Monthly Archives: July 2012


4. Endorsing your Thesis

Dear Mark,

So next up in our 5-point investigation into the Harvard Redbook aka General Education in a Free Society would be your fourth item:

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.”

I think that you mostly propose a research agenda here rather than the need to fine-tune our rhetoric, which has I think largely been what’s wanted on the other items thus far. I know that these are not entirely separate enterprises, as your eagerness to make 3. about your Lippmann-Dewey argument in Love Rules suggests.

Pending new evidence, therefore, I hereby endorse your hypothesis that “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.’

Where would this new evidence come from?

I think we’ve read most of the pertinent accounts of the period and know what we think about Graff, et al. (We tend to think they are as guilty of reducing the humanities to English as the 1945 educators to whom you refer.)

It is probably time to sit down and (re)read Practical Criticism, and plug that in to what we already know and argue about Leavis.

Like Leavis, Richards loses the local institutional battle but wins the war, Harpham notes in The Humanities and the Dream of America: most of the Redbook’s recommendations were rejected by Harvard faculty, “including the idea of requiring a course on the humanities, the course Richards had been teaching as an elective: Humanities 1A ‘Sources of Our Common Thought: Homer, The Old Testament, and Plato'” (161). What to make of this fact, given the impact Harpham also thinks the Redbook had on humanities programs more generally. What too, given your thesis, to make of Richards’s sense of a humanities capacious enough to include classical Greek epic and philosophy as well as the Bible, not limited to “English literature” at all? One place to look to answer these questions would be Higher Education for American Democracy, aka “The Truman Report,” published in 1947, which replayed arguments codified in the Redbook. Another might be New Critical writing that talked about how they distinguished their sometimes more restrictive version of the humanities (more English, I’d say) from that of Richards.

There’s another question to ask here, namely, How long after 1945 do we think your hypothesis holds? Harpham recommends a couple of 1964 documents we might look at: J.H. Plumb’s Crisis in the Humanities and the ACLS Commission on the Humanities. These might help with our sense that we lose the thread a little bit in the 50s and 60s before feeling like we know what’s happening again by the 1980s.

Another way to think about your hypothesis would be to remember what we know of the contraction and expansion in “English” curricula during the second half of the twentieth century. We think, as your hypothesis suggests, that in 1945 the English curriculum had contracted from the experimental (and in today’s terms inter-disciplinary) courses of the 1910s and 20s, and that as it contracted it paradoxically came to stand in for the humanities as a whole. How does your hypothesis allow us to think about 1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education. Such things as “theory and context” obviously do their part to shake things up in English even as English loses its centrality in the humanities. Sort of. Internal to English, we still often compose syllabi made up of, exactly, great books and their literary competitors. My guess is that if you look at Gen Ed requirements for many schools such surveys are still treated as central to if less exclusively the heart of humanities study.

In sum, I believe that your hypothesis points to an argument we know how to make, but we need to do a little bit more reading to ensure we’re right.

Your point 5. is the mass culture point. I’m eager to move on and talk about that.

What do you think?


3. Humanists Should Inhabit the Present, not the Early Republic

Dear John,

After too long a hiatus, let me try to pick up this thought where you left off. You wondered about the complex genealogy of this quotation and marveled at its ability to balance (which is to say manage) Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives:

An ideal but not impossible vision of American society might see it as made up of myriad smaller societies representing between them all the arts and insights, all the duties and self-dedications, of civilized men. It would be in order that they might participate in some of these, quite as much as for making a living, that education would prepare young people, and this participation would in turn be the door to the good life. (98)

I think I can fill in some of the genealogy. To me the quotation highlights the some the more troubling aspects of Red Book rhetoric.

In particular, it dodges the central governance question. The idea here, I take it, is that the perception of civilized unity inculcated by general education will allow the myriad small societies to work in concert to open that good-life door. Yet all actually existing societies I know about comprise groups with competing practices, values, and interests, even if they may be said to be united by other practices, values, and interests. The Red Book’s authors may hope that general education will provide a foundation for the adjudication of competing group interests. They do not, however, envision plausible mechanisms whereby generally educated Americans might meaningfully participate in such feats of adjudication, nor is such judgment the kind of thing that general education in the humanities or social sciences seems particularly designed to encourage. The emphasis is on unifying works of durable value. If general education does not equip generally educated citizens to question what is meant by “the good life” and for whom, then “unity” and “civilization” become alibis for the status quo.

In the hope that functioning small societies might  through a vague process of magnetic conduction improve the common weal, I hear the echoes of Charles Beard’s college textbook American Government and Politics, which went through six editions between 1911 and 1931. Beard taught Arthur Schlesinger, the historian on the Red Book collective, when the later was a graduate student at Columbia in the early 1910s. It may be Schlesinger who gives the Red Book its organizing “Jeffersonian” and “Jacksonian” metaphors. His autobiography could offer a clue. In any case,  in an epilog entitled “How can citizens play well their part in the development of American political society?,” the 1931 edition of American Government and Politics confronts a problem of bureaucracy that Beard had addressed the year before in American Leviathan. To whit: the machinery of the state has grown too vast, and its mechanisms too sophisticated, to be susceptible to informed direction by the masses of citizens. The sorts of participation idealized in the Early Republic’s vision of democracy–public debate, elections, and so on–seem feeble in the face of increasingly sophisticated public relations efforts by political parities and pressure groups, not to mention an ever-increasing number of bureaus only nominally controlled by elected officials.  How could young citizens hope to affect a political culture so obviously controlled by experts paid to control it? Beard’s advice is to join “small societies”–political parties as well as business, professional, labor, and civic groups–and to hope to influence the broader direction of politics by influencing these smaller groups.

I am  proposing that the Red Book marks itself as a twentieth-century work in its hope that the kind of political participation that we might think of as a hallmark of neo-liberalism will secure the type of republic idealized by classical liberalism.  In the US context, probably all wishes along these lines respond in one way or another to the argument between Walter Lippmann and John Dewey inaugurated by Lippmann’s 1922 Public Opinion. I’ve written about this at length elsewhere (in Love Rules), and I won’t drag you through it all again. We may never know a more effective critic of Jeffersonian ideals than Lippmann, who treats the entire edifice as a massive PR exercise that convinced Americans to confuse the procedures outlined in the Constitution with self-governance. The PR machine was perfected under Jackson, he argues, when the political parties learned how to use Jeffersonian imagery to legitimate themselves. Henceforth, voting on agendas shaped and decided behind closed doors could count as public rule. Lippmann’s overarching critique centers on the power of media to define what citizens can know about the world that they are invited to help “govern.” Famously, for Lippmann  media do not promote communication so much as circulate stereotypes–reductive views of the world that get mistaken for the world itself. After Lippmann, I think, any serious argument about democracy had to take on board a theory of mediation. Certainly Dewey does in his riposte, which advocates a program of continuous community-building education more radical than the Red Book authors could countenance, but that probably informs their appeal to education as an instrument of unity.

In later posts, we’ll deal with the Red Book’s limited treatment of mass culture as a competitor to general education in uniting American society. Here, I’ll just note  that the issue of mediation is a serious and indicative omission from their account of general education’s supposed democratic benefit. To change how people are governed requires changing the shared signs and symbols that make modern governance possible. I think it possible that the Red Book authors know this perfectly well and see themselves as engaged in such an adventure. They just don’t think that knowledge about how this works this should be part of general education. Their proposed course on American Democracy, for example, leaps over the Lippmann-Dewey debate. Students will read only defenses of classic liberalism: Tocqueville, Bryce, and Myrdal’s An American Dilemma (219).

References to Jefferson and Jackson make it seem like the Red Book authors are talking about education’s contribution to a long heritage of American democracy. They are not. As they sometimes acknowledge explicitly, they are really talking about the role of expanding twentieth-century educational  institutions in identifying and encouraging talent and in defining and inculcating social norms. In this project, educational institutions have a great many competitors as well as collaborators. A real commitment to democracy would require an educational program encouraging much harder questions of actually existing governance in the present.

All that said,  good management must agree that education should be about more than making a living, that it should encourage people to discover affiliations with one another, and such affiliations ought to renew the evergreen challenge of “the good life.”




3. Humanists Should Aspire to Balance (which is to say Manage) Jeffersonian and Jacksonian Imperatives

Dear Mark,

I’ve been struggling with the scale of item 3. I’d love to suggest that this was mostly your fault, but you’re totally right that the Redbook authors are the ones responsible for binding matters of governmentality, normalization, and the notion of merit. We would do well to recognize that accomplishment. You wrote,

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).

You would make managers of us all.

Certainly, the contemporary tendency is to separate Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives rather than to balance them.

Exhibit A: pressure on community colleges to stop thinking of themselves as part of higher ed more generally and consider themselves a venue where people are trained for “middle-skill jobs.” Writing in The New York Times, Joe Nocera argues that for community colleges the “raison d’être has always been to help grease the wheels of social mobility.” Once, “in their earlier incarnation,” community colleges did this by serving as “a passageway to a university degree. (They used to be called junior colleges, after all.)” Now, however, “with the skills gap such a pressing problem — and a high school education so clearly inadequate for the modern economy — the task of teaching those skills is falling to community colleges. There really isn’t another institution as well positioned to play that role.” Nocera seems fine with that. Better than fine: “Community colleges can be our salvation, if only we let them.” To think of community colleges this way brackets “training” as well as Jackson. Training here includes, “important soft skills that the upper-middle-class take for granted, like how to interact with colleagues in an office setting.” Behave like a Jefferson, even if your average ability keeps you from attending his university. (You wrote in your last post that “The proposition that a healthy nation needs general education that includes the humanities is alive and well.” I don’t disagree, but do think we’re in the process of restricting who gets that general education beyond high school.)

Exhibit B: we are tasked with understanding how democracy and higher ed intersect every time the liberal arts college gets exported to non-democratic polities (NYU in Abu Dhabi, etc.). We are further compelled to wonder if Jacksonian principles of raising the average are in peril in the likes of Quebec, where the daily protests of French-speaking college students and would-be college students have garnered administrative/governmental responses ranging from stick (managing the blow of tuition increases with new formats for student debt) to bigger stick (new laws that criminalize protest). Much talk in the papers recently about whether and how the student strikes will shape elections in the fall. Is this the democracy the Redbook was talking about?

Your point, regardless of whether these ripped from the headlines Exhibits seem germane, was that Harpham underplays the Jacksonian side of the equation. “No merit without normalization, the Red Book reminds us,” you write in 3. And in your last post you continued the thought in claiming,

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.

It is possible that the bond market agrees with you. Moody’s not only expects “governance and leadership clashes to increase in coming years as the [education] sector’s ability to grow revenues dwindles,” but also argues that at UVA “the final resolution affirms the stability of the university’s faculty-centric governance model that will allow it to continue to effectively compete with the nation’s leading universities for top students, faculty, research grants and philanthropic support.”

“’Democracy’ in the Red Book is not centrally a problem of ‘self-government,'” you argue, “rather, it is a question of proper training, a management proposition (see, e.g., 93)”.

I agree with this and find it offers tantalizing propositions to rethink the role of faculty as managers and maybe even teaching as a form of administration. The Redbook authors urge us to “hold firmly in mind the final purpose of all education: to improve the average and speed the able while holding common goals before each” (90). That is, absolutely, a management problem. It can be difficult to think about the relationship between what goes on in the undergraduate classroom or in the curriculum with what is happening in boardrooms at UVA and in the streets of Montreal. I wonder how much that disconnect owes to the conceptual separation of teaching and service (as the administrative portion of our job is bizarrely known), and with the institutional bifurcation of managerial and professorial labor. I’ll lean just slightly farther out on this branch with help from an entry to that Chronicle forum on inequality. Anthony Carnevale asserts that “College education is becoming a passive participant in the reproduction of economic privilege. Taken one at time, postsecondary institutions are fountains of opportunity; taken together, they are a highly stratified bastion of privilege.” The problem here, it seems, is one of passivity as much as inequality. Or, the problem is passivity that keeps us from thinking about the sort of inequality (we call it meritocracy) we’re invested in and could be more aggressively managing.

Let me wind up this (rambling) post with my favorite passage in the Redbook. On page 98, the authors provide a vision of the America they think their model of higher education might produce and reproduce.

An ideal but not impossible vision of American society might see it as made up of myriad smaller societies representing between them all the arts and insights, all the duties and self-dedications, of civilized men. It would be in order that they might participate in some of these, quite as much as for making a living, that education would prepare young people, and this participation would in turn be the door to the good life.

There’s surely a complicated genealogy behind this model, but what strikes me is how the Redbook appears to consider the movement of students among classrooms and majors as a kind of training for participation in more various large and small societies upon graduation. What a compelling balance of Jackson and Jefferson: the Jacksonian common goal of Jeffersonian differentiation both organizes the Redbook university and the Redbook society.