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?


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