The first annual conference of the US Intellectual History Collective was a rousing success. All credit should go to Paul Murphy, who paved the way for us at Grand Valley State, and to Tim Lacy, by whose initiative this group got off the ground. Below is a snapshot of the conference through my eyes.
On Friday, the panel titled “Pragmatism’s Legacy and Opponents” served as an indicator that there would be many high quality papers. Matthew J. Cotter’s talk offered an alternative perspective on Sidney Hook, no easy task, by examining Hook’s higher educational work at NYU. Cotter argued that we cannot fully understand Hook’s philosophy without comprehending his experiences as a teacher and his efforts to reshape higher education from within. On a higher plane, Cotter believes that intellectual biography would benefit from such institutional history. Bryan Peery gave a paper that sought to reconcile John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr, two giants in twentieth-century American thought who are typically conceptualized as theoretical opponents. Peery deconstructed this conception in a number of ways, including by pointing out their similar conceptions of education, as Niebuhr wrote about how civil rights activists would develop a worldview through their experiences as activists, a very Deweyan educational notion.
On Saturday morning, I gave a paper on Christopher Lasch as a member of a panel titled “New Directions in Intellectual History.” John Ivens began the session with a paper on the history of intellectual history, on how both Americanists and Europeanists understood the sub-discipline to be in crisis in 1979-1980, and on how intellectual history might benefit from the contentious debates within the larger historical discipline over postmodernist theory. David Marshall gave an impressive talk on some theoretical approaches to doing intellectual history, on how we might find Robert Brandom’s work useful to the ways in which we grapple with text and context. Marshall seems to conclude that, although we should attempt to posit the act of speech in its particular context, intellectual historians should also recognize all meaning as contemporary. We need to walk a fine line. Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen gave excellent comments on our panel. She proved particularly insightful in her mild critique of my paper, noting, for instance, that I need to more fully explain how Lasch defined the liberalism that he consistently critiqued throughout his career.
I also attended an excellent Saturday afternoon panel, “Cold War Liberalism and Its Discontents.” Christopher Hickman began the session with a provocative paper on legal theorist Alexander Bickel, a liberal whose views on constitutional law became influential among conservative opponents of the Warren Court. Hickman used this history as a way to implore us to take seriously the constitutional arguments of otherwise loathsome figures, such as Strom Thurmond. The next paper of this session, by fellow USIH founding member Mike O’Connor, convincingly placed John Rawls’s Theory of Justice squarely in the Cold War liberal camp. In fact, O’Connor successfully argued that Rawls goes further than anyone else in framing the economic and political values of cold war liberalism. Josh Mound completed the session with an insightful paper on the post-industrial dreams of American liberals, persuasively contending that the political philosophy behind Clinton’s Third Way had its roots in the thought of cold war liberals such as Daniel Bell.
The plenary session, centered on a talk by Tim Lacy on “Anti-Intellectualism in Twentieth-Century America,” was a lot of fun, as I participated as a respondent. Lacy opened up a number of avenues to pursue in the realm of anti-intellectualism, asking us to think about it as an assault on reason (as opposed to Hofstadter, who mostly analyzed assaults on intellectuals). Lacy looked at anti-intellectualism in the realm of conservative politics, environmentalism, higher education, and in America’s reading habits.
I would love to read about some of the panels I was unable to attend. For instance, I heard the session “From left to Right” was excellent, which is no surprise knowing the high quality work of two of the panelists–Julian Nemeth and Jason Roberts. Roberts, by the way, is a fellow Leo P. Ribuffo student. The conference was crawling with Ribuffoites (me, Chris Hickman, Bryan Peery, and Jason Roberts).
The plan is to hold another conference next year, hopefully in Chicago, if not, in Grad Rapids again. I think everyone who attended will agree with me when I say that I am excited to attend the Second Annual Conference of the USIH Collective. Cheers. Andrew