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Betty Friedan is back in the news—but not in the way she might have preferred.

The publication of a new Friedan biography by Rachel Shteir and a history of the National Organization for Women’s formative years by Katherine Turk has elicited pretty negative assessments of the author of The Feminine Mystique. The title of The New Yorker’s review is telling: “Betty Friedan and the Movement That Outgrew Her.” We hear that Friedan was tone-deaf on race and class, a homophobe—and difficult to like, to boot.

A view voiced by the path-breaking historian Gerda Lerner in a letter to Friedan shortly after publication of The Feminine Mystique has become the conventional wisdom:

“You address yourself solely to the problems of middle class, college educated women. Working women, especially Negro women, labor not only under the disadvantages imposed by the feminine mystique but under the more pressing disadvantages of economics.”

Shteir succinctly sums up the mood: “Today’s feminist intellectuals are as likely to pillory as praise her, and she’s often cast as a foil, or even a villain, in narratives extolling other feminists of her era.”

Yes, Friedan was committed to making NOW respectable. Yes, she did use a phrase, the “lavender menace,” that we find stomach turning. But as Daniel Horowitz argued in his 1998 biography, her largely successful strategy to achieve legislative and legal victories for women was very much an outgrowth of her experience as a radical labor journalist, her associations with the Communist Party and her recent encounters with McCarthyism.

I don’t know whether to know all is to forgive all—but this is the indispensable first step toward historical understanding and historical empathy.

Friedan is not the only figure of that era to be misjudged and underappreciated.

As Maurice Isserman, the leading historian of the 20th-century American left, observes, an earlier generation of activist leaders is “often misunderstood or forgotten, which pretty much sums up the fate of mid-20th-century radical elders in the United States like Betty Friedan or Bayard Rustin or Michael Harrington or, somewhat younger, Todd Gitlin.” He then makes an observation that I wholeheartedly agree with: “They don’t think exactly like we do; their insights can’t be squared with our own jargon (like, intersectionality), hence they must be beyond redemption.”

As Isserman also points out, “A whole cohort of early women’s rights activists, theorists and historians, including Friedan, Lerner, Aileen Kraditor and Eleanor Flexner, came out of the Communist Party.” Marxism, as a mode of analysis and as a political strategy, helped inform their scholarship.

Theirs was an age when books mattered. Rachel Carson’s Silent Spring, Michael Harrington’s The Other America, Jane Jacobs’s The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Ralph Nader’s Unsafe at Any Speed—and, to a somewhat lesser extent, John Howard Griffin’s Black Like Me, Gabriel Kolko’s The Triumph of Conservatism and William Appleman Williams’s The Tragedy of American Diplomacy—were like the landmark books of earlier eras: Uncle Tom’s Cabin, How the Other Half Lives and The Jungle. Except that, unlike the hugely influential books by Harriet Beecher Stowe, Jacob Riis and Upton Sinclair, the books from the 1960s go largely unread today.

The discipline of psychology may have buried Freud’s notion of the Oedipal complex along with a host of discredited and outdated psychological concepts—like phrenology, primal scream therapy and the Rorschach test—but let me assure you: generational antagonism is alive and well, and nowhere more so than among activist groups or within the academy.

Precursors are often disparaged, dismissed or disregarded. The 1960s civil rights movement was a rare exception. There were remarkable continuities over time. It’s noteworthy that A. Philip Randolph, who had proposed a march on Washington in 1941 to demand an end to segregation in defense industries, was intimately involved in planning the 1963 march, when he was 74 years old. It’s not a coincidence that Malcolm X’s father had been a disciple of Marcus Garvey.

Far more common, however, are generational cleavages. The New Left versus the Old Left. Third-wave feminists versus their second-wave counterparts. The Alianza Federal del Pueblos Libres, the Crusade for Justice and the Raza Unida Party versus the American GI Forum and the League of Latin American Citizens.

No incident better illustrates the generational divide than the clash between Michael Harrington, the era’s leading Democratic Socialist, and Tom Hayden and the Students for a Democratic Society at Port Huron in 1962—a rift, memorably described in Isserman’s classic biography The Other American, that “may have torpedoed hopes for an alliance between old and new lefts in the 1960s that could have given the social energies of that decade a stronger ideological grounding.”

Academic humanists, like their activist counterparts, too often forget or misapprehend their predecessors.

As I have aged and become an old fogey, I have become ever more struck by the way that older works of scholarship and interpretation are either dismissed as outdated or ignored or unread altogether. That’s certainly the case in the field I know best: U.S. history.

I am struck by how much work in U.S. history repeats earlier arguments without much conscious awareness of previous debates. Not only did The 1619 Project largely repeat arguments advanced by Lerone Bennett nearly half a century earlier, it resurrected the long-discredited King Cotton argument that slave-grown cotton was the indispensable driver of American economic growth.

I worry that many scholars of slavery are no longer conversant with the scholarship of Eugene Genovese or Kenneth Stampp. Isn’t it essential that scholars of women’s history be knowledgeable about Gerda Lerner’s ideas about the evolution of patriarchy?

In a critical commentary on my recent post “Is All Truth Subjective?” Stephen Downes, the Canadian philosopher who co-taught the first MOOC in 2008, makes a valuable point: interpretations must be grounded within frameworks of analysis. In his words, “Educators, for some reason, love the story. But stories are so limiting—so linear, so text-based, so dependent on narrative and sequence.” That’s why we need interpretive paradigms and conceptual models.

In his valuable 1973 study, American Historical Explanations, the American studies scholar Gene Wise argued that it’s not enough to study historiography—shifts in the historical interpretation of particular topics. It is essential to understand the paradigms—the methods, sources, conceptual frameworks and assumptions about epistemology, causality and teleology—that historians use to explain the meaning and direction of historical change.

For many scholars of the 1950s, the concepts of irony, contradiction and ambiguity were central to their interpretations. Their New Left successors instead emphasize power structures and the agency and resistance of the underclasses and oppressed. During the 1970s, as part of the cultural turn, ideology and hegemony occupied center stage and offered ways to connect ideas and values to distinct economic and social settings.

George Santayana’s adage, that “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it,” has a scholarly analogue—without an awareness of these early modes of interpretation, scholars are doomed to repeat past arguments or, even worse, make claims that were previously debunked.

Humanities scholarship, unlike its counterpart in the natural sciences and the quantitative social sciences, is not progressive. It involves qualities that do not age: the arts of interpretation and writing. New facts may be uncovered, new sources may be tapped, new methods may arise. Nevertheless, great works of history are timeless. They aren’t swept into history’s dustpan. They don’t become outmoded.

Humanities scholarship, in the famous phrase coined by Robert M. Hutchins and Mortimer Adler, is part of a great and ongoing conversation. Among the greatest challenges facing every humanities professor is to convince their students that they too can participate in that conversation: critiquing, debating, refining, revising and, yes, appreciating earlier analyses, claims, arguments and interpretations.

I owe a debt to John Warner, who suggested that I read a hot-off-the-presses article by William Deresiewicz, titled, “Miseducating the American Mind: Why college teaching is so bad. And how to fix it.” The author of Educated Sheep argues that the poor quality of teaching be explained with just three words: “the research model.”

“Ever since the rise of the modern university, with its apparatus of Ph.D.s, peer review, academic journals and associations and tenure procedures, faculty have been incentivized to do a single thing and a single thing only: create knowledge.”

Why do so many students drop out? Deresiewicz blames this on teaching that isn’t engaging:

“Their professors are remote; their classes leave them cold. It matters because the students who drop out are disproportionately poor and working-class, Black and Latino, and members of the first generation in their family to go to college. The quality of undergraduate instruction, in other words, isn’t just a value-for-your-money issue. It is also an equity issue, a democracy issue.”

I agree with several points that Deresiewicz makes: great teachers inspire. They arouse curiosity and awaken minds. Yes, they kindle students’ imagination. And yes, many would benefit from the kind of training that organizations like ACUE, the Association of College and University Educators, offer.

But I disagree with his claim that most professors don’t care about teaching. Virtually every faculty member I know loves to teach and cares deeply about teaching.

But given the existing curriculum and various time pressures, the love of teaching often translates, in practice, to a love of performance in a lecture class or being a puppeteer in a discussion course—and focuses on content transmission and assessment rather than learning and personal transformation.

As a former teaching center director, I, of course, favor efforts to work closely with faculty to make courses more interactive and immersive, more inquiry-driven and problem- and project-based. All of us would benefit from expert advice about course design, pedagogy, educational technology and assessment.

But as I have grown older, I think that the biggest barrier to really effective teaching and learning lies less in instructional design than the structures and conventions within which we teach. And here I’d like to echo some thoughts that John Warner shared in a message.

  • Learning takes time, and we’ve created an environment in which college students don’t have sufficient time to devote to each course. We tell students to “take 15.” But today’s students are way too busy to do justice to the five classes they are expected to take in order graduate on time. Even at highly selective residential colleges, students devote a lot of time to extracurricular activities and work. I don’t believe the answer is to arbitrarily reduce the number of credit hours required for graduation by 25 percent. But I do think that we should offer more four- and five-credit classes that incorporate co-curricular activities, mentored research, field experiences and workshopping.
  • We need to create more educational experiences that involve intellectual exploration and discovery. It’s not a surprise that many undergraduates regard gen ed classes and electives as a waste of time. In many respects, gen ed classes simply replicate, at a higher level, classes previously taken in high school. And while electives may allow students to pursue their interests, in many cases, they’re chosen because they’re considered guts or fit into a student’s schedule. Which is why I think that we should align gen ed classes with student majors; provide more expansive and less specialized opportunities for students to learn about the arts, the humanities and the frontiers of science; and offer new kinds of learning experiences beyond the lecture and the discussion—studio classes, field experiences, service learning, internships and authentic, hands-on research opportunities.
  • We need to give students opportunities conducive to experimentation and growth. When I see headlines in the higher ed press like the following, I grow apoplectic: “Want a Degree Without Classes and Lectures? California Community Colleges Test a New Approach” or “Colleges Are Ditching the SAT. The High School Transcript Should Be Next.” These sure sound like the abandonment of any pretense to high expectations or rigor or even substantive student interaction with a teacher-scholar and classmates.

Yet, on the other hand, I want to encourage students to step outside their comfort zone and find themselves without worrying excessively about grades. If college truly is to be an odyssey of discovery and an intellectual adventure and a venue for personal growth, then we need to create those opportunities. How about offering credit for attending and then unpacking lectures or performances or for participating in various skills workshops? Or offering credit for community service that is accompanied by regular debriefings and reports? It’s time to think outside the box.

If college teaching isn’t what it ought to be, it’s not because instructors don’t care. Nor is it because faculty are ill trained. It’s because we’ve adopted an educational model that is less concerned with growth, discovery and active engagement than it is with a narrow disciplinary specialization and assessment that is first and foremost about accountability and mastery.

if student engagement and learning aren’t what they should be, it’s not because many or most are slackers or unmotivated. It’s because we haven’t yet adapted our curriculum and learning experiences to the realities of contemporary life, where students are juggling multiple responsibilities.

We have a choice: we can further dilute our standards and lower our expectations, or we can radically rethink the education that we offer. Sounds like a simple choice to me. Let’s do the latter.

Steven Mintz is professor of history at the University of Texas at Austin.

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