Monthly Archives: June 2012

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2. A Jeffersonian matter? Funding merit.

Dear John,

It’s taken me a while to work up a reply to your excellent post–not least because I so tragically misread your previous. I think you hit the nail on the head in asking: “who if anyone has interest in funding meritocracy these days, and how much do our cliches of critique, etc. depend on their capacity to mold the “talent” those Redbook authors think America needs? ”

With Chris Hayes and Althusser you point out that the language of merit can ratify privilege. (For Hayes, this is because of the contradictory principles of difference and mobility inherent in meritocratic systems, for Althusser it would because, in “the last instance which never in fact arrives,” capital has structured the rules according to which merit is judged merit.) I also take the (mostly implied) point that even when we “see through” merit to the privilege it ratifies, you and I will continue to believe in meritocracy anyway, because our professional practice is inconceivable without it: we’d be different people in a different line of work. No question of getting outside this ideology, only, perhaps, of exploiting its contradictions.  One answer to your question, then, is that the already “meritorious” want to fund meritocracy and that, insofar as they have the resources to do so, they may be likely to fund merit in ways that undermine meritocracy by exempting their own values and interests from challenge.

This leaves your intriguing suggestion that the 20th Century’s educational institutions may have exhausted the meritocratic rhetoric that justified them, such that “meritocracy” can no longer be appealed to as a reason for funding public universities and, more particularly, humanities disciplines. If this suggestion is correct, the exhaustion of the old order would create an opening for alternatives that would appear horrifying or lovely, depending on one’s point of view and ability to apprehend them.

In the “America needs talent” universe of the Redbook it was imagined that properly funded high schools would do the sorting, and also that the cost of college would pose no obstacle for the meritorious student. Students certified by the very best colleges could confidently claim to have obtained their credentials due to talent. With a Jacksonian general education in place, they could also claim that those credentials certified a certain kind of public virtue, an exposure to the stuff of the commonweal, particularly as rendered in classic works of fiction. Even in 1945 this was an ideal. The Redbook authors’ insist throughout on the wide disparity in the quality of high school and college experiences. If high school disparities are regarded as a problem, college disparities, as you note, are regarded as inevitable. The authors take for granted that vocational, junior, and 4-year liberal arts colleges differ (178-180) and suggest a place for general education in each before focusing on Harvard as a test case. I find no argument in the Redbook that college should be publicly funded. The argument, rather, is that Harvard  should and will provide financial assistance to “broaden the economic base from which its students are drawn” (184). Clearly, others had made and would make an argument for publicly funded meritocratic universities–not least those responsible for the Morrill Act. We probably need to look more closely at some of those arguments. So long as the Redbook provides our example of mid-century rhetoric, however, it’s worth underscoring a fact that emerged via our last round of exchanges: the authors give the humanities (and especially English) a special role in Jacksonian leveling but not so much in Jeffersonian sorting. When Harpham appeals to Redbook-era clichés, he’s reprising a move barely hinted at in the Rebbook itself. That move marries the work of literary eduction to specialization in literary reading and thereby makes the role of English in “general education” depend on special expertise, talent, and sensitivity. The Redbook and “Criticism, Inc.” are not merely contemporaries, but structural complements, the role prescribed for English in general education makes no sense absent  the kinds of professors Ransom (and Leavis) believe should be trained. It is this compact, established at mid-century, that the second half of the century brought to ruin.  The proposition that a healthy nation needs general education that includes the humanities is alive and well. More about this in a later post. For now, at the risk of belaboring the point, I just want to underscore that the Redbook’s “America needs talent” argument includes, but only by implication, a call for talented humanities specialists capable of engineering the leveling functions of general ed (206-07). Were the Rebooks authors to make this argument explicitly, they would hazard looking like their great antagonists: propagandists and advertisers (266).

Back to the present. Despite the dominance of “college for all” rhetoric, I think we continue take for granted the idea that “college” is a tiered market of different types and qualities of institutions. I also think we continue to imagine that excellent K-12 education should ideally be equally available for everyone (even though it manifestly is not). Doubtlessly the fact that K-12 education is, for the most part, compulsory in the US has a great deal to do with this.  (I wonder what the Carnegie poll results you cite would be if, after being asked whether higher education should be a “right,” respondents were also asked if it should be required?) If “college for all” has not changed these assumptions, then it contains a meritocratic logic within it: the assumption is that everyone will be able to get into and attend some college or another according to their merits; not everyone will be able to get into every college; some BAs will be more equal than others. In the Carnegie poll, 67% of respondents said that funding was the greatest barrier to attending college. Which college, one wonders, did they have in mind?  The “best” college to which a student is admitted? Any college whatsoever? It’s unclear to me that for any given student there would be a huge difference, although marketplace intuition says it’s always possible to buy up. My main point is that the question ambiguates the difference.  It allows us to imagine that “attending college” equals “attending any college” and simultaneously that it means “attending the best possible college for that student.” The rhetorical shift from “America needs talent” to “college for all” is perhaps best grasped, then, not as a move from meritocracy to equal opportunity, but as a shift in emphasis from the nation’s needs to the individual’s. Both formulations, it seems to me, rely on old-fashioned liberalism’s logic that society and individuals have opposing interests that should be balanced. I think we both regard that logic as powerful, but bogus. This may suggest an avenue for further comment along the lines of pointing out that individual merit is meaningless except in reference to group norms.

Here’s more evidence that the shift from “America needs talent” to “college for all” amounts to no fundamental change. In the press release announcing the Carnegie poll results, Carnegie President Vartan Gregorian finds Redbook rhetoric ready to hand: “We shortchange our nation’s progress and squander our greatest renewable resource–our intellectual capital–if we allow critique of academia or passing partisan squabbling to stifle investment in higher education.”  With Jefferson he appeals to “intellectual capital,” and with Jackson, national unity. One could say that Gregorian’s a throwback who preaches to a shrinking choir–I’m not so sure of that–but my point would be that, anyway, he does so under the “college for all banner.”

I know I’m leaving a lot of threads dangling, but indulge me in one more. Bill Gates, interviewed by the Chronicle on the Morrill Act anniversary and at the height of the Sullivan episode , speaks unapologetically about what business leaders want to bring to higher ed: a set of approaches geared to identifying best practices and solving those structural problems affecting large numbers of students. Public enemy number one: completion rates. I’ll go out on limb here and declare that not only am I not against improving completion rates, but also that I think Gates is right to identify this as the kind of issue with which business leaders should be concerned. I acknowledge the problems involved in treating completion as a reliable metric made apparent in here. Nonetheless, “completion rates” gives Gates a way to ask about what Universities are doing to deliver what they say they’ll deliver without telling them what they should deliver (in terms of curriculum, e.g.). Does this Jacksonian emphasis amount to a rejection of funding meritocracy? Not at all. Gates says he funds “change agents” who model the best practices that improve completion rates. There is a lot of room for humanities expertise here, it seems to me. No surrender of clichés would be required. Critique and completion are compatible. What might be required are changes in how the workforce is structured, how the curriculum is imagined, how space is used on campus, etc.

So my answer is that funding for meritocracy is not in jeopardy, but meritocracy may well be depending on where the funding for it ends up coming from. We have not arrived at a new day in which established defenses of general education, talent, and “critique” have lost all traction. What has broken down are the mechanisms conjoining these rhetorics (ideologies?) with the actual practice of humanists, who look most out of touch not in the content of our scholarship (who reads most of it anyway?), but in the institutional configurations we tend to defend. Defend is the right word. Where’s the offense?  This Chronicle headline may be relevant.

Mark

 

2. A Jeffersonian Matter? Shrinking colleges, shifting dollars to K-12.

Dear Mark,

Your question 2. about General Education in a Free Society reads as follows:

2. In Harpham’s account, the Red Book seems of a piece with the good old days of taxpayer supported higher-ed, but by far the strongest funding argument happens in chapter 3, where the authors note that inadequacies in state funding for what we would now call K-12 education mean that “out of every hundred young people between six and nine are good college material but do not reach college” (88). The argument here is not “college for all” but “America needs talent”: it is wasting youths that could succeed in college if only their parents could afford to get them through high school. Has Harpham considered that reclaiming midcentury clichés might logically mean shrinking the number of college students and, perhaps, shifting dollars to K-12?

I am going to treat this as a Jeffersonian question, leaving the Redbook’s consistent counterpoint of normalization and the Jacksonian goal of “raising the level of the average student” (27) to our discussion of 3.

I’ll speak to my sense of Harpham on this in a moment, but in general I would say two things about the status of “America needs talent.”

First, I think the conventional wisdom today outside academia is very much “college for all,” with considerable disagreement on how to fund that goal and whether you get a residential experience to go with your course credits. Populists on the left and right privilege “accessibility.” This term morphs according to the user. A Fox News editorial supporting the ouster of UVA President Sullivan propounds, “Simply put, high-quality universities have become too expensive and increasingly inaccessible because their presidents and other top leaders have failed to recognize and address the challenges and opportunities posed to their institutions by new technologies.” On the 150th anniversary of the signing of the Morrill Act, the Carnegie Corporation has put out a press release concerning new poll data that shows “3 out of 4 Americans Feel Higher Education Should Be a Right.”

That may be how Americans feel, but will they pay for it? In California at least K-12 funding is what gets people to the polls. Or so our Governor hopes. He’s using a threat to cut K-12 spending as a stick to encourage voters to support tax hikes. Meanwhile, we may soon have a state budget that boosts funding to higher ed if the UC and CSU systems don’t raise tuition any more.

It appeals to me to think of this question of “college for all” v. “America needs talent” in terms of broader thinking about meritocracy. Has college stopped seeming like an engine for generating meritocratic hierarchy? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? There is, I’m hoping, a Chris Hayes “America After Meritocracy” angle to the question of how humanities cliches relate to the politics of academic funding. Hayes argues that universities have gotten worse at talent spotting as test prep and application coaching programs blur the good and the great (and leave those who cannot pay for test prep and application coaching out in the cold). He goes further, contending that the ideal of meritocratic mobility “runs up against the reality of…the Iron Law of Meritocracy. The Iron Law of Meritocracy states that eventually the inequality produced by a meritocratic system will grow large enough to subvert the mechanisms of mobility. Unequal outcomes make equal opportunity impossible.”

For Harpham’s part, I confess to not having finished his The Humanities and the American Dream yet, but so far the closest he gets to this question is in a chapter adapted from a talk he gave at the University of Richmond. There, he rehearsed the cliches of liberal arts education with its “critiquing, probing, testing, speculating” (132). He ties those skills to professionalization but not to meritocracy per se. The “liberal arts faculty,” he contends, “was brought into being by the desire to professionalize knowledge” (135). He has his eye, I presume, on the mid-century field-definers we talk about too in our work in progress. For liberal arts faculty alarmed about the rise of the professional schools, he argues, “the glass is half-full. For if the liberal arts are already professionalized, then the intrusion of professional education into the curriculum does not constitute a second fall of man, and a productive collaboration may be feasible without either side’s having to capitulate” (136). Of the examples he offers, the executive training team Movers and Shakespeares is especially intriguing. “A two-person mom-and-pop company,” in Harpham’s characterization, “founded on the premise that in order to be a good leader, one must understand people, and that Shakespeare understood people better than anyone” (139). So many thoughts come to mind. Among them, reflecting back on your post from a couple of weeks ago: here’s Shakespeare as an example for you. Certainly, the humanities in this usage (or English in this usage, lest you accuse me of conflating the humanities and English [perish the thought]), are on the side of professional-managerial differentiation.

As for the Redbook, as you say the authors of this volume see high school as a sorting mechanism, and hope that it makes clear who has the talent to attend college and who is but one of those “young people of average intelligence…not suited for the traditional college,” rather capable of profiting from “training in agriculture or nursing” (89). Everybody should have the “chances to perfect what is in them,” but what is in some is not in others (98). I think of Althusser here, and of an education apparatus that boots people out into vocational / specialized training as their aptitude allows. The Redbook authors imagine general education as “the trunk of a tree from which branches, representing specialism, go off at different heights, at high school or junior college or college or graduate school–the points, that is, at which various groups end their formal schooling” (102). The smarter you are, the longer you remain general in your education. When you shift to vocational training, you are finding your place on the great tree of merit.

It is fortuitous that Harpham has a tree as well. The faculty in the professional schools, he suggests, have long looked out of their well-appointed offices and asked of the university, “Why aren’t the English teachers treated as the marginal ones, the ornaments rather than the tree?” (135). Who is the tree and who the ornament at UVA if, as some commentators anticipate, the Board of Visitors decide to un-oust Sullivan?

Trees aside, who if anyone has interest in funding meritocracy these days, and how much do our cliches of critique, etc. depend on their capacity to mold the “talent” those Redbook authors think America needs? To answer this question might well tell us how out of sync our cliches really are with the tenor of contemporary conversation about the university.

John

1. The scope of the project is vast (part 2).

Dear John,

How could I fail to leap at your prompt?

Back to where we started. You asked: “Does the Red Book warrant description of the ‘humanities crisis’ people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?” The suggestion that Sullivan was kicked out because she wouldn’t crush Classics and German makes me ask the perhaps obvious follow up, What part of the administrative turmoil at UVA and elsewhere turns on the humanities contribution to general education?

Not the whole enchilada, and I’m not sure that this is the most useful form of the question.

Retracing your steps “back to where we started,”  I notice, first, a series of rhetorical moves reducing “general education” to “the humanities” while pushing aside questions of disciplinary emphasis or orientation within the humanities. This gets you to the statement: “A crisis of general education, in other words, is what the Redbook authors might mean if they said the humanities were in crisis.” You make these moves deftly. Tthe reasoning is not unfamiliar. A different reading of the Red Book might challenge it.

For example, I would not be prepared to say that exposure to Darwin is less important for general education than exposure to Shakespeare or Casablanca. The Red Book’s authors are absolutely clear, however, that the history and philosophy of science should be part of the sciences’ contributions to general education (230). Darwin does not become “humanities” property by virtue of being important to general education, nor, I think, should he. While there is a privileging of the humanities and of English in the Red Book’s imperative to make general education a unifying force, the authors do not themselves equate the humanities with English with general education.

And it’s a good thing too, particularly given the narrowness of the Red Book’s conception of the humanities, which, one might note, includes neither Classics nor German. Although replete with references to hoary Greek classics, the Red Book does not isolate them as a disciplinary object of study, but instead tends to wedge them into history of Western thought and civilization under the social sciences. To the extent, then, that they are part of shared general education, they might not need a separate department to look after them. The Historians can take care of it. A similar argument could be made about German–let the business school offer language instruction for the MBAs, but one doesn’t need the full departmental apparatus for that. Let me pause here to say unequivocally that I think a university of UVa stature should offer advanced training in Classics and in German language and culture (although I remain open regarding the ideal administrative configuration to support such endeavors.) My point is that I do not think the Red Book’s defense of the humanities as a component of general education provides the rationale for such training. It could in fact support closing such departments, particularly if, for example, Classic made a general ed argument without succeeding in producing the desired unifying experience among masses of undergraduates. We look to the Red Book as a defender of the humanities at our peril, precisely because it so strongly links them to “general education,” whereas so very much of what humanities departments at large public universities now do looks like specialized education.

I continue to find important the Red Book’s insistence on “general education” as a problem set that conjoins K-12 and Universities, and I continue to be struck by a corresponding lack of commerce between contemporary discussions of K-12 crises and public university crises, although the frameworks of “privatization” and “neolibralism” are often applied to each. Henry Giroux offers an exception proving the general rule when he points to an “education deficit” at all levels. (Your friend Andy Lewis is absolutely right that Brown v. Board needs to be in this story, by the way.) I bring this up in response to your question because I think that the UVa situation points to arguments over what education should do and how it should be paid for that are broader than the university and certainly broader than the humanities. Reading through a bit of Helen Dragas’s email, for example, one is struck by the importance she attaches to publicly visible ways of reducing cost. To the extent that this interest exceeds the reasonable and appropriate oversight functions of a board member, it’s easy to imagine that the politics here have little to do with education at all (cost to renovate dinning facilities are a major issue), but rather with the deep suspicion of/hostility to spending on public institutions. Again, I think we turn this into a “humanities” problem at our peril. It is much broader.

I prefer Newfield’s “management” vs. “professionalism” to “humanities” vs. “the neoliberal university.” I understand him to be talking about two different professional-managerial styles. One, quintessentially  business sector, focuses on short term optimization of outcomes, and the other, quintessentially public sector, thinks about the welfare of populations in the long term. This is a longstanding, core ideological conflict. Thinking about the problem in this way broadens it beyond the university and also provides a way to explain what’s at stake in advocating for a particular conception of the university.  I think Newfield is right to conclude:

The core issue in the Sullivan firing is whether professionals will generally self-govern academic change–in equitable partnership with financial and other types of managers–or whether academic change will be defined and shaped primarily by managers, in nonbinding “consultation” with academics only when necessary.

I think he’s also astute in pointing out a rhetorical trap that resonates with our concerns:

Unfortunately, Teresa Sullivan falls into the trap of describing her collaborative method as incremental and conservative.  This kind of rhetoric allows the Board to define her as slow and inadequate in a time of rapid change, and to justify executive authority as that which is bold and decisive.

Should we go another round on this? I might rather first hear your thoughts on #2 and then circle back as needed.

Mark

1. The scope of the project is vast.

Dear Mark,

I say “Yes!” to your proposition that we write a series of posts dealing with each of the five problems in your framing of General Education in a Free Society.

On to problem 1., with acknowledgment that I’ll necessarily touch on issues you have categorized in other problems. You wrote,

1. The scope of the project is vast. It surveys high school as well as college, charts the development of these institutions since the 1870s, considers problems of funding and staffing, and confronts squarely the issues of differential ability and meritocracy. The authors situate their argument for university-level general education squarely within an analysis of the educational system as a whole. Unless I am much mistaken, such an awareness of the big picture is almost totally absent from the current alarmist rhetoric about “the humanities in crises.” It does show up, however, among those thinking about the digital revolution (e.g., Davidson’s, Now you See It). Does the Red Book warrant description of the “humanities crisis” people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?

There are a bundle of issues in this item that I care about. Let me drift my way towards one answer to your question. Warning: my answer will take the form of another question.

For the authors of the Redbook, the humanities are most important as the focal point for a general education curriculum. “While the Redbook never explicitly identifies the humanities as the first among equals in the divisions of knowledge,” Harpham writes in The Humanities and the Dream of America, “their primacy is strongly implied, not least by the fact that whenever the divisions of knowledge are treated serially, the sequence is humanities, social studies, and science and mathematics” (157). As both you and Harpham note, no humanities discipline receives more attention in the Redbook than English. More on this in posts regarding Problem 4.

To the extent that the humanities feature so importantly in general education, they are agents for the Redbook’s effort to de-emphasize specialization in both high school and college study. “[A]s modern life has come increasingly to rest on specialized knowledge, the various fields of college study have in consequence appeared simply as preparation for one or another position in life. They have become, in short, for many, though by no means for all, a kind of higher vocational training” (38). The challenge or problem the Redbook sets out to resolve with a revised curricula “is how to save general education and its values within a system where specialism is necessary” (53). The “aim of education,” the book’s authors declare, “should be to prepare an individual to become an expert both in some particular vocation or art and in the general art of the free man and the citizen. Thus the two kinds of education once given separately to different social classes must be given together to all alike” (54). Not only does the education system envisioned by the Redbook have both Jeffersonian and Jacksonian aspects, but also the subject of that education system has a more specialized and generally human qualities. The humanities are, by and large, important in the Redbook for their special capacity to help a person develop the general side.

Different humanities disciplines contribute to this “general art of the free man and the citizen.” English is a unifying force, its great books are meeting points, and serve as tools for illuminating “norms of living as they are presented to the eye by the best authors” (107). You’ve noted this normalizing component, which English shares with the other humanities disciplines. The arts “bring delight,” and they also “train the emotions; they develop understanding.” “Foreign” language training is primarily important in high school and college because it can help you understand better how English works. Philosophy’s contribution is imparting “the habit of self-criticism” and “perspective, the capacity to envisage truth synoptically, from the standpoint of ‘all time and all existence.'” More on the contributions of “New Media of Education” under Problem 5.

From the perspective of the Redbook, the only crisis of the humanities worthy of the name would entail a breakdown of these complementary functions.

A crisis of general education, in other words, is what the Redbook authors might mean if they said the humanities were in crisis.

It is tempting to suggest that they would be alarmed in just this way by recent events at the University of Virginia. The Washington Post was among the news outlets to report that Teresa Sullivan was forced out as President because some members of the Board of Visitors felt she “lacked the mettle to trim or shut down programs that couldn’t sustain themselves financially, such as obscure academic departments in classics and German.” Combined with the Board’s appointment of Carl Zeithaml, Cornell Professor of Free Enterprise and head of the UVA McIntire School of Commerce as Interim President, what is going on in Charlottesville seems to be putting pressure on the Redbook version of the university. The neoliberal recentering of the university on the business school certainly looks like a reversion to exactly the sort of vocational training that the Redbook authors rail against. But is this what is at stake in the suggestion that Sullivan was canned because she wouldn’t exercise the authority of her office to defund Classics?

(The fact that UVA is a public university makes it different from the Redbook’s Harvard. Still, given the private donors in play what is happening at UVA touches on yet another matter for yet another post, namely, Harpham’s good and bad philanthropists. Good ones from mid century and a few remaining like Richard Franke, discussed in The Humanities and the Dream of America, think that the humanities are useful for businessmen, public policy experts, and all sorts of other specialists. Bad ones are impatient types exemplified by Peter D. Kiernan, recently resigned chairman of the Board of Trustees for UVA’s Darden School Foundation, who wrote the much-quoted email in which he claimed that “the governance of the University was not sufficiently tuned to the dramatic changes we all face: funding, internet, technology advances, the new economic model. These are matters for strategic dynamism rather than strategic planning.”)

(Related too, Chris Newfield’s analysis of the UVA matter, which hinges on his insistent opposition of managers (bad) and professionals (good), where the former favor dynamism and the latter planning.)

(Also: my friend Andy Lewis thinks we should consider mid-century innovations in general education in concert with Brown v. Board of Education, a rough contemporary of the Redbook.)

Back to where we started. You asked: “Does the Red Book warrant description of the ‘humanities crisis’ people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?” The suggestion that Sullivan was kicked out because she wouldn’t crush Classics and German makes me ask the perhaps obvious follow up, What part of the administrative turmoil at UVA and elsewhere turns on the humanities contribution to general education?

This sort of question was invoked by an apposite series of tweets appearing yesterday in response to a comment by the columnist Matt Yglesias. He tweeted: “I like mocking MBA-speak as much as the next guy, but is there really a sound case for taxpayer-funded German language instruction?” A film blogger (!!!) named David Robson responded with the vocational position: “German’s ‘the language of the dominant economic power of Europe.’ Learning it’s good for economists.” Swarthmore History Professor Timothy Burke asked, “Is there really a case for any subject once you start putting it like that? Or is the only case narrowly vocational?” Mike Konczal, a Roosevelt Institute fellow who writes a blog on finance and politics, asked, “Isn’t it just a subset of the general case for humanities education?”

John

The Red Book

Dear John,

The relatively brief, but eventful, history of the Humanities after Hollywood as we currently imagine it begins in the period from around 1915 to around 1935. Then,  “Hollywood” provided any number of institutions and disciplines a formative and, to remarkable extent, shared example. The example encouraged novelists, psychologists, social reformers, sociologists, Great Books advocates, policy wonks, filmmakers, and curators to collaborate in the project of managing populations through the management of culture. I mean “collaborate” here a very loose and general sense: with hindsight, positions that may at the time have seemed antithetical can be understood as aspects of a common project. Thus, although there were clearly  differences of opinion about whether and how film should be included in university curricula, disputants of the 20s and 30s seem notably eager to experiment with including it. “Hollywood” does not in this period name a problem clearly external to “English,” for example.  This comes as something of a surprise to those of us brought up on the narrative in which Film Studies arises in the 1960s along with other challengers to traditionalist disciplines.

Our explanation for what changed around mid-century has emphasized the growth and increasing professionalization of the humanities disciplines. We accept the standard line that New Criticism (in the US) and F. R. Leavis (in the UK) established new forms of professional orthodoxy for English. These orthodoxies have been associated with disciplinary rigor ever since. When asked to define for non-specialists what makes the study of “Literature” important (and different from the study of anything else) even the most cutting-edge of our contemporaries may well find themselves reproducing some version a New Critical or Leavisite argument.

English, we have been acutely aware, is not the humanities. We have wanted examples that would give the mid-century configuration of English a better context. Geoffrey Harpham led us to Harvard’s 1945 “Red Book” (General Education in a Free Society) through his essay in Representations special issue on “The Humanities and the Crisis of the Public University.”  In our FSU talk, we are critical of Harpham’s nostalgia for the moment the Red Book exemplifies:

In this heyday of general education and core curricula, funding humanities research supported a “perhaps quixotic and definitely nationalistic but fundamentally noble attempt to create a society unified…by the common opportunity to rise through education to the level of one’s merits” (Harpham 56).

What seems to have irked us most is Harpham’s two-fold belief, first, that capitalists in the Carnegie mode were inherently more friendly to the humanities than a “new breed” of “venture philanthropists” that seeks a “quantifiable return on a ‘social investment” and thus “inclines toward science, technology, and management and away from the humanities,” and second, that this state of affairs is best addressed by reclaiming the rhetoric that worked with old-school funders. He concludes: “we must make every effort to reclaim, reactivate, and reinvigorate our own clichés.”  We wrote:

What worries us about this call is not the agreeable and valid argument that a liberal arts education is good for juries, op ed pages, and dinner party conversation–it clearly is. We are dismayed, rather, by Harpham’s cynical embrace of a midcentury rhetoric built to find “American democracy” in the alliance of big-state nationalism and robber-baron capitalism. This alliance did not fund “democracy” in any direct way. It paid for meritocratic educational institutions. Such institutions work to certify and distribute the authority to represent and manage others. The logic of a “return on ‘social investment’” has never been as foreign to them as Harpham would have us suppose.

Now having read the Red Book, I like this argument against Harpham better than ever. The Red Book does indeed emphasize general education as instrument of national unity and “democracy.” Nonetheless, I never would have intuited from Harpham’s admittedly brief discussion some of the most notable features of the book.

  1. The scope of the project is vast. It surveys high school as well as college, charts the development of these institutions since the 1870s, considers problems of funding and staffing, and confronts squarely the issues of differential ability and meritocracy. The authors situate their argument for university-level general education squarely within an analysis of the educational system as a whole. Unless I am much mistaken, such an awareness of the big picture is almost totally absent from the current alarmist rhetoric about “the humanities in crises.” It does show up, however, among those thinking about the digital revolution (e.g., Davidson’s, Now you See It). Does the Red Book warrant description of the “humanities crisis” people as reactionary defenders of an increasingly narrow and rapidly obsolescing point of view?
  2. In Harpham’s account, the Red Book seems of a piece with the good old days of taxpayer supported higher-ed, but by far the strongest funding argument happens in chapter 3, where the authors note that inadequacies in state funding for what we would now call K-12 education mean that “out of every hundred young people between six and nine are good college material but do not reach college” (88). The argument here is not “college for all” but “America needs talent”: it is wasting youths that could succeed in college if only their parents could afford to get them through high school. Has Harpham considered that reclaiming midcentury clichés might logically mean shrinking the number of college students and, perhaps, shifting dollars to K-12?
  3. In claiming “the opportunity to rise through education to the level of one’s merits” as a unifying force, Harpham rhetorically sublates tendencies the Red Book presents as opposites in need of balancing. Centrally, it weighs the “Jeffersonian” principle of “discovering and giving opportunity to the gifted student” against the “Jacksonian” principle of “raising the level of the average student” (27). The authors stake the nation’s future on balancing these opposing imperatives: “The hope of the American school system, indeed of our society, is precisely that it can pursue two goals simultaneously: give scope to ability and raise the average. Nor are these two goals so far apart, if human beings are capable of common sympathies” (35). “Unity” thus becomes the central problem, and “general education,” its instrument. Harpham does not err in pointing out that Red Book-era rhetoric made meritocracy, democracy, and training in the humanities appear to coincide. But he empties that achievement and reduces it, precisely, to a cliché, by underplaying the “Jacksonian” imperative. No merit without normalization, the Red Book reminds us. If the Jeffersonian principle looks to individuals, the Jacksonian considers populations. General eduction, in contrast to Jeffersonian specialized education, was to be a unifying instrument for populations, and not so much a meritocratic one for individuals. “Democracy” in the Red Book is not centrally a problem of “self-government,” rather, it is a question of proper training, a management proposition (see, e.g., 93).
  4. In defining the humanities as a key component of general eduction, the Red Book privileges the study of English literature. In the section on high schools, for example, the humanities look more far more strongly balkanized by area than the social sciences and sciences. Math, chemistry, biology, appear as a distinct subject areas, but we move with relative ease from a paragraphs describing chemistry and biology courses to those laying out math courses. Under the humanities, we have strongly separated sections for: English, defined in New Critical terms as not history or politics but “the works themselves,” conveyors of a unifying heritage, and clearly the heart of the matter; Foreign Languages, which may or may not be a humanities endeavor depending on whether the languages are treated as communication “tools” or as aides in appreciating English as a language; and Arts, the appreciation of which is felt to be enriching in a vague, emotional way.  In the section on Harvard, great English language books receive similar emphasis in the proposed new core curriculum. The authors voice a number of assumptions about what English Literature is and does that want further examination. I think we need to look, too, to the composition of the Committee whose report this is (Ivor Richards is the English professor on it). And we need poke around a little bit in the literature to determine whether the Harvard folks are voicing an established consensus about English or are attempting to institutionalize a new orthodoxy. This has the ring to me, however, of a representative example. Thesis: in 1945, but not 1935, educators could treat  “English Literature,” understood as the study of great works apart from their history and context, as if it were the essence of “the humanities.”
  5. The Red Book is symptomatically silent on the subject mass culture as a competing unifier. The issue comes up briefly in the final pages: “The press, radio, photography, television–our progressive disembodiment–and indeed all increased means of mass communication have their dangers too.”  The authors seem particularly concerned about advertising: “‘In a world of strife, there is peace in beer.’ That slogan was no invention of a satirist. It adorned many a newspaper in the days before Pearl Harbor and is but one example, less harmful through its very fatuousness, of the modes of attack to which mass communication exposes standards in all fields. Against them we can only oppose general education at all levels” (266). Apparently, effective opposition won’t require knowledge of the adversary, since there is no place whatsoever for “mass communications” in general education as Harvard imagines it. What a difference from the situation before the war!  Then, the problem of “mass culture,” how to learn from and about it, was absolutely central to considerations of the problem of democracy (e.g., in the Lippmann-Dewey debate) and the university both. Again, more research is needed, but this seems like a representative example of a familliar configuration: a particular notion of English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities, which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math); mass culture appears as an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation.

What would you say to a series of posts dealing with each of these five problems?

Mark

Examples, not Objects

Dear John,

I find Ralph’s reply to your last useful in its offer of “examples” as an alternative to “objects.”  Ralph asks us if we can agree that

institutional practices that are guided by particular examples, especially by examples that have functioned as very important in our early attraction to a practice or discipline, would seem less susceptible to balkanization, more likely to provide the basis for establishing new relations, than practices wedded to objects. I like examples because, in the same gesture, they explain to me both why Shakespeare is more important to me than Soyinka and why Soyinka is important to me.

I think we can agree, but agreement requires us to put back on the table some features of disciplinarily that have dropped out of our last few exchanges.

Of what is “Shakespeare” an example? “Literature,” “drama,” “poetry,” “English genius,” and “adaptation” are the first of several possible answers that come to mind. Likely the wide range of possible answers is one reason why Ralph regards Shakespeare as an “important” example (in addition to the fact that this example has been formative for him). Is it the same example in each context? Does Shakespeare mean the same thing in high school as at university? Certainly my discipline would find a major difference between a filmed stage performance of The Taming of the Shrew (about which it would care very little) and 10 Things I Hate about You (which it might treat as generic hybrid or star vehicle more than as a Shakespeare adaptation)Is a rose a rose? With respect to those examples that have formed academic disciplines, I think the answer has to be a qualified “no.”

This was an issue several posts back when you pointed out that as a “film” person in English, I am pigeon-holed and pigeon-hole myself by an object-centered account of discipline. I could only agree, but my main point in this thread was that my English colleagues and I mean different things by “film.” It is not the same object, because it is an example for different sets of arguments. “What is film?” is an organizing question for film and media studies; “What is Literature?,” not so much. I think that in English that the reverse is the case, with the difference that a very powerful disciplinary strand in English assumes that all cultural production can be treated as literature-like (“film” here might be an example of “narrative”). Film and media studies, I would say, sometimes acts as though it wants to secure the completing claim that all cultural production is media-like (“novels” here might be an example of “print media”). Not surprisingly, I like the imperialist ambition of my discipline much better than that of yours. Since your discipline is so very much better funded and institutionally entrenched, I also get to imagine my counter-imperialist claim as one of righteous rebellion against your discipline’s tyranny. But of course this is precisely the battle narrative we want to interrupt, by pointing out that neither discipline makes sense without the other and that overall structure and function of the humanities at present cannot be understood absent the media practices emblematized by “Hollywood.”

If this remains our goal, and I think it does, then we need to remember that the risk of talking past one another remains significant. “What is film?” and “What is Literature?” are not even the parallel disciplinary questions they may appear, because (as our discussion of “realism” brought out), consideration of the material carrier  (e.g., photosensitive emulsion on a flexible plastic base) has been front and center in film studies, whereas in English that question was largely consigned to the marginal subfield of “the history of the book,” until the impending demise of the codex brought it out retirement under the banner of digital humanities. Words like “film,” “print,””media,” and “mediation” mean differently in the disciplines that, like it or not, shape our approaches. Object-orienation points not to a consensus about what the objects are or how they differ from other objects, but to the unruly disputes, shared vocabularies, acknowledged and unacknowledged premises that animate academic practice. If objects keep disciplines in their lanes (as you say), they do so in part by making it difficult to recognize what’s going on next door, even when we’re looking right at it. The conceptional shift from objects to examples helps us here, because it requires us to ask “what is exemplified?,” a question more likely to disclose incommensurate premises and zones of dispute than the question “does this differ from that?”  Understanding differences of exemplification strikes me as a necessary first step in developing shared examples.

I am not taking back my initial point that examples are not unities. We cannot say in advance that examples point to commensurable explanatory contexts for which they are examples. But I am qualifying this point, because it seems to me that any decent explanation of that incommensurability is bound to transform the example into the common property of a new explanatory context.

I am trying to decide whether this notion runs counter to your “fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient.” I find the idea of specialized teamwork inherently appealing but practically difficult to imagine without shared examples capable of permitting a collective organization of  the labor. Absent such organizing examples, self-suffcient specialization sounds to me like alienation. I might have a sense of myself as a highly specialized cog in a machine without much idea of how I participate in its overall function. This may in fact characterize the academic humanities at the moment. I take that to be one way of reading Ralph’s comment about the uncertainty involved in conceiving the adversary these days.

So can we say that we need some shared examples as well as, because it really is not possible to know everything, some proprietary ones?  It seems to me that we are developing a set of such examples, including “Criticism, Inc.”

Mark

 

 

For and Against Object-centered Collaboration

Dear Mark (and Ralph),

Mark wrote:

The image-argument thus encodes the complex proposition that “collaboration” entails an opposition, a “them,” and that the ground for the us-them distinction is inherently unstable. It is easy to break collaborations apart by denying the principle commonality that unites them. It is perhaps equally easy to find alternatively commonalities, grounds for collaboration where none seemed to exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that collaborations exist as they are practiced and not as they are planned or defined.

Ralph commented:

First, collaboration involves serious risk, specifically, a risk that one may betray oneself, investing precious effort in projects of little interest or value, or perhaps of interest and value to one’s adversary. To my mind, the sea-change from Ransom’s time has to do with how we might conceive the adversary today, in particular, our inability to identify it with anything as self-contained, objectified, and monolithic as Ransom could or did. However, that increases the risk, making it more likely to be insidious and devastating. (I take this to be no argument against collaboration.)

All agreed. Collaborations are provisional, sometimes project or segment of project specific, and as bound to schism as they are to growth. All the better.

I do not want to collaborate with Nazis like Louis does in Casablanca and am relieved that Ralph thinks that is not really the risk anymore. Relieved but than on alert, in as much as Ralph says that I can stop worrying about card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were, but should start worrying about the far riskier proposition that (other than the banks perhaps) our adversaries today are less identifiable than card-carrying goose-stepping Nazis, as it were.

To my mind, this apt description of the risk entailed in collaborating now makes it crucial to question the givens that make our humanities practices identifiable. Not that we need to be in disguise because our adversaries are diffuse and not readily identifiable. But rather because by reconsidering the practices that let us know what we are doing and why, we may prepare ourselves for working on different problems and considering new projects and maybe even getting wise about what it means to collaborate with a diverse array of experts.

Where I am, then, on the object question, given that objects tend to organize our work in the humanities.

For the object:
Objects serve as matters of concern around which collaboration happens and they also are collaborators themselves that facilitate some kinds of work and exclude others. Humanities scholars cluster around objects and things happen. Any limit to the sort of work that can be generated through object-centered study is, as Ralph stipulates, also potentially a strength. Ransom, Ralph writes, “can hardly conceive of his practice apart from what he practices it on, in relation to or with, and vice versa.” I have had the good fortune to be invited to join a sizable collaborative endeavor organized around the study of video games called IMMERSe. Across disciplines, on six plus campuses, including “industry partners,” and forecasting myriad projects on an array of themes, this collaboration would be unthinkable without the object, video games.

Ransom, in this regard, is a model.

Mark, you wrote,

I think Ralph’s got a point that no matter how low we estimate Ransom’s approach, it is notably self-conscious in saying what English should be as a professional endeavor.

Do we collaborate with Ransom in trying to figure out 1) what it means to be an English professor and 2) how this could be made more satisfying work?  I think we might when we use him to call attention to assumptions that continue to inform the practice of the discipline, even if few current practitioners would explicitly avow the whole “Criticism, Inc.” package.

If memory serves, we credited Ransom like Leavis for doing what everybody says they did: making English reproducible as a university discipline. So in response to your questions, I’d say “Yes” to both 1) and 2). I also think that we are more convinced than many of our colleagues that “Criticism, Inc.” is a pretty relevant essay for thinking about what happens in English departments today precisely because English professors are far from being convinced they should give up object-centered practice akin, in many respects, to that promoted by Ransom. Ralph, I take it, is with us on this one. We’d make a comparable argument about the relevance of Leavis, although for a slightly different strain of English professor (a little more Raymond Williams-esque).

To the extent that we can recognize the capacity of object-centered study to organize inter-disciplinary collaboration and departmental formation (itself a collaborative practice), we’re intrigued by Ransom et al. We might go farther and say that these Ransom et al. established the default mode of collaboration in English. They helped make it possible (how, exactly…) for English professors to think of themselves as collaborating most profoundly with the literary objects they study. Such professors do so as part of a collective composed of similar close readers, of course, so even discrete pairs of scholar and poem are part of something bigger. That collaborative model worked for more than a half century, in that it facilitated the growth of English and other similarly collaborative disciplines/departments. Does it still work today?

Against the object:
Objects balkanize the humanities. Their very capacity to help us group into departments and specializations divides and excludes even as it brings certain scholars together. That’s not a problem, per se, but it can be in certain circumstances. I think this balkanization tends to be entrenched now, such that it can make more plastic collaborative dynamics hard to fit into our existing institutional structure.

Objects tell us to stay in our lanes. They make us recognizable (film scholar, novel scholar) which can be good but also limiting. Our specialization becomes a kind of professional identity. With all the benefits and costs implied.

I have a fantasy in which we become more specialized and, as a result, less self-sufficient. If we are expert in something really small, doesn’t that mean we’ll see the greater need to work in groups? To stop pretending that any of us could possibly write a book on our own and to start making more visible collaboration that currently exists the better to manage it in the future?

I’m not interested in reproducing the English department or the humanities as they have been, in short. Objects are part of that legacy I’m willing to consider living without.

Living with Hierarchy:

Mark wrote:

Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

Graphic Artist Two iconographically invalidates as bad faith Billy’s semantic negation of competition, while leaving the imperative “Collaboration!” untouched. I like this second interpretation. It seems to be of a piece with Graphic Artist Two’s cynicism: a reminder that while collaboration might be valued over competition it cannot be opposed to it, since would-be-collaborators begin from a position in a competitive hierarchy with which they may unwittingly collaborate despite avowals to the contrary.

If that’s cynicism, then I’m cynical. There’s nothing about collaborative practice that mandates equality even if collaboration invokes the common good in principle. We’re talking about collaboration that takes place within and connected to the university, a meritocratic institution, a hierarchy-generating machine. Unless we think meritocracy just completely incompatible with the common good, we’re stuck with something like this dynamic. And something like this critique. No?

John

Collaboration

Dear John,

I recently got notes from Ralph Berry about our presentation at Florida State. The value we place on “collaboration” was a central topic. Ralph reminded me of the Q&A in which some questioners pointed out that “collaboration” does not have a purely positive connotation. Sometimes “collaborators” are enemies of the cause. There’s a big difference between those who collaborate with “us” and those who collaborate with “them,” but, at least in the fictions that deal with this problem, it’s not always easy to tell who’s who. In Casablanca, for example, Louis collaborates with the Nazis right up to the end when he and Rick begin again, but of course this beautiful new start is possible because he and Rick have been collaborating all along. And although Rick  says he sticks his neck out for no one and seems to be quite a loner, he’s clearly an arch-collaborator, forming ad hoc partnerships and knitting them together so that Ilsa and Lazlo can catch their plane. Collaboration entails an idea of the common good and an epistemological uncertainty about it.

This twofold proposition is encapsulated in the photo we showed during out talk. (I’ve added it here before, but you suggested we table discussion . . . until now!) The image captures a struggle to define the terms of collaboration. Graphic Artist One (Billy) sets collaboration over competition. In denying Billy anonymity, Graphic Artist Two negates his statement by disallowing the standpoint from which he makes it. The idea here is that persons belonging to the 1% have no authority to assert the value collaboration over competition. Such a statement is hypocritical because the 1% benefit from a competitive process that unfairly privileges them above the 99%. Probably there is more going on outside the frame. We are free to imagine the Graphic Artist Two feels an animosity toward Billy that far exceeds, and may be largely unrelated to, their relationships to the distribution of wealth. In any case, it seems that Billy wants to be one of “us,” while Graphic Artist Two insists, no, you are one of “them,” a collaborator with the competitors. This interpretation assumes that “Collaboration!” and “NOT COMPETITION” have the same author. The handwriting looks the same, although the shift to all caps may introduce an ambiguity: a different time of writing or simply a matter of emphasis? The line through “competition” presents a more serious conundrum. Are we to regard it as part of Graphic Artist One’s initial statement–an iconographic negation of competition to underscore the semantic negation of the “not”? Or is this part of Graphic Artist Two’s statement? If the later, we can understand it as a kind of double negative. Graphic Artist Two iconographically invalidates as bad faith Billy’s semantic negation of competition, while leaving the imperative “Collaboration!” untouched. I like this second interpretation. It seems to be of a piece with Graphic Artist Two’s cynicism: a reminder that while collaboration might be valued over competition it cannot be opposed to it, since would-be-collaborators begin from a position in a competitive hierarchy with which they may unwittingly collaborate despite avowals to the contrary. The image-arugment thus encodes the complex proposition that “collaboration” entails an opposition, a “them,” and that the ground for the us-them distinction is inherently unstable. It is easy to break collaborations apart by denying the principle commonality that unites them. It is perhaps equally easy to find alternatively commonalities, grounds for collaboration where none seemed to exist. Which is to say, I suppose, that collaborations exist as they are practiced and not as they are planned or defined.

According to Ralph, our emphasis on “collaboration” sounded a bit like Billy’s when we made a “them” out of defenders of disciplinary objects.  To the extent that these folks are trying to figure out how disciplines work, he pointed out, they could be seen as collaborating with us. He offered Ransom’s “Criticism, Inc.” as a test case. We follow the crowd in presenting Ransom as a mid-century professionalizer who equated English departments with the work of criticism (as opposed to history or appreciation) and the work of criticism with keeping poetry from “being killed by prose.” I continue to find it telling that Ransom defines “criticism” mostly through a set of prohibitions. Be that as it may, I think Ralph’s got a point that no matter how low we estimate Ransom’s approach, it is notably self-conscious in saying what English should be as a professional endeavor. Above all, Ranson’s a reformer:

Professors of literature are learned but not critical men. The professional morale of this part of the university staff is evidently low. It is as if, with conscious or unconscious cunning, they had appropriated every avenue of escape from their responsibility which was decent and official; so that it is easy for one of them without public reproach to spend a lifetime in compiling the data of literature and yet rarely or never commit himself to a literary judgment.

Nevertheless it is from the professors of literature, in this country the professors of English for the most part, that I should hope eventually for the erection of intelligent standards of criticism. It is their business.

Do we collaborate with Ransom in trying to figure out 1) what it means to be an English professor and 2) how this could be made more satisfying work?  I think we might when we use him to call attention to assumptions that continue to inform the practice of the discipline, even if few current practitioners would explicitly avow the whole “Criticism, Inc.” package.

Mark