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?”


2 thoughts on “1. The scope of the project is vast.

  1. Pingback: Specialization is not the problem » Humanities after Hollywood

  2. Pingback: Specialization is not the problem | Humanities After Hollywood

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