Originally published by Encyclopedia Britannica in 1952, Great Books of the Western World offered a selection of core texts representing the highest achievements of European and North American culture. That was the ambition. But today the set is perhaps best remembered as a peculiar episode in the history of furniture.
Many an American living room displayed its 54 volumes -- “monuments of unageing intellect,” to borrow a phrase from Yeats. (The poet himself, alas, did not make the grade as Great.) When it first appeared, the set cost $249.50, the equivalent of about $2,200 today. It was a shrewd investment in cultural capital, or at it least it could be, since the dividends came only from reading the books. Mortimer Adler – the philosopher and cultural impresario who envisioned the series in the early 1940s and led it through publication and beyond, into a host of spinoff projects – saw the Great Books authors as engaged in a Great Conversation across the centuries, enriching the meaning of each work and making it “endlessly rereadable.”
Adler's vision must have sounded enticing when explained by the Britannica salesman during a house call. Also enticing: the package deal, with Bible and specially designed bookcase, all for $10 down and $10 per month. But with some texts the accent was on endless more than rereadable (the fruits of ancient biological and medical research, for example, are dry and stony) and it is a good bet that many Great Books remained all but untouched by human hands.
Well, that’s one way to tell the Great Books story: High culture meets commodity fetishism amidst Cold War anxiety over the state of American education. But Tim Lacy gives a far more generous and considerably more complex analysis of the phenomenon in The Dream of a Democratic Culture: Mortimer J. Adler and the Great Books Idea, just published by Palgrave Macmillan. The book provides many unflattering details about how Adler’s pedagogical ambitions were packaged and marketed, including practices shady enough to have drawn Federal Trade Commission censure in the 1970s. (These included bogus contests, luring people into "advertising research analysis surveys" that turned into sales presentations, and misleading "bundling" of additional Great Books-related products without making clear the additional expense.) At the same time, it makes clear that Adler had more in mind than providing a codified and “branded” set of masterpieces that the reader should passively absorb (or trudge through, as the case may be).
The Dream of a Democratic Culture started life as a dissertation at Loyola University in Chicago, where Lacy is currently an academic adviser at the university’s Stritch School of Medicine. In its final pages, he describes the life-changing impact on him, some 20 years ago, of studying Adler’s How to Read a Book (1940), a longtime bestseller. He owns and is reading his way through the Great Books set, and his study reflects close attention to Adler’s own writings and the various supplementary Great Books projects. But in analyzing the life and work of “the Great Bookie,” as one of Adler’s friends dubbed him, Lacy is never merely celebratory. In the final dozen years or so before his death in 2001, Adler became one of the more splenetic culture warriors – saying, for example, that the reason no black authors appeared in the expanded 1990 edition of the Great Books was because they “didn’t write any good books.”
Other such late pronouncements have been all too memorable -- but Lacy, without excusing them, makes a case that they ought not to be treated as Adler’s definitive statements. On the contrary, they seem to betray principles expressed earlier in his career. Lacy stops short of diagnosing the aging philosopher’s bigoted remarks as evidence of declining mental powers, though it is surely a tempting explanation. Then again, working at a medical school would probably leave a non-doctor chary about that sort of thing.
I found The Dream of a Democratic Culture absorbing and was glad to be able to interview the author about it by email; the transcript follows. Between questions, I looked around a used-books website to check out the market in secondhand copies of Great Books of the Western World is like. One listing for the original 1952 edition is especially appealing, and not just because of its price (under $250, in today’s currency). “The whole set is in very good condition,” the bookseller writes, “i.e., not read at all.”
Q: How did your personal encounter with the Great Books turn into a scholarly project?
A: I started my graduate studies in history, at Loyola University Chicago, during the 1997-98 academic year. My initial plan was to work on U.S. cultural history, with a plan to zoom in on either urban environmental history or intellectual history in an urban context. I was going to earn an M.A. and then see about my possibilities for a Ph.D. program.
By the end of 1998 the only thing that had become clear to me was that I was confused. I had accumulated some debt and a little bit of coursework, but I needed a break rethink my options. I took a leave of absence for the 1999 calendar year. During that period I decided three things: (1) I wanted to stay at Loyola for my Ph.D. work; (2) Environmental history was not going to work for me there; (3) Cultural and intellectual history would work for me, but I would need to choose my M.A. thesis carefully to make it work for doctoral studies.
Alongside this intense re-education in the discipline of history I had maintained, all through the 1997 to 1999 period, my reading of the Britannica's Great Books set. I had also accumulated more books on Adler, including his two autobiographies, during stress-relief forays into Chicago's most excellent used bookstore scene. Given Adler's Chicago connections, one almost always saw his two or three of his works in the philosophy sections of these stores.
During a cold December day in 1999, while sitting in a Rogers Park coffee shop near Loyola, this all came together in a sudden caffeine-laced epiphany: Why not propose the Great Books themselves as the big project for my graduate study? I sat on the idea for a few days, both thinking about all the directions I could take for research and pounding myself on the head for not having thought of the project sooner. I knew at this point that Adler hadn't been studied much, and I had a sense that this could be a career's worth of work.
The project was going to bring together professional and personal interests in a way that I had not imagined possible when thinking about graduate school.
Q: Did you meet any resistance to working on Adler and the Great Books? They aren’t exactly held in the highest academic esteem.
A: The first resistance came late in graduate school, and after, when I began sending papers, based on my work, out to journals for potential publication. There I ran into some surprising resistance, in two ways. First, I noticed a strong reluctance toward acknowledging Adler's contributions to American intellectual life. As is evident in my work and in the writings of others (notably Joan Shelley Rubin and Lawrence Levine, but more recently in Alex Beam), Adler had made a number of enemies in the academy, especially in philosophy. But I had expected some resistance there. I know Adler was brusque, and had written negatively about the increasing specialization of the academy (especially in philosophy but also in the social sciences) over the course of the 20th century.
The second line of resistance, which was somewhat more surprising, came because I took a revisionist, positive outlook on the real and potential contributions of the great books idea. Of course this resistance linked back to Adler, who late in his life — in concert with conservative culture warriors --- declared that the canon was set and not revisable. Some of the biggest promoters of the great books idea had, ironically, made it unpalatable to a great number of intellectuals. I hadn't anticipated the fact that Adler and the Great Books were so tightly intertwined, synonymous even, in the minds of many academics.
Q: Selecting a core set of texts was only part of Adler's pedagogical program. Your account shows that it encompassed a range of forms of instruction, in various venues (on television and in newspapers as well as in classrooms and people’s homes). The teaching was, or is, pitched at people of diverse age groups, social backgrounds, and so on -- with an understanding that there are numerous ways of engaging with the material. Would you say something about that?
A: The great books idea in education --- whether higher, secondary, or even primary --- was seen by its promoters as intellectually romantic, adventurous even. It involved adults and younger students tackling primary texts instead of textbooks. As conceived by Adler and Hutchins, the great books idea focused people on lively discussion rather than boring Ben Stein-style droning lectures, or PowerPoints, or uninspiring, lowest-common-denominator student-led group work.
One can of course pick up bits of E.D. Hirsch-style "cultural literacy" (e.g., important places, names, dates, references, and trivia) through reading great books, or even acquire deeper notes of cultural capital as described in John Guillory's excellent but complex work, Cultural Capital: The Problem of Literary Canon Formation (1993). But the deepest goal of Adler's model of close reading was to lead everyday people into the high stakes world of ideas. This was no mere transaction in a "marketplace of ideas," but a full-fledged dialogue wherein one brought all her or his intellectual tools to the workbench.
Adler, Hutchins, John Erskine, Jacques Barzun, and Clifton Fadiman prided themselves being good discussion leaders, but most promoters also believed that this kind of leadership could be passed to others. Indeed, the Great Books Foundation trained (and still trains) people to lead seminars in a way that would've pleased Erskine and Adler. Education credentials matter to institutions, but the Foundation was willing train people off the street to lead great books reading groups.
This points to the fact that the excellent books by famous authors promoted by the great books movement, and the romance inherent in the world of ideas, mattered more than the personality or skill of any one discussion moderator. All could access an engagement with excellence, and that excellence could manifest in texts from a diverse array of authors.
Q: It seems like the tragedy of Adler is that he had this generous, capacious notion that could be called the Great Books as a sort of shorthand – but what he's remembered for is just the most tangible and commodified element of it. A victim of his own commercial success?
A: Your take on the tragedy of Adler is pretty much mine. Given his lifelong association with the great books project, his late-life failings almost guaranteed that the larger great books idea would be lost in the mess of both his temporary racism and promotion of Britannica's cultural commodity. The idea came to be seen as a mere byproduct of his promotional ability. The more admirable, important, and flexible project of close readings, critical thinking, and good citizenship devolved into a sad Culture Wars spectacle of sniping about race, class, and gender. This is why I tried, in my "Coda and Conclusion" to end on a more upbeat note by discussing the excellent work of Earl Shorris and my own positive adventures with great books and Adler's work.
Q: Was it obvious to you from the start that writing about Adler would entail a sort of prehistory of the culture wars, or did that realization come later?
A: At first I thought I would be exploring Adler's early work on the great books during my graduate studies. I saw myself intensely studying the 1920s-1950s period. Indeed, that's all I covered for my master's project which was completed in 2002.
However, I began to see the Culture Wars more clearly as I began to think in more detail about the dissertation. It was right around this time that I wrote a short, exploratory paper on Adler's 1980s-era Paideia Project. When I mapped Paideia in relation to "A Nation at Risk" and William Bennett, I began to see that my project would have to cover Bloom, the Stanford Affair, and the 1990 release of the second edition of Britannica's set. Around the same time I also wrote a paper on Adler's late 1960s books. When I noticed the correlation between his reactions to "The Sixties" and those of conservative culture warriors, it was plain to me that I would have to explore Adler as the culture warrior.
So even though I never set out to write about the Culture Wars, I got excited when I realized how little had been done on the topic, and that the historiography was thin. My focus would limit my exploration (unlike Andrew Hartman's forthcoming study), but I was pleased to know that I might be hanging around with a vanguard of scholars doing recent history on the Culture Wars.
Q: While Adler’s response to the upheaval of the 1960s was not enthusiastic, he was also quite contemptuous of Alan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind. How aware of Bloom's book and its aftermath were you when you bought and started reading the Great Books?
A: Honestly, I had little knowledge of Allan Bloom nor his ubiquitous The Closing of the American Mind until the mid-1990s. This requires a little background explanation. I started college in 1989 and finished in 1994. As a small-town Midwestern teenager and late-1980s high schooler, I was something of a rube when I started college. I was only vaguely aware, in 1989, that there was even a culture war ongoing out there (except in relation to HIV and AIDS).
I'm ashamed to admit, now, how unaware I was of the cultural scene generally. Moreover, I was insulated from some of it, and its intensity, during my early college years when it was at its height because I began college as an engineering student. Not only was my area of study far outside the humanities, the intensity of coursework in engineering sheltered me from all news beyond sports (my news reading outlet at the time). Even when I began to see that engineering wasn't for me, around 1992, my (then) vocational view of college caused me to move to chemistry rather than a humanities subject.
My own rudimentary philosophy of education kept me from thinking more about the Culture Wars until my last few years as a college student. It was then that I first heard about Bloom and his book. Even so, I only read passages in it, through the work of others, until I bought a copy of the book around 2000. I didn't read The Closing of the American Mind, word-for-word, until around 2003-04 while dissertating.
Q: There was no love lost between Adler and Bloom – you make that clear!
A: In my book you can see that Adler really wanted it known that he believed Leo Strauss and all his disciples, especially Bloom, were elitists. Adler believed that the knowledge (philosophy, history, theology, psychology, etc.) contained in great books were accessible to all. While scholarship and the knowledge of elites could add to what one gained from reading great books, there was a great deal in those works that was accessible to the common man and hence available to make better citizens.
So while Adler was sort of a comic-book character, you might say he was a clown for democratic citizenship -- a deceptively smart clown champion for democratizing knowledge and for raising the bar on intelligent discourse. This analogy is faulty, however, because of the intensity and seriousness with which he approached his intellectual endeavors. He loved debate with those who were sincerely engaged in his favorite topics (political philosophy, education, common sense philosophy, etc.).
I see only advantages in the fact that I was not personally or consistently engaged in the culture wars of the late 1980s and early 1990s. It has given me an objective distance, emotionally and intellectually, that I never believed possible for someone working on a topic that had occurred in her/his lifetime. Even though I started graduate school as something of a cultural and religious conservative (this is another story), I never felt invested in making my developing story into something that affirmed my beliefs about religious, culture, and America in general.
A belief that tradition and history had something to offer people today led me to the great books, but that did not confine me into a specific belief about what great books could, or should, offer people today. I was into great books for the intellectual challenge and personal development as a thinker, not for what great books could tell me about today's political, social, cultural, and intellectual scene.
Q: You defend Adler and the Great Books without being defensive, and I take it that you hope your book might help undo some of the damage to the reputation of each -- damage done by Adler himself, arguably, as much as by those who denounced him. But is that really possible, at this late a date? Won’t it take a generation or two? Or is there something about Adler's work that can be revived sooner, or even now?
A: Thank you very much for the compliment in your distinction about defending and being defensive. I did indeed seek to revise the way in which Adler is covered in the historiography. Because most other accounts about him have been, in the main, mocking and condescending, any revisionary project like mine would necessarily have to be more positive -- to inhabit his projects and work, which could result in something that might appear defensive. I think my mentor, Lewis Erenberg, and others will confirm that I did not always strike the right tone in my early work. It was a phase I had to work through to arrive at a mature, professional take on the whole of Adler's life and the Great Books Movement.
As for salvaging Adler's work as a whole, I don't know if that's possible. Some of it is dated and highly contextual. But there is much worth reviewing and studying in his corpus. My historical biography, focused on the great books in the United States, makes some headway in that area.
Some of Adler's other thinking about great books on the international scene will make it into a manuscript, on which I'm currently working, about the transnational history of the great books idea. If all goes well (fingers crossed), that piece will be paired with another by a philosopher and published as "The Great Books Controversy" in a series edited by Jonathan Zimmerman and Randall Curren.
I think a larger book on Adler's work in philosophy is needed, especially his work in his own Institute for Philosophical Research. I don't know if my current professional situation will give me the time and resources to accomplish much more on Adler. And even if my work situation evolves, I do have interests in other historical areas (anti-intellectualism, Chicago's intellectual history, a Jacques Maritain-in-America project). Finally, I also need keep up my hobby of reading more great books!
Over the last year there has been a steady stream of articles about the “crisis in the humanities,” fostering a sense that students are stampeding from liberal education toward more vocationally oriented studies. In fact, the decline in humanities enrollments, as some have pointed out, is wildly overstated, and much of that decline occurred in the 1970s and 1980s. Still, the press is filled with tales about parents riding herd on their offspring lest they be attracted to literature or history rather than to courses that teach them to develop new apps for the next, smarter phone.
America has long been ambivalent about learning for its own sake, at times investing heavily in free inquiry and lifelong learning, and at other times worrying that we need more specialized training to be economically competitive. A century ago these worries were intense, and then, as now, pundits talked about a flight from the humanities toward the hard sciences.
Liberal education was a core American value in the first half of the 20th century, but a value under enormous pressure from demographic expansion and the development of more consistent public schooling. The increase in the population considering postsecondary education was dramatic. In 1910 only 9 percent of students received a high school diploma; by 1940 it was 50 percent. For the great majority of those who went on to college, that education would be primarily vocational, whether in agriculture, business, or the mechanical arts. But even vocationally oriented programs usually included a liberal curriculum -- a curriculum that would provide an educational base on which one could continue to learn -- rather than just skills for the next job. Still, there were some then (as now) who worried that the lower classes were getting “too much education.”
Within the academy, between the World Wars, the sciences assumed greater and greater importance. Discoveries in physics, chemistry, and biology did not seem to depend on the moral, political, or cultural education of the researchers – specialization seemed to trump broad humanistic learning. These discoveries had a powerful impact on industry, the military, and health care; they created jobs! Specialized scientific research at universities produced tangible results, and its methodologies – especially rigorous experimentation – could be exported to transform private industry and the public sphere. Science was seen to be racing into the future, and some questioned whether the traditional ideas of liberal learning were merely archaic vestiges of a mode of education that should be left behind.
In reaction to this ascendancy of the sciences, many literature departments reimagined themselves as realms of value and heightened subjectivity, as opposed to so-called value-free, objective work. These “new humanists” of the 1920s portrayed the study of literature as an antidote to the spiritual vacuum left by hyperspecialization. They saw the study of literature as leading to a greater appreciation of cultural significance and a personal search for meaning, and these notions quickly spilled over into other areas of humanistic study. Historians and philosophers emphasized the synthetic dimensions of their endeavors, pointing out how they were able to bring ideas and facts together to help students create meaning. And arts instruction was reimagined as part of the development of a student’s ability to explore great works that expressed the highest values of a civilization. Artists were brought to campuses to inspire students rather than to teach them the nuances of their craft. During this interwar period a liberal education surely included the sciences, but many educators insisted that it not be reduced to them. The critical development of values and meaning was a core function of education.
Thus, despite the pressures of social change and of the compelling results of specialized scientific research, there remained strong support for the notion that liberal education and learning for its own sake were essential for an educated citizenry. And rather than restrict a nonvocational education to established elites, many saw this broad teaching as a vehicle for ensuring commonality in a country of immigrants. Free inquiry would model basic democratic values, and young people would be socialized to American civil society by learning to think for themselves.
By the 1930s, an era in which ideological indoctrination and fanaticism were recognized as antithetical to American civil society, liberal education was acclaimed as key to the development of free citizens. Totalitarian regimes embraced technological development, but they could not tolerate the free discussion that led to a critical appraisal of civic values. Here is the president of Harvard, James Bryant Conant, speaking to undergraduates just two years after Hitler had come to power in Germany:
To my mind, one of the most important aspects of a college education is that it provides a vigorous stimulus to independent thinking.... The desire to know more about the different sides of a question, a craving to understand something of the opinions of other peoples and other times mark the educated man. Education should not put the mind in a straitjacket of conventional formulas but should provide it with the nourishment on which it may unceasingly expand and grow. Think for yourselves! Absorb knowledge wherever possible and listen to the opinions of those more experienced than yourself, but don’t let any one do your thinking for you.
This was the 1930s version of liberal learning, and in it you can hear echoes of Thomas Jefferson’s idea of autonomy and Ralph Waldo Emerson’s thoughts on self-reliance.
In the interwar period the emphasis on science did not, in fact, lead to a rejection of broad humanistic education. Science was a facet of this education. Today, we must not let our embrace of STEM fields undermine our well-founded faith in the capacity of the humanities to help us resist “the straitjackets of conventional formulas.” Our independence, our freedom, has depended on not letting anyone else do our thinking for us. And that has demanded learning for its own sake; it has demanded a liberal education. It still does.
Michael Roth is president of Wesleyan University. His new book, Beyond the University: Why Liberal Education Matters, will be published next year by Yale University Press.His Twitter handle is@mroth78
In all those years I was pursuing a Ph.D. in religious studies, the question of what my profession really stood for rarely came up in conversation with fellow academics, save for occasional moments when the position of the humanities in higher education came under criticism in public discourse. When such moments passed, it was again simply assumed that anyone entering a doctoral program in the humanities knowingly signed on to a traditional career of specialized research and teaching.
But the closer I got to receiving that doctorate, the less certain I became that this was a meaningful goal. I was surrounded by undergraduates who were rich, well-meaning, and largely apathetic to what I learned and taught. I saw my teachers and peers struggle against the tide of general indifference aimed at our discipline and succumb to unhappiness or cynicism. It was heartbreaking.
Fearing that I no longer knew why I studied religion or the humanities at large, I left sunny California for a teaching job at the Asian University for Women, in Chittagong, Bangladesh. My new students came from 12 different countries, and many of them had been brought up in deeply religious households, representing nearly all traditions practiced throughout Asia. They, however, knew about religion only what they had heard from priests, monks, or imams, and did not understand what it meant to study religion from an academic point of view. And that so many of them came from disadvantaged backgrounds convinced me that this position would give me a sense of purpose.
I arrived in Bangladesh prepared to teach an introductory course on the history of Asian religions. But what was meant to be a straightforward comparison of religious traditions around the region quickly slipped from my control and morphed into a terrible mess. I remember an early lesson: When I suggested during a class on religious pilgrimage that a visit to a Muslim saint’s shrine had the potential to constitute worship, it incited a near-riot.
Several Muslim students immediately protested that I was suggesting heresy, citing a Quranic injunction that only Allah should be revered. What I had intended was to point out how similar tension existed in Buddhism over circumambulation of a stupa — an earthen mound containing the relics of an eminent religious figure — since that act could be seen as both remembrance of the deceased’s worthy deeds and veneration of the person. But instead of provoking a thoughtful discussion, my idea of comparative religious studies seemed only to strike students as blasphemous.
Even more memorable, and comical in hindsight, was being urged by the same Muslims in my class to choose one version of Islam among all its sectarian and national variations and declare it the best. Whereas Palestinians pointed to the "bad Arabic" used in the signage of one local site as evidence of Islam’s degeneration in South Asia, a Pakistani would present Afghanis as misguided believers because — she claimed—they probably never read the entire Quran. While Bangladeshis counseled me to ignore Pakistanis from the minority Ismaili sect who claim that God is accessible through all religions, Bangladeshis themselves were ridiculed by other students for not knowing whether they were Sunni or Shi’a, two main branches of Islam. In the midst of all this I thought my call to accept these various manifestations of Islam as intriguing theological propositions went unheeded.
With my early enthusiasm and amusement depleted, I was ready to declare neutral instruction of religion in Bangladesh impossible. But over the course of the semester I could discern one positive effect of our classroom exercise: students’ increasing skepticism toward received wisdom. In becoming comfortable with challenging my explanations and debating competing religious ideas, students came to perceive any view toward religion as more an argument than an indisputable fact. They no longer accepted a truth claim at face value and analyzed its underlying logic in order to evaluate the merit of the argument. They expressed confidence in the notion that a religion could be understood in multiple ways. And all the more remarkable was their implicit decision over time to position themselves as rational thinkers and to define their religions for themselves.
An illustrative encounter took place at the shrine of the city’s most prominent Muslim saint. I, being a man, was the only one among our group to be allowed into the space. My students, the keeper of the door said, could be "impure" — menstruating — and were forbidden to enter. Instead of backing down as the local custom expected, the students ganged up on the sole guard and began a lengthy exposition on the meaning of female impurity in Islam. First they argued that a woman was impure only when she was menstruating and not at other times; they then invoked Allah as the sole witness to their cyclical impurity, a fact the guard could not be privy to and thus should not be able to use against them; and finally they made the case that if other Muslim countries left it up to individual women to decide whether to visit a mosque, it was not up to a Bangladeshi guard to create a different rule concerning entry. Besieged by a half-dozen self-styled female theologians of Islam, the man cowered, and withdrew his ban.
I was incredibly, indescribably proud of them.
Equally poignant was coming face to face with a student who asked me to interpret the will of Allah. Emanating the kind of glow only the truly faithful seem to possess, she sat herself down in my office, fixed the hijab around her round alabaster face, and quietly but measuredly confessed her crime: She had taken to praying at a Hindu temple because most local mosques did not have space for women, and she was both puzzled and elated that even in a non-Islamic space she could still sense the same divine presence she had been familiar with all her life as Allah. She asked for my guidance in resolving her crisis of faith. If other Muslims knew about her routine excursions to a Hindu temple, she would be branded an apostate, but did I think that her instinct was right, and that perhaps it was possible for Allah to communicate his existence through a temple belonging to another religion?
In the privacy of my office, I felt honored by her question. I had lectured on that very topic just before this meeting, arguing that sacred space was not the monopoly of any one religion, but could be seen as a construct contingent upon the presence of several key characteristics. This simple idea, which scholars often take for granted, had struck her as a novel but convincing explanation for her visceral experience of the Islamic divine inside a Hindu holy space. Though she had come asking for my approval of her newly found conviction, it was clear that she did not need anyone’s blessing to claim redemption. Humanistic learning had already provided her with a framework under which her religious experience could be made meaningful and righteous, regardless of what others might say.
And thanks to her and other students, I could at last define my own discipline with confidence I had until then lacked: The humanities is not just about disseminating facts or teaching interpretive skills or making a living; it is about taking a very public stance that above the specifics of widely divergent human ideas exist more important, universally applicable ideals of truth and freedom. In acknowledging this I was supremely grateful for the rare privilege I enjoyed as a teacher, having heard friends and colleagues elsewhere bemoan the difficulty of finding a meaningful career as humanists in a world constantly questioning the value of our discipline. I was humbled to be able to see, by moving to Bangladesh, that humanistic learning was not as dispensable as many charge.
But before I could fully savor the discovery that what I did actually mattered, my faith in the humanities was again put to a test when a major scandal befell my institution. I knew that as a member of this community I had to critique what was happening after all my posturing before students about the importance of seeking truth. If I remained silent, it would amount to a betrayal of my students and a discredit to my recent conclusion that humanistic endeavor is meant to make us not only better thinkers, but also more empowered and virtuous human beings.
So it was all the more crushing to be told to say nothing by the people in my very profession, whose purpose I thought I had finally ascertained. In private chats my friends and mentors in academe saw only the urgent need for me to extricate myself for the sake of my career, but had little to say about how to address the situation. Several of my colleagues on the faculty, though wonderful as individuals, demurred from taking a stance for fear of being targeted by the administration for retribution or losing the professional and financial benefits they enjoyed. And the worst blow, more so than the scandal itself, was consulting the one man I respected more than anybody else, a brilliant tenured scholar who chairs his own department at a research university in North America, and receiving this one-liner:
"My advice would be to leave it alone."
It was simultaneously flummoxing and devastating to hear a humanist say that when called to think about the real-life implications of our discipline, we should resort to inaction. And soon it enraged me that the same people who decry the dismantling of traditional academe under market pressure and changing attitudes toward higher education could be so indifferent, thereby silently but surely contributing to the collapse of humanists’ already tenuous legitimacy as public intellectuals.
While my kind did nothing of consequence, it was the students — the same students whom I had once dismissed as incapable of intellectual growth — who tried to speak up at the risk of jeopardizing the only educational opportunity they had. They approached the governing boards, the administration, and the faculty to hold an official dialogue. They considered staging a street protest. And finally, they gave up and succumbed to cynicism about higher education and the world, seeing many of their professors do nothing to live by the principles taught in class, and recognizing the humanities as exquisitely crafted words utterly devoid of substance.
As my feeling about my discipline shifted from profound grief to ecstatic revelation to acute disappointment, I was able to recall a sentiment expressed by one of my professors, who himself might not remember it after all these years. Once upon a time we sat sipping espresso on a verdant lawn not far from the main library, and he mused that he never understood why young people no longer seemed to feel outrage at the sight of injustice. He is a product of a generation that once once rampaged campuses and braved oppression by the Man. On first hearing his indictment, I was embarrassed to have failed the moral standard established by the older generation of scholars like him. But now I see that it is not just young people but much of our discipline, both young and old, that at present suffers from moral inertia. With only a few exceptions, humanists I know do not consider enactment of virtue to be their primary professional objective, whether because of the more important business of knowledge production or material exigencies of life. And I can only conclude, with no small amount of sadness, that most humanists are not, nor do they care to be, exemplary human beings.
Maybe I should move on, as did a friend and former academic who believes that the only people we can trust to stand on principle are "holy men, artists, poets, and hobos," because yes, it is true that humanists should not be confused with saints. But the humanities will always appear irrelevant as long as its practitioners refrain from demonstrating a tangible link between what they preach and how they behave. In light of the current academic penchant for blaming others for undoing the humanities, it must be said that humanists as a collective should look at themselves first, and feel shame that there is so much they can say — need to say — about the world, but that they say so little at their own expense.
After a year and a half in Bangladesh, I do not doubt any longer that the humanities matters, but now I know that the discipline’s raison d’être dies at the hands of those humanists who do not deserve their name.
Se-Woong Koo earned his Ph.D. in religious studies from Stanford University in 2011. He currently serves as Rice Family Foundation Visiting Fellow and Lecturer at Yale University.
Because of my experience as former CEO of the Seagram Corporation, young business students and aspiring entrepreneurs often seek my advice on the best way to navigate the complex and daunting world of business. As college students begin to think about selecting their majors, they may be influenced by the many reports coming out this time of year that tell them which majors provide the highest post-college earning potential. Last month, PayScale released its 2013-2014 report, lauding math, science and business courses as the most profitable college majors.
My advice, however, is simple, but well-considered: Get a liberal arts degree. In my experience, a liberal arts degree is the most important factor in forming individuals into interesting and interested people who can determine their own paths through the future.
For all of the decisions young business leaders will be asked to make based on facts and figures, needs and wants, numbers and speculation, all of those choices will require one common skill: how to evaluate raw information, be it from people or a spreadsheet, and make reasoned and critical decisions. The ability to think clearly and critically -- to understand what people mean rather than what they say -- cannot be monetized, and in life should not be undervalued. In all the people who have worked for me over the years the ones who stood out the most were the people who were able to see beyond the facts and figures before them and understand what they mean in a larger context.
Since the financial crisis of 2008, there has been a decline in liberal arts disciplines and a rise is pragmatically oriented majors. Simultaneously, there was a rise of employment by college graduates of 9 percent, as well as a decrease of employment by high school graduates of 9 percent. What this demonstrates, in my mind, is that the work place of the future requires specialized skills that will need not only educated minds, but adaptable ones.
That adaptability is where a liberal arts degree comes in. There is nothing that makes the mind more elastic and expandable than discovering how the world works. Developing and rewarding curiosity will be where innovation finds its future. Steve Jobs, the founder of Apple, attributed his company’s success in 2011 to being a place where “technology married with liberal arts, married with the humanities … yields us the results that makes our heart sing.”
Is that reflected in our current thinking about education as looking at it as a return on investment? Chemistry for the non-scientist classes abound in universities, but why not poetry for business students? As our society becomes increasingly technologically focused and we build better, faster and more remarkable machines, where can technology not replicate human thinking? In being creative, nuanced and understanding of human needs, wants and desires. Think about the things you love most in your life and you will likely see you value them because of how they make you feel, think and understand the world around you.
That does not mean forsaking practical knowledge, or financial security, but in our haste to get everyone technically capable we will lose sight of creating well-rounded individuals who know how to do more than write computer programs.
We must push ourselves as a society to makes math and science education innovative and engaging, and to value teachers and education. In doing so, we will ensure that America continues to innovate and lead and provide more job and economic opportunities for everyone. We must remember, however, that what is seen as cutting-edge practical or technological knowledge at the moment is ever-evolving. What is seen as the most innovative thinking today will likely be seen as passé in ten years. Critical to remaining adaptable to those changes is to have developed a mind that has a life beyond work and to track the changes of human progress, by having learned how much we have changed in the past.
I also believe that business leaders ought to be doing more to encourage students to take a second look at the liberal arts degree. In order to move the conversation beyond rhetoric it is important that students see the merits of having a liberal arts degree, in both the hiring process and in the public statements of today’s business leaders.
In my own life, after studying history at Williams College and McGill University, I spent my entire career in business, and was fortunate to experience success. Essential to my success, however, was the fact that I was engaged in the larger world around me as a curious person who wanted to learn. I did not rely only on business perspectives. In fact, it was a drive to understand and enjoy life -- and be connected to something larger than myself in my love of reading, learning, and in my case, studying and learning about Judaism -- that allows me, at 84, to see my life as fully rounded.
Curiosity and openness to new ways of thinking -- which is developed in learning about the world around you, the ability to critically analyze situations, nurtured every time we encounter a new book, or encountering the abstract, that we deal with every time we encounter art, music or theater -- ensures future success more than any other quality. Learn, read, question, think. In developing the ability to exercise those traits, you will not only be successful in business, but in the business of life.
Edgar M. Bronfman was chief executive officer of the Seagram Company Ltd. and is president of the Samuel Bronfman Foundation, which seeks to inspire a renaissance of Jewish life.
The current state and future prospects of the humanities are occasioning considerable anxious comment. Many humanists are sadly resigned to a belief that the humanities have irrevocably ceded pride of place to the social sciences and sciences; and, indeed, the social sciences and sciences generate and command much intellectual energy in the 21st-century university, for understandable reasons.
The usual remedies proposed for this state of affairs have seemed to me to be limited at best and perhaps even misguided. A typical argument for the utility of the humanistic disciplines is that studying them enhances critical thought and powers of expression, and one would certainly agree.
But I wonder whether such an argument will gain much traction with college-age students and especially their parents. The data suggest a clear national trend away from the humanistic disciplines toward those that seem to offer a different kind of promise or outcome: a vocational utility or practical applicability. Under such circumstances, abstract arguments about the enhancement of critical thought – no matter how skillfully they are advanced, no matter how much one might agree with them – are less likely to prevail.
I propose here one different kind of case for the humanities, one that identifies – and celebrates – their specific vocational utility.
Now, many of my fellow humanists, I suspect, will be troubled – even offended – by such an argument: the humanities ought not to be sullied by vulgar assertions about their supposed practicality. But there would be an irony in that response to my argument.
As a historian, I – like all historians – have invariably found it informative, illuminating and useful to consider the historical context and precedents for the issue at hand. And as a student of the Italian Renaissance, I have always found it ironic that, notwithstanding likely present-day resistance to evaluating the humanities in terms of their vocational utility, they enjoyed the considerable prestige they enjoyed during the Italian Renaissance and thereafter precisely because of their perceived practical utility.
Currently, the humanities, relative not only to the current place of the sciences but also to the place of the humanities during the Italian Renaissance, have withdrawn from a prominent role in the public arena, and this, I suspect, is one of the causes of their momentarily precarious state. During the Italian Renaissance, on the other hand, the humanistic disciplines were prestige subjects of study expressly because they enjoyed a relationship to the political and social order -- because those with political authority saw real practical value in encouraging humanistic study and employing those who had undertaken and completed it.
The adherents of the studia humanitatis held posts in the governments of the Italian cities and courts of the 15th and 16th centuries; their skills enabled them to serve their employers effectively as speech and letter writers, historians of the state, diplomats and government magistrates. They wrote elegant prose that was then deployed in diplomatic dispatches and letters and in speeches that they or their employers – the bearers of political authority – delivered effectively and persuasively, in part due to the elegance of the language, in part to the emphasis characteristic of the humanist program on skilled oratorical delivery. If I understand correctly, this is the collective opinion of a succession of distinguished historians of the Italian Renaissance: Paul Oskar Kristeller; Lauro Martines; Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine; James Hankins; and others.
Precisely how were such linguistic and literary skills leveraged as professional assets? In the words of one student of Renaissance humanism, rhetoric “was ... effective in the daily encounters of the tribunal, marketplace, and political forum, not to mention in diplomatic and personal correspondence. Artful communication ... became a[n] ... .instrument for gaining or maintaining power.” Grafton and Jardine have written that the skills
...inculcated had an established practical value in fifteenth-century Italy. The ability to speak extempore on any subject in classical Latin, the ability to compose formal letters to order in the classical idiom... were... valuable assets. Equipped with them the student could serve as an ambassador, or secretary to a government department... In other words, although the programme was strictly literary and non-vocational, it nevertheless opened the way to a number of careers....[T]he independence of liberal arts education from establishment values is an illusion. The individual humanist is defined in terms of his relation to the power structure, and he is praised or blamed, promoted or ignored, to just the extent that he fulfils or fails to fulfil those terms. It is ... a condition of the prestige of humanism in the fifteenth century, as Lauro Martines stresses, that “the humanists ... were ready to serve [the ruling] class.”
“In this setting,” Grafton and Jardine continue, “the rhetoric of humanism represents the power of Latinity and eloquence as actual power – as meshed with civic activity in a close and influential relationship.”
As models for their linguistic practices, the Italian Renaissance humanists turned to familiar and newly recovered classical texts, and the classicizing character of university education in the post-Renaissance European and Europeanized world is directly attributable to the influence of the Renaissance humanists, who advocated strenuously and successfully for the virtues of their particular disciplines. As late as the mid-to-late 19th century, venerable American liberal arts colleges offered a course of study for the A.B. degree that continued to feature classical texts, almost to the exclusion of other subject matter. (The course of study for the A.B. at such institutions also included some more limited course work in “geometry and conic sections,” algebra, plane and spherical trigonometry, mechanics, “general chemistry and the non-metals,” and additional subjects other than classical languages and literatures.)
So persuasive had the Italian humanists been in their advocacy that, centuries later, the course of study in the classic 18th- and 19th-century American liberal arts college continued to reveal the influence of the Italian Renaissance, notwithstanding the challenges one would have faced in arguing compellingly for the continuing utility of such an educational tradition in 18th- and 19th-century America. The Harvard historian Bernard Bailyn wrote that “[t]he classics of the ancient world are everywhere in the literature of the [American] Revolution,” “everywhere illustrative… of thought. They contributed a vivid vocabulary..., a universally respected personification...of political and social beliefs. They heightened the colonists’ sensitivity to ideas and attitudes otherwise derived.” And, indeed, James Madison, A.B., LL.D. Princeton University, 1771, 1787, mastered several ancient languages before “fathering” the American Constitution.
Harvard president and chemist James Bryant Conant could write as late as the 1950s that “[in] Europe west of the Iron Curtain, the literary tradition in education still prevails. An educated man or woman is a person who has acquired a mastery of several tongues and retained a working knowledge of the art and literature of Europe.”
Now, what does one learn from this brief primer on the historical context? First, that advocacy – the kind of advocacy characteristic of the Italian Renaissance humanists, who, according to Kristeller and those who wrote after him, wrested a temporary position of preeminence in their society precisely through the force and effectiveness of their advocacy – is perfectly acceptable, and carries no risk of coarsening the quality of the enterprise: a succession of Italian Renaissance humanists beginning with Petrarch advocated spiritedly for their program, and one could scarcely argue that their intellectual achievement was cheapened as a result of that advocacy.
And second, that such advocacy is especially successful when it legitimately emphasizes vocational utility and professional applicability, when it advances an argument that one’s field of study leads incontrovertibly to coveted careers and has concrete benefits for the state and for the political and social order. Let us be spirited advocates, therefore, and celebrate the utility of the humanities as one of the justifications for studying them.
Could a similar, and similarly effective, case be made today for the humanistic disciplines? I believe so. In what ways could one argue – reasonably, justifiably, and therefore persuasively – that the humanities have direct professional viability, and that one can therefore envision and countenance studying them not only because of the intrinsic intellectual satisfactions of doing so or merely because their study enhances critical thought or powers of expression in some abstract sense, but also because there is true, clear utility to doing so?
It would not be difficult to inventory a considerable number of coveted professions and enterprises where humanistic training is not only professionally valuable, but indispensable. I offer just a few possibilities here, and the list could easily be extended, I should imagine. (For example, Lino Pertile suggested the importance of humanistic training to careers in the growing nonprofit sector.)
And my argument is that, in our advocacy for the humanities, we should not be at all reluctant to make much fuller and more explicit reference to their career utility.
What would a 21st-century inventory of concrete vocational applications of the humanities look like? For example:
A field that embraces what was once termed bioethics and related areas. When one addresses and attempts to resolve such pressing public-policy issues as stem-cell research, abortion, the availability of health care, female genital mutilation, AIDS, epidemics and pandemics, and many others, a satisfactory resolution of the problems encountered will depend not solely on scientific and medical expertise, but also a command of the time-honored questions of the ancient discipline of philosophy: notions of justice (for example, determining how to distribute justly limited resource like health care); morality; and ethics. These are urgent matters that require a humanist’s expertise and the philosophers’ millennia of experience in analyzing such vexing issues. The career possibilities in international health organizations, government agencies, non-government organizations, and think tanks seem promising. The indispensability of the humanities to the successful practice of this field is such that it is now often termed the medical humanities.
Architecture and urban planning. The architect and urban planner creates the built environment (an urgent and practical, enterprise, in that human beings require spaces in which to live and work), and in doing so, he or she functions at the nexus of the political-economic, the social, and the aesthetic; the architect and urban planner is equal parts humanist (who deploys aesthetic sensibilities in the design work) and sensitive reader of the practical social, political, and economic contexts within which he or she necessarily operates. Enlightened city planning offices welcome colleagues with such sensibilities.
Foreign service and diplomacy. Never before has there been a more urgent need for skilled readers of cultural difference. A sensitive humanistic understanding of other cultures, acquired above all through the rigorous study of foreign languages (and literatures), will be indispensable in coming to terms with such developments as the encounter of Islam and the European and Europeanized worlds. The repercussions for so practical a consideration as American national security are obvious, and one can imagine many outlets for such skills in government service.
Various modes of public discourse (or “writing in action,” as my former Tulane colleague Molly Rothenberg has termed it). By this I mean the effective use of language in the public arena, such as journalism (both print and broadcast, and, increasingly, digital) or television and motion-picture screenwriting. But it could also be extended to embrace advertising (increasingly web-based, which entails yet another humanistic skill, the aesthetic sense required in the visual and aural material that now invariably complements text); web-page design (which, once more, will entail a fusion of the visual, aural, and textual); and related enterprises. The humanist’s command of the aesthetic complexities of text and language, visual image, and aural material, and their simultaneous deployment will be indispensable. Indeed, the digital technologies of the 20th and 21st centuries are so powerful, and the full reach of the transition currently under way so difficult to apprehend, that one can only speculate as to what shape human communication will take when the shift to a new paradigm is more or less complete. (Indeed, humanistic sensibilities may prove to have a salutary, tempering influence on the effects of digital technologies.) The skillful fusion of still and moving images, aural material, and text will determine the effectiveness of MOOCs, which will depend as much on humanistic skills as scientific and technical.
Rhetoric and oratory. This element is related to the previous one. The electronic information technologies that emerged beginning with the invention of the telegraph in the 19th century have a characteristic that makes them unlike manuscript copying and print: they “dematerialize” information and make it possible for it to be disseminated with lightning speed across vast distances. And the invention of radio, film, and television added the elements of the aural and moving visual to those that had characterized the medium of print (and manuscript copying before it): written text and still image. These newer technologies more closely replicate “live” human experience, and much more closely than print, which freezes discourse, and alters its character. As a technology, print (and the media associated with it) have been giving way to electronic technologies, with their capacity for the full integration of written and spoken language, still and moving image, and sound (music and other aural material), and for the dematerialization and dissemination of such information. The implication for colleges and universities is as follows: we have invested admirably in initiatives designed to train our students to write well and read texts critically and perceptively. But given the power of the new technologies, there is a case to be made for a return to greater instruction in rhetoric and oratory, to an equal command of the spoken word, which can be captured on audio- or videotape or broadcast over radio, television, and the computer (via Skype), in a guise that print has never demanded. The development of electronic communication technologies that permit us to communicate extemporaneously over vast distances in a conversational tone and manner, suggests that we might well retool our educational system to feature once again the time-honored humanistic practice of effective oratory and refine our students’ facility in the spoken word.
One need only consider the example of Barack Obama’s skilled oratory (or Franklin Roosevelt’s, or Ronald Reagan’s, or John Kennedy’s) to appreciate the importance to the political order of a venerable humanistic skill like oratory; these are political figures who postdate the development of electronic technologies, notably. Columnist George F. Will has observed that the American presidency is “an office whose constitutional powers are weak but whose rhetorical potential is great.”
By no means do the new electronic information technologies obviate the need for continuing skill in other, more traditional and familiar humanistic modes of communication – the kind of careful, comprehensive, subtle argument that written text affords – and the close, sensitive reading and command of existing texts that inform the authorship of new texts. Henry Riecken suggested that “[t]he text of the Federalist Papers was put into machine-readable form in order to carry out an analysis that resolved questions of disputed authority of some of the papers; but the new format did not replace the bound volumes for readers who want to absorb the thoughts and reflect on the aspirations of this stately document.”
Art conservation, and its relationship to the political economy. Nations with an exceptional legacy of monuments in the visual arts (Italy being an well-known example) face a particular challenge with respect to maintaining the condition of that legacy. And in Italy’s case, the relationship of the condition of that legacy to the economy is obvious: given the central place of tourism in the Italian economy, it is vital that the nation’s artistic patrimony be satisfactorily conserved. Sensitive art conservation is at the intersection of the humanistic (the aesthetic), the scientific and technological (an understanding of the nature of surfactants and the effects of environmental conditions), and the political-economic (the need to balance the claims of conserving the artistic patrimony acceptably against other claims on public resources).
What is interesting about this list is how closely its elements are aligned with the Italian Renaissance humanist’s earlier construction of the studia humanitatis. The kind of ethical reasoning demanded in successful practice of the medical humanities is, in its way, a modern iteration of the Renaissance humanist’s moral philosophy; 21st-century applications of writing, rhetoric, and oratory are, in their way, contemporary versions of the Renaissance humanist’s grammar, poetry, and rhetoric; the understanding of foreign cultures and languages required for effective foreign service in today’s bewilderingly complex and interdependent world is, in its way, the modern expression of the Renaissance humanist’s practice of history. The foundational elements of the core humanistic program have perhaps not changed so very much.
What is different is the explicitness with which the Renaissance humanists advocated – persuasively, compellingly, successfully – for the professional utility of their disciplines, which permitted them to secure a place of considerable prestige and authority in their world. There is warrant for their 21st-century successors’ advancing a similar argument: that one undertake the study and practice of the humanistic disciplines not only within the confines of the academic world (as intrinsically worthwhile, in a fundamental intellectual sense) but outside them as well (as critical to the successful execution of one’s expressly professional and vocational responsibilities).
Specifically, I propose that we self-consciously reframe the presentation and delivery of the humanistic offerings of the modern-day college and university to make much more explicit reference to their potential applicability: that we foreground this kind of argument for their virtues. Some of what is now being done within the university is being done absentmindedly, so to speak, without a sufficiently self-conscious articulation of why we do what we do. Were we to reframe our offerings in this way – reposition the humanities and articulate their virtues differently – we might find that the national trend away from them could be halted and perhaps even reversed.
My sense is that many students rather naturally hunger for the humanistic disciplines and are driven to make other curricular choices in part because of concerns about career viability. Were such concerns addressed – legitimately, effectively, persuasively – we might find some such students willing to study what their hearts prompt them to study. In our curriculums, were we to foreground explicit, purposeful reference to the ways in which the humanities are indispensable to the successful practice of some of the esteemed and rewarding professions identified above (rewarding in several senses of that word), we might succeed in alleviating student (and parental) anxiety about the practicality of studying such supposedly “impractical” subjects.
Only by such means, I believe, will the humanities truly be able to re-secure the place they once enjoyed, and still deserve, in the collective cultural imagination and in the great public arena. And by no means should we be hesitant about advancing such an argument, since we have the example of the Italian Renaissance before us: it would be difficult to argue that energetic advocacy on grounds of vocational viability compromised the artistic and intellectual integrity of the achievements of Petrarch and his venerated successors.
Anthony M. Cummings is professor of music and coordinator of Italian studies (and former provost and dean of the faculty) at Lafayette College.
Very seldom in writing about scholarly publishing have I had an occasion to use the word “fun” -- actually, this may be the first time -- but with a couple of recent titles, nothing else will do.
They are not frivolous books by any means. Sober and learned reviews by experts may appear in specialist journals two or three years from now, and they will be instructive. But the books in question should generate some interest outside the field of J. Redding Ware studies.
Nobody who appreciates the history and color of the English language can fail to enjoy the University of Oxford Bodleian Library’s new facsimile edition of Ware’s masterpiece, the invaluable Passing English of the Victorian Era: A Dictionary of Heterodox English, Slang, and Phrase. First published in 1909, shortly after Ware’s death, it is now available as Ware’s Victorian Dictionary of Slang and Phrase -- a title that is more marketable, perhaps, but decidedly wanting in precision. Most of the lingo it covers is Victorian, but the dictionary itself, appearing as it did in the final month of the king’s life, is Edwardian. (A pedant’s work is never done.) The new edition contains a valuable introduction by John Simpson, who retires this month as chief editor of the Oxford English Dictionary.
It covers almost everything currently known about Ware (i.e., not much) and assesses his contribution to lexicography, which was considerable. Ware’s dictionary is cited in the OED more than 150 times, including “almost 50 times for the first recorded evidence for a word or meaning.” My earlier reference to Ware studies was a bit of a stretch, since nobody has ever written a book about him, nor a dissertation -- nor even, it seems, a journal article devoted solely to his life or works. A couple of papers by Joyce scholars identify his dictionary as a source the novelist consulted while writing Ulysses. Simpson’s introduction is the landmark in a nearly barren field.
Ware was born in 1832 and his first name was James, after his father, who was a grocer. In his teens the future author served a short jail sentence following a violent family quarrel, during which he grabbed a bacon knife and threatened to kill James the elder. He worked as mercantile clerk while writing his first novel, published in 1860. From that point on Ware seems to have eked out a hardscrabble existence along the lines George Gissing depicts in New Grub Street, cranking out fiction, journalism, and quite a few plays, along with a handbook on playing whist and a tourist’s guide to the Isle of Wight.
Simpson unfortunately neglects to mention one other documented occasion when Ware went to court, seeking relief from a downstairs neighbor who played the piano at all hours. The outcome remains unclear but it seems no bacon-knife was involved.
Not quite a gentleman, then, nor by profession a scholar. Ware’s dictionary was commissioned by Routledge as a supplement to another volume on colloquial English. “His lexicographical method is arguably modern,” Simpson notes, “as he based his selection largely on printed evidence that he (and, one imagines, other interested parties) had collected principally from newspapers and other ephemeral sources… The latest quotations date from 1902, though the majority date from the 1880s and 1890s.”
No don would have come up with what Simpson calls Ware’s “idiosyncratic labeling system,” which identifies the provenance of a given piece of slang through categories such as “Slums,” “Italian Organ-Grinders,” “Music Hall,” or “Colloquial Imbecile.” He clearly spent a good bit of time hanging around theaters and pubs, and “was painfully aware of changes in hairstyles and fashion generally over the decades, and can with the help of his printed evidence place the introduction of a new ‘look’ to a precise year.”
Some of the expressions Ware includes have passed into accepted use. He identifies opportunism as a piece of political slang from the 1860s, explaining: “Used rather in contempt, as subserving conscience to convenience, or to personal advantage.” It turns out that flappers -- young women of an immodest sort -- were on the scene well before the 1920s, And while Susan Sontag doesn't mention it in wrote her notes, Ware identified camp as an adjective applying to “actions and gestures of exaggerated emphasis," noting that it was “used chiefly by persons of exceptional want of character.” By that Ware undoubtedly means sissies, “effeminate men in society,” a term he indicates (citing an American newspaper) caught on in the 1890s.
I would have assumed the slang word narc -- pertaining to an informer, and used as both noun and verb -- derived from narcotics. Apparently not: copper’s nark is defined as thieves’ argot, also from the 1890s, meaning “a policeman’s civilian spy.” Ware indicates that police were called coppers from 1868 on, and you’d have found a copper-slosher (“individual with the mania for ‘going for’ policemen”) hanging around a copper’s shanty, as the station house was known. A working-class person thought to be blustering risked the taunt “Copper! Copper!” – implying that he was “giving himself the airs of police authority.”
But where did cop itself come from? “There has been more discussion over this widely applied word than any other in the kingdom of phrase,” writes Ward in one of his longer entries. It is incredibly polysemic, meaning “taken, seized, thrashed, struck, caught by disease, well-scolded, discovered in cheating,” and could also be used as a verb meaning “to take too much to drink” (hence copping the brewery). Thunderous applause for an especially good show at a music hall show would cop the curtain, so that the performer could take a bow.
The vast majority of Ware’s 4,000 entries define expressions that vanished without a trace. Hence his original title: "passing English" comes and goes. It's the vigor of language that drives the vitality of the book.
One craze of the 1880s was corpse-worship – “the extreme use of flowers at funerals” – which got so bad that by the ‘90s “many death notices in the press were followed by the legend ‘No flowers.’ ” Slang words often come from the contraction of common expressions; for example, damirish, “damned Irish,” and damfino, “I am damned if I know.”
Nobody still describes an egg gone bad as suitable for electioneering purposes (derived from “the exercise of projecting them at antagonistic candidates”) and the culture is all the poorer for it. Then again, it's a relief that suggestionize -- an old bit of legal jargon meaning “to prompt,” as with a witness – never caught on. Now if we could just euthanize “finalize.”
Decades before the birth of Jerry Garcia, deadhead was the entertainment-industry label for an audience member who got in without buying a ticket. It applied to critics and “’theatrical people’… [who] never pay to enter a theatre.” Ware, as a playwright, resented them, and the dictionary vents his frustration in an amusing manner:
“The experienced eye can always divide the deadheads from the ‘plank-downers’ in a theatre. The deadheads are always dressed badly, and give themselves airs when looking at the inferior parts of the house. The plank-downers never give themselves airs, mean business, and only look at the stage. Deadheads are very emphatically described by a theatrical official: ‘Here come two more deadheads; look at their boots.’”
Many entries are no doubt the only record of a term or catchphrase, and in some cases the lexicographer can just guess what they originally signified. Who stole the goose? is an “interjection of contempt, which appears to have some hidden meaning, probably of an erotic nature.” in the case of Who took it out of you?, Ware doesn't even try. The meaning is “wholly unknown to people not absolutely of lower class.”
Of comparable subaltern origins, but easier to understand, is the slang term label for sausage: bags o’ mystery. That one should come back into circulation. Its use could be extended to the hot dog.
Speaking of mystery, another book recently reissued in facsimile is Andrew Forrester, Jr.’s The Female Detective, a collection of short fiction from 1864, reprinted by the British Library and distributed in the U.S. by the University of Chicago Press. A digital edition is available from Amazon.
You can find the book online in PDF for free -- which is also true with Ware’s dictionary, although Simpson’s introduction is not to be missed. With The Female Detective, the new material consists of a foreword by Alexander McCall Smith (best known for his No. 1 Ladies Detective Agency novels, but also the author of What W.H. Auden Can Do For You, just out from Princeton University Press) and an introduction by Mike Ashley, whose books include a biography of Algernon Blackwood.
The Female Detective is offered as a collection of reports from the files of the elusive Miss G----- (she is nothing if not discreet) as edited by Forrester. The detective’s “casebook” was a very popular genre at the time, part of the “railroad literature” that sprang up to meet the demand of commuters. Forrester later wrote at least two more such collections, but his place in the history of the genre comes from having created Miss G---- (a.k.a. Mrs. Gladden), the first female professional detective in fiction. Kathleen Gregory Klein devoted several pages to the book in The Woman Detective: Gender & Genre (University of Illinois Press, 1988) and puzzlement over Forrester's identity – was it a pseudonym? – has echoed down the scholarship ever since.
It now seems very likely that the author was, in fact, J. Redding Ware. Simpson accepts it as credible in his introduction to the dictionary, as does Mike Ashley in the opening pages of the short-story collection. The identification was proposed by Kate Summerscale in the notes to her nonfiction novel The Suspicions of Mr. Whicher: A Shocking Murder and the Undoing of a Great Victorian Detective (2008). In researching her book, Summerscale noticed that Ware published a pamphlet about the crime in question: a child murder that occurred in a country house in 1860. (The circumstances are oddly reminiscent of the JonBenet Ramsey case.) He seems to have incorporated the text into a chapter of The Female Detective.
Mrs. Gladden had keen powers of observation and deduction, and a reader can’t help thinking of the much better-remembered private eye who came on the scene later in Victoria’s reign. Ware must have felt that Arthur Conan Doyle had stolen his thunder – though that seems like a rather peculiar phrase, come to think of it.
Wade lists it in his dictionary, explaining that it means “annexing another man’s idea, or work, without remunerating him, and to your own advantage.” It was first used, he writes, by one John Dennis, “a play-writer of the 17th century, who invented stage thunder for a piece of his own which failed.” The theater manager incorporated the technique in the production of someone else’s play, prompting the enraged Dennis to yell out, “They won’t act my piece, but they steal my thunder.”
I hope J. Redding Ware studies comes into its own, or at least that others discover him. How often is it worth reading a dictionary just for the stories?
It’s been a few weeks since "The Heart of the Matter," the congressionally ordered report on the state of the humanities and social sciences, was issued by the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. And while there is little to object to in the actual text, which brims with veracities on the importance of education and good citizenship, the smarting hasn’t stopped.
In The New York Times alone, we heard from three pundocratic naysayers. David Brooks, a member of the commission, bemoaned the collective suicide of the humanities professoriate, Verlyn Klinkenborg lamented the decline and fall of the English major, and Stanley Fish excoriated the report itself for its "bland commonplaces" and "recommendations that could bear fruit only in a Utopia" (and as a Miltonist, he knows that’s not the world we live in).
There have been valiant attempts to parry this latest volley of gloom regarding the "crisis of the humanities."
But even if "our classrooms remain packed," that still leaves the population at large. And there, a basic contention remains unanswered: the, by now, self-evident truth that the humanities are a "public relations failure" (Fish ventriloquizing Klinkenborg). Humanists are just no good at explaining why their work matters. No wonder, then, that the public has little use for their efforts.
The marketing problem is such a commonplace in the debate, it goes virtually unremarked these days. But to me, it raises a very basic question: why is it the job of a humanist to be her own advertiser? Other creative types have managers, agents, and publicists for that task, to say nothing of film studios, theaters, galleries, and museums – infrastructures, in other words, that allow them to focus on what they do best.
What would such an institution look like for humanists? As it happens, I help lead one. The Chicago Humanities Festival, which I serve as artistic director, is the largest organization of its kind in the United States. In fact, we were name-checked as such in "The Heart of the Matter," praised for our success in "inviting academics and artists to share their passions and expertise with new audiences."
We’re in our 24th year of doing so. Our annual fall festival features about 100 events, always organized around a theme. Attendance is around 50,000, with hundreds of thousands more consuming our content digitally. Not your average public relations failure, we like to think.
But how do we do it? How do we get thousands of people to come out to hear humanities professors lecture?
It’s really quite simple: we treat our presenters as stars and our events as performances.
It’s probably best to think about this mode of operation in contrast to your typical university programming. Sure, those lectures are free and open to the public. But how would that public even know? Dreary leaflets on campus bulletin boards aren’t likely to draw general audiences. Nor would such crowds feel particularly engaged by often dry and specialized presentations. (I should hasten to add that in my other life as a university professor, I can get quite excited about an earnest announcement circulating on a listserv; but then again, I’m already sold on the product.)
Everything we do at the Chicago Humanities Festival is designed to break those kinds of barriers. We write tantalizing copy for our events, place our ads in all the local media, and hustle for coverage in those same publications.
And we make sure that our featured talent appears in the best light possible. We think about stage sets and backdrops and fuss endlessly with our sound systems. Even more importantly, we spend a huge amount of time thinking about the best way to showcase a speaker. Is the great Harvard historian we invited known to go on and on when lecturing? No problem, we feature him in conversation with that gentle, yet firm journalist who has a deep passion for his subject. Is there worry about the density of a speech on continental philosophy? We coach the presenter in the joys of multi-media.
When it all works out, we get big, expectant audiences who, after basking in the erudition of our speakers (and asking sometimes stunningly insightful questions), can’t wait to come back for more.
This isn’t so different from the way other cultural organizations operate. Let me take an example from the world of opera, another domain whose utility could seem suspect in the glare of neoliberal scrutiny. When soprano Anna Netrebko was scheduled to make her Chicago debut in the 2012-13 season, it brought shivers of anticipation to local opera fanatics. But for a good chunk of Lyric Opera’s patrons, she was just a Russian-sounding name. It was the task of the company to create the appropriate excitement for her bow as Mimì, to say nothing of providing her with all the theatrical props needed for an optimal performance. The result: a sold-out run and something approaching collective hysteria (of the good kind).
Why should it be so different for humanists? Sure, in the academy we recognize folks like Julia Kristeva, Frans de Waal, and Maria Tatar as stars (to mention three of the speakers who will join us for this fall’s festival on Animal: What Makes Us Human). But just like your average opera diva, they need a bit of professional marketing and a decent production to find and captivate their audience. As a performing organization in the humanities, that’s our job. And after 24 years, we know how to do it.
Matti Bunzl is artistic director of the Chicago Humanities Festival and professor of anthropology at the University of Illinois.
Creative writing has its share of detractors, those who believe that the study of and teaching of creative writing produces deleterious effects for students and for literature. For example, in "Poetry Vs. Ambition," Donald Hall worries that invention exercises (writing warm-ups which help writers find their subject) in writing classrooms "reduce poetry to a parlor game," producing "McPoems" on assembly lines. "Abolish the M.F.A.!" states Hall with an exclamation point, and then, in Latin, he cries, "The Iowa Writers Workshop must be destroyed."
Hall’s essay reflects a particularly unproductive strand of criticism aimed at creative writing that has arisen of late. Anis Shivani is perhaps its most recent practitioner, with a soapbox on which to stand, but certainly not the only detractor. Indeed, when Shivani’s critiques of creative writing programs emerged, preceding the publication of his book Against the Workshop: Provocations, Polemics, Controversies (2011) many of us were approached by creative writing colleagues wanting to know what we thought of this brash new critique of the workshop. What they didn’t understand was that his assertions weren’t new at all, but by boldly ignoring the scholarly conversations that had been going on about this subject for many years — a fact made plain by what is missing in the book, specifically in the works cited — Shivani was able to create a scholarly stance that acted as if they were.
In fact, what Shivani, Hall and others practice is better termed a "new old criticism" — new because it proliferates in electronic social media, old because it rehashes simplistic assertions that have been around for decades. This argument has three major problems: First, its rhetorical stance is far more appropriate for talk radio than for a serious scholarly or public debate; its practitioners refuse to engage with the actual arguments of those with whom they disagree. Second, this new old criticism is rooted in dated and limited assumptions about what creative writing is and can be.
In reading this criticism, one can see that it is aimed at the Iowa Writers’ Workshops as they are said to have existed in the 1950s; there is no admission of the diversification and complexity of creative writing that has flourished in the decades since then. Third, this new old criticism is stuck within a narcissistic worldview. It perceives an age-old challenge — the difficulty of writers finding readers in a world where print technology proliferates — as a personal affront. The new old criticism drapes itself in a narrow banner of great art, adopting the hubristic stance that a writer can actually know with certainty that he or she is producing such great art in the moment of creating it.
So should everyone associated with creative writing programs pack up and shut our doors? This isn’t going to happen. The horse is out of the barn. Creative writing classes are more popular than ever, in part because they offer not just a means of expression but an alternative to theory-laden literary analysis.
The real questions are: How can we best design our curriculums and our classes to best serve the needs of our students? What can we do to ensure that creative writing — the teachers, the students, the courses, the programs — has a positive impact on contemporary literature? Which aspects of creative writing — the writing itself as a process and as a product of our efforts — can be taught, and what are the best practices for such teaching? How does creative writing fit into English departments, into the liberal arts generally, and into the colleges and universities where it is housed? Finally, in our breathtakingly tight economy, what kinds of careers and lives are creative writing students being prepared for?
Given the scope of its critical mass, creative writing stands as a knowledge-based discipline. Rather than associate knowledge with certainty as traditional academic models often do, the knowledge in creative writing is in the discovery that takes the writer beyond the routines and in the questions that arise and that are answered through the writing process. Study of writing through reading and writing is the methodology we use; this mode of knowledge acquisition leads to new conclusions. Knowledge through practice, through doing, through thinking about and talking about what we’re doing. To wit, we have observed that the "flipped" classroom, in which students absorb lectures online outside of class and come to class to work hands-on with the material, has become the latest trend in college teaching.
By engaging students in hands-on work on their own writing and that of others, the oft-maligned "workshop," which has evolved over the years to suit varying constituents, undergraduates, graduate students, general education students and majors, has modeled a "flipped" classroom almost since its inception. This conversation about creative writing also speaks to what has become recently known as the crisis in the humanities. Helene Moglen, in the latest issue of the Modern Language Association's Profession, gives a convincing overview of a crisis that goes back to the 1980s, with the report called "A Nation at Risk." Among the few causes of the crisis in the humanities that Moglen defines are "internal disagreements about the appropriate development of our disciplines" and "prevalent social attitudes toward education that assume irrelevance of humanistic study."
David Fenza, of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs, points out, in his history of creative writing in higher education, that "creative writing classes have become among the most popular classes in the humanities." To meet demand, creative writing programs have at least tripled in number in the last 30 years, and many of us are housed in English departments. If the humanities are in crisis, creative writing is not. In fact, creative writing is not only healthy within the academy but has relevance beyond it. Contemporary literature, after all, is written by creative writers, whether or not they have earned an M.F.A. This relevance offers an example for other disciplines, a way to resist prevalent social attitudes that overlook the value and contributions of the arts and humanities to our culture and our daily lives.
Finally, many creative writing programs have recognized that while most students won’t necessarily go on to become the next Jonathan Franzen (just like most violin students won’t play with the National Symphony, or sculpture students exhibit their work at the Hirshhorn), they do want to work in creative industries. A survey of the curriculums of many of these programs, which usually offer courses not only in creativity and craft but also in new media, editing and publishing, reveals that they prepare students to do just that.
The sniping about what’s appropriate for our discipline or whether creative writing should even be an academic discipline emerges, however, from within our ranks. Hall has taught workshops and visited creative writing programs to read his work, and Shivani is a creative writer as well as a critic. Airing our internal disagreements and pitting writers against each other — outside or within the academy — does few of us any good and invites a sense of crisis in creative writing when there isn’t one. Let’s do our research. Let’s have productive conversations.
People who shoot the occasional salvo at creative writing aren’t really interested in taking part in a conversation, but we are, and we invite others in our midst to join us in this ongoing conversation about our discipline. This discussion can shape the healthy development of creative writing, position us positively within academe, and shift social attitudes toward a better future for literature and learning.
Tim Mayers is author of (Re) Writing Craft: Composition, Creative Writing and the Future of English Studies. He teaches at Millersville University of Pennsylvania.
Dianne Donnelly is the author of Establishing Creative Writing Studies as an Academic Discipline, editor of Does the Writing Workshop Still Work and co-editor of Key Issues in Creative Writing.
Tom Hunley is an associate professor at Western Kentucky university. His books include The Poetry Gymnasium, Teaching Poetry Writing and Octopus.
Anna Leahy is the author of Constituents of Matter She edited Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom. She teaches at Chapman University.
Stephanie Vanderslice is professor of writing and director of the Arkansas Writer's M.F.A. Workshop, at the University of Central Arkansas.
Amid talk of outcomes-based education, a new report from the Commission on the Humanities and Social Sciences stresses the disciplines' role in long-term career success and international competitiveness.
Standing in line at the drugstore a couple of weeks ago, I spied on the magazine rack nearby this month’s issue of National Geographic – conspicuous as one of the few titles without a celebrity on the cover. Instead it showed a photograph of an infant beneath a headline saying "This Baby Will Live to Be 120."
The editors must have expected disbelief, because there was a footnote to the headline insisting that the claim was not hype: "New science could lead to very long lives." When was the last time you saw a footnote in a popular periodical, on the cover, no less? It seemed worth a look, particularly after the septuagenarian in front of me had opened complex, in-depth negotiations with the pharmacist.
The headline, one learns from a comment on the table of contents, alludes to a traditional Jewish birthday wish or blessing: "May you live to be 120." This was the age that Moses was said to have reached when he died. The same figure appears -- not so coincidentally perhaps – at an important moment in the book of Genesis. Before sending the Flood, Jehovah announces that man’s lifespan will henceforth peak at 120 years. (I take it there was a grandfather clause for Noah. When the waters recede, he lives another 350 years.)
The cap on longevity, like the deluge itself, is ultimately mankind’s own fault, given our tendency to impose too much on the Almighty’s patience and good humor. He declares in about so many words that there is a limit to how much He must endure from any single one of us. Various translations make the point more or less forcefully, but that’s the gist of it. Even 120 years proved too generous an offer – one quietly retracted later, it seems. Hence the Psalmist’s lament:
“The days of our years are threescore years and ten; and if by reason of strength they be fourscore years, yet is their strength labor and sorrow; for it is soon cut off, and we fly away.”
Nursing homes are full of people who passed the fourscore marker a while ago. If you visit such places very often, as I have lately, “May you live to be 120” probably sounds more like a curse than a blessing. Not even a funeral obliges more awareness of mortal frailty. There is more to life than staving off death. The prospect of being stranded somewhere in between for 30 or 40 years is enough to make an atheist believe in hell.
Meanwhile, in science…. The medical and biological research surveyed in that NatGeoarticle promises to do more than drag out the flesh’s “labor and sorrow” a lot longer. The baby on the magazine cover will live his or her allotted span of six score decades with an alert mind, in a reasonably healthy body. Our genetic inheritance plays a huge but not absolutely determinate role in how long we live. In the wake of the mapping of genome, it could be possible to tinker with the mechanisms that accelerate or delay the aging process. It may not be the elixir of youth, but close enough.
Besides treating the same research in greater depth, Ted Anton’s The Longevity Seekers: Science, Business, and the Fountain of Youth (University of Chicago Press) emphasizes how profound a change longevity research has already wrought. It means no longer taking for granted the status of aging as an inescapable, biologically hardwired, and fundamentally irreversible process of general decline. Challenging the stereotypes and prejudices about the elderly has been a difficult process, but longevity engineering would transform the whole terrain of what aging itself entails.
Anton, a professor of English at DePaul University, tells the story in two grand phases. The first bears some resemblance to James Watson’s memoir The Double Helix, which recounts the twists and turns of laboratory research in the struggle to determine the structure of DNA – work for which he and Francis Crick received a Nobel Prize in medicine in 1962. Watson’s book is particularly memorable for revealing science as an enterprise in which personalities and ambitions clash as much as theories ever do. (And with far more rancor as Watson himself demonstrated in the book’s vicious and petty treatment of Rosalind Franklin, a crystallographer whose contribution he downplayed as much as possible.)
A practitioner of long-form journalism rather than a longevity researcher, Anton writes about conflicts in the field with some detachment, even while remaining aware that the discoveries may change life in ways we can’t yet picture. The initial phase of the research he describes consisted largely of experiments with yeast cells and microscopic worms conducted in the 1990s. Both are short-lived, meaning that the impact of biochemical adjustments to their genetic “thermostats” for longevity would register quickly.
During the second phase of Anton’s narrative, lab research involved more complex organisms. But that that was not the most important development. The public began hearing news flashes that scientists had discovered that the key to a longer life was, say, restricted caloric intake, or a chemical called resveratrol found in red wine. Findings presented in scientific journals were reported on morning news programs, or endorsed on Oprah, within days or even hours of publication. Hypotheses became hype overnight.
This generated enthusiasm (more for drinking red wine than restricting calories, if memory serves) as well as additional confidence that biotechnological breakthroughs were on the way. Everybody in longevity research, or almost everybody, started a company and ran around looking for venture capital. Models, evidence, and ideas turned proprietary information -- with the hurry to get one’s findings into professional journals looking more and more like the rush to issue a press release.
So far, no pharmaceutical has arrived on the market to boost our lifespans as dramatically as the worm and yeast cells in the laboratory worms. “The dustbin of medical breakthroughs,” Anton reminds us, “bears the label ‘It Worked in Mice.’ ” On the other hand, the research has been a boon to the cosmetics industry.
As it is, we’re nowhere near ready to deal with the cumulative effect of all the life-extending medical developments from the past few decades. The number of centenarians in the world “is expected to increase tenfold between 2010 and 2050,” the author notes, “and the number of older poor, the majority of them women,” is predicted “to go from 342 million today to 1.2 billion by that same year.”
But progress is ruthless about doing things on its own terms. Biotech is still in its infancy, and its future course -- much less its side effects -- is beyond imagining. The baby on the magazine cover might well live to see the first centenarian win an Olympic medal. I wish that prospect were more cheering than it is.