I remem­ber a pro­fes­sor in col­lege – in despair at Zami, or Stone Butch Blues, being advanced as lit­er­ary canon – plain­tive­ly say­ing that it was his under­stand­ing that a prop­er left­ist rev­o­lu­tion would bring the great works of the West to the mass­es, not turn aside from them entirely.

I won­der about this every time I put Ver­sailles in front of my stu­dents. Should land­scapes be inher­it­ed? Should they be sub­ject to an inher­i­tance tax, taxed for what they have done wrong? It is, I think, a real dif­fi­cul­ty to pro­pose to fur­ther, in the exam­ples we present, a pro­fes­sion­al iden­ti­ty so thor­ough­ly root­ed in evils, from the evil labor rela­tions built into most great estates all the way down to its dis­dain for its peren­ni­al work­ing oth­er, the landscaper. 

The pecu­liar­i­ty, the minor­i­ty of land­scape archi­tec­ture; the harsh mis­match between its self-regard and its obscu­ri­ty; all this has at least the ben­e­fit that it caus­es us to think crit­i­cal­ly and at length about our pro­fes­sion­al self-def­i­n­i­tion. (I start to sus­pect that in fact it attracts the ambiva­lent and the irres­olute.) If pro­fes­sions are bun­dles of sticks, sep­a­rate duties and inter­ests bound togeth­er in one name, land­scape is com­posed of stray leav­ings from culture’s back lot – a lumpy log, a good limb or two, a few twigs. 

We might well choose to rearrange and restock the bun­dle we pass on. And in the zero-sum run of years that con­sti­tutes an ini­tial edu­ca­tion in land­scape, this means that cer­tain places must be struck and oth­ers added in.

A stu­dent asked me once point-blank if the depart­ment had a com­mit­ment to teach­ing diverse land­scapes equal to that of its stat­ed com­mit­ment to hire diverse fac­ul­ty. It was tough to answer. One hand, yes, I try to teach this, but I can only teach what has been writ­ten about; what has been writ­ten about is what has been accept­ed or assim­i­lat­ed in the eyes of the pro­fes­sion. That means that it takes the work of a com­mu­ni­ty in con­ver­sa­tion to change the tra­di­tion. You can see the poten­tial in recent work like John Beardsley’s edit­ed vol­ume Cul­tur­al Land­scape Her­itage in Sub-Saha­ran Africa which pro­pos­es addi­tions so sub­stan­tial as to not only dis­place more famil­iar places, but to actu­al­ly dis­lo­cate how we think of land­scape-mak­ing in the first place. I’m think­ing specif­i­cal­ly of the fear­ful groves in Ikem Stan­ley Okoye’s Good Bush, Bad Bush.”

Yes, we lose some­thing sub­stan­tial when, as the cur­ricu­lum diver­si­fies, Ver­sailles becomes the sole rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the Baroque land­scape that a stu­dent meets with. As whole tra­di­tions shrink to exem­plars we stand to lose the abil­i­ty to reck­on between across dif­fer­ent rep­re­sen­ta­tives of a tradition. 

First and fore­most, though, in chang­ing the tra­di­tion of edu­ca­tion we are giv­en, we exert con­scious respon­si­bil­i­ty over the mod­el of the world we would like our stu­dents to be work­ing with. If we do it right, we will even have them in ago­nies of their own when it comes time to pass on their own notions of what the tra­di­tions are. 

(April 2017)