Category Archives: Red Book


Specialization is not the problem

Last month, a cloud of doom shadowed the humanities: it seemed that undergraduates were turning away in droves. No longer. Having more carefully examined the numbers, participants in “the summer of humanities debates” have discovered there actually was no alarming decline in undergraduate humanities degrees.

This discovery has not brought an end to crisis talk, however. Instead, one senses a shift in target from undergraduate curricula to graduate education and a constellation of issues surrounding expert status, including the nebulous issue of reputation. The humanities lack respect, commentators fear, and scholarly emphasis on research specialization is largely to blame.

To make such a claim, we argue, is to confuse the problem of specialization with that of audience. As all students of media should know, knowledge cannot be controlled from its point of production. Colleges and universities provide specialized training of ever-increasing variety. They should not behave as if any discipline, or narrow set of disciplines, could secure a general education for all comers. Nor, in practice, do they. Yet discussion of the humanities crisis continues to strike that chord for a broader audience.

Michael Bérubé’s recent Chronicle of Higher Education column provides the exemplary pivot in this summer’s debates. After making clear that there is no degree problem, Bérubé reengages an earlier description of crisis:

There is indeed a crisis in the humanities. I have said as much in this very space: It is a crisis in graduate education, in prestige, in funds, and most broadly, in legitimation. But it is not a crisis of undergraduate enrollment.

Bérubé attributes the “crisis of legitimation,” in part, to misleading and alarmist rhetoric about falling numbers, which he rightly perceives as an alibi: “the real lament is almost always about recent intellectual and curricular developments in the humanities, and the enrollment numbers are little more than a pretext for jeremiads.” The “recent developments” he has in mind are, in truth, not so recent. They are familiar terms from the culture wars–“Theory, race/gender/class/sexuality, jargon, popular culture”–which, as Bérubé gleefully insinuates, probably increased undergraduate interest in the humanities during the 1980s rather than the reverse.

They also diversified the humanities: Bérubé rightly marvels at the breadth and variety depicted in contemporary NCES data and at the “underacknowledged” growth of the Visual and Performing Arts.

Disdain for such diversity characterizes the jeremiads that Bérubé derides. Mark Bauerlein laments “the diminishing status of the humanities” and attributes this trajectory to “professors who can’t penetrate the narrow careerism of freshmen; administrators who foster a utilitarian outlook on education; an adversarial, social-critique curriculum that turns students off; an excessive focus on research.” Lee Siegel in the Wall Street Journal proffers the reductio ad absurdum of this position by arguing that training and research in literature (which here predictably stands in for the humanities as a whole) is entirely beside the point. “Every other academic subject requires specialized knowledge and a mastery of skills and methods,” Siegel declares: “Literature requires only that you be human.” Readers hoping to ferret out the program of postsecondary education that led Siegel to this preposterous conclusion should consult his article.

Robin Wilson’s recent Chronicle column (requires subscription), “Humanities Scholars See Declining Prestige, Not a Lack of Interest” synthesizes the contention that a crisis of “legitimacy” derives from humanists’ specializations. In Bérubé’s version of the legitimation crisis, there’s plenty of blame to go around–the English department shares it with administrators and culture warriors. But Wilson is happy to stack up Bérubé, Bauerlein, and numerous other experts to focus blame on the alleged inability of humanists to engage a general audience.

Bauerlein supplies Wilson’s argument with its keystone:

“Can you find me a dean who is going to come into the office and say, ‘I am really, really proud of what our English professors are doing with their research, and I want to send them to talk to alumni groups about their latest books’?” Mr. Bauerlein asks. “There is no audience for humanities research, no consumption, no measure of impact anymore.”

Do not be distracted, gentle reader, by the manifold wrongness of this statement.

Never mind the retrograde conflation of “English professors” with “humanities research”–your institution may not be publicizing the efforts of faculty members working in Arabic, say, or Theater.

Never mind that when Bauerlein says “English professors” he cannot possibly mean those creative writers who teach in English departments and find their latest books splashed across university home pages.

Never mind that deans ready to trumpet the works of their humanists actually do exist or that measures of “impact” have multiplied as quickly as the requirement that scholars demonstrate it.

Never mind all that, but do notice that Bauerlein’s hyperbole makes a valid point: much of contemporary humanist research is not addressed to “alumni groups.”

This hardly makes our scholarship unique. Much of the research that goes on across any university is equally opaque to donors: everyone from the astrophysicist to the zoologist has reason to observe that what seems like crucial scholarship within a discipline can look esoteric from without.

Demonstrating the value of scholarship for non-specialist audiences requires effort, and in many cases pitching professorial research entails more effort than faculty, deans, development officers, press agents, and alumni organizations are willing to commit.

These various parties are nowhere in the framing of the problem provided by Wilson, and for good reason: to foreground the range of mediators involved in presenting scholarship to general audiences directs attention away from “the humanities” toward a wider and more complicated array of institutions and actors.

Whatever else a crisis of “legitimacy” does, it typically keeps the focus narrowly on “us,” the humanists, and in a manner that rewards a readership drawn in by the recent coverage of humanities crisis. “If there is no decline,” this readership might wonder, “then what’s the fuss?” Answer: trouble of another sort–decline in “prestige, not interest.” Begin the next round!

The imagined community of readers for a Chronicle article like Wilson’s is larger and more diverse than the “narrowly careerist” undergraduates of Bauerlein’s lament. Teachers and their students may well read her article, or Siegel’s in the Wall Street Journal, or David Brooks’s work in the New York Times, but they are not singled out. For these writers to successfully address their broad audiences, they need to provide a common reference point. “Crisis” does that work, generating the minimally shared grounding that enables Wilson and other writers, editors, newspapers and periodicals to rehearse a recognizable theme. In disagreeing with the way Wilson’s article presents “the crisis,” we too agree to reproduce this theme.

Those familiar with the past century of humanities work on mediation (or language, or form) should find it easy enough to follow our reasoning here. Bauerlein, Bérubé, our humble selves, and all the rest may succeed in convincing particular readers of this or that, but as a group we are not well understood as engaged in persuasion, communication, or conversation. Rather, we map terrain, demarcate limits, establish some facts as settled and other as open for contestation. This process revises how “the humanities” get discussed in the venues where they get discussed. All of us who engage in such labor are genre workers, busily renovating the plots, dramatis personae, and mise-en-scene of the “humanities” that can be assumed when one sits down next to a reader of the Wall Street Journal.

The ability to do this genre work has very little to do with research specialization. People trained as journalists, literature professors, and biologists are all equally capable of revising and reproducing the theme of “the humanities in crisis.” But, of course, not every capable individual is equally well positioned to intervene. The ability to update the genre has a good deal to do with processes beyond any individual’s control–institutional sanction, editorial selection, good timing, and so on. Working across institutional boundaries and sectors only amplifies the layers of mediation between any writer’s particular contribution and substantial changes to what any writer can assume her readership knows.

Precisely because mediation is involved, the problem of “general” versus “specialized” education is much better understood from the vantage point of consumption rather than knowledge production. Students enrolled in “Introduction to Film and Media” classes, readers of Cinema Journal, and viewers of The Daily Show are not only different audiences but different kinds of audiences. Different rules structure performances in these different domains, which means that research results–whether settled facts or challenging new interpretations–require different presentations in these different fora. That difference is determined not by what the researcher knows but by what the audience is imagined to know.

Notably, the audience imagined by “humanities in crises” coverage in the Chronicle and the major daily papers does not assume consensus about the content of “general education,” but does assume that the humanities’ mission is to anchor such a program. One frequently encounters claims that humanities education should enhance common culture, improve quality of life, and nurture an ability to engage in other than instrumental social transactions. One rarely meets consensus on what students should be reading, viewing, or listening to in pursuit of these aims–a problem sure to come up in any specialist discussion. As conducted in the press, the “generalization” vs. “specialization” debate largely emphasizes the social function humanities education is supposed to perform, rather than its content or methods.

True, conservative commentators are happy to dictate a reading list. Their champion listmaker is probably E. D. Hirsch, who has provided concerned parents a year-by-year syllabus from kindergarten on. The receivability of Hirsch’s initiative for a broad readership, and its marginality within professional scholarly practice, underscores a key assumption of the “humanities crisis” genre, namely, that “general education” will produce common culture through exposure to common works.

In the Chronicle et al., the logic of “great books” needs no explanation. “Great books” (or paintings, movies, plays, symphonies, etc.) tell readers they are in the presence of a humanist argument in the same way that song and dance numbers let audiences know they are watching a musical. At issue is not only the value of particular works, but also the type of knowledge and pleasure that circulates around and through them. The ability to talk about works others recognize as “great” is liable to make just about anyone feel smart.

Even those participants in the “crisis” debates who would never endorse a great books curriculum may be tempted to let its logic stand, rather than risk undermining its built-in case for the humanities’ redeeming social value.

It is fundamental category error, however, to assume that the rules for writing popular humanities arguments should also govern humanities research and curriculum design. If professional humanists learned nothing else from the culture wars, we should have learned that contemporary culture is far too various and complex to be controlled by a syllabus.  Contemporary humanities research offers a number of sophisticated ways of explaining not only what cultures past and present value, but also how those values have been contested and altered. This variety should not worry us: managing and explaining it is part of what we have to offer students and professionals in other disciplines. Nor should we flinch from contests over the content of “general education.” Where selection is required, debate should flourish.

What should worry us is the paranoid control fantasy that the “legitimacy crisis” layers over the “general education” narrative. It is bad for us to imagine that our problems could be solved by presenting a more homogenous front. This is a mid-century fantasy. It belongs to a moment when it was possible to imagine the uniformity of both the American college age population and the audience for mass media. A moment before, Ben Schmidt has recently reminded us, significant numbers of women began entering professional fields and the pre-professional programs that provided training in them. A moment before, furthermore, a whole range of demographic shifts diversified university student populations and an array of programs organized around geographic and demographic areas of study reoriented the university towards the problem of difference. It was precisely in response to such developments that conservative journalists, bureaucrats, politicians, and professors reanimated midcentury rhetoric in the 1980s.

Before it looked like a hostile reaction to academe, the dream of uniformity led the authors of 1945’s Harvard Redbook to envision the entire US education system–kindergarten through graduate school–as an alternative to the threat presented by mass culture’s organizing power. The secret to doing so was to standardize what was taught, especially at lower levels, and to thus answer the competing process of homogenization that was happening via network television. It is important to remember that Harvard never bought this program. The Truman administration picked up some of the Redbook’s recommendations, and important policy discussions certainly reflected its approach. Nonetheless, 1960s and 70s changes to academic funding such as the Pell grant program had more sweeping effects on the university than anyone’s plan for general education reform.

Just like network television, the idea of general education lives on largely as a reminder of how different the world is today. Professors and education administrators work in multiversities whose organizational structure is designed to reproduce specialization. Students get their introduction to this structure when they begin to think about their degrees, and they will continue to inhabit the problem of specialization when they graduate.

The authors of this spring’s Harvard report “Mapping the Future” are right to observe that humanists ought to be thinking about the place of their curricula in this context. For the authors of this report, the transition from high school humanities to college humanities at Harvard seems particularly in need of consideration: “Over the last 8 years,” the authors of the report write, “more than half of students who as pre-Freshmen indicate an intention to concentrate in a Humanities concentration end up in a different division” (8). Students have more choices at college that in high school, and humanities professors can always do more to explain the relation between the two. Likewise, they face an increasingly complex and important task in explaining how the choices students make in college prepare them for futures that include work.

These days students need less help understanding “common culture” than they do appraising the relation among specialized sorts of study and specialized sorts of labor. Life affords many opportunities to reflect on the groups to which one belongs; fewer opportunities to evaluate competing ways of understanding such groups. “Citizenship,” the shibboleth of Cold War educational policy debates, is liable to seem a different kind of activity for students in Political Science, Journalism, Economics, and English literature classes. Accordingly, the work of managing the media relations, party organization, policy formation, and campaign strategy through which citizenship can be enacted falls to experts in various fields. Citizens, students, and professors alike confront the problem of relating the proliferation of specializations within the academy to an increasingly differentiated world of work.

The problem of specialization looks different at the undergraduate and graduate levels, but its urgency is apparent for both. For undergraduates, who should be encouraged to explore a diversity of specializations, the primary challenge lies in selecting among them. For graduate students, who have already chosen, the primary challenge lies in understanding the professional paths afforded by that choice. There are options other than academic careers. Although Stanford’s proposal to require graduate students in the humanities to choose whether they are training to become scholars or something else may not be the best approach, it has the merit of admitting up front that, as with undergraduate degrees, not all PhD candidates in a particular program are training for the same kinds of jobs.

Professional humanists are not specifically trained to address a general public, although it is certainly true that they can cultivate that skill. What allows Bauerlein or Brooks or Siegel to write their journalistic commentary is not mastery of Shakespeare, but rather rhetorical training that might be acquired in any major that privileges argumentative writing, many of which are in the humanities.

Op-Ed commentators are specialists. Their specialization does not keep them from addressing their audiences, but rather enables it. Any specialization can lay claim to general conversation once connected with that audience. Narrowness did not prevent Jacques Derrida from becoming a celebrity, although neither was Derrida’s celebrity entirely of his own making. The public intellectual, like the Op-Ed columnist or the Hollywood actor, succeeds not by virtue of personal talent alone but by dint of a system of relations that gives that talent an audience. (David Shumway was right to call the academic version of this a star system [requires subscription]). Humanities programs train the managers and editors and scriptwriters and many of the other experts who participate in the reproduction of such star systems as much as they train the specialists who become stars.

The humanities are not outside contemporary networks of experts, in other words, but very much participants in, contributors to, and sometimes managers of them. Professional humanists participate in meritocracy, whether they want to or not.

Meritocracy should not be confused with elitism. It dreams not of enduring power but of provisional authority. Merit is situational. It favors talent but rewards competence. It ranks, but also standardizes. A properly functioning meritocracy should be less obsessed with identifying “excellence” than with improving ordinary performance. It should care more about the aggregate than the outliers. It should worry more about the results it produces than how well it is loved.

It would be good for professional humanists to nurture their meritocratic fantasies. But to do so, they will need to give up the midcentury dream of a standardized “general education” that required academics to disavow their role in shaping the very mass culture they opposed.

The academic humanities launch students into a division of labor. If this seems a controversial assertion, it is because it cuts against the generic argument. Like a good guy in a black hat, it runs counter to the popular case for the humanities’ value. Focusing on the undergraduate experience, this case assumes that exposure to great works will generate common culture. It wants to give humanists the job of preparing students not for work but for citizenship, life, or what-have-you. Universities no longer work this way, if indeed they ever did.

Put differently, one might say that if general education requirements prepare students for “life,” they do so by acquainting them with a variety of specialized knowledges–many of which start from incommensurable premises. Concentration in a major confers some form of credentialed expertise–a specialization. We do no service to general ed students, undergraduate majors, and graduate students when we deny the existence of this differential training. Regretting our specializations is not the way to improve our reputations on campus or in the pages of the Wall Street Journal. Instead, we need to be clear about how our specializations enable humanities students to go to work. With others.

Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” and Big Tent Humanities

Dear Mark,

This new Harvard report rejects the version of the humanities that welcomed you and me into the academy as graduate students in the 1990s, and that may be a good thing.

Back then, “theory” provided the means to turn humanities disciplines into very big tents, places where one felt emboldened to study just about anything. Harvard’s “Mapping the Future” departs from that recent past, offering instead an account of humanities disciplines organized around “Great Works,”  defined as “works whose transmission in our classrooms we consider vitally important” (33). It is possible to agree that this is a good idea even if canon building and list making seem to you the least interesting thing that humanities study can do. The reason? By dismantling the big tents (and especially turning away from big English), this report demands that we rethink interdisciplinary experiment as well as disciplinary curricula. The report would be even better at doing this, you rightly argue in your recent post, if the authors of “Mapping the Future” made any mention of twentieth-century humanities attention to mass media:

Exactly like their 1945 forebears [in the Redbook], these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about a century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.

I agree with you, and think we’re pretty much on the same page when it comes to the strengths and weaknesses of the history of humanities study sketched by “Mapping the Future.” The report is oblivious about much that has happened in the twentieth century, but its tracking of what can persuasively be called humanist work from classical Greece through medieval Europe and the Renaissance right up to the founding of Art History as a discipline in the nineteenth century is impressive and vital. Our project to generate a 20th-century genealogy of the humanities ought to find allies in scholars capable of noting the significance of the 12th-century study of “modern fiction (Latin integumentum), along with the modern European vernaculars,” of the way 14th-century “Humanism dedicated itself to the cultivation of certain applied practices (e.g., rhetoric) deemed useful to ‘good government,’” and of a 19th-century “secular” university including “Comparative Literature and Linguistics…alongside classical philology” (12-15). It does not seem wrong to say that in this history managing cultural media is entwined with questions of managing populations, even if the Harvard authors don’t put matters quite in those terms.

They don’t put matters quite in those terms, however, and do not provide an alternative means for explaining how engagement with civic life follows from mastery of a canon. The report is premised on what, following Elaine Scarry, it calls “the simple truth that ‘the main work of the Humanities is to ensure that the [great] books are placed in the hands of each incoming wave of students and carried back out to sea’” (32-33). We submit that this “simple truth” is not a 12th century one but rather a 19th and mid-20th century way of thinking. It derives from and responds to the proliferation of mass media.

It may be that I’m just not a listmaker–I’m no more engaged by the process of deciding what books our PhD students need to know for their preliminary exams than I am in debating whether Federer belongs on the list of greatest tennis players ever. But it is hard not to conclude that limiting the impact of recent intellectual interventions to questions of what we analyze in our respective fields is, well, limiting.

As the profiles of our disciplines shrink, we might also turn to those works that magnify the discipline, sometimes known as the canon. That revisited canon would of course be duly enlarged in the light of gender, ethnic and geographical challenges made to the very notion of the canon since the 1970s. (No movement has so thoroughly and dynamically energized the Humanities as feminism, since the 1970s.) Every new work for which persuasive claims are made changes the very structure of the canon: as T. S. Eliot argued, with a new work, “something…happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” (32)

Russell Berman argues that the Harvard report is not interested in refighting culture wars, and that seems true to me. However, it is also worth observing that the report has absorbed a version of those wars in which what was truly at stake was objects of study rather than methods. What Berman finds bracing (“Bolder, however, than the rejection of departmental tunnel vision is the report’s call to revisit the canon.”), I find disappointing. Are we really at a moment when adding some extra books to our lists counts as bold?

Hard not to notice, moreover, that “Mapping the Future” fails to practice what it preaches: the salient cultural examples in this document are largely drawn from a hoary old collection of classical, Renaissance, and T.S. Eliot works.

Still, it does seem true that the humanities would be a different place if each unit within it were better defined by its media examples. The blurring of disciplinary boundaries that allowed one to read across media might be harder to accomplish if it was clearer that Comparative Literature had its examples and Film Studies had its examples and Art History had its examples and poaching was less easy than it could be when justified by a methodological ism. Theory could sometimes make it appear less important for scholars to discriminate between a poem and a movie and a painting. No more, the Harvard report might be read as saying.

If debates within English centered on questions about what works “we consider vitally important,” it would certainly be harder to conflate English study with Humanities study as a whole. Doing English would look incommensurate with being interdisciplinary, because disciplinary borders defined more emphatically by kinds of media examples would be harder to cross without knowing it. No more the presumption that because everything is a “text,” everything can be “read.”

If debates within English were limited to debates about canonicity, furthermore, it might be clearer that English is one small department among many others, rather than the biggest of big tents within the humanities.

When the report turns to the question of what interdisciplinary work would entail in this climate, method helpfully returns. Not, however, as a property of specific disciplines, mind you, but as a technique for moving among them. “In addition to permitting the combination of skills, interdisciplinarity, understood as a method, could be considered a skill in itself” (35). Leverage that skill, and you will see new things, be able to make new arguments about various cultural examples, and respond to changing conditions, the report suggests.

Allegiances among disciplines sometimes need to shift in order to tackle (or untangle) complex questions. Paradigm shifts or revolutions in human knowledge often came about owing to the consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material. (35)

Interdisciplinarity understood as method is the counterweight to disciplinarity associated with canonical examples. This formulation has benefits that the report only begins to perceive. It could have allowed “Mapping the Future” to offer a more persuasive account of feminism’s impact, not to mention all the other isms that altered humanities research in the second half of the twentieth century. These surely altered how we analyze our examples as much as what those examples were. From the standpoint of disciplinary distinction, however, this methodological impact was a major problem. The isms with their methods were stronger than the disciplines with their examples.

(As a sidebar, when I recently moderated a panel on interdisciplinarity at Davis, one of the matters the panelists discussed was precisely this question of whether method was the key to crossing disciplinary borders [so argued Mike Ziser, an Environmental Studies / 18th and 19th Century American Literature person] or whether examples were better at enabling dialog across disciplines defined by their methods [this was what Ellen Hartigan-O’Connor, a historian on the panel described happening at a conference where scholars approached with their competing methods a particular sort of textile].)

As much as I’m intrigued by this division of labor, I repeat my complaint that the list making version of disciplinary activity is boring. That said, I am also convinced by arguments (made by, among others, you) that questions like What is film? are rightly understood as organizing disciplines and that to move among disciplines should mean considering the range of positions those questions engender. I sometimes miss the big tent that theory enabled with terms like “text” and “discourse,” but I readily acknowledge that using those terms as magic keys often leads to sloppy thinking. And I’ve certainly tried to keep the “What is” questions in the forefront of my mind as I engage in a project that deals with movies, video games, and novels in addition to position papers, surveys, maps, photographs, and other media associated with urban planning and urban studies.

Last thing I’ll say, which loops back to why the Harvard authors cannot just come out and agree that they are for our idea of training students to manage media as a way of managing populations. Yes, they’d have to read our blog to know that was our idea. This circumstantial detail aside, they would also have to agree that they were suggesting how to train a humanities workforce when they proposed their balancing act between the disciplinary curation of great works and the interdisciplinary “consideration of questions or approaches that previously had been regarded as irrelevant to the understanding of any given body of material.”

In this light, one might consider the interaction between the skills they recommend advertising to undergrads (and campus administrators) and their version of the midcentury project of molding citizen subjects. Although the authors of “Mapping the Future” describe their intervention as more modest than the Redbook (because they focus on the humanities instead of attacking general education), they reproduce a 1940s argument that the humanities help achieve “some stable understanding of the aim of life (e.g., the responsible citizen in a free society)” while enabling us to simultaneously consider “what the best way to characterize and cultivate such an aim might be” (24). This grand vision is supplemented by a more pragmatic notion of “the transferrable value of formal skills from university to the professional world beyond college”:

• the ability to absorb, analyze and interpret complex artifacts or texts, often of foreign provenance;

• the capacity to write intelligently, lucidly, and persuasively;

• the ability to participate effectively in deliberative conversation;

• the capacity to speak intelligently, lucidly and persuasively. (50)

Of course these are things we train our students to do (and we regularly proclaim as much when asked to justify our continued existence to various review and accrediting entities). But “Mapping the Future” seems so close to declaring something much more interesting, namely, that the work we do administering our disciplines and their examples within the academy might prepare us for work in cultural administration outside it. I’m struck yet again by how hard it is to take that last step. And how much clearer the necessity of doing so seems if one focuses on methods, how Humanists work, rather than on their privileged examples.

Redbook Redux

Dear John,

The Harvard professors are at it again. A recently released report, The Teaching of the Arts and Humanities at Harvard College: Mapping the Future,” picks up the banner of the mid-century General Education in a Free Society, albeit with a narrower brief of defending a role for the Humanities, as opposed to all of general education. Most notably for our purposes, this recasting of the Redbook recapitulates its refusal to understand mass media research and teaching as a central part of the humanities project.

Once again, however, there is also much to admire.  There’s a resounding opener: “The Arts and Humanities teach us how to describe experience, how to evaluate it, and how to imagine its liberating transformation.” Not bad for a document written by a committee! The account, refreshingly, is not English-centered and takes a long, if limited, historical view.

Moreover, borrowing from the Humanities Indicators project, the authors provide a responsible summary of long term data on humanities bachelors’ degrees. We see that after a steep drop in the 1970s national humanities BAs as a percentage of the total number have been more or less flat for the past two decades, with a slight decline after 2008. As we’ve noted elsewhere, following James English, the national trend numbers look different if one compares rates of growth in particular areas to the total growth in completions. Harvard is atypical in this respect, in that it has not increased undergraduate degrees significantly over the past decade. In the context of this document, reporting the national trend as degree-share (as opposed to growth-share) demonstrates that Harvard’s numbers have seen a more significant decline than the national average, particularly if one includes History BAs in the Humanities (a wise move, in my view). Nonetheless, the authors reasonably conclude: “we have less a ‘crisis’ in the Humanities in Harvard College . . than a challenge and opportunity” (11).

They also provide a clear path for reform. Faculty are encouraged to look to the freshman experience in particular, as the numbers show that “would-be” humanists are lost (mostly to Social Science) during that first year. As Russell Berman points out here, the overall case that humanists can and should take responsibility for enrollment declines and work to reverse them is refreshing and useful.

Still, it’s really too bad that this Harvard working group hasn’t been following our blog.

The trouble begins with their survey of arguments against the Humanities. They list five. The last, “The Technological Argument,” they summarize thusly:

Human societies, both literate and non-literate, have universally understood themselves through works of art that require deep immersion. In the twenty-first century, however, deep immersion is no longer the order of the technological day. New technologies disfavor the long march of narrative, just as they militate against sustained imaginative engagement. Students born after 1990 will not read paper books; much more significantly, they might not read books at all. The study of the “deep-immersion” art forms is the study of shrinking, if not of dying arts. Instead of lamenting that phenomenon, we should adapt to it. If we support the Humanities, we should support media studies, not the study of the high arts. (5-6)

It’s not entirely clear whether the first sentence, with its dubious declaration of a universal form of art appreciation, is meant to gloss the argument they are against or to assert their own viewpoint. In either case, the equation of “deep immersion” with printed narratives must be a straw man. How could educated and alert 21st century persons fail to acknowledge the possibility of deeply immersive experiences of audio visual works (narrative and otherwise) as well as shallow experiences of print material? (I might as well confess that while I understand and value the kind of sustained reflection I think they are describing, the language of “deep immersion” makes me think of the sensory deprivation tanks in Altered States.)

Most vexing, however, is this summary’s construal of a different vision for the humanities–one that includes “media”–as an argument against the humanities. They cite Toby Miller here. Maybe his misleading jeremiad against the “Humanities One” of elite universities got under their skin.  Or maybe this is really directed against Cathy Davidson-style “new media change everything” rhetoric. In any case, the drawing up of sides here is all wrong and, it turns out, symptomatic.

Although the authors encourage humanists to stop fighting the culture wars, their framing of “media” vs. “high arts” belies their debt to the powerful mid-century framing of the humanities that started those wars in the first place. The Redbook, like New Criticism, wrote out myriad collaborative efforts across the developing Humanities and Social Science disciplines, efforts  to engage mass media and the populations they addressed. Only by ignoring this interdisciplinary history could anyone believe that there was a void at the heart of the humanities that only the close reading of literature could fill.

The authors follow their statistical analysis with a history lesson that repeats this exclusion of mass media by ignoring almost everything that has happened in the university in the last 100 years. Beginning with the incorporation of the “Liberal Arts” tradition in the Medieval university, they find the Humanities “approaching their modern form” in historical and philological inquiry of the fifteenth-cenutry (12). Interestingly, the description insists on the instrumental value of this knowledge, “intended to transform the world through humane, enlightened action” (13). The truly modern university arrives in the nineteenth century with secularization, the study of vernacular languages, and such disciplines as Art History (15). That’s it. The authors feel no need to follow the history of the Humanities into the twentieth-century in order to define them as:

(i) disinterested, critical scholarship designed to uncover historical truth, (ii) the instructor of technical, applicable skills, and (iii) as the promoter of enlightened, engaged civic action that trains students constructively to understand their own humanity and that of others. (15)

In truth, this tripartite definition owes a clear debt to the twentieth-century history that the authors’ decline to narrate. Aspect (iii) harkens back to the mid-twentieth-century Redbook rhetoric recently revitalized by Harpham. Aspect (ii) rebuts those who question the Humanities’ market value, while (i) sides with those who insist that freedom from the marketplace is necessary for the Humanities to function. The definition deftly–tactically–avoids lingering controversies of poststructuralism. It does not mention that “historical truth” will necessarily be plural, but those in-the-know may infer it. Similarly, “their own humanity and that of others,” manages rhetorically the conflict between those who imagine “the human” to name a unity and those who think it a set of differential relations. Above all, the past informing this definition rings in the assertion of a need to balance these three particular imperatives–a mission that made sense for the Humanities, as opposed to Liberal Arts, only after the research university began to split off the STEM and Social Science disciplines as progenitors of useful, specialized, technical knowledge.

In short, by closing the curtain on the twentieth century that intervenes between the modern universities’ emergence and the present, the Harvard professors bracket off any number of controversies in order to distill an idealized humanist tradition. Unfortunately, this comes at the price of understanding many of the twentieth-century developments that inform their definition of the Humanities.

Instead of delving into the last hundred years of university history, the Harvard report isolates four “Current Traditions in the Arts and Humanities”: “(i) skeptical, detached critique; (ii) appreciative but disinterested enjoyment, (iii) enthusiastic identification and engagement, and (iv) artistic making” (29).

These are all given hoary pasts, which make for some strange pairings in the present. Those in Women’s and Gender Studies or African-American Studies may find themselves surprised to be assigned to category (iii) as “engaged enthusiasts” who belong to “Other departments . . . founded since the 1970s” that “are grounded on forms of more recent identification (e.g. gender, race)” (18).  The inference that these disciplines affirm identity without critical analysis of systemic racism and sexism is unfortunate and possibly unintended. (Although it is in keeping with the report’s suggestion that the humanities in general have overvalued specialized critique and at the expense of engagement and identification.) Similarly, those who have learned from the Frankfurt School tradition of immanent critique may be surprised to find it identified with “skeptical detachment and critique” and  “post-WWII . . . pessimism about universal humanism” (19).

Predictably, the authors analytically separate the four strands only to demonstrate the need for their balanced relation. My complaint is not so much with this procedure as it is with the cracked understanding of the present it produces. Disciplines like Gender Studies and African-American studies derive from historical uses of categories of race and gender to administer populations more clearly than they do from the tradition of Romantic identification. The Frankfurt School is better known for its powerful and influential account of the difference mass media make to human social relations that it is for its critique of  “universal humanism.” Each of these endeavors represents an important meeting point of social scientific and humanistic enterprise. But the authors of the Harvard report consistently ignore such interdisciplinary patterns.

If the authors really want an engaged humanities, why wouldn’t they emphasize the past century of their involvement in projects that spanned the university, stretched outside it, and participated in efforts to create and regulate media forms that reach very large audiences?

It is tempting to find a partial explanation in a desire to exaggerate the distinction between the Humanities and the Social Sciences, which the report points out are so successfully recruiting Harvard’s would-be humanists. But in truth, the report has a lot to say about the overlap between these branches of learning. When it works to distinguish humanist epistemologies, it tellingly makes “empirical science” their alternative, presumably to allow the myriad forms of interpretive Social Science to fall, unscathed, through the rhetorical gap between the two. Social Science is a competitor in this view, but not necessarily an antagonist.

The real threat to Harvard’s vision for the Humanities today, as in 1945, lies outside the gates, in the forms of culture the professors believe they do not make or control but wish they could–a belief and a wish structured by a denial of the humanities’ intervention in those very forms of culture. Late in the report, the authors return to the topic of the “Information, Interpretation and the Information Technology Revolution.” At long last, the report acknowledges that humanists might study “‘popular culture'”! And yet: the Harvard authors immediately submerge the popular within an “immensely rich and large” now electronic archive (39). The authors assert that this archive “presents challenges born of new content, new tools, new competence, and new interpretive challenges.”

To belabor the point, these challenges would seem far less radically new, were certain basic twentieth-century realities such as film and television even acknowledged (neither is mentioned in the text). But the truly notable feature of this string of “new” and revolutionary materials is their rhetorical collision with the reports’ overall pitch that no novelty is required of the present, that humanists should look to old traditions and forget twentieth-century conflicts in order to reenergize the project of meaningful general education for freshmen.

The aim of reenergizing general eduction is worthy but the predicates the authors give it are wrong. The effort to segregate a humanist tradition from engagements with histories of population administration and mass media is a step backwards. Although the report is eager to see the culture wars recede in the rearview mirror (28), it remains locked in the terms that produced that conflict. Exactly like their 1945 forebears, these Harvard professors can only present “media” as an antagonist to the “high arts” that humanist properly study, or else as site of brave new experiments designed to bring “popular culture” into the conceptual space of “arts” they already know how to administer. For about century, other humanists have wisely rejected these alternatives.



Crisis, Crisis, Crisis

Dear John,

The latest “stark appraisal” of humanities crisis comes from MLA president Michael Bérubé. According to this article in Chronicle of Higher Education, Bérubé recently pulled back the curtain for Graduate School Deans to show them the mess in their humanities departments and let them know that they better take action soon. Bérubé depicts a “seamless garment of crisis, in which, if you pull on any one thread, the entire thing unravels.” The dimensions of this garment are familiar: overproduction of graduate students, casualization of the professorate, and curricula that seem to exacerbate the glut of PhDs as opposed to preparing them for careers that will allow them to support families and repay loans.

Bérubé deserves praise for encouraging his audience to undertake a systematic appraisal. This is so despite the fact that one inevitable consequence of all this crisis talk is the conclusion–voiced by one commenter on the Bérubé piece–that the humanities are for suckers. If job prospects in academe are so bad, if humanities PhD’s are so irrelevant outside academe, if this really is no secret–haven’t you been reading The Chronicle for the last decade!–and if you decide to pursue a humanities PhD anyway, well then, you deserve the life of poverty and self-loathing to which you have consigned yourself. While those Humanities Garments may look mighty fine, closer inspection should have told you they would leave you naked and cold.

While we’ve still got our clothes on, let’s see if our efforts on this blog can add anything to the portrait of “humanities in crisis” The Chronicle promotes in its report. I think we might make two main points.

First, Humanities or English? According to the Humanities Indicators project of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, English produces by far the most PhDs in the Humanities: 26.9% in 2007. The Indicators project includes History in the Humanities, and it is the nearest competitor of English, with 18.6% of the completions. Presumably, the English share would look even larger with History taken out. Clearly, trouble in English spells trouble for this sector as a whole. It still would be interesting to know if humanities disciplines other than English do a better or worse job of calibrating their curricula and enrollments to job placements inside and outside academe. We know why this question is so rarely asked. English has a long-standing, well-developed, and well-reported apparatus for tracking completions and job openings. The apparatus is sustained not only by its professional association, the MLA, but also by Federal data collection schemes like IPEDS, which, as I began to explain in a previous post, make it easier to know about “English” than “the Humanities” and the smaller divisions thereof. Moreover, as we discovered in our investigation of the Red Book (thread), English also has a well-established habit of speaking for the humanities in general. Still, it seems to me that enough information might be out there to begin to conduct a meaningful comparative analysis. One issue that analysis might consider is the problem of scale itself: is bigger better when one considers academic and non-academic placements for humanities PhD’s by discipline?

Second, alternatives exist. The Chronicle is probably reductive in reporting Bérubé to say that “there is little sense of what viable alternatives to academic employment might be” for humanities PhDs. We have some idea. Again, the Humanities Indicators project provides interesting data on the career paths of humanities PhD’s by discipline. It reports, for example, that about 38% of English PhDs completed since 1995 are employed outside post-secondary education. The biggest single chunk of these, 14.1%, are “Managers, Executives, Administrators” (i.e., probably not naked and cold). Bérubé’s right, I’m sure, in noting that humanities PhD curricula are not explicitly designed to produce managers. That they seem to do so all the same wants examination, not denial. David Laurence importantly observes in his analysis of Humanities Indicators data that the very idea of a “humanities workforce” that can be tracked and cultivated amounts to a major policy innovation. We’ve been arguing that the rhetorical opposition of “the humanities” to the culture industries, while sometimes effectively self-serving for the humanities disciplines, has long masked a common endeavor to manage populations by managing media. Seems like a good time for that argument.


5.From Mass Culture to Mediation: Next steps

Dear John,

Your last neatly tied up some points and introduced some new ones. Good work! It has left me wondering where we are in the big picture. The discussion of mass culture feels like the main thread to me, to the point that I almost wish we’d considered the Red Book points in reverse order.

We’re agreed that

  • the Red Book authors position commercial mass culture (other than literature) “as having a limited experimental role in the classroom” and “as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education”
  • this move goes hand-in-hand with elevating a particular version of English as isomorphic with Humanities,
  • this two-fold gesture omits/erases half a century of efforts to incorporate the study of media like film in Humanities, along with any awareness that the particular version of English at issue was itself a relatively recent invention.

If an undeclared aim of the book is to accomplish this, we might reassess its concern with balancing Jeffersonian and Jacksonian imperatives, its privileging the Humanities as a unifying element within General Education, and its opening gambit of thinking systemically about General Education beginning with K-12.

Such a reassessment begins to clarify the Red Book’s role as a Truman-era policy blueprint. The mass media gesture with which the authors conclude, as much as the K-12 argument with which they begin, proclaims this a high-stakes, big-picture endeavor. It also underscores the funding pitch. System-wide, what could possibly compete with the funding stream available to advertisers? Only the Feds!  Similarly, putting media front-and-center reframes the Red Book’s vision of General Education as the fulcrum upon which leveling/unifying and meritocratic/sorting ed functions might balance. It points us away from the context of the Early Republic and toward that of 1945. Then, the big education news was the G.I. Bill (1944), which funded education as a back-to-work program and a benefit like business loans and subsidized mortgages. The big media news had to do with imagining a post-war market that included television, educational films, reconfigured international regulations, and major anti-trust cases (the 1945 Film Daily Year Book provides a contemporary overview.)

To take up the mass media problem, in other words, is to begin to make a materialist critique of the Red Book, in which we would think of schools and colleges as institutions among others concerned to unify and sort national populations, to produce an admixture of obedience and innovation. The Red Book’s authors are elites who, with some success, leveraged their institutional authority to define a fundable mission for English-led Humanities in General Education–a mission that succeeded better as national policy than it did at Harvard. In this mission, reading would be valued over, and sometimes opposed to, watching and listening. “Great works in literature” would be valued over a catch-all approach that encompassed “anything that has anything to do with anything in the Metropolitan Museum” (108). The Red Book authors say this is because great works provide commonality in an age when specialization, complexity, and increasing numbers of students from diverse backgrounds threaten “common heritage and common citizenship” (5). If we take this argument seriously and imagine 1945 instead of 1830 as its context, then the democracy-demands-English argument just looks lame. It is not unified culture per se that the professors are after (for that purpose, Hollywood might be a better interpreter of great works than Harvard), nor is it political participation (if that’s the goal, why not place civics, rather than English, at the core of General Education?). Rather, the professors want to administer what counts as common culture by setting its touchstones in Ovid, Shakespeare, Milton, etc. Nice work if you can get it!

Here’s where I’m going with this riff on a well-established theme. (Alert! Unsupported polemic follows. Can we just agree to call it a working hypothesis?) The Red Book is much less the reasoned voice of a mid-century consensus about the Humanities than Harpham, e.g., would have us believe. It is an early, and maybe the defining, strategic move in the culture wars. This move established the coordinates that would guide arguments about the humanities right up until the present. Schematically:

Unity Difference
Great Works Anything
Humanities values Commercial values
Interpretation Facts*
Reading Viewing/Listening
College/School Other Institutions

Twenty years on, dissident humanists inside English departments and outside them would organize themselves around one or more of the devalued terms in the right-hand column. Thirty years on, materialist critiques of this structure (Bledstein, Ohmann) gained some currency, without however, foregrounding the crucial link between educational institutions and media institutions. Forty years on, the right-hand column people could be represented by left-hand column people as posing a threat to the national future in their influence over general education. Fifty years on, it became clear that tactical advances by Studies programs and  big “T” Theory had moved the dividing line between the columns into the heart of English departments, without altering the structure of oppositions. It was obligatory for English professors to consider whether “the human” and “the humanities” were categories worth defending. Sixty years on, humanist self-crit had come to seem self-defeating. Some commentators looked nostalgically to the left-hand column as a recipe that would retain or renew public funding. But the real action was elsewhere, in the struggle to grapple with  a period of media change more sweeping than any since the first decades of the 20th Century, when arguments about commercial cinema profoundly shaped the Humanities and Social Sciences.

This struggle, which is in no small part a struggle to define what “Digital Humanities” will come to mean, promises (if we’re lucky) to decentralize the Imperial English department, to open educational institutions to real collaboration–both internally across disciplines and with certified and vernacular experts outside their borders, and to establish a new strategic alignment. Schematically, that alignment might push the established alternatives aside, like so:

Populations Unity/Difference
Examples (of Practices) Great Works/Anything
Contested values Humanities/Commercial values
Mediation (specificities, interactions) Reading/Viewing/Listening
Continuity/Change Interpretation/Facts
Good Management (a question & a project) Institutions

How about it? Should we try to demonstrate this hypothesis?

In other news, we’ve spun-off a series of to-dos for ourselves in recent posts. Maybe we should create a static page to keep track of these?


*This one is probably too much shorthand. I have in mind the set of arguments and assumptions that make a certain kinds of historical and social analysis part of the Humanities in the Red Book and another kinds part of the Social Sciences. Humanities: interpretative procedures that work form text to context. Social science: ordered series that aim to establish “what happened” or “what is.” Theres a lot more to say about this. The placement of history (as an epistemology) inside the Humanities and History (as a discipline) outside it (in the Red Book but not necessarily elsewhere) is something we really need to look into. To do list?


5. Before and After Mass Culture as “Ominous External Force”

Dear Mark,

On to your point 5. My comments below itemize several of the questions I have concerning how to think about what the Red Book does to mass culture and what mass culture does to higher ed.

5. The Red Book is symptomatically silent on the subject of 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.

Before the Red Book authors turn to the dangers of mass culture upon which you focus, please remember that they also briefly imagine the pedagogical possibilities of visual mass media.

…the needed boost to conventional texts may come through an extension and supplementing of them by films and television. In both there is much experimenting and postulate searching in progress. For their more sustained enterprises–language teaching and continuous courses of study–films and television alike require printed matter designed to have a live relation to the sound-motion presentation. The challenge to the text is given when the screen ceases to be a mere illustration or adornment to the language and becomes the equal or superior means of communication. (262-63)

There’s more after this passage as the authors glance at the problem of print v. visual mediation and as they mull the supplementing of textbook based course materials in vocational v. “general subjects.” Note especially their citation of the Commission on Motion Pictures in Education regarding the use of visual media in training for war (as debates over video games today suggest, this particular educational question is evergreen) (263). And note the conventional wisdom that films (I don’t think they mean only documentary or “educational” films) “can present a theme, biographic, historic, or moral, with a massiveness of impact” (264).

Two observations about this treatment:

One, the Red Book authors do not appear to intend supplement in the Derridean sense, although it is hard to read their use of the term in any other way.

Two, there is little implication that one might actually study mass media, instead of using it to amplifying textbooks, etc. We are not to imagine that professors might find in visual mass culture new teachable “examples,” to use Ralph Berry’s term from an earlier thread on this blog.

In order to treat mass media this way, as having a limited experimental role in the classroom, as antithetical to the sorts of examples featured in general education, as (you put it) “an ominous external force with which general education competes to unify the nation,” one has to completely forget the early-century debates about including mass media in great books curricula and the like. On the basis of no evidence whatsoever, I read this as willful forgetting (can the Red Book authors really be ignorant of the fact that “experimenting” with mass culture in the classroom had been going on for several decades?).

If not willful, then purposeful forgetting. If English literature, which was itself so recently an “experimental” contributor to university curricula, is to appear so foundational to the humanities in the Red Book, it must need a more youthful, insurgent media against which to compare itself. (Flurry of footnotes concerning the transatlantic genealogy of this move: to the Leavisite strategy of presenting literature as a defense against [American] mass culture, to the efforts of British educators like John Churton Collins trying to get English courses out of the extension schools and into the universities at the turn of the 20th century, etc.)

By ignoring the past, the Red Book predicts the future. Its rhetoric anticipates later 20th century conventional wisdom that film and media studies is an insurgency. Even as they have established a firm footing in universities around the world, mass media bizarrely remain a dangerous supplement: “The Lady Gaga-fication of Higher Ed” is a real and present danger (at your University of South Carolina no less!). The way scary Gaga featured in the recent UVA debacle suggests there is a richly textured politics involved in distinguishing good from bad new media. Wherein good equals MOOC and bad equals Gaga? Or vice versa. For all that both MOOCs and Gaga appear shocking and novel to some, the contest between them reworks old promises and fears. We only make the mistake of thinking that massification in its various forms (massification of the media we study, of the pedagogy we practice, etc.) is a novelty when we forget the history of higher ed, treat Harvard rather than the early-twentieth-century extension programs as the true innovators of humanities study, and behave as if mass media are newcomers to the university.

One of the things we must understand better, and you direct us to this as well in your 5., is the way mass culture means very different things across the disciplines. “English Literature is elevated as isomorphic with the humanities,” you write, “which are also, in the same stroke, clearly distinguished from the social sciences (which include history) and the sciences (which include math).” Distinguished in part, perhaps, by how they greet mass culture and treat its potential to disrupt teaching and research. The story of the relationship between the humanities and mass media is not the same as that between English and mass media, clearly, but neither is it the same as that between history or sociology and mass media. (Another footnote flurry.)

I want to find a way to get from Red Book / mass culture to the Digital Humanities part of our argument, and in lieu of patiently detailing the logical links leading from one to the other (which, don’t doubt me, I can provide and will surely do so forthwith), please enjoy this rhetorical leap.

It can sometimes seem as though the Digital Humanities discussion reproduces the habit of elevating English, making it stand in for the humanities more generally, and in so doing reinforcing the centrality of a curriculum devoid of most mass cultural materials (novels excluded). This despite the more easily massified media in which DH traffics. This despite the sense that English is a place where anyone can study anything.

Piece of evidence the first: Matthew G. Kirshenbaum’s essay in the 2010 ADE Bulletin entitled “What Is Digital Humanities and What’s It Doing in English Departments?

Towards the end of his essay, Kirshenbaum sums up in six points “why English departments have historically been hospitable settings” for DH work. All six points have interest. Two seem to me absolutely antithetical, and in a familiar way.

First, after numeric input, text has been by far the most tractable data type for computers to manipulate. Unlike images, audio, video, and so on, there is a long tradition of text-based data processing that was within the capabilities of even some of the earliest computer systems and that has for decades fed research in fields like stylistics, linguistics, and author attribution studies, all heavily associated with English departments.

Fifth is the openness of English departments to cultural studies, where computers and other objects of digital material culture become the centerpiece of analysis. (60)

So good to have it both ways. DH is no more a threat to English as usual than was cultural studies, nor should DH make English the least bit worried by the presence of other D media in other wings of the H.

Piece of evidence the second: Andrew Prescott’s July 2012 lecture to the Digital Humanities Summer School, Oxford University entitled “Making the Digital Human: Anxieties, Possibilities, Challenges.”

Although Prescott indicates that he subscribes “to a point of view which sees Super Mario or Coronation Street or Shrek as just as culturally interesting and significant as Ovid and Chaucer,” when it comes to DH projects that get funding and get done, there’s more Ovid than Corrie.

For all the rhetoric about digital technologies changing the humanities, the overwhelming picture presented by the activities of digital humanities centres in Great Britain is that they are busily engaged in turning back the intellectual clock and reinstating a view of the humanities appropriate to the 1950s which would have gladdened the heart of Ronald Crane.

(Crane’s 1967 The Idea of the Humanities has material for us, btw. Some juicy excerpts here.)

At Prescott’s King’s College London,

Of the 88 content creation projects listed, only 8 are concerned in any way with anything that happened after 1850. The overwhelming majority – some 57 projects – deal with subjects from before 1600, and indeed most of them are concerned with the earliest periods, before 1100. The geographical focus of most of the projects are on the classical world and western Europe. The figures that loom largest are standard cultural icons: Ovid, Shakespeare, Ben Jonson, Jane Austen, Chopin. This is an old-style humanities, dressed out in bright new clothes for the digital age.

Only Chopin (maybe Ovid) likely would be left off the list of literary works at the heart of the Red Book English curriculum.

How to remedy the situation? Prescott’s answer:

We might start by seeking closer contact with our colleagues in Cultural and Media Studies. There is a huge body of scholarship on digital cultures with which we engage only patchily and which offers us powerful critical frameworks in articulating our own scholarly programme.

English is “open” to cultural studies, as Kirshenbaum says, and certainly thinks of itself as less overtly antagonistic to mass culture today, but you and I would clearly agree with Prescott that English engages with media studies scholarship and media studies scholars “patchily.”

Compare this program to History, or the version of what DH means for that discipline offered by Roy Rosenzweig, who begins his influential essay “Scarcity or Abundance? Preserving the Past” by asking how future historians will grapple with the complex itinerary of Evil Bert.

Please forgive this longish quote that you probably already know:

In 1996, Dino Ignacio, a twenty-two-year-old Filipino web designer, created Bert Is Evil (“brought to you by the letter H and the CIA”), which became a cult favorite among early tourists on the World Wide Web. Two years later, Bert Is Evil won a “Webby” as the “best weird site.” Fan and “mirror” sites appeared with some embellishing on the “Bert Is Evil” theme. After the bombing of the U. S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania in 1998, sites in the Netherlands and Canada paired Bert with Osama bin Laden.

This image made a further global leap after September 11. When Mostafa Kamal, the production manager of a print shop in Dhaka, Bangladesh, needed some images of bin Laden for anti-American posters, he apparently entered the phrase “Osama bin Laden” in Google’s image search engine. The Osama and Bert duo was among the top hits. “Sesame Street” being less popular in Bangladesh than in the Philippines, Kamal thought the picture a nice addition to an Osama collage. But when this transnational circuit of imagery made its way back to more Sesame Street–friendly parts of the world via a Reuters photo of anti-American demonstrators, a storm of indignation erupted. Children’s Television Workshop, the show’s producers, threatened legal action. On October 11, 2001, a nervous Ignacio pushed the delete key, imploring “all fans [sic] and mirror site hosts of ‘Bert is Evil’ to stop the spread of this site too.”

Ignacio’s sudden deletion of Bert should capture our interest as historians since it dramatically illustrates the fragility of evidence in the digital era. If Ignacio had published his satire in a book or magazine, it would sit on thousands of library shelves rather than having a more fugitive existence as magnetic impulses on a web server. Although some historians might object that the Bert Is Evil web site is of little historical significance, even traditional historians should worry about what the digital era might mean for the historical record. U. S. government records, for example, are being lost on a daily basis. Although most government agencies started using e-mail and word processing in the mid-1980s, the National Archives still does not require that digital records be retained in that form, and governmental employees profess confusion over whether they should be preserving electronic files. 3 Future historians may be unable to ascertain not only whether Bert is evil, but also which undersecretaries of defense were evil, or at least favored the concepts of the “evil empire” or the “axis of evil.” Not only are ephemera like “Bert” and government records made vulnerable by digitization, but so are traditional works—books, journals, and film—that are increasingly being born digitally. As yet, no one has figured out how to ensure that the digital present will be available to the future’s historians.

Nearly everything about historical research appears to be put into question for Rosenzweig by digitization. That Bert would be an object of study for political historians, that preserving the archive becomes a very different matter if you’re talking about evil Bert instead of a 16th century manuscript, that there are experts on Bert who do not have tenure-track jobs, etc. “The struggle to incorporate the possibilities of new technology into the ancient practice of history has led, most importantly, to questioning the basic goals and methods of our craft.” You sometimes still hear such things said about DH in English, but I’d say less so than you used to. Rosenzweig’s essay was published in 2003, but it is difficult to imagine how the lid would have been put back on in the years since. Mass culture and digital technology conspire to alter History in ways that they seem not to have altered English?

As a bit of a side bar, I desperately want to correlate this kind of interdisciplinary comparison to your hypothesis about the abiding hierarchy among humanities departments. In your last post you wrote:

Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

Scale is important to Rosenzweig too and might lead us back once again to questions about neoliberal higher ed and its MOOCs, about what Jacques Berlinerblau calls “engaged humanism” in a recent Chronicle column, and to a bunch of other issues we’ve been kicking around for a while.

English has more resources than many humanities departments and tends to have bigger departments, so it can fund more graduate students getting PhDs in the study of, for instance, video games than other smaller departments. The paradox being, this neither appears to alter the status of literature within English curricula (especially undergraduate) nor the status of English within the humanities. That’s one scale, the scale of the department and the humanities division.

Another, the scale of the classroom, seems much more threatening to English. We have yet to fully unpack this problem to our liking, is my sense, but I consider it important that we figure out how to do so. English professors have historically delivered their vital texts to students in lecture halls and discussion classes. Some of these are big, but none as big as the MOOCs get. Scale here has something to do with pedagogy (and testing), but it also has to do with prestige. Our literary “examples” circulate in particular ways within prestige granting as well as degree awarding institutions. Jefferson and Jackson redux. The problem, again, for the Red Book of how to scale a kind of teaching that seems most at home in places like Harvard. As Carlo Salerno puts it in Inside Higher Ed, “Our higher education system needs MOOCs to provide credentials in order for students to find it worthwhile to invest the effort, yet colleges can’t afford to provide MOOC credentials without sacrificing prestige, giving up control of the quality of the students who take their courses and running the risk of eventually diluting the value of their education brand in the eyes of the labor market.”

Before the Red Book, the MOOCs of the day were the extension programs, which in the British examples described by Alexandra Lawrie (“Browning in Hackney,” TLS January 20 2012: 14-15) anticipated their on-line brethren in allowing students to make the choice of whether they were interested only in listening to lectures or also in writing papers and seeking a credential.

In the Lent 1892 course in Lewisham on “Great Novelists of the Nineteenth Century,” taught by John A. Hobson, for example, fifty of the 100-strong audience at his lectures stayed for the class, yet only an average of twelve submitted papers to be marked each week. (14)

In extension classes as in MOOCs, there is a need to rethink the correlation between material studied and demographics served that is every bit as challenging as the Jacksonian/Jeffersonian debate stages in the Red Book. We should not take the Red Book as THE model for the university, the prevalence of competing models from the 1890s to the 2010s suggest, any more than we should take the Red Book’s version of the humanities as the ideal.

Today, Berlinerblau wants “engaged humanists who know less and communicate better,” while Rosenzweig imagines that new technology might democratize history in a fashion reminiscent of its early-twentieth-century mode, in which “the vision and membership of the American Historical Association–embracing archivists, local historians, and ‘amateurs’ as well as university scholars–was considerably broader than it later became.” Both the masses and mass culture (even Evil Bert) could find a home at the AHA, but we need not think that the hierarchy within the AHA was entirely flattened as a result. For this reason, democratize is perhaps the wrong word to use. Instead, the shifting sands of governmentality.


4. Until Further Notice: By 1945, but Not Before 1935, the Humanities Were Made Isomorphic With English

Dear John,

I like this plan. Let’s drive on to Red Book issue #5 and return to the strange career of English Departments later on. Let me add two observations for that later discussion.

First, to the investigation of Richards you propose, I think we should add some consideration of the American Studies types that Graff finds it difficult to incorporate in his account of mid-century English, such that he has to loop back and tell the story again in the chapter “The Promise of American Literature Studies.” There, Graff identifies an alternative trajectory despised by Northrop Frye for its interdisciplinarity in 1957 and identifiable as early as 1948 in Stanley Edgar Hyman’s The Armed Vision, which characterizes “‘modern criticism’ as ‘the organized use of non-literary techniques and bodies of knowledge to obtain insights into literature‘” (Graff 209-10). We should look at Hyman. Graff also makes much of the difference between V. L. Parrington’s Main Currents in American Thought (1927-30), which treated literary works part of a broader intellectual history, and F.O. Mattheissen (and numerous others listed on page 216) who “conceived the organic structure of a literary work as a microcosm of collective psychology or myth and thus made New Criticism into a method of cultural analysis” (217). Tellingly missing from Graff’s English- and university- centered story are at least two influential humanists of the 1920s and 30s who wrote broadly on US culture and are looked to as generative in a number of disciplines: Lewis Mumford and Gilbert Seldes. I read a lot of this stuff back in the day, and would welcome a chance to revisit it. Also worth reevaluating from the vantage of the present is Graff’s conclusion that this entire trajectory is one of “‘patterned isolation’.” As he sees it, “cultural history” failed “to become a centralizing context,” and this “created a vacuum that was readily filled by an attenuated New Criticism of explication for explication’s sake” (225). If we shift our attention from the evils and virtues of New Criticism to the problem of when and how the study of “literature” seems to equal the study of “culture” or the “humanist” approach to it, I suspect this history will look rather different.

Second, I agree that we need follow this through the “1960s-80s debates concerning the hold of great English books on undergraduate education” as you state. I think as a result of those debates English Departments become more powerful than ever before, even if less coherently organized around a single literary mission. This was the period that invented the version of the English Department we now inhabit, which simultaneously claims that all of “culture” is within its purview and purports to be the special custodian of a distinctly literary knowledge and heritage. Key intellectual developments encouraged this state of affairs. For example, we’ve discussed already the importation of formalisms and structuralisms that allowed English professors to define themselves as experts in “narrative” or “texts” and authorized transposition of procedures for reading novels or poems onto any expressive medium. But there is another, perhaps less familiar, way to tell this tale. Big English departments are administratively convenient. They have lower overhead costs than creating numerous small “studies” departments or programs. It is much easier to develop and offer new courses under the umbrella of an established department than it is to secure the approvals necessary for new requirements and programs; and when departments are large this can happen without requiring revision of a shared curriculum–teaching can be distributed to allow the unit to pursue several agendas at once, although some will likely seem more central or legitimate than others. Simply put: I’m suggesting that we make organizational scale a factor in our analysis. Surely it must be possible to get some comparative numbers on the sizes of humanities departments and programs for, say, the last 75 years. I suspect these numbers will show that the growth in areas like Women’s Studies, Southern Studies, and African-American Studies was accompanied by an increase in the size of English departments (and thus their institutional importance). If, as I also suspect, growth in these areas made English relatively larger than, say, Art History or Comparative Literature, than many of the organizational dynamics of the humanities can be thought of as problems of scale.

A note on the Lippmann-Dewey debate. I warn you that I may feel compelled to bring this up again despite the fact that you are tired of hearing me prattle on about it. The debate was an absolutely formative argument of the 1920s, and it also demonstrates some of our overarching claims about intellectual life between the wars: what would later be seen as very different disciplines (philosophy, sociology, mass comm, education leadership) intersect there, the argument crossed over from the popular press to academe and was broadly influential, and the problem of “mass culture” animates it.

So let’s talk about mass culture!


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.