U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (11-24-2011): The Thanksgiving Edition

If you’re bored with your relatives, TV, or the general holiday scene—or if you love USIH so much that you’re browsing here on a Thanksgiving whim—something from the entries below may be of interest. I will offer up reflections on our conference next week. – TL

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1 (of 8). Nietzsche in America

Check out this review of Jennifer Ratner-Rosenhagen’s new book, Nietzsche in America. I don’t know how I’m going to top Ross Posnock for my USIH review, but don’t count on seeing my effort soon; I just got my copy of the book yesterday.

2. Middletown and Intellectual History

Slate’s John Plotz writes here on his attempt to make some sense of the newly released readership information from Muncie (IN) City Library (from the 1891-1902 period). It’s an interesting read for many different reasons. But I was struck by the following two paragraphs in relation to how intellectual historians conduct some of their work (bolds mine):

The book I’m currently trying to write is about the way that ordinary readers—Louis, me, or you [Louis is late 19th-century Muncie reader]—can sometimes feel drawn into a book, so far into it, that it gives us a partial sense of a life elsewhere—until we recall that our hands ache, our eyes are tired, and it’s time to pick up the kids. My working title is Semi-Detached, and that about summed up my feelings by the end of my Bloom experiment. I was partially there with Louis in the Muncie library—but I was also a very, very long way away. I’d gathered and crunched some data, and heard some stories, but …. I was always gaining on Louis, but somehow I was never fast enough to fall into stride with him, to turn sideways and find myself looking him straight in the eye. I was struck by Stuart’s reaction [one of Louis’s grandchildren] when I asked him what we could deduce from his granddad’s reading. He laughed and said, “You know, I don’t even think the books I read as a kid say much about who I am now. It was all baseball then and I haven’t even seen a game in 20 years. Even as a grown man I changed; I feel like I’m in my fourth lifetime now.”

Stuart’s point about the gap between what you read and who you are got me thinking. Maybe the way Louis receded as I chased after him was not my problem but my answer. In the books Louis checked out he found, as readers everywhere always do, more than just a perfect mirror of his own life (as if “what Middletown read” told us “what Middletown really was”). He also found a way out: a glimpse of the Italy where scientists experimented with frog’s legs, or the state of Mississippi back when killing a slave was a simple property crime. The books he read might even have helped him catch a glimpse of what he wanted his own future to be working in the world of mechanics and of physics, far from Muncie (“Go West, young man”—yes, until you hit the Philippines). Thanks to those books, he too had a telescope. Like mine, it was small and imperfect, with no guarantees about the accuracy of what he glimpsed through it. Still, coming from the sort of Muncie life that he did (his mom had moved them in with in-laws, had even been threatened with having to send the kids off to various relatives) I bet that glimpse at a distant world loomed fairly large for him.

I forward these passages for your consideration because I often think about the difference between what my subjects read and what they actually took away—what they used.

3. Is a Rise in Faculty Salaries the Cause of Higher Education Tuition Inflation?

Reuter’s columnist Felix Salmon says no. Here’s a key passage from the piece (bolds mine):

Overall, if we exclude for-profit schools, which were a tiny part of the landscape in 1999, we have seen tuition fees rise by 32% between 1999 and 2009. Over the same period, instruction costs rose just 5.6% — the lowest rate of inflation of any of the components of education services. (“Student services costs” and “operations and maintenance costs” saw the greatest inflation, at 15.2% and 18.1% respectively, but even that is only half the rate that tuition increased.)

The real reason why tuition has been rising so much has nothing to do with [William] Baumol, and everything to do with the government. Page 31 of the report is quite clear: “except for private research institutions,” it says, “tuitions were increasing almost exclusively to replace losses from state revenues or other private revenue sources.”

In other words, tuition costs are going up just because state subsidies are going down.

…It’s the State Subsidy, Stupid!

4. Herbert Marcuse’s FBI File

Lawrence Winsaft of the UC-San Diego Philosophy Department has done a little research on his department and uncovered some faulty FBI book assessments of Herbert Marcuse‘s works (esp. Reason and Revolution, One Dimensional Man, and Essay on Liberation). Good stuff.

5. Heretics and the Gospel of Education

In a collective review of four recent books about education (higher and secondary), titled “The Educational Lottery” and published in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Steven Brint frames the books in a novel way. He posits each author as a particular kind of heretic in relation to the pervasive American myth that education is at the root of all social, political, and cultural progress. Here are a few paragraphs from the review’s opening (bolds mine):

Education is as close to a secular religion as we have in the United States. In a time when Americans have lost faith in their government and economic institutions, millions of us still believe in its saving grace. …“The answer to all of our national problems,” as Lyndon Johnson put it in 1965, “comes down to one single word: education.”

The American education gospel is built around four core beliefs. First, it teaches that access to higher levels of education should be available to everyone, regardless of their background or previous academic performance. Every educational sinner should have a path to redemption. (Most of these paths now run through community colleges.) Second, the gospel teaches that opportunity for a better life is the goal of everyone and that education is the primary — and perhaps the only — road to opportunity. Third, it teaches that the country can solve its social problems — drugs, crime, poverty, and the rest — by providing more education to the poor. Education instills the knowledge, discipline, and the habits of life that lead to personal renewal and social mobility. And, finally, it teaches that higher levels of education for all will reduce social inequalities, as they will put everyone on a more equal footing. …

The advance of the education gospel has been shadowed from the beginning by critics who claim that education, despite our best efforts, remains a bastion of privilege. For these critics, it is not that the educational gospel is wrong (a truly democratic, meritocratic school system would, if it existed, be a good thing); it is that the benefits of education have not yet spread evenly to every corner of American society, and that the trend toward educational equality may be heading in the wrong direction. They decry the fact that schools in poor communities have become dropout factories and that only the wealthy can afford the private preparatory schools that are the primary feeders to prestigious private colleges. The higher education Establishment recognizes critics like these as family. They accept the core beliefs of the education gospel and are impatient only with its slow and incomplete adoption.

Brint then goes on to outline several schools of heresy: “the new restrictionism”; “the ‘free the students’ school”; “the ‘fool’s gold’ group”; and “the ‘true educators’ sect.”

6. Occupy AHA?

Werner Herzog’s Bear says yes, and has drawn up a preliminary manifesto to aid the cause. Here are the first five demands (of ten total) in the manifesto:

1. That the AHA officially repudiate the rhetoric of “overproduction” and acknowledge that the lack of good jobs is the biggest cause of the current crisis in employment for historians.
2. That the AHA create high-level positions in its organizational structure specifically intended to be filled by and to advance the interests of graduate students and contingency faculty members.
3. That the AHA encourage departments that persist in using non-tenured labor to establish permanent positions with decent pay, health benefits, and job security, and to officially censure those departments that fail to meet these standards.
4. That the AHA recognize the current crisis in academic publishing and encourage departments to make their tenure and hiring decisions.
5. That the AHA put an end to the conference job register and discourage the practice of on-site conference interviews, and encourage their replacement with preliminary interviews over the phone of via video chat.

I think I like 3 and 4 from this excerpted list the best. Check out the rest here.

7. Pepper Spray

It’s not organic.

8. History Corps

If the AHA wants to avoid scenes with pepper spray and an OWS-style movement, they could do worse than support a plan offered by USIH friend Culture Rover (aka Michael Kramer): he calls it “History Corps.” Kramer’s plan expands on one offered by Jesse Lemisch in his dialogue with Anthony Grafton (latest installments here and here). Here’s Kramer’s summation:

This kind of endeavor would address the very real economic issues that younger historians and aspiring historians face. But it does so not by telling them that they should have gone to business school. Instead, it offers a vision of historians as professionals. It gives them dignity and it more clearly distinguishes the distinctive skills, perspectives, and expertise that historical training brings. It’s not about making historical training applicable for other fields, but rather of clarifying how history as a field is necessary to a good society.

Read the whole thing here.

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Enjoy! – TL

3 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Tim, your last label for this post cracks me up: “Thanksgiving is boring.” This confirms my suspicion that many of us would really prefer to eat at the kids’ table. I am also guessing that if you find Thanksgiving boring, you must not be doing much of the cooking. For those who are slinging hash today, Thanksgiving is anything but boring. Stressful or pleasant, maybe a little bit of both. So, if you’re bored, I am sure there is something that needs to be rinsed, peeled, boiled, fried, seasoned, strained, or mashed. Have at it!

    But, boring or not, happy Thanksgiving to you.

    Thanks for these links to the reading. I commented on the Bear’s post regarding occupy AHA. It’s a fine list, though I am dubious about the value of item #2. It sounds suspiciously like taking people trained for research and teaching and trundling them right into a bureaucratic desk job. I thought that’s what the ever-expanding realm of university administration was for!

    I like the history corps idea in principle, and would be interested to think about how that might work in practice.

    Defining and defending the professional identity of historians is crucial. Ours is a profession that seems to be viewed by many as something that “anyone” can do. This is, I think, a function of the complex relationship between history and memory, and the way history can function as a kind of cultural memory. Since anyone can “do” memory, many people assume that anyone can do history. But it just ain’t so.

  2. LD,

    Truth be told, I don’t at all find Thanksgiving boring. To me it’s one of the least objectionable holidays on the American calendar. I wrote this post three days ago for others—for those people who might find themselves bored on Thanksgiving. So my last label was a bit disingenuous.

    On Thanksgiving I usually I find myself engaged in an uneven mix of cooking and cleaning, depending on the year and composition of the guests/helpers. These days you can also toss in a bit of entertaining the three-year old to keep him out from under the feet of others. When the meal arrives, I can relax and enjoy at least one adult beverage.

    Although Kramer suggested a “history corps” in written form, at least two other colleagues have suggested a form of that idea to me since the downturn. It’s of course in the vein of the New Deal-era Federal Writers Project. It could work, but our cultural climate still doesn’t feel the downturn they way people did in 1932. Since we’re not at 20 percent unemployment among the white (and white collar) folks, we’re not really in another New Deal type situation to them.

    On your last point, apart from memory we all also access some form of a usable past. It’s that ready access, which is a mix of memory and practicality, that makes us all feel like history is easy to “get.” It’s a function of common sense. It’s up to us professionals to repeat, until we’re blue in the face—three times over—that the past is a foreign country. The metaphor works, and we professionals need to reinforce it every chance we get.

    – TL

  3. Gosh, I am sorry if I made you feel like you needed to give an account for how you spend the day usefully occupied. But I am glad to know you personally are not bored. Frankly, I am more than ready for a little boredom, but must get through the semester first.

    I wrote about Megill on history and memory some time back, and find myself returning to him and his maddening text yet again for one of my seminar papers. The past is a foreign country, and yet somehow there must be a way for historians to manage “dual citizenship” in the past and the present. The problem of “cultural memory” v. “historical memory” continues to vex me.

    As to a WPA for historians, I think you are right. Not gonna happen any time soon. And, frankly, there are probably other demographics who would and should be aided first before un(der)employed historians get on the dole, to borrow my granddad’s phrasing. He worked for the WPA — helped build the Appalachian trail.

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