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Sol Serrano: The Hands-on Historian

Macarena Ponce de León
Directora del Museo Histórico Nacional Fotografías: Pablo Izquierdo Santiago, Chile. Entrevista Á - N.2

Sol Serrano, Chile’s 2018 National History Award winner, has dedicated her life to her chosen field—history—by way of exemplar teaching and thorough original research. In her pedagogy and in her writing, she has shown both personal focus and an inarguable talent for teamwork. Her most recent book, El liceo (“High School”), analyzes the role said educational system has played in our society, and takes a critical look at its current practices.

This interview, which opens with questions about the study history and closes on a more personal and introspective note, was conducted by one of her closest students and collaborators.

I met Professor Sol Serrano for the first time in 1993, as a history student at the University of Chile (UC). I probably wasn’t even 22 years-old. I had heard of her because the “Serrano sisters” had been a topic of conversation in my childhood home. They were famous for three things: being smart, being interesting, and being numerous. They stood out because they were bougie, but left-wing. In the ‘70s, that was weird, or at least according to my dad it was weird. Sol was the historian of the sisters, and the smartest of the lot, at least according to my mom.

As for me, I had read a few of her columns in Hoy magazine, knew she had attended Yale, gotten a doctorate with honors from the UC, and published a thesis called “University and Nation”. My class with her was about illiteracy and politics. The number of students it had was miniscule. We read French historiography by the likes of Francois Furet and Jacques Ozuf. We read about the French Revolution. We read Jürgen Habermas and Francois Xavier Guerra. We read about the printing press, typesetting, Andrés Bello, and the how the modern state came to be. Never before in my studies had I been interested in education viewed from a historical perspective. Nor had I ever related it to individual rights, the development of social consciousness, or its impact on public life. Suddenly it all made sense—and that class made a historian out of me.

Sol Serrano did not turn out to be the hippie I had imagined. Instead, she was elegant, distinguished, very serious—even a bit distant. She demanded results, and didn’t tolerate equivocation, but mistakes and even just not knowing were both acceptable. Her points of view were backed by logic, and her way of reasoning betrayed a real sense of intuition, creativity, and, frankly, eccentricity. She could juggle so many different concepts that seemed unrelated, but that put together, helped make sense of what had before seemed incomprehensible. In sum, she was a brilliant professor and a true researcher.

Years later, I found out that she wasn’t a leftist either.

I will never forget the afternoon when she said that when she grew up, she wanted to be crazy. I was taken aback by how casually she talked about growing old, discussing it freely, without fear. She had laughed as she’d said it, the same way the public persona of Sol Serrano always laughs. All the same, that time, what stood out was the wording and the tone, the way she was talking about herself as a “crazy lady”.

How eccentric is Sol Serrano, really?

Just a little, nothing glaring, really. It really shines in the way I am both very plugged into the day-to-day world and so outside of it. For me, being eccentric would mean changing the kinds of time in my life and daring to see the present as a radical culmination of them, instead of just as the default, all-consuming speed of existence. It’s not that easy. Time is not a physical thing, it is a relationship, as Norbert Elias would say. I would love to live in time’s different layers. You are quite sharp, and you define it better than me. In a nutshell, eccentricity is a project that aims to set one free from the future, and the present is the time that said project operates in.

Is having been a historian in the ‘70s in Chile evidence of madness?

No, not at all. A lot of us studied history. Two of my UC professors were Carmen Castillo and Lucía Santa Cruz. What wasn’t as common was my own obsession with research—a product of my somewhat ill-defined, yet all the same existentially important doubts and interests. Lucía played a big role in that. History through rote memorization always struck me as alienating. Ideological history, which back then reigned supreme, struck me as predictable and—these days I have the guts to say it—so unappealing!

Does being crazy mean being free?

Yes, hopefully, free from myself.

Does it mean being original?

I would have liked to have been more original. To have been more sure of myself and taken risks with hypotheses, mixed styles and genres, and mixed eras and topics. But I’m rigid. My saving grace is my profound empathy for the people and problems I discover through my research. Another saving grace has been my love of archives, which includes a love for manuscripts, for calligraphy, and for quite possibly being the first person to have read a paper after it was turned in. Those are the experiences that get my historical imagination going. I haven’t been original, but at least I haven’t been conventional.

Does one need to grow old to go crazy? To be free?

For me, yes. I still do all the same things I did when I was younger, but now, I am finally free from the weight and obligations of the future. If my health allows for it, I’d like to die working, as a kind of contemplative act—and a productive one. Old age is a time of gratitude too, because you have lived long enough to endure plenty of pain. And gratitude is freedom’s sister.

Gratitude and pain. There’s a bit of both in our country’s history, yeah?

There’s a lot of gratitude in family histories. Especially in the children whose mothers managed to give them what they themselves, due to poverty and neglect, never had. There isn’t as much “social gratitude”, except in those who have felt responsible for the lives and livelihoods of others. When I say this, I’m thinking about professors, religious and secular organizations that help the poor, and those public servants who—though vilified—all the same were a part of the government services that to a large degree built this country. I also keep in mind all those who have viewed politics as a true vocation, and a genuine way of improving the lives of our citizens. Pain? There’s been plenty. The pain of the weakest among us in the face of authority’s many different guises. That pain is most pronounced in two groups: the very poor (women and the indigent in both the city and the countryside) and children who have been abandoned. There’s also the matter of political violence: civil wars, oppression, and the violation of human rights. Today we can add another kind of pain: verbal violence.

Do you view your own freedom as something you inherited from one of your life’s mentors? Someone close to you: family, friends, or colleagues? I ask because each and every one of us is a composite of the influences of so many other people.

I don’t know. I like that you’re making me think about it though, because I feel a real sense of loyalty to my own life history. In my family, with my parents, freedom was something that was lived and breathed. You were free to explore life because you had a solid family foundation to fall back on. We all got to be bold because we were all tied together. We grew up isolated in the countryside. Everything was entertaining and fun. We all had a great time. My youth was spent reading with my mother (especially when I was a little kid), handling livestock with my father, and misbehaving with my sisters. Nothing beat spending time together. And it was a very cosmopolitan family as well. I think that sense of freedom had a lot to do with the sense of belonging we had, the bond between us and our land. You have a place of your own that you can leave, and you do leave, and you always come back.

Was there any experience that was key in your intellectual development? Was there a book that fundamentally made you the woman you are today?

Yes, of course. It took me a long time to find an intellectual space that really made sense to me. Francois Xavier Guerra was the one who showed me the way by introducing me to the new world of political history that was coming together in the ‘80s. Its focus was on the social history of cultural practices and how they formed both modern politics and modern individuals. That was how I came to be so deeply influenced by Francois Furet and Roger Chartier. Very French, the both of them! Another one of my biggest influences was a small book by anthropologist and linguist Walter Ong. It argues that written language is a kind of communication technology that changes the user’s consciousness, thought structures, and sense of belonging.

Solitary Writing

As the years passed, an entire generation of women between the ages of 30 and 35 got their doctorates under Sol Serrano. We did it in a whirlwind of archives, books, baby bottles, shifts, families, and kids. During those years, in that ink-drenched wasteland of half-baked projects, her guidance and dedication were invaluable. We learned how to do research, how to think, and how to write, all with a critical eye, because the feedback we got was tough, and we learned to take it without crying. Together we formed a sisterhood of historians, one without partisan impulses, but instead with similar sensibilities and shared perspectives. The interest that most united us was the question over how social bonds and modern politics are intertwined, that is to say, the bonds formed by free and equal citizens—the basis of political legitimacy. Perhaps what interested me most about my professor back then was her passion for archives, and the blind faith she had in her intuition. I was taken aback by the passion she had for debasing spurious analyses based on whatever interpretation was in vogue at the time. That was an essential component of becoming a “hands-on” historian, as she always said she was. I always thought Sol Serrano had the air of a private detective. I told her as much once, and before she burst into laughter, she confessed that she’d always wanted to work for the Investigations Police of Chile.

Have you had any male thesis students? I ask because you’ve had so many female students.

Yes, definitely more women. It happened by chance. Years later I learned about the importance of role models, and that’s why if you want wide female participation, its imperative to have a female presence at the start. And that’s how it was. Some people even told me that male students were afraid of me, and weren’t willing to let a woman correct their work! That was many years ago, though. And having said that, I have a very very close relationship with all my male thesis students.

Are there differences in the way men and women write about history?

I’ve asked myself that so many times. I’ve promised myself I’d find some research that addressed that question, but I still haven’t done so. Feminist historiography, whose conceptual framework is gender theory, is different. Its principal theoreticians are women. It was women who introduced gender studies in the history field. But your question is more broad. Women have pioneered new perspectives and sensibilities. Natalie Zemon Davies, for example. Or Mona Ozouf. I wonder if Lynn Hunt’s The Invention of Human Rights would have been written the same way if a man had authored it. All the same, there are many books where if I didn’t know the author’s name, I wouldn’t be able to guess if they’d been written by a man or a woman.

Do you have any interest in gender and feminist theories?

Definitely, so much so that when I was at Yale, I thought I’d focus on what used to be called women’s history. When I came back to Chile, I asked the then-director of UC’s History Department if he thought it was an interesting subject, and he said it wasn’t. He was even less interested in me… but anyway, that didn’t really end up mattering. I was interested in all that because my most basic interest is in the origins of the relationships that define modern politics, as noted above, which obviously comes from Chile’s break with democracy. Feminist arguments, and those of gender theory’s many variations, (usually) don’t make a big impression on me because they are so dogmatic and “uni-causal” in their analyses of history. You can never leave too much room for error—or surprise. A while ago I wrote a paper called Nuns—Are They Women? It was about women’s oppression during the French Revolution and the feminist debate surrounding it.

*   *   *



Here we return to the sisterhood that Prof. Serrano formed and the team she headed at the UC’s History Department. There, she pioneered a collaborative methodology in a field that is knowN—or at least was known—for its atomized and solitary approach to research.

Do you work well in team settings? How far can you go with a group, and at what point do you have to go it alone?

I never thought I’d do it. I am very reclusive. Or I was until my first thesis students graduated. You came first, then there was Francisca Rengifo. With both of you I ventured out of my comfort zone. I saw how we could widen the scope of each of our investigations, and minimize our difficulties, by making the most of our different talents. That’s what got the ball rolling, and it was fascinating because the number of thesis students I had kept going up and up. It’s easier to work on a team in the natural sciences, and easier still to mentor students, because everyone works together in a lab within the strict confines of their field. We don’t have that. Every student picks their own focus and their thesis is a handcrafted labor of love. Putting together teams in the History Department was a lot of work, but we got a lot out of it—and perhaps most importantly—we had a blast! Sometimes it seemed like we would never stop laughing. But I do all my writing on my own. Though I have cowritten with other people, such as yourself, the bulk of writing must be done in solitude.

Do think its fair to credit you with founding a “school” of thought or methodology?

Oof! Ask somebody else, not me! I’ve had wonderful students and wonderful thesis students, and I’ve followed their careers step-by-step all the way up to the present.

Given your experience as both a student and a professor, would you say that how history is taught at a university level has changed?

It’s changed a lot. The old system consisted of just two or three gurus who weren’t very professional and were incredibly isolated from the world around them. It was still a good education, though. Today, every professor in almost every history department has a Ph.D., and there’s a great variety of schools, focuses, and methodologies. Our students are truly up to date on what matters most. Only one thing worries me. Younger professors and students have a tendency to muddle their work with the trappings of this or that theory, and this is often done in a very formulaic way. The telling of history has been co-opted by literary theory. They try and write like Foucault or Derrida or De Certau or so many others. The result is amped up theoretical frameworks, superimposed—without any modifications—on historical analyses.

Is it a luxury to study history in this day and age? Why does the world of today need historians?

They are a necessity. History plays an important role in intellectual development because it develops critical thinking and forces you to substantiate your point of view. It also teaches you to gather and interpret all the information you find in the context and perspective of the era it came from. It’s a good way to get started in an academic or teaching career, or so many other careers. We keep meticulous track of our graduates, and though they work in a variety of fields, whenever they’re polled, they always say they are happy to have studied history because it taught them how to think. In a “hyper-informed” society, with so many means of communication, it’s now more important than ever—for the sake of coexistence and democracy—to be able to filter, prioritize, dispute, and provide context.

What differentiates University and Nation from your more recent three-volume work, The History of Education in Chile (1810-2010)?

The continuity between them is the simple question I’ve always asked myself: who wants education? That means studying why abstract knowledge, whether it be in engineering or reading/writing, has societal value, and for whom, and to what end. More than anything, this means studying the tensions between the different people and institutions that are involved in education, who in turn are themselves changing because of the new skills they’re learning. At what point does a society take its accumulated knowledge and turn it into something that needs to be systematically taught? And why was it only 200 years ago that a few people decided that expertise in the humanities was something that should be widespread? It wasn’t obvious. Nothing is. The first book is about literate elites and the state, and the creation of public education, professions, and the economy. The second book is broader. It considers the creation of the modern relationships that presuppose a literate citizenry—and capitalism as well. It’s about the relationship between oral and written, between individuality and mass society. That’s why it covers so many of society’s different sectors: Indians, generations, families, land, gender, industry, ideology, politics, and the creation of the state. A fine-grained study. And that meant storytelling. Citing the relevant statistics was not enough. Doing the research needed to discover new statistics was a must. The book looks at 150 years of history, and though that might seem linear—because by the end of it, all of society had gone through some kind of formal education—in reality, it’s a timeline filled with a plethora of abrupt jumps, inertia, and passing phases. That undertaking was only possible through a team effort.

And to get back to what I was saying, this undertaking–which was, if nothing else, thorough—has been dubbed by those try-hard theoreticians as “traditional history”. I’m not joking.

Which of your books is your magnum opus?

None of them! My most personal one is What to Do with God in the Republic? That’s the case for three reasons, I think. For one, it was a theoretical challenge to dispute sociological theories about secularization from a historical perspective. It was also important to rescue such an important area of historical study from the confines of liberal or conservative interpretations. It was also a methodological challenge in the extreme because epistemologically, the idea was to wed the realm of ideology with cultural practices. How connected was the secularization of the state and “de-Christianizing” of society? Examining the debates over the Cemetery Laws was not enough, what was necessary was to also study how religious the mortuary practices of the era were. Thirdly, in that book I tried to establish a narrative structure that was my own, I tried to find my own voice.

Do you think you’ve managed to establish an epistemological perspective and a methodology that is properly yours?

I haven’t created anything new, nor have I advanced any theoretical proposition. Instead, stubbornly, I have tried to do my own thing. A French historian, commenting on the book we’ve been discussing, said that its epistemology could be found within its narrative. My jaw dropped. In just a few words, she’d spelled-out my most secret aspiration.