdisciplinary your studies can be. This program is the best example of that. Although everything we're doing is either explicitly or loosely related to class or politics (or gender or race), we've gone to plays, read novels, gone on walking tours, gone to art exhibits, and visited museums, as well as the typical social sciency stuff of reading academic books and discussing them in a classroom. A great illustration of this was when Tracy Chevalier, author of Falling Angels (which we read in class) and Girl with a Pearl Earring, took us on a walking tour of Highgate Cemetery in North London. Falling Angels is about two middle-class families at the turn of the 20th century in London with a cultural divide. One of the families is clinging to the old Victorian and Anglican church customs and the other is embracing rationalism and modernity. Maude Coleman, of the latter family, joins the suffragette movement and dies in the struggle. Besides the politics in the book, there's a theme of death and remembrance, and much of the action in the book takes place in Highgate Cemetery.

So here we were in this old Victorian cemetery that was mostly overgrown and generally closed to the public, having this world-famous author (who went to Oberlin) tell us about these huge mausoleums and tombs that the rich families in Victorian London built for their dead. We talked with her about the suffragettes, about the class basis for the movement, and about her time on the Oberlin London program years ago.

As a class, we also went to this play called The Pitmen Painters which I highly recommend to anyone in London or who is planning on coming to London some time in the near future. It's about the Ashington group of miners in the 1930s who took a painting class through their union's educational program. The play did such a great job of showing the complicated class issues in both education and art. At first, the miners just wanted to be able to "look at a painting and understand what it means," and were resistant to the teacher's attempts to have them come up with their own interpretations. They felt like there was some truth out there that other people knew that they just didn't know because they hadn't been educated because they had to go into the mines at age 10. It wasn't until they themselves painted for a few weeks that they started to feel comfortable looking at a painting and talking about it. And they started to paint some great stuff, and got pretty famous (it was a true story, check this out).

Anyway, the play did a better job of exploring some of the class issues in education and art than I think any academic book could have done. You can come up with phrases like "bourgeois monopoly on legitimate artistic expression," but ultimately that doesn't mean as much as seeing it in the context of a human story onstage. That's why it's so cool that we're "studying" class by experiencing it in all these ways.

We took a trip to South Shields, next to Newcastle and Sunderland on the Tyne river. It's a really economically depressed area by English standards, with huge numbers of unemployed and huge numbers of people on government benefits. There aren't many jobs up there after the coal pit closures, which were the conclusion of the dramatic miners' strike of 1984-85. We met with Marc's anarchist miner friend, Dave Douglass, and he took us to a miners' union memorial lecture and then the after party at the trades pub in Barnsley. There we met Ann Scargill and Betty Cook, who were leaders in the Women Against Pit Closures movement during the strike. It was inspiring to hear them talk about their experiences during the strike, and about how they divorced their husbands after the strike. They said it was the best thing they ever did. Being involved in that political action was empowering, and afterwards, when their husbands wanted them to "go back" to how they were before the strike, they said, "screw you." I mean that's a bit of an oversimplification obviously, but I just remember how animated Betty's eyes were when she talked about all of the shenanigans they got into during the strike, about how happy she was to find that new freedom, and how she was unwilling to give it up. Marc got a little emotional when Lauren, Arielle, Robin, and Gracy got up on stage with the two women and sang the Women Against Pit Closures anthem, "We are the Women of the Working Class."

Something that I've known for awhile but am learning again is that the best way to learn is through relationships. I'm learning from my classmates and professor, but also from all of these amazing people we're meeting. In that way, this is really an Oberlin program.

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