Writing in 1860, a journalist depicted Washington as a miserable little Podunk on the Potomac, quite unworthy of its status as the nation’s capitol. He called it an “out of the way, one-horse town, whose population consists of office-holders, lobby buzzards, landlords, loafers, blacklegs, hackmen, and cyprians – all subsisting on public plunder.”
"Hackmen" meant horse-powered cabbies. "Blacklegs" were crooked gamblers. And cyprians (lower-case) were prostitutes -- a classical allusion turned slur, since Cyprus was a legendary birthplace of Aphrodite. Out-of-towners presumably asked hackmen where to find blacklegs and cyprians.
But sordid entertainment was really the least of D.C. vices. “The paramount, overshadowing occupation of the residents,” the newsman continued, having just gotten warmed up, “is office-holding and lobbying, and the prize of life is a grab at the contents of Uncle Sam’s till. The public-plunder interest swallows up all others, and makes the city a great festering, unbearable sore on the body politic. No healthy public opinion can reach down here to purify the moral atmosphere of Washington.”
Plus ça change! To be fair, the place has grown more metropolitan and now generates at least some revenue from tourism (plundering the public by other means). Zephyr Teachout quotes this description in Corruption in America: From Benjamin Franklin’s Snuff Box to Citizens United (Harvard University Press), a book that merits the large readership it may get thanks to the author’s recent appearance on "The Daily Show," even if much of that interview concerned her remarkable dark-horse gubernatorial campaign in New York state's Democratic primary, in which anti-corruption was one of her major themes. (Teachout is associate professor of law at Fordham University.)
The indignant commentator of 1860 could include lobbyists in the list of ne’er-do-wells and assume readers would share his disapproval. “Lobby buzzards” were as about as respectable as card sharks and hookers. You can still draw cheers for denouncing their influence, of course, but Teachout suggests that something much deeper than cynicism was involved in the complaint. It had a moral logic – one implying a very different set of standards and expectations than prevails now, to judge by recent Supreme Court rulings.
Teachout’s narrative spans the history of the United States from its beginnings through Chief Justice John Roberts’s decision in McCutcheon v. FEC, less than six months ago. One of the books that gripped the country’s early leaders was Edward Gibbon’s Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, the first volume of which happened to come out in 1776, and Teachout regards the spirit they shared with Gibbon as something like the crucial genetic material in the early republic’s ideological DNA.
To be clear, she doesn’t argue that Gibbon influenced the founders. Rather, they found in his history exceptionally clear and vivid confirmation of their understanding of republican virtue and the need to safeguard it by every possible means. A passage from Montesquieu that Thomas Jefferson copied into his notebook explained that a republican ethos “requires a constant preference of public to private interest [and] is the source of all private virtues….”
That “constant preference” required constant vigilance. The early U.S. statesmen looked to the ancient Roman republic as a model (“in creating something that has never yet existed,” a German political commentator later noted, political leaders “anxiously conjure up the spirits of the past to their service and borrow from them names, battle cries, and costumes in order to present the new scene of world history in this time-honored disguise and this borrowed language”).
But the founders also took from history the lesson that republics, like fish, rot from the head down. The moral authority, not just of this or that elected official, but of the whole government demanded the utmost scruple – otherwise, the whole society would end up as a fetid moral cesspool, like Europe. (The tendency to define American identity against the European other runs deep.)
Translating this rather anxious ideology into clear, sharp legislation was a major concern in the early republic, as Teachout recounts in sometimes entertaining detail. It was the diplomatic protocol of the day for a country’s dignitaries to present lavish gifts to foreign ambassadors -- as when the king of France gave diamond-encrusted snuffboxes, with his majesty’s portrait on them, to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Jefferson. In Franklin’s case, at least, the gift expressed admiration and affection for him as an individual at least as much as it did respect for his official role.
But all the more reason to require Congressional approval. Doing one’s public duty must be its own reward, not an occasion for private benefit. Franklin received official permission to accept the snuffboxes, as did two other figures Teachout discusses. The practice grated on American sensibilities, but had to be tolerated to avoid offending an ally. Jefferson failed to disclose the gift to Congress and quietly arranged to have the diamonds plucked off and sold to cover his expenses.
Like the separation of powers among the executive, legislative, and judicial branches (another idea taken from Montesquieu), the division of Congress into House and Senate was also designed to preempt corruption: “The improbability of sinister combinations,” wrote Madison, “will be in proportion to the dissimilarity in genius of the two bodies.” Teachout quotes one delegate to the Constitutional Convention referring sarcastically to the “mercenary & depraved ambition” of “those generous & benevolent characters who will do justice to each other’s merit, by carving out offices & rewards for it.”
Hence the need for measures such as the clause in Article 1, Section 6 forbidding legislators from serving simultaneously in an appointed government position. It also prevented them from accepting such a position created during their terms, after they took office. The potential for abuse was clear, but it could be contained. The clause was an effort “to avoid as much as possible every motive for corruption,” in another delegate’s words.
Corruption, so understood, clearly entails far more than bribery, nepotism, and the like – things done with an intent to influence the performance of official duties, in order to yield a particular benefit. The quid pro quo was only the most obvious level of the injustice. Beyond violating a rule or law, it undermines the legitimacy of the whole process. It erodes trust in even the ideal of disinterested official power. Public service itself begins to look like private interest carried on duplicitously.
The public-mindedness and lofty republican principles cultivated in the decades just after the American revolution soon enough clashed with the political and economic realities of a country expanding rapidly westward. There were fortunes to be made, and bribes to be taken. But as late as the 1880s, states were putting laws on the books to wipe out lobbying, on the grounds that it did damage to res publica.
Clearly a prolonged and messy process has intervened in the meantime, which we’ll consider in the next column, along with some of the criticism of Teachout’s ideas that have emerged since she began presenting them in legal journals a few years ago. Until then, consider the proposal that newspaper writer of the 1860s offered for how to clean the Augean stables of Washington: To clear out corruption, the nation’s capitol should be moved to New York City, where it would be under a more watchful eye. Brilliant! What could possibly go wrong?
When young sociologists would consult with C. Wright Mills, it’s said, he would end his recommendations with what was clearly a personal motto: “Take it big!” It was the concentrated expression of an ethos: Tackle major issues. Ask wide-ranging questions. Use the tools of your profession, but be careful not to let them dig a mental rut you can’t escape.
Jo Guldi and David Armitage give much the same advice to their colleagues, and especially their colleagues-to-be, in The History Manifesto, a new book from Cambridge University Press. (Guldi is an assistant professor of history at Brown University, while Armitage is chair of the history department at Harvard.) Only by “taking it big” can their field regain the power and influence it once had in public life – and lost, somewhere along the line, to economics, with its faith in quantification and the seeming rigor of its concepts.
But issues such as climate change and growing economic inequality must be understood in terms of decades and centuries. The role of economists as counselors to the powerful has certainly been up for question over the past six years. Meanwhile, the world’s financial system continues to be shaped by computerized transactions conducted at speeds only a little slower than the decay of subatomic particles. And so, with their manifesto, the authors raise the call: Now is the time for all good historians to come to the aid of their planet.
But first, the discipline needs some major recalibration. “In 1900,” Guldi and Armitage write, “the average number of years covered [by the subject matter of] doctoral dissertations in history in the United States was about 75 years; by 1975, it was closer to 30.” The span covered in a given study is not the only thing that’s narrowed over the intervening four decades. Dissertations have “concentrated on the local and the specific as an arena in which the historian can exercise her skills of biography, archival reading, and periodization within the petri-dish of a handful of years.”
The problem isn’t with the monographs themselves, which are often virtuoso analyses by scholars exhibiting an almost athletic stamina for archival research. Guldi and Armitage recognize the need for highly focused and exhaustively documented studies in recovering the history of labor, racial and religious minorities, women, immigrants, LGBT people, and so forth.
But after two or three generations, the “ever narrower yet ever deeper” mode has become normative. The authors complain that it "determines how we write our studies, where we look for sources, and which debates we engage. It also determines where we break off the conversation.”
Or, indeed, whether the conversation includes a historical perspective at all. “As students in classrooms were told to narrow and to focus” their research interests, “the professionals who deal with past and future began to restrict not only their sources and their data, but sometimes also their ideas.”
In referring to “professionals who deal with past and future,” the authors do not mean historians themselves -- at least not exclusively -- but rather leaders active at all levels of society. The relevance of historical knowledge to public affairs (and vice versa) once seemed obvious. Guldi and Armitage point to Machiavelli’s commentary on Livy as one example of a political figure practicing history, while Eric Williams, who wrote Capitalism and Slavery for his doctoral dissertation, went on to serve as Trinidad’s first prime minister after it became independent.
Between extreme specialization by historians and politicians whose temporal horizons are defined by the election cycle, things look bad. That understanding the past might have some bearing on actions in the present may not seem all that difficult to grasp. But consider the recent American president who invaded a Middle Eastern country without knowing that its population consisted of two religious groups who, over the past millennium or so, have been less than friendly toward one another. (For some reason, I thought of that a couple of times while reading Guldi and Armitage.) Anyway, it did turn out to be kind of an issue.
A manifesto requires more than complaint. It must also offer a program and, as much as possible, rally some forces for realizing its demands. The cure for short-term thinking in politics that Guldi and Armitage propose is the systematic cultivation of long-term thinking in history.
And to begin with, that means putting the norms of what they call “microhistory” in context – keeping in mind that it is really a fairly recent development within the profession. (Not so many decades ago, a historical study covering no more than a hundred years ran the risk of being dismissed as a bit of a lightweight.) The authors call for a revival of the great Ferdinand Braudel’s commitment to study historical processes “of long, even of very long, duration,” as he said in the late 1950s.
Braudel’s longue-durée was the scale on which developments such as the consolidation of trade routes or the growth of a world religion took place: centuries, or millennia. These phenomena “lasted longer than economic cycles, to be sure,” Guldi and Armitage write, but “were significantly shorter than the imperceptibly shifting shapes of mountains or seas, or the rhythms of nomadism or transhumance.”
Braudel counterposed the longue-durée to “the history of events,” which documented ephemeral matters such as wars, political upheaval, and whatnot. The History Manifesto is not nearly so Olympian as that. The aim is not to obliterate what the authors call “the Short Past” but rather to encourage research that would put “events” in the perspective of rhythms of change extending beyond a single human lifetime.
The tools are available. Guldi and Armiutage’s proposed course seems inspired by Big Data as much as by Braudel. Drawing on pools of scattered information about “weather, trade, agricultural production, food consumption, and other material realities,” historians could create broad but detailed accounts of how the social and environmental conditions change over long periods.
“Layering known patterns of reality upon each other,” the authors say, “produces startling indicators of how the world has changed – for instance the concentration of aerosols identified from the mid-twentieth century in parts of India have proven to have disrupted the pattern of the monsoon…. By placing government data about farms next to data on the weather, history allows us to see the interplay of material change with human experience, and how a changing climate has already been creating different sets of winners and losers over decades.”
Any number of questions come to mind about causality, the adequacy of available documents, and whether one’s methodology identifies patterns or creates them. But that’s always the case, whatever the scale a historian is working on.
The History Manifesto is exactly as tendentious as the title would suggest -- and if the authors find it easier to make their case against “microhistory” by ignoring the work of contemporary “macrohistorians” …. well, that’s the nature of the genre. A few examples off the top of my head: Perry Anderson’s Passages from Antiquity to Feudalism and Lineages of the Absolutist State, Michael Mann’s multivolume study of social power over the past five thousand years, and the essays by Gopal Balakrishnan’s collected in Antagonistics, which grapple with the longue-duré in terms both cosmopolitan and stratospheric. They also shuffle quietly past the work of Oswald Spengler, Arnold Toynbee, and Carroll Quigley – an understandable oversight, given the questions that would come up about where megahistory ends and megalomania takes over.
Moments of discretion aside, The History Manifesto is a feisty and suggestive little book, and it should be interesting to see whether much of the next generation of historians will gather beneath its banner.
Grants for digital humanities projects serve as established tradition as the new chairman for the National Endowment for the Humanities welcomes grant recipients to the agency's new home in Washington.
Many a thick academic tome turns out to be a journal article wearing a fat suit. So all due credit to Anna M. Young, whose Prophets, Gurus, and Pundits: Rhetorical Styles and Public Engagement was published by Southern Illinois University Press this year. Her premise is sound; her line of argument looks promising; and she gets right to work without the rigmarole associated with what someone once described as the scholarly, “Yes, I read that one too” tic.
Indeed, several quite good papers could be written exploring the implicit or underdeveloped aspects of her approach to the role and the rhetoric of the public intellectual. Young is an associate professor of communication at Pacific Lutheran University, in Tacoma, Washington. Much of the book is extremely contemporary in emphasis (to a fault, really, just to get my complaint about it out front here). But the issue it explores goes back at least to ancient Rome -- quite a while before C. Wright Mills got around to coining the expression “public intellectual” in 1958, in any case.
The matter in question emerges in Cicero’s dialogue De Oratore, where Young finds discussed a basic problem in public life, then and now. Cicero, or his stand-in character anyway, states that for someone who wants to contribute to the public discussion of important matters, “knowledge of a vast number of things is necessary, without which volubility of words is empty and ridiculous.”
On the other hand -- as Cicero has a different character point out -- mere possession of learning, however deep and wide, is no guarantee of being able to communicate that learning to others. (The point will not be lost on those of you surreptitiously reading this column on your mobile phones at a conference.)
Nobody “can be eloquent on a subject that he does not understand,” says Cicero. Yet even “if he understands a subject ever so well, but is ignorant of how to form and polish his speech, he cannot express himself eloquently about what he does understand.”
And so what is required is the supplementary form of knowledge called rhetoric. The field had its detractors well before Cicero came along. But rhetoric as defined by Aristotle referred not to elegant and flowery bullshit but rather to the art of making cogent and persuasive arguments.
Rhetoric taught how to convey information, ideas, and attitudes by selecting the right words, in the right order, to deliver in a manner appropriate to a particular audience -- thereby convincing it of an argument, generally as a step toward moving it to take a given action or come to a certain judgment or decision. The ancient treatises contain not a little of what would later count as psychology and sociology, and modern rhetorical theory extends its interdisciplinary mandate beyond the study of speech, into all other forms of media. But in its applied form, rhetoric continues to be a skill of skills – the art of using and coordinating a number of registers of communication at the same time: determining the vocabulary, gestures, tone and volume of voice, and so on best-suited to message and audience.
When the expression “public intellectual” was revived by Russell Jacoby in the late 1980s, it served in large part to express unhappiness with the rhetorical obtuseness of academics, particularly in the humanities and social sciences. The frustration was not usually expressed quite that way. It instead took the form of a complaint that intellectuals were selling their birthright as engaged social and cultural critics in exchange for the mess of pottage known as tenure. It left them stuck in niches of hyperspecialized expertise. There they cultivated insular concerns and leaden prose styles, as well as inexplicable delusions of political relevance.
The public intellectual was a negation of all of this. He or she was a free-range generalist who wrote accessibly, and could sometimes be heard on National Public Radio. In select cases the public intellectual was known to Charlie Rose by first name.
I use the past tense here but would prefer to give the term a subscript: The public intellectual model ca. 1990 was understood to operate largely or even entirely outside academe, but that changed over the following decade, as the most prominent examples of the public intellectual tended to be full-time professors, such as Cornel West and Martha Nussbaum, or at least to teach occasionally, like Judge Richard Posner, a senior lecturer in law at the University of Chicago.
And while the category continues to be defined to some degree by contrast with certain tried-and-true caricatures of academic sensibility, the 2014 model of the public intellectual can hardly be said to have resisted the blandishments of academe. The danger of succumbing to the desire for tenure is hardly the issue it once might have seemed.
Professor Young’s guiding insight is that public intellectuals might well reward study through rhetorical analysis -- with particular emphasis on aspects that would tend to be missed otherwise. They come together under the heading “style.” She does not mean the diction and syntax of their sentences, whether written or spoken, but rather style of demeanor, comportment, and personality (or what’s publicly visible of it).
Style in Young’s account includes what might be called discursive tact. Among other things it includes the gift of knowing how and when to stop talking, and even to listen to another person’s questions attentively enough to clarify, and even to answer them. The author also discusses the “physiological style” of various public intellectuals – an unfortunate coinage (my first guess was that it had something to do with metabolism) that refers mostly to how they dress.
A public intellectual, then, has mastered the elements of style that the “traditional intellectual” (meaning, for the most part, the professorial sort) typically does not. The public perceives the academic “to be a failure of rhetorical style in reaching the public. He is dressed inappropriately. She carries herself strangely. He describes ideas in ways we cannot understand. She holds the floor too long and seems to find herself very self-important.” (That last sentence is problematic in that a besetting vice of the self-important that they do not find themselves self-important; if they did, they’d probably dial it down a bit.)
Now, generations of satirical novels about university life have made clear that the very things Young regards as lapses of style are, in fact, perfectly sensible and effective rhetorical moves on their own terms. (The professor who wears the same argyle sweater year-round has at least persuaded you that he would rather think about the possible influence of the Scottish Enlightenment on The Federalist Papers than the admittedly large holes.)
But she longs for a more inclusive and democratic mode of engagement of scholarship with the public – and of the public with ideas and information it needs. To that end, Young identifies a number of public-intellectual character types that seem to her exemplary and effective. “At different times,” she writes, “and in different cultural milieus, different rhetorical styles emerge as particularly relevant, powerful, and persuasive.” And by Young’s count, six of them prevail in America at present: Prophet, Guru, Sustainer, Pundit, Narrator, and Scientist.
“The Prophet is called by a higher power at a time of crisis to judge sinners in the community and outline a path of redemption. The Guru is the teacher who gains a following of disciples and leads them to enlightenment. The Sustainer innovates products and processes that sustain natural, social, and political environments. The Pundit is a subject expert who discusses the issues of the day in a more superficial way via the mass media. The Narrator weaves experiences with context, creating relationships between event and communities and offering a form of evidence that flies below the radar in order to provide access to information.” Finally, the Scientist “rhetorically constructs his or her project as one that answers questions that have plagued humankind since the beginnings….”
The list is presumably not meant to be exhaustive, but Young finds examples of people working successfully in each mode. Next week we'll take a look at what the schema implies -- and at the grounds for thinking of each style as successful.
Ask anyone professing the humanities today and you come to understand that a medieval dimness looms. If this is the end-times for the ice sheets at our poles — and it is — many of us also understand that the melt can be found closer to home, in the elimination of language and classics departments, for instance, and in the philistinism represented by governors such as Rick Scott of Florida and Patrick McCrory of North Carolina, who apparently see in the humanities a waste of time and taxpayer subsidies. In the name of efficiency and job creation, according to their logic, taxpayers can no longer afford to support bleary-eyed poets, Latin history radicals, and brie-nibbling Francophiles.
That there is a general and widespread acceptance in the United States that what is good for corporate America is good for the country is perhaps inarguable, and this is why men like Governors Scott and McCrory are dangerous. They merely invoke a longstanding and not-so-ugly stereotype: the pointy-headed humanist whose work, if you can call it that, is irrelevant. Among the many easy targets, English departments and their ilk are convenient and mostly defenseless. Few will rise to rush the barricades with us, least of all the hard-headed realists who understand the difficulties of running a business, which is what the university is, anyway.
I wish, therefore, to propose a solution that will save money, save the humanities, and perhaps make the world a better place: Close the business schools.
The Market Argument
We are told that something called “the market” is responsible for the great disparities in pay between humanities professors and business professors. To a humanist, however, this market is the great mystifier; we find no evidence of an “invisible hand” that magically allocates resources within the university. The market argument for pay differentials between business professors and historians (average pay in 2014 for full professors at all institutions: $123,233 and $86,636, respectively, a difference of almost 30 percent; average at research institutions is $160,705 and $102,981, a difference of 36 percent), for instance, fails to convince that a market is operating. This is because administrators and trustees who set salaries based upon what the market can bear, or what it calls for, or what it demands, are actually subsidizing those of us who are who are manifestly out of the market.
Your average finance professor, for instance, is not a part of this market; indeed, she is a member of the artificial market created by colleges and universities themselves, the same institutions that tout the importance of critical thinking and of creating the well-rounded individual whose liberal arts study will ostensibly make her into a productive member of our democracy. But the administrators who buy the argument that the market allocates upward of 20, 30, or 40 percent more for the business professor than it does her colleague in the humanities have failed to be the example they tout: they are not thinking.
The higher education market for business professors and legal scholars, for instance, is one in which the professor is paid as if she took her services and sold them on what is commonly call the market. Which is where she, and her talents, manifestly are not. She is here, in the building next to ours, teaching our students and doing the same work we are. If my daughter cuts our lawn, she does not get paid as if she were cutting the neighbor’s lawn.
The business professor has sacrificed the blandishments of the other market for that of the university, where she can work softer hours, have her December/January vacation, go to London during the summer on a fellowship or university grant, and generally live something approaching the good life — which is what being employed by a college or university allows the lucky who earn tenure. She avoids the other market — eschews the long hours in the office, the demands of travel, the oppressive corporate state — so that she can pick up her kids from school on occasion, sleep in on a Saturday, and turn off her smartphone. She may be part of a machine, but it is a university machine, and as machines go she could do worse. This “market” is better than the other one.
But does she bring more value to the university? Does she generate more student hours? These are questions that administrators and business professors do not ask. Why? Because they wouldn’t like the answers. They would find that she is an expensive acquisition. Unless she is one of the Wharton superstars and appears on CNN Money and is quoted in The Wall Street Journal, there’s a good chance that the university isn’t getting its money’s worth.
The Moral Argument
There is another argument for wishing our business professor adieu. She is ostensibly training the next crop of financiers and M.B.A.s whose machinations have arguably had no salutary effects on this democracy. I understand that I am casting a wide net here, grouping the good with the bad, blaming the recent implosion of the world economy on business schools. One could, perhaps, lay equal blame on the mathematicians and quantitative analysts who created the derivative algorithms and mortgage packages that even the M.B.A.s themselves don’t understand, though there’s a good chance that business school graduates hired these alpha number crunchers.
Our investment bankers and their ilk will have to take the fall because, well, they should have known better. If only because, at bottom, they are responsible — with their easy cash and credit, their drive-through mortgages, and, worst of all, their betting against the very system they knew was hopelessly constructed. And they were trained at our universities, many of them, probably at our best universities, the Harvards and Princetons and Dartmouths, where — it is increasingly apparent — the brightest students go to learn how to destroy the world.
I am not arguing that students shouldn’t take classes in accounting, marketing, and economics. An understanding of these subjects holds value. They are honorable subjects often horribly applied. In the wrong hands they become tools less of enlightenment and liberation than ruthless self-interest. And when you have groups of like-minded economic pirates banding together in the name of self-interest, they form a corporation, that is, a person. That person, it is now apparent, cannot be relied upon to do the right thing; that person cannot be held accountable.
It’s not as if this is news. Over 150 years ago, Charles Dickens saw this problem, and he wrote A Christmas Carol to address it. The hero of Dickens’s novella is Jacob Marley, who returns from the grave to warn his tightfisted partner Ebenezer Scrooge that he might want to change his ways. When Scrooge tells Marley that he was always a “good man of business,” Marley brings down the thunder: “Mankind was my business. The common welfare was my business; charity, mercy, forbearance, and benevolence, were, all, my business. The dealings of my trade were but a drop of water in the comprehensive ocean of my business!”
In closing the business schools, may the former professors of finance bring to the market a more human side (or, apropos of Dickens, a more ghostly side). Whether or not they do, though, closing the business schools is a necessary first step in righting the social and economic injustices perpetuated not by capitalism but by those who have used it to rend the very social fabric that nourishes them. By planting the seeds of corporate and financial tyranny, our business schools, operating as so many of them do in collusion with a too-big-to-fail mentality, have become the enemy of democracy. They must be closed, since, as Jacob Marley reminds us, we all live in the business world.
II. Save the Humanities
Closing the business schools will allow us to turn our attention more fully to the state of the humanities and their apparent demise. The 2013 report released by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences, which asserts that “the humanities and social sciences are not merely elective, nor are they elite or elitist. They go beyond the immediate and instrumental to help us understand the past and the future.” As if that’s going to sell.
In the wake of the academy’s report, The New York Times dutifully ran three columns on the humanities — by David Brooks, Verlyn Klinkeborg, and Stanley Fish — which dove into the wreck and surveyed the damage in fairly predictable ways (excepting Fish, whose unpredictability is predictable). Brooks remembers when they used to teach Seneca and Catullus, and Klinkeborg looks back on the good old days when everyone treasured literature and literary study. Those days are gone, he argues, because “the humanities often do a bad job of teaching the humanities,” and because “writing well used to be a fundamental principle of the humanities,” though it apparently is not anymore. Why writing well isn’t a fundamental principle of life is perhaps a better question.
We might therefore ask: Aside from the typical obeisance to something called “critical thinking,” what are the humanities supposed to do?
I propose that one of the beauties of the liberal arts degree is that it is meant to do nothing. I would like to think, therefore, that the typical humanities major reads because she is interested in knowledge for purposes outside of the pervasive instrumentalism now fouling higher education. She does not read philosophy because she wants, necessarily, to become a philosopher; she does not read poetry to become a poet, though she may dream of it; she does not study art history, usually, to become an art historian, though she may one day take this road.
She may be in the minority, but she studies these subjects because of the pleasure it gives her. Reading literature, or studying philosophy, or viewing art, or watching films — and thinking about them — are pleasurable things. What a delight to subsidize something that gives her immediate and future joy instead of spending capital on a course of study that might someday allow her to make more money so that she can do the things she wants to do at some distant time. Henry David Thoreau said it best: “This spending of the best part of one's life earning money in order to enjoy a questionable liberty during the least valuable part of it reminds me of the Englishman who went to India to make a fortune first, in order that he might return to England and live the life of a poet. He should have gone up garret at once.” If you want to be a poet, be done with it.
Does she suffer for this pleasure?
It is an unfortunate fact of our political and cultural economy that she probably does. Her parents wonder helplessly what she is up to and they threaten to cut off her tuition unless she comes to her senses. The governor and legislature of her state tell her that she is wasting her time and that she is unemployable. She goes to her advisers, who, if they are in the humanities, tell her that the companies her parents revere love to hire our kind, that we know how to think critically and write clearly and solve problems.
And it isn’t that they are lying, exactly (except to themselves). They simply aren’t telling her the whole truth: that she will almost surely never have the kind of financial success that her peers in business or engineering or medicine will have; that she will have enormous regrets barely ameliorated by the thought that she carries the fire; that the digital humanities will not save her, either, though they may help make her life slightly more interesting.
It is with this problem in mind that I argue for a vision of the university as a place where the humanities are more than tolerated, where they are celebrated as intrinsic to something other than vocationalism, as a place in which the ideology that inheres to the industrial model in all things can and ought to be dismantled and its various parts put back together into something resembling a university and not a factory floor.
Instead of making the case that the humanities gives students the skills to “succeed in a rapidly changing world,” I want to invoke the wisdom of Walt Whitman, one of the great philosophers of seeming inactivity, who wrote: “I lean and loafe at my ease observing a spear of summer grass.”
What does it mean to loafe? Whitman is reclining and relaxing, but he is also active: he “invites” his soul and “observes” the world around him. This conjunction of observation and contemplation with an invitation to the soul is the key here; using our time, energy, and intellectual faculties to attend to our world is the root of successful living. A world of contemplative loafers is one that can potentially make clear-eyed moral and ethical judgments of the sort that we need, judgments that deny the conflation of economic value with other notions of value.
Whitman would rather hang out with the men who brought in the catch than listen to the disputations of science or catch the fish himself: “You should have been with us that day round the chowder-kettle.” While I am not necessarily advocating a life of sloth, I’m not arguing against it, either. I respect the art of study for its own sake and revere the thinker who does nothing worthwhile, if by worthwhile we mean something like growing the economy. Making a living rather than living is the sign of desperation.
William Major is professor of English at Hillyer College of the University of Hartford. He is author of Grounded Vision: New Agrarianism and the Academy (University of Alabama Press, 2011).
In 1869, Charles W. Eliot, a professor at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology, wrote an essay in The Atlantic Monthly entitled “The New Education.” He began with a question on the mind of many American parents: “What can I do with my boy?” Parents who were able to afford the best available training and did not think their sons suited for the ministry of a learned profession, Eliot indicated, sought a practical education, suitable for business “or any other active calling”; they did not believe that the traditional course of study adopted by colleges and universities 50 years earlier was now relevant. Less than a year later, Eliot became president of Harvard. Among the reforms he initiated were an expansion of the undergraduate curriculum and substantial improvement in the quality and methods of instruction in the law school and the medical school.
The debate between advocates of traditional liberal learning and partisans of a more “useful” education, Michael Roth, the president of Wesleyan University, reminds us, has deep roots in American soil. In Beyond the University, (Yale University Press) he provides an elegant and informative survey of the work of important thinkers, including Benjamin Franklin, Thomas Jefferson, Ralph Waldo Emerson, W.E.B DuBois, Jane Addams, William James, John Dewey, and Richard Rorty, who, despite significant differences, embraced liberal education because it “fit so well with the pragmatic ethos that linked inquiry, innovation, and self-discovery.” At a time in which liberal learning is under assault, Roth draws on the authority of these heavyweights to argue that “it is more crucial than ever that we not abandon the humanistic frameworks of education in favor of narrow, technical forms of teaching intended to give quick, utilitarian results."
Most of Beyond the University is devoted to claims by iconic intellectuals about the practical virtues of liberal learning, which Roth endorses (with occasional qualifications). Exhibiting a “capacious and open-ended” understanding of educational “usefulness,” Roth indicates, Thomas Jefferson opted for free inquiry at his university in Charlottesville, Va., to equip citizens in the new republic to think for themselves and take responsibility for their actions. Ralph Waldo Emerson resisted education as mere job training; but, he indicated, it should impart knowledge to develop individuals willing and able to use what we now call “critical thinking” to challenge the status quo.
Acknowledging that different people need different kinds of educational opportunities, W.E.B. DuBois nonetheless insisted that the final product of training “must be neither a psychologist nor a brick mason, but a man.” Liberal learning, Jane Addams emphasized, inculcates “affectionate interpretation,” which prepares individuals not only to defend themselves against those with different points of view, but to empathize with others and act in concert with them. And John Dewey, the most influential philosopher of education in the 20 century, looked to a liberal education, according to Roth, to help students learn the lessons of experiment and experience, by trying things out and assessing the results, by themselves and with others, and, then, if appropriate, revising their behavior.
Roth’s approach – a reliance on the authority of seminal thinkers – is not without problems. As he knows, the nature of higher education – and its perceived roles and responsibilities – has changed dramatically since colleges focused on liberal learning. In 1910, only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; few of them went on to college. These days, about 40 percent of young men and women get a postsecondary degree. Undergraduate, master’s, and doctoral degrees, moreover, are now required, far more than were in the days of Emerson and Eliot, for entry into the most prestigious, and high-paying, professions. Jamie Merisotis, president of the Lumina Foundation, is surely right when he asserts that “to deny that job skills development is one of the key purposes of higher education is increasingly untenable” – and that integration of specific skills into the curriculum can help graduates get work and perform their assigned tasks well.
Roth does not specify how liberal learning might “pull different skills together in project-oriented classes.” Nor does he adequately address “the new sort of criticism” directed at liberal learning. A liberal arts education, many critics now claim, does not really prepare students to love virtue, be good citizens, or recognize competence in any field. As Roth acknowledges, general education, distribution requirements, and free electives are not effective antidotes to specialization; they have failed to help establish common academic goals for students. And, perhaps most disturbingly, doubt has now been cast on the proposition that the liberal arts are the best, and perhaps the only, pathway to “critical thinking” (the disciplined practice of analyzing, synthesizing, applying, and evaluating information).
President Roth may well be right that liberal learning “will continue to be a fundamental part of higher education” if (and, he implies, only if) it rebalances critical thinking and practical exploration. The key question, it seems to me, is how to rebalance, while preserving the essence of liberal learning, at a time in which higher education in general and, most especially, the humanities are under a sustained attack by cost-conscious advocates of an increasingly narrow vocationalism, who are certain to be unpersuaded by the testimony of long-dead intellectuals. The task, moreover, is all the more daunting, moreover, because it will have to be carried out by proponents and practitioners of the liberal arts, many of whom, unlike Michael Roth, are now in despair, in denial, or have lost faith.
Glenn C. Altschuler is the Thomas and Dorothy Litwin Professor of American Studies at Cornell University.
Reporting on the Senate's confirmation of Theodore Mitchell as the U.S. Department of Education's chief higher education official, Inside Higher Ed quoted a statement from Secretary of Education: “He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the President’s goal to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020.” While this brief remark is hardly a major policy statement, its tone and focus are typical of the way Secretary Duncan, President Obama, and many others in politics these days talk about higher education.
This typical rhetoric, in Duncan’s statement and beyond, makes a good point, but it doesn't say enough. To explain why, I will take a leaf from Thucydides. In History of the Peloponnesian War, he explained that his apparent verbatim accounts of speeches by other figures really articulated what he thought they should have said. With due respect for Secretary Duncan and President Obama, here is what the Secretary of Education should have said, on behalf of the President's aims, on the confirmation of a new Under Secretary of Education in charge of higher education affairs:
He will lead us through this important time in higher education as we continue to work toward the president’s goals for higher education in making America a more productive economy, a more just society, a more flourishing democracy, and a richer environment for what the Founders called, in the Declaration of Independence, "the pursuit of happiness," and in the Preamble to the Constitution, "the general welfare."
A part of that economic goal is to produce the best-educated, most competitive workforce in the world by 2020. Another part is to ensure that higher education extends broadly the opportunity to develop the ingenuity and creativity that will drive American innovation in the years ahead.
That means working to ensure that higher education regains its function as an engine of socioeconomic advancement, both for the individual and for society as a whole. This means resisting the increasing stratification of curriculums and opportunities, making sure that the advantages of arts and sciences education are extended as far throughout higher education as possible. This is both prudent, to cultivate the nation's human capital, and also just, to mitigate disadvantages of less-privileged starting points.
Everyone knows that democracy depends on America's capacity to maintain a deliberative electorate, capable of making well-informed choices in a political system they understand and in which they actively participate. It is a responsibility of higher education to enhance this investment in America by helping maintain that electorate. It is a responsibility of government to promote that role.
Finally, when the Founders embraced such goals as " the pursuit of happiness," and securing "the general welfare" of the people, they acknowledged that the well-being of individuals and of society as a whole -- difficult as these concepts are to define -- are legitimate objects of government interest. Higher education has crucial responsibilities of exploration and discovery in this broad field of human well-being. It is here that the perennial American question concerning the scope and limits of government itself is to be explored, and given for inquiry to succeeding generations of Americans.
"So on the appointment of a new Under Secretary with responsibilities toward higher education, we celebrate the many contributions of higher education to American flourishing: its role in contributing to a vibrant economy, certainly; and also its role in sustaining and advancing the broad aims of justice and improvement to which the country has always been committed."
That would have been good to hear from Secretary Duncan, and would be good to hear in any of the administration's speeches about higher education. None of us who are committed to this broader vision of higher education can ever, I emphasize, lose sight of its role in propelling the economy forward. But we cannot permit the purposes of higher education in America to be narrowed solely into the goal of workforce production. More is at stake: access to opportunity, cultivation of ingenuity and innovation, and broad contributions to the future of the country. Phi Beta Kappa joins many voices in advocacy of that vision. We invite Theodore Mitchell, Secretary Duncan, and President Obama to join, as well.
John Churchill is secretary of the Phi Beta Kappa Society.