U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (11/18/2010)

1 (of 7). The Fish Man Cometh: Recent History, Problems, and Hopes in Higher Education

Stanley Fish recently dissected several “woe-is-us books” (his phrase) on the state of higher education today. I suspect that historians of higher education will, in the years ahead, be mining at least a few of the dozen books he covered. Indeed, Menand’s The Marketplace of Ideas and Nussbaum’s Not For Profit are on my reading list. Hacker and Dreifus’s Higher Education? and Nelson’s No University is an Island might get on there too. However, in a move to lighten the tone of the subject of his article, Fish says that we should all should pay attention to a start-up liberal arts institution to be located in Georgia, Ralston College. As an aside, if it creates new jobs for intellectual historians, well, that would be a great thing.

On Ralston, I noted this highly idealistic—but worthy—statement from the school’s “About Us” page: Ralston College intends to remain without political, ideological, or religious affiliations. I guess Stephen Blackwood is trying to avoid this kind of start-up. Here’s what Fish says about Ralston—incorporating statements from the college about itself (bolds mine):

“We believe,” declares the college’s Web brochure, “that the goal of general education is to produce a person who can draw on different fields of knowledge and at the same time grasp the whole of which each field is a part.” This means that “Ralston is fundamentally about reading books, thinking about them, and talking about them.” No on-line instruction, no departmental structure, no professorial ranks, no athletic programs, no teacher evaluations (student-centered education but not on the customer model) and no tenure.

And here is Fish’s reaction (bolds mine):

The very fact of Ralston College, if it gets off the ground, might stand as a reminder of what the enterprise has always been about and might serve as a beacon, however dimly perceived, to those who value the liberal arts enterprise for what it is rather than for what it might contribute to the bottom line, to the strengthening of democracy, to the fashioning of citizens, to the advancement of social justice or any other worthy but academically irrelevant aim.

My question for Professor Fish is as follows: Do you really mean to say that those of us concerned with the liberal arts should have no concern with what our institutions “might contribute”—I repeat, ~might~ contribute—to any of those causes? Don’t you really mean that our institutions should not be centered on contributing to one or more of those causes? You don’t mean to say that those concerns are really just pipe dreams, do you? What a soul-crushing thought, worthy of Theodore “Hickey” Hickman.

2. Addams the Intellectual

Much like Louis Knight does in Citizen: Jane Addams and the Struggle for Democracy, this Slate article by Ruth Graham approaches Jane Addams as something more than a mere social reformer, hero of liberalism, or “American saint”. Graham calls us to see Addams as “an independent thinker and doer who was neither universally adored nor chained to liberal orthodoxy.” The occasion for Graham reminding us of Addams’s intellectual contributions is that this month is the 100th anniversary of the publication of Twenty Years at Hull House. In the context of Addams’s pacificism and contemporary reactions to her position, Graham forwards the following (bolds mine):

Meanwhile, Addams’ pacifist period must be squared with her past as something of moderate. “My temperament and habit had always kept me in rather the middle of the road,” Addams wrote, looking back in 1922. “In politics and social reform I had been for the ‘best possible.’ ” It’s that pragmatist attitude that has contributed to her recent rediscovery as a philosopher on par with her friends John Dewey and William James. Her moderation also means there’s plenty about her that merits respect from contemporary conservatives.

In contrast with that last sentence, however, Graham relays this: Despite this, after her death, Addams’ name would be sullied by conservative critics like World magazine editor Marvin Olasky, whose influential 1992 book The Tragedy of American Compassion fingered Hull House as a model for the supposedly bloated New Deal and Great Society programs that superseded it in the 1930s and 1960s. In fact, Addams didn’t agitate for the overthrow of capitalism. She asked for the meaningful deployment of state resources.

No matter the views of conservatives, I think that Graham, Knight, and Jean Bethke-Elshtain have it right: intellectual historians ~must~ reckon with Addams in accounts of the Progressive Era.

3. Have you ever wondered what Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau read while at Harvard?

If so, this database/website hosted by the Harvard University Library will tell you. Here is an excerpt from the site’s introductory page:

Reading: Harvard Views of Readers, Readership, and Reading History is an online exploration of the intellectual, cultural, and political history of reading as reflected in the historical holdings of the Harvard Libraries. For Internet users worldwide, Reading provides unparalleled digital access to a significant selection of unique source materials:

* personally annotated books owned by John Keats, Herman Melville, Hester Lynch Piozzi, and others
* William Wordsworth’s private library catalog
* commonplace books used by Joseph Conrad, Washington Irving, Victor Hugo, and more
* records of the Harvard College Library that reveal the reading activities of Emerson, Longfellow, and Thoreau …

4. Lilla on the Tea Party

Columbia University professor and intellectual historian Mark Lilla identifies an issue where Obama could have found common ground with Tea Partiers: fairness. Had Obama played the role of an economic populist, Lilla believes that Obama could have defused a significant portion of Tea Party rhetoric and brought some (small) portion of them, and independents, into the Democrat’s fold. But is Lilla underestimating Tea Party anti-intellectualism and racism, the issue unemployment, the effective obstinacy of a determined political minority, the importance of states’ rights/subsidiarity, and the support given by one major media outlet for Tea Party issues? Perhaps.

5. Clinton Rossiter’s (Now Dated) Shout-out to American Intellectual History

I feel like an idiot for not having encountered, prior to this long piece by Bill Moyers, Clinton Rossiter’s pithy assessment of the intellectual corruption of the Gilded Age. The quote, which serves as a subheading for chapter five of his 1982 book, Conservatism in America, is introduced as follows: “American Conservatism, 1865-1945: Or, The Great Train Robbery of American Intellectual History.”

Rossiter argues that Gilded Age Robber Barons hijacked the language of progress, individualism, opportunity, and the whole Jeffersonian liberal tradition in general, to funnel wealth toward the “deserving.” Clinton Lawrence Rossiter, III, was a historian and political scientist at Cornell University from 1946-1970, when Rossiter committed suicide. The Wikipedia article on Rossiter is the best I can do for background at this point.

6. Diagramming Western Philosophy

Assistant Professor Kevin Sharp, an analytic philosopher at The Ohio State University, likes to draw diagrams—or flow charts—of philosophical thought. Here are two covering the Western philosophical tradition from 600 BCE to 600 CE, and another from 700 to about 1960. Others are available. This kind of effort correlates well with those outlined by Patricia Cohen in a NYT article from this past Tuesday titled, “Digital Keys for Unlocking the Humanities’ Riches.” Good stuff.

7. Fer or Agin?

Continuing somewhat the discussion of the Tea Party that David Sehat started on Tuesday, some journalists have asserted that Marco Rubio is a—perhaps THE— darling of Tea Partiers. But is this story an argument for or against religion mattering to Tea Partiers? I can’t tell.

Finally, I offer the following on the Tea Party from Noam Chomsky (bolds mine):

Ridiculing Tea Party shenanigans is a serious error, however. It is far more appropriate to understand what lies behind the movement’s popular appeal, and to ask ourselves why justly angry people are being mobilized by the extreme right and not by the kind of constructive activism that rose during the Depression, like the CIO (Congress of Industrial Organizations).

Words to ponder. – TL

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. “Do you really mean to say that those of us concerned with the liberal arts should have no concern with what our institutions “might contribute”—I repeat, ~might~ contribute—to any of those causes? Don’t you really mean that our institutions should not be centered on contributing to one or more of those causes? You don’t mean to say that those concerns are really just pipe dreams, do you?”

    My strong sense is that Fish would indeed maintain that we, as scholars of the liberal arts, really should have no concern with these causes. As citizens, sure, but absolutely not as scholars. But then, I also get the strong sense that he really doesn’t believe that a liberal arts education necessarily makes you a better person (or even *tends* to make you a better person), or makes you any more likely to effectively support those no doubt worthy causes than you would have been without such an education. I’m not sure he’s wrong about this.

  2. Eric,

    It’s an interesting, and novel (I think), argument that Fish makes. But my experience both teaching and learning about liberal arts/humanities tells me that it’s fallacious. It’s disingenuous to assert that one can separate anything that falls under the rubric of the humanities from qualitative assessments about how one should live his/her life in a meaningful and productive fashion. How so?

    It’s inherent in the humanities to address, for instance, circumstance (e.g. through the study of history). Well, most philosophers who study ethics and morals believe that understanding circumstance is bound up with understanding moral judgments. So even if one refuses to study history with morality in mind, one applies historical thinking to any and all judgments of morality. Thinking like this causes me to have fundamental doubts about Fish’s thesis, however novel it may be. So even if the effects are indirect, there is no way to separate the liberal arts from citizenship, social justice, democracy, etc.

    Also, what of Jill Lepore’s argument, made through her new book about the Tea Party, that it’s precisely their anti-historical, or reactionary/uncritical historical, sensibilities that are enabling a situation where some dead ends of history will repeat themselves if their agenda is seen through? She asserts their using history in a simplistic, reductionist fashion. So, isn’t history again, as a part of the liberal arts and humanities, part and parcel in fostering democracy?

    And the list goes on. Scholars simply can’t avoid touching on morality, citizenship, democracy, and social justice in their work. It’s unavoidable.

    – TL

Comments are closed.