Hagerman’s book talk: musings on life and the British Empire

At some point all college students face the same haunting, torturous questions: What am I going to do with my life? What is my true passion?

Associate professor of history, Chris Hagerman, found his answer quickly. As a freshman at the University of Toronto, he was instructed to select any book that caught his eye. Majoring in Classical studies and European history, he was especially drawn to a text about India from the 20th century.

That book, chosen at the time for its tolerable width, planted seeds of inspiration which have recently been harvested.

On Wed., Nov. 13, Hagerman hosted a public presentation and discussion of his newly published book Britain’s Imperial Muse: The Classics, Imperialism, and the Indian Empire, 1784–1914.

Stemming from his dissertation topic, Hagerman’s book investigates classical education, empiric origins and the classics’ international influence.

Using humorous Monty Python clips to illustrate his points, Hagerman explained the role of elite instruction during the 19th century. The British boarding school, Eton College, served such schooling on a silver plate to privileged young men. This classical education was often perceived as a mere “grammar grind,” serving a purely social rather than intellectual functions. The ability to conjugate in Latin was nothing more than a status symbol.

However, grueling study of such texts as Horace’s The Odes and Virgil’s The Aeneid made a resounding impact on the crusaders of colonization. Former Viceroy of British India G.N. Curzon once mentioned that Eton taught him the importance of his future position. His education demonstrated the living influence of Rome in imperialism.

Reading the classics evidently shaped impressionable students’ perception of the empire. The British credited Rome with the foundation of peace and civilization. They used this idea to justify their own “civilization” of India, modeling their brutal takeover after their Roman predecessors.

Of course, literature is far from stagnant, possessing the capacity to travel the world. British imperialists couldn’t bear to part with their classical books and so brought them to India during its occupation.

Statesman Mountstuart Elphinstone (blessed with an enviable name) was especially famous for carrying his books around in Punjab. Besides their recreational use, these transcripts helped colonists cope with and contextualize India and even offered secret knowledge. Coded messages were written in Greek script so that only those educated in a particular way could understand.

Elphinstone’s use of the classics also exemplifies their social importance. He once left a Greek book on his desk so Sir Arthur Wellesley would notice his first-class standing, reinforcing the collective British identity in India.

Despite its previous power, the dominance of a classical education has long since diminished. Though you can still study Greek or Latin today, Hagerman says, “there’s nothing in contemporary America that everybody shares that’s that profound.” Luckily, we don’t have to struggle through The Odes in order “to be somebody.”

Hagerman’s publication concludes an approximately 20-year endeavor, which he says is “a strange but nice feeling.” Writing and researching the initial dissertation occupied three and a half years, followed by four years of revision. All the while Hagerman pursued his doctorate in philosophy and history and was honored as an Outstanding Teacher of the Year.

Hagerman says, “the most exciting part of the process isn’t necessarily writing; it’s figuring out the answer to your question.” Surely this is a sentiment shared by college students everywhere as they strive to answer the question of their looming futures.

Having experienced that same struggle himself, Hagerman advises students to be honest with themselves and pursue what they enjoy most. He says contentedly that this method “doesn’t always make you rich, but it can make you pretty happy.”

Photo courtesy of: palgrave.com

About Emma Planet 18 Articles
Emma is a first-year at Albion College from Sterling Heights, Michigan. She is pursuing a double-major in English and Environmental Studies as well as a pre-law concentration. She uses her writing to raise awareness about environmental issues and adores pretzels paired with junior mints. Add her on Twitter: @PlanetEmma29

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