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?


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