6 Things Everyone Loves to Study – Except the Experts (And What They Study Instead)
It’s inevitable that in whatever academic discipline you care to mention, there will be some topics that have popular appeal beyond the narrow confines of academia.
These are the subjects that, for one reason or another, have captured the imagination of the general public; but they’re usually not the subjects that those who are experts in their fields devote their time to studying. However, as we’re going to show you in this article, that doesn’t mean that the subjects occupying the minds of academics instead aren’t also worthy of the public interest that they’re usually denied. Here are some of the instances where the popular choice and the academic choice are remarkably different, and yet, both deserving of attention.
1. Jane Austen – Pride and Prejudice
It’s probably one of the most famous novels ever written, with a host of incredibly popular television and film adaptations widening its appeal still further. But Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice isn’t the novel that the experts generally agree is her best. That honour falls to Persuasion, which is perhaps the least known and least adapted of her works. It was the last of Jane Austen’s novels, completed the year before she died, and it’s very different from her previous works; Pride and Prejudice was one of her earlier novels, so it stands to reason that the oft-overlooked Persuasion should reflect Austen’s growth as a writer several novels later. Superficially similar to Northanger Abbey in that both novels are set partially in Georgian Bath (a social hub in Austen’s time; the author lived there herself from 1801 to 1805), the tone of Persuasion is curiously different even though the two novels were originally published together in a single volume. Harsher satire, a permeating feeling of regret coming from the novel’s heroine, Anne, and the recurring theme of the Royal Navy (in which two of Austen’s brothers were to work their way up the ranks to admiral); the atmosphere couldn’t be more different from that of the more popular Pride and Prejudice, which, though still acclaimed by literary critics, is generally a much lighter tale.
Think of the Romans, and one of the first things that will probably spring to mind is the iconic Colosseum – or, at a push, Gladiator, which is essentially the same thing. Although the experts do like studying the Colosseum – take this book by the great Professor Mary Beard, for example – there are other Roman amphitheatres and theatres elsewhere that are equally well preserved (if not more so) and worthy of study. The Colosseum is only the most famous surviving example of a Roman amphitheatre, and there are at least 230 extant (some of which are still in use). North Africa is a good place to look for Roman ruins; not many people realise this, but it was an important part of the Roman Empire and provided Rome with a large proportion of its grain and olive oil supply. The arid conditions in North Africa have provided the ideal conditions for the preservation of the ruins, spectacularly preserving entire cities in the desert. A less famous amphitheatre is the one at El Djem in Tunisia, which is a couple of centuries later than the Colosseum, and took inspiration from it but is not an exact model of it. Another is the theatre at Sabratha, in modern Libya, which is extraordinary because its scena – the structure providing the backdrop to the stage – is extremely well preserved.
3. Mozart – Eine Kleine Nachtmusik
You may not know that you know Mozart’s Eine Kleine Nachtmusik (a serenade, but literally “a little piece of night music”), but have a listen to this YouTube video and you’ll soon realise you do. It’s one of his most instantly recognisable pieces of music, and anyone who’s ever played in the school orchestra has probably played it. Perhaps surprisingly, it wasn’t published until long after Mozart’s death. However, although few if any experts would doubt the quality of the composition, it’s not one of the pieces of Mozart’s music that generally occupies scholars. Of Mozart’s huge number of compositions, the one that’s arguably been the subject of greatest attention from the experts is the enigmatic Requiem, thanks in part to the myths surrounding the circumstances of its composition.
The legend goes that Mozart was commissioned to write it by a shadowy caped figure and that an ailing Mozart, on his deathbed, had come to realise that he had been commissioned to write his own Requiem, for his own funeral; he died before it was finished, and it was completed by his students. Mysterious rumours surrounding the Requiem had initially been perpetuated by his widow, Constanze, who had wanted to keep it a secret that Mozart had died leaving the Requiem incomplete; she feared she wouldn’t be able to get the rest of the money for the work if it got out that it wasn’t Mozart who finished it. She then wanted to ensure that the work would continue to bring in money. The place of the Requiem myth in popular culture was cemented by the play Mozart and Salieri by Peter Shaffer and the film Amadeus, both of which played with the idea that Mozart was poisoned by jealous rival composer Antonio Salieri. While experts have concluded that this is highly unlikely to have been the case (the Requiem is now thought to have been anonymously commissioned by a local Count, whose wife had died, who probably wanted to pass off Mozart’s work as his own; Mozart – who had always been quite sickly – died of illness, possibly a fever of some kind), the Requiem is nonetheless the deserving object of a great deal of scholarly attention. Which parts were written by Mozart himself, and which by his students, who helped complete it? Did the students, notably Franz Xaver Sussmayr, really complete the Requiem using some now-lost scraps of paper on which Mozart had scribbled thematic ideas? Did Mozart really dictate the Requiem to his students from his death bed? The unanswered questions only serve to make the Requiem and its circumstances more intriguing.
Think of a geologist, and you’ll probably visualise someone picking their way through the rocks on the Jurassic Coast in Dorset, geological hammer in hand, on the hunt for fossils. But there’s an awful lot more to the work of a geologist than fossils, and although some do specialise in the amazing fossilised birds and other ancient creatures that you see in the news, a great many more turn their attention to a vital area of work that you might not have expected: oil. Many geologists are employed by mining and oil companies because their expertise allows these companies to locate oil reservoirs and valuable minerals. Fossils do come into oil exploration, because they’re used for biostratigraphy, helping geologists determine the environment in which a bed was laid – which in turn would help them determine whether there’s the potential that oil could exist in the area. These fossils probably aren’t the impressive ammonites and trilobites you probably imagine, though; they’re much smaller – microfossils – and they help geologists understand the underground structure, allowing them to ascertain whether there’s actually space underground in which oil may be present. This is because certain fossils represent lifeforms that were only alive for a relatively short period of time – and that means that geologists can be fairly sure that they will only be present at certain depths. Oil may not sound a particularly scintillating topic, but when you consider the widespread applications of crude oil and its derivatives, it’s not hard to see how important the geologist is – and how they don’t just roam beaches looking for pretty fossils for the mantelpiece!
Back to the Romans now, and we’re all fascinated by Pompeii and that fateful day in AD 79 when Vesuvius erupted and destroyed this thriving Roman town forever. It’s not surprising that its story has captured our imaginations; ash from the eruption buried the town, and in doing so, preserved a moment of Roman history. Frozen in time as its residents fought for their lives, Pompeii is truly captivating and offers us an incredible insight into 1st-century AD Roman life. What with the recreation of dead or dying Romans with the use of plaster casts, the letters of Pliny the Younger bringing the events of that night to life, and the fascinating survival of everyday objects such as loaves of bread and even a ‘Beware of the Dog’ mosaic, it’s little wonder that Pompeii has gained so much attention.
But it’s not the only complete surviving Roman town – and not even the only one that was destroyed by Vesuvius. Buried within the chaos of modern Naples you will find Herculaneum, a smaller but wealthier Roman settlement that met the same fate as Pompeii; it’s even better preserved. Having been buried deeper in ash than Pompeii, the upper storeys of its fine buildings also survive, giving one a much better impression of the town’s original splendour. Another place you can go to see a well-preserved Roman town is Ostia, half an hour outside Rome. This was originally Rome’s port town, lying at the mouth of the River Tiber, and it gives a fascinating insight into the commercial sides of Roman life. Unlike Pompeii and Herculaneum, it doesn’t give us a single moment of Roman life frozen in time; it wasn’t destroyed by the volcano, but rather fell into gradual disrepair (frequently being raided by Arab pirates after the fall of the Roman Empire) and got buried over time as nature reclaimed this extensive site. Among the treasures still to be seen here are Roman wine bars, a fishmonger, a bakery, an arcade of shops and merchants’ offices, and incredibly well-preserved apartment blocks and villas with magnificent frescoes and mosaics. As a tourist, it’s a more peaceful alternative to busy Pompeii, and for the experts, it’s a chance to learn more about the life of a Roman settlement and how it fared over several centuries.
6. Jack Vettriano – The Singing Butler
Scottish artist Jack Vettriano is best known for his work The Singing Butler, an evocative painting of a man and woman in evening dress dancing on a beach, with a butler and maid holding umbrellas over them. With the servants and mode of dress, the viewer has the impression that the scene takes place early in the 20th century; it’s a scene that wouldn’t look out of place in Downton Abbey (though it was painted in 1992, long before the Crawleys graced our screens). The image has become a best-seller in the UK, but in spite of its popularity with the general public, the art critics have a tendency to turn their noses up at it (and, indeed, at Vettriano’s work in general).
Among the aspects of The Singing Butler that the experts and art snobs criticise are the way in which it depicts the wind, the unrealistic pose of the dancers, uneven finishing and inconsistent lighting. The untrained eye doesn’t notice these things, meaning that the public is much more likely to look at it in the manner in which the artist intended; Vettriano himself describes it as an “uplifting fantasy”. In the sense of its place as a cultural icon, the painting has been compared with Grant Wood’s American Gothic, a portrait of an American farmer and his unmarried daughter, which has enjoyed a generally more favourable critical reception than the much later Singing Butler. Painted in 1930, and considered to be one of the iconic images of 20th century American art, the American Gothic came to represent the American pioneer spirit in the wake of the Great Depression.
So, as you can see, the things that end up being wildly popular in the public eye aren’t always the things the experts deem worthy of their attention (or they’re the things that the experts have studied inside out already!). However, that’s not to say that the popular things don’t have value, or that the things the experts love to study aren’t also worthy of more attention from the public than they currently receive.