U.S. Intellectual History Blog

USIH Conference, Take Two

by Paul Murphy

Herewith a second report on the first USIH conference, held in Grand Rapids this past weekend. As a faculty member of Grand Valley State University, I can report we were proud to have USIH piggy-backing on our established regional conference and would love to lure it back, although we realize the inconvenience of middle-sized Midwestern cities that lack low-cost airlines at their “International” airports.

I attended many of the panels that Andrew did, so will take a more thematic approach in describing the many excellent papers I heard and equally excellent and ambitious commentary provided by the session chairs and the audience. First, a caveat: Christopher Phelps noted in one of the first sessions (this one devoted to pragmatism) the irony of focusing on dead white males at this late date and in conjunction with a larger conference, the theme of which was Gender and Society. I winced—and in my own conference experience the observation proved only too true: there was barely a non-DWEM discussed!

One general direction of research clearly apparent is an extensive and, I hope, fruitful search for new vantage points with which to grapple with conservatism and liberalism, which might transcend stale dichotomies. Again and again, presenters blurred well-established distinctions between intellectual positions and otherwise mixed intellectual categories. For example, on Saturday morning one of the first panels was devoted to “radical conservatism.” (Later that morning, Andrew Hartman delivered a paper on Christopher Lasch, one my favorite “radical conservatives.”) At this session, Jonathan Wilson (Syracuse University) ventured into the thicket of Jacksonian Democracy (deemed a heroic enterprise by Tom Summerhill, the panel chair) emphasizing both the genuine laissez-faire thinking of certain New York Jacksonians but also the way in which it was in the service of a broader, if vaguely realized, egalitarianism. Gillis Harp (Grove City College) has discovered that Populist leaders in Virginia tended to come from the old patrician families and, even more interesting, were seriously informed by evangelical Protestantism, for them a storehouse of rhetorical tools they appropriated in attacking the ascendant economic order, all in the “spirit of their fathers.” I offered up ideas, some old, some new, on the quirky Southern Agrarian critics of the 1930s, intransigent conservative critics of capitalism who were more in tune with the cultural Left of the day than I had previously appreciated.

For example, Bryan Peery (George Washington University) insisted that the points of convergence between John Dewey and Reinhold Niebuhr in the 1930s were far more important than their superficial disagreements: Both were concerned to tell Americans how to think; both met on the common ground of pragmatism. The next day, Mark Edwards (Ouachita Baptist University) argued that Niebuhr and the Christian Realist theologians around him must be understood as critics of Social Gospel excesses, intent on establishing an “order of conservation” and more in tune with the postwar “New Conservatives” (such as Michigan’s own Russell Kirk) or anti-modern Anglo-American Christian thinkers like T. S. Eliot and Christopher Dawson than previously appreciated. Edwards’s larger project entails venturing into another formidable intellectual thicket: disentangling modern conservatism, with its contradictory libertarian and traditionalist impulses. Why is anti-statism, he asks, called conservative? More along these lines: Panel chair Ben Alpers delivered a tutorial on the immensely complicated conservative legacy of Leo Strauss—this in response to a fascinating paper by Sheryl Gordon (CUNY) on the “translation wars” over Harvey Mansfield’s recent (Straussian) edition of Tocqueville’s Democracy in America. Ben elucidated the intra-Straussian conflicts often hidden beneath the surface of modern conservatism. Also: Jason Roberts (SUNY-Ulster) examined the relation between David Horowitz and William F. Buckley, both conservative critics of liberal academia but ostensibly divided on a key issue: Horowitz claims to believe in academic freedom and Buckley never did.

A fascinating Saturday panel on “Cold War Liberalism” (in which, as chair David Steigerwald pointed out, discussion of the actual Cold War was ironically absent) applied the same eye for novel connections to liberalism. Christopher Hickman (George Washington University) placed the legal scholar Alexander Bickel squarely in the midst of a complex web of liberal and conservative impulses as he traced Bickel’s evolution from mild proponent of the Warren Court’s Brown decision to major and influential critic of postwar liberal jurisprudence. Eventually a warm correspondent with his colleague Robert Bork, Bickel assailed the undemocratic aspects of liberal jurisprudence. Mike O’Connor (Penn State Erie, Behrend College) did two things in his paper: Ably delineate the broad contours of consensus liberalism after World War II and, unconventionally but convincingly, position John Rawls as the definitive expositor of this consensus in A Theory of Justice. It all has to do with the marginalization of equality as a social goal in postwar liberalism, replaced with the faith (of late brought into some doubt) in perpetual, pie-expanding economic growth. Josh Mound (University of Michigan) expertly analyzed a variant of the postwar consensus—post-industrial theory—finding Clinton-era “New Economy” liberalism to be a later incarnation of it. Mound adds Peter Drucker and Alvin Toffler as complicating figures central to liberal theorizing in these years. As Steigerwald pointed out, postwar liberals decisively turned from equality, but, more broadly, the Religion of Growth subsumed both liberalism and conservatism from the 1950s forward. It even subsumed the Cold War, as American thinkers shifted their targets from Soviet tyranny to Communist inefficiency in production. No counter-narrative, whether the 1950s warnings of automation replacing workers or denindustrialization in the 1980s, has displaced this hardy religion. Another new take on liberalism: Lars Lierow (George Washington University) showed the essentially ambivalent angle on mass society developed by the influential and pioneering media analysts of the postwar period (Merton, Lazarsfeld, but also Riesman, whom they influenced): At times, they saw the classic conformist mass-society mob, but at other times savvy media consumers whose entanglement in a world of mass communication was complex and often embedded in communities.

Finally, there was a fair bit of attention to educational theory at the conference. Educational theory and pedagogical reform have become central points of intellectual inquiry. Matthew Cotter (CUNY) insisted that Sidney Hook’s efforts to re-imagine liberal arts education in the 1930s hold the essential keys to his entire philosophy. (Phelps as chair demurred but allowed that Cotter’s ideas were provocative and stimulating.) By the way, Hook held that history is essential to critical inquiry and should be at the center of every survey course—a notion broadly in line with Malcolm X’s view of history, if an old poster I had as a graduate student is to be believed. Cotter and Phelps also went back and forth a bit on the relative virtues of intellectual biography and institutional history. On Saturday morning, Julian Nemeth (Bandeis) presented a paper on Lewis Feuer that could easily be paired with Cotter’s work on Hook. Another New York Intellectual who made the long journey from left to right, Feuer, like Hook, seems to have held deep convictions on higher education and the role of academics and independent intellectuals that, retrospectively, provided him more of an intellectual anchor than previously appreciated. All of this discussion dovetailed with Tim Lacy’s fine survey of the renewed Hofstatderian project of analyzing anti-intellectualism: As the respondents to his paper make clear, there are more ways to get at anti-intellectualism than Hofstadter imagined (James Levy of Hofstra is pointing to Du Bois and his sophisticated approach to industrial education, Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen of the University of Wisconsin suggests the work of the late Kenneth Cmiel, Andrew Hartman suggests the Frankfurt School), but all are united in seeing the study of intellectualism and education as one of the vital sites for contesting democracy in the twentieth century.

Enough for now…let us plan the next conference—in Chicago? New York City? Your hometown? The pleasures of hosting are abundant.

One Thought on this Post

  1. I went to several of the other panels than the two posters so far, and there was much discussion of white women, black women, black men, and others. So the conference was not entirely devoted to dead white males. The challenge to all of us is justifying both types of study–dead white males and opening the field to African Americans, Indians, women, and others. We cannot reject white males for being a too easy subject, but neither can we embrace people of color and women simply for being different. For me, studying African American intellectual history and being centrally motivated by interesting stories more than vast significance, this is a difficult challenge.

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