U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (2-23-2012): Beck-Inspired Flaming, Documentaries, Instrumental Universities, The Market-Democracy Relationship, and New Works of Interest

[Updated: 8:40 am]

1 (of 6). “The Culture Wars are Real”: Beck’s Minions Attack John Fea

You may or may not know that Glenn Beck has a “news” website called The Blaze. I didn’t—until Messiah College professor John Fea, author of Was America Founded as a Christian Nation?, recently relayed a story about being featured on the Beck site.

The Blaze feature, authored by Billy Hallowell, brought attention to Fea for a line in a recent Patheos editorial wherein Fea opined that “Obama may be the most explicitly Christian president in American history.” Hallowell’s story has garnered 848 comments (as of 3 pm yesterday), and Fea has reported receiving nasty e-mails and voicemails. As an aside, I was somewhat surprised at the attention Fea received because, beyond the title, Hallowell’s article isn’t particularly incendiary.

I forward this for your consideration because, well, our relatively quiet blog community might garner this kind of attention at some point. It seems logical since we both write about recent political issues (and candidates), and receive some popular attention from moderates and lefty types. Granted, that attention comes from thoughtful corners. But I wouldn’t be surprised if a rhetorical bomb-thrower from the right doesn’t hit us soon.

2. “We’re Living in a Golden Age of Documentary Filmmaking”

This was the title of a recent Slate article by Eric Hynes. Hynes focuses on the short-shrift this golden age is receiving from the Academy Awards, but I agree fully. I particularly enjoy the work of Errol Morris. His The Fog of War comes up in the article, and I use that documentary religiously in my twentieth-century American survey courses (as well as The Weather Underground, which complements Fog nicely). The point of Hynes’s article is that we have lots of screening choices.

3. Perceived Social Rank and Cognitive Ability

Check out this summary of study by a team of Cal Tech researchers. Here are some relevant passages:

Our cognitive abilities and decision-making skills can be dramatically hindered in social settings where we feel that we are being ranked or assigned a status level, such as classrooms and work environments. …The finding flies in the face of long-held ideas about intelligence and cognition that regard IQ as a stable, predictive measure of mental horsepower.

“This study tells us the idea that IQ is something we can reliably measure in isolation without considering how it interacts with social context is essentially flawed,” says Steven Quartz, professor of philosophy at Caltech and one of the authors of the new study. …”This suggests that the idea of a division between social and cognitive processing in the brain is really pretty artificial. The two deeply interact with each other.”

I’m still sorting all of this out, but I’d say this study might have something profound to say to intellectual historians—particularly those whose work covers class-based societies (i.e. all of us). Cue the study summary:

Throughout the 20th century, IQ was used in different arenas as a way of sorting or classifying people into niches. Because people believed it to be a more abstract notion of cognitive ability, it was thought to have strong predictive validity of mental capabilities even from age six. But IQ was always measured in social isolation. “That reflects a long tradition of intellectual history, of considering rationality and cognition to be this isolated process,” Quartz says. “But one of the things that we’re learning more and more in social neuroscience is the role of our social contexts and the social adaptation of the brain.” Understanding the role social context plays and its differential impact on the brain may ultimately help educators and others to design more effective learning environments.

And last but not least:

The present study found some unexpected trends, including the tendency for female subjects to be more affected than males by the implicit signaling of social status during the test.

4. Economically Instrumental Universities

USIH friend and public intellectual(!) Ethan Schrum [right] recently penned an op-ed for the Richmond Times-Dispatch that chastises the Obama administration for a having a narrow view of the role of higher education in recent American history. Here’s Schrum’s conclusion:

Obama, by contrast, told students they were at Michigan to get skills and training for building their personal finances and the American economy. He gave no indication that a student might be at the university to be formed as a person, as a thinker and communicator — and as a global citizen.

Obama’s narrow, short-sighted rhetoric for American higher education puts our universities in peril. We must wake up to the possibility that universities might be living on borrowed moral capital and begin framing higher education policy in ways consistent with our universities’ noble traditions, before it is too late.

Sure, this is a long-running problem that pre-dates Obama’s recent speech. But the president deserves a tongue-lashing for using the nation’s bully pulpit to promote a one-sided, and frankly erroneous, view of higher education. Although I understand the needs of the campaign trail (“It’s the economy, stupid!”), Obama could’ve been more honest.

5. A Forthcoming Work of Possible Interest

(a) Bernard Hodgson (forthcoming), “Democratic Agency and the Market Machine,” Journal of Business Ethics.

[From PhilPapers] “The alliance of pure market economies with democratic polities has traditionally been a problematic one. It is argued that orthodox theoretical conceptualizations of market behaviour and the application of such theory to our communal lives have entrenched an incoherent alliance. In particular, the reductive mechanism characteristic of both neo-classical economic theory and its deployment in our socio-economic order has severely undermined the telic agency required for the autonomy or self-rule definitive of an authentic democratic order. Such reduction is observed to function through the disabling of the cognitive capacity of consumers and by disempowering the agency of workers such that coercion is misconceived as freely agreed contract.”

6. From My OAH-RSO Feed: New Books and Articles of Interest

This month’s RSO is loaded with intellectual history—more than I’ve sampled below. Be sure to check out entry (i)!

(a) Barry, John M., Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty (New York: Viking, 2012).

(b) Bromell, Nick, “A `Voice from the Enslaved’: The Origins of Frederick Douglass’s Political Philosophy of Democracy,” American Literary History, 23 (Winter 2011), 697-723.

(c)Fischer, David Hackett, Fairness and Freedom: A History of Two Open Societies, New Zealand and the United States (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(d) Goodman, Joyce, “The Gendered Politics of Historical Writing in History of Education,” History of Education (London), 41 (Jan. 2012), 9-24.

(e) Laats, Adam, “Monkeys, Bibles, and the Little Red Schoolhouse: Atlanta’s School Battles in the Scopes Era,” Georgia Historical Quarterly, 95 (Fall 2011), 335-55.

(f) Lee, Maurice S., Uncertain Chances: Science, Skepticism, and Belief in Nineteenth-Century American Literature (New York: Oxford University Press, 2012).

(g) Lee, Michael J., “American Revelations: Biblical Interpretation and Criticism in America, circa 1700-1860” (PhD Diss, University of Notre Dame, 2009).

(h) Matteson, John, The Lives of Margaret Fuller: A Biography (New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2012).

(i) Murphy, Paul V., The New Era: American Thought and Culture in the 1920s (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield, 2012).

(j) Powell, Tara, The Intellectual in Twentieth-Century Southern Literature (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2012).

(k) Rose, Anne C., “The Invention of Uncertainty in American Psychology: Intellectual Conflict and Rhetorical Resolution, 1890-1930,” History of Psychology, 14 (Nov. 2011), 356-82.

(l) Szalay, Michael, “Ralph Ellison’s Unfinished Second Skin,” American Literary History, 23 (Winter 2011), 795-827.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Congratulations Tim. You have managed to irk me this morning. I’m sure my colleagues will thank you.

    Why am I irked?

    Your leadoff item about John Fea being critiqued by Glenn Beck fans, and the barely concealed hope you seem to harbor that some day we USIH bloggers might also find ourselves embroiled in such controversy.

    As our readers may have gathered over the past year, LD is not shy about controversy, and neither is L.D. Burnett. At the same time, I want to resist the temptation to gauge the sense and significance of our conversation here by whether or not it strikes a nerve with some internet flame warrior from the Right or the Left.

    Indeed, I should have my Intellectual Historian license suspended for some yet-to-be-determined probationary period in order to atone for the glib comment I made on facebook the other day, and that you launched into blogospheric infamy in an earlier post: “Come for the current events; stay for the history.” Ye gods!

    I was being facetious and snarky. (As I am being, to some degree, now.)

    Yes, you never know when something you write is going to strike a nerve, or what nerve it’s going to strike. (Though, to be fair, John Fea knew exactly whose ox he was goring with that post.)

    But I hope we don’t envision ourselves here as Culture Warriors. Or, let me put it this way — y’all can do what you like, but I choose not to see myself in that light.

    Naive? Professionally cautious? Willfully blind? Maybe. But the world in general, and the blogosphere in particular, could use a little less hysterics and a little more historical thinking.

    However, as Varad so kindly pointed out on one of my earlier posts, I do not always commit the sin of thinking historically.

    I’m working on it. In the meantime, I am going on record now as being strongly opposed to intentionally stirring up flame wars. This is partly because I find them distasteful, and partly because if I should find myself in the middle of one, I’m afraid I would make Sherman’s march to the sea look like a Sunday School picnic.

  2. Tim,

    Regarding Item #3 . . .actually the second Item #3 😉 :

    Why do you assume that Obama’s stated support for this narrow view of higher education is simply an artifact of political calculation? What evidence do you have that Obama really has a broader view of the role education? I think the educational policies of this administration, in both common and higher education, strongly suggest that the President’s statements about the task of higher education reflect the President’s actual views about the task of higher education.

    Also: I agree wholeheartedly with L.D.’s comment. While it is certainly foolish to forget the continuing salience of culture wars and the fact that we are the sorts of people who might well be the target of them (indeed, at a very local level, I have been in the past…but that’s another story), we really shouldn’t in any sense invite them our way or reframe what we’re doing as (intentionally) stepping into the culture wars. There are many reasons for my feeling this way, but the most visceral one is pretty simple: sow the wind, reap the whirlwind.

  3. @Lora (and Ben): “Barely concealed hope”? I can see perhaps why you might say that (knowing what you do about my personal and public concerns), but I fear you misread preparedness and resignation as invitation. That kind of invitation might be folly, though I do believe that, in our modern America, no publicity is bad publicity if it gives you a chance to shine.

    Andrew Hartman and others can attest that, when this blog began, I was most fearful of overt engagement in the Culture Wars and politics. Over time that fear subsided. In fact, because of my interest in anti-intellectualism (both in relation to Adler’s work and as a standalone topic), I have come to accept that any attempts by historians, particularly those of us who study ideas as they changed over the twentieth century, to avoid political confrontation are useless—even wrongheaded. I have come around to something Hofstadter knew, though I don’t believe he articulated in his 1962 work Anti-Intellectualism in American Life. Namely, that you can’t point out the lack of historical nuance, subtlety, and complexity in the present, whether it be in the Culture Wars or politics, without invoking the past. As such, it is foolish and irresponsible to not prepare for backlash.

    And, LD, don’t think _for a moment_ that your work, however it evolves, won’t attract the attention of culture warriors. If you do _anything_ that offends their sense of history (whether naive or complex), you’ll reap the whirlwind. No historian who revises the past won’t be able to avoid some pushback.

    @Ben: Thanks for catching the numbering issue. The post has been corrected. On the topic in the first paragraph of your comment, I don’t assume that. I merely note it as a possibility, not being privy to Obama’s private musings on the nature and business of higher education. As I said above, he deserves a tongue-lashing. – TL

  4. I’ve been reading this blog for only the last couple of months but I find the participants very civil and measured as I would expect historians to be. In particular I’m pleased that opposing points of view are not typically judged on their political position, be it conservative, liberal or whatever. The exchange of ideas is the central focus and that is refreshing. If a “bomb thrower” happens at the door let’s douse him/her with civility and rhetorical conundrums.

  5. Yay for Paul ! At least let’s confine our snarks to the business at hand. Sometimes it’s easy even for us intellectual historians to confuse the study of culture war[s] with being a warrior.

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