U.S. Intellectual History Blog

“A Reevaluation of Postwar Liberal Consensus: Democracy, Race, and Education”

Our Irvine conference was by all accounts a rousing success. Allison Perlman deserves our gratitude for organizing it. The long trip from Denmark, and the jet lag that I am still fighting, was well worth it. I kid that the annual S-USIH meeting is my mecca. But it’s not that much of a joke. It is far and away the highlight of my academic calendar each and every year. It’s where I go to convene with my best friends in academia. I am already looking forward to next year in Indianapolis and hope to see you all there. Mark your calendars: October 9-12, 2014. In the preface to his amazing keynote, David Hollinger admitted he was suspicious of our outfit at the beginning, thinking it was the wrong political move, since we were more like social and political historians who integrated into the discipline and thus did not need our own separate society. Yet he also admitted that he was wrong, that he did not calculate the intellectual benefits. Indeed.

I attended several amazing panels and hope to discuss some of them more at length later. I also hope others will use the blog to reflect on any aspect of the conference. This includes both regular bloggers but also guests. I for one would be happy to post reflections from anyone. Send me a message. In the meantime, this post is dedicated to one of the panels I participated on as a commenter: “A Reevaluation of Postwar Liberal Consensus: Democracy, Race, and Education.” Below is a version of my comments. I post these because I think they speak to some larger issues that we have been grappling with here at the blog. I’d like to thank my fellow panelists for allowing me to post this here, and especially Bryan McAllister-Grande for putting the panel together. 

An edited version of my comments, including introductions:

1)  Jacob Fay is a third-year doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on the history and philosophy of education. Jacob is currently a Co-Chair of the Harvard Educational Review and is a member of the 2013-2014 Spencer Foundation Philosophy of Education Institute. Before enrolling at Harvard, Jacob taught 8th grade history at the Dwight-Englewood School in Englewood, NJ.

2)  Bryan McAllister-Grande is a third-year doctoral student at the Harvard Graduate School of Education focusing on the history of universities and their relationship to society in the first half of the twentieth century. Bryan is a Spencer Foundation New Civics Early Career Scholar and a current Harvard Teaching Fellow.

3)  Afrah Richmond is an assistant professor and director of the social studies education program at the University of Bridgeport. Afrah earned her PhD in 2011 from the New York University History of Education program at the Steinhardt School of Culture, Education and Human Development. Her dissertation is titled, “Unmasking the Boston Brahmin: Race and Liberalism in the Long Struggle for Reform at Harvard and Radcliffe, 1945-1990.”

My comments at conclusion of paper presentations:

The historical literature on mid-century America is voluminous. Plenty of it focuses on the postwar consensus, even if to dismiss it as the fantasy of postwar liberal intellectuals whose labels for America—“consensus,” “pluralist,” “post-ideological”—were more prescriptive than descriptive. These three papers are no exception in their collective efforts to trouble the very notion of the liberal consensus.

But what sets these papers apart is their attention to the history of education–curriculum, pedagogy, and the philosophy of education–which intellectual historians often ignore. There was a time when our most venerable intellectual historians focused a great deal of attention on education. Richard Hofstadter, for instance. When he first delved into educational history, he wrote Merle Curti that he was struck by how much there was to be learned about intellectual life in America by studying its schools. What I like most about these three papers is that they place the history of education at the center of the American history of democratic thought. How Americans conceptualized democracy in the tumultuous twentieth century cannot be fully fleshed out without attending to the history of an institutional context—the schools—that had arguably become constitutive of American modernity.

In a compelling and suggestive paper titled, ““Schools for Free People,” Jacob Fay puts John Dewey in conversation with Milton Friedman of all people. Although both of these thinkers were intellectual giants whose ideas cast long shadows over American social thought, they are rarely if ever discussed in combination, particularly in relation to how they thought about education. Whereas Dewey is considered the father of progressive education, and whereas more reams of paper have been dedicated to exploring his thoughts on education than any other American thinker, most educational historians think Friedman only merits a footnote—as the person who innovated school choice, which would later evolve into the policy of school vouchers. Fay argues that we should take Friedman at his word when he claims the mantle of liberalism, and thus we should think about Dewey and Friedman as two hostile claimants to the mantle of American liberalism.

Insofar as Friedman’s views of education were Lockean—that is, Friedman was a supporter of schools only insofar as they empowered individuals and not the state or some other collective entity—I think this is a good way to think about Dewey and Friedman. Dewey was anti-Lockean in that he believed that the individual should be subordinate to society, and that schools should enhance social cooperation and organization. But this raises some questions.

Did Dewey and Friedman pose an either-or? Does juxtaposing them demonstrate the postwar liberal consensus was dead upon arrival? Or can we reconcile some aspects of the two thinkers? As intellectual historians such as Edward Purcell have argued, the democratic and educational theories that won out in the immediate postwar world were a stripped-down version of Deweyan pragmatism. Yes to Dewey’s notions of adjustment, flexibility, method, perspective, and instrumentality. But no to social democracy. In other words, the Cold War might have proved Randolph Bourne’s critique of Dewey, famously elaborated in his WWI-era essay, “Twilight of Idols,” correct: pragmatism was great in a time of peace, but was easily sopped up by the coercive interests of a national security state. And what’s more suggestive, perhaps this history also shows that pragmatism and Friedman’s Lockean libertarianism could rest somewhat comfortably together, much as Corey Robin has controversially argued that Nietzsche and Hayek were of one and the same epistemological cloth.

In any case, I like this paper, and would love to see it more fully developed, as an article or dissertation or book. Jacob would particularly need to more fully analyze Friedman’s larger body of thought with attention to democratic and educational theory.

In another intriguing paper, “Searching for Modern Unity: Philosophy and General Education at 1940s Yale,” Bryan McAllister-Grande analyzes the micro-history of 1940s debates about curriculum at Yale in order to ponder some larger questions about the relationship between the curriculum and society. Much like many other American private universities during that era—Harvard and Chicago most prominently—Yale sought to develop a unified theory to inform its curriculum. Yale administrators not only wanted such a curriculum to organize instruction across the university, they wanted it to inform and shape American democracy.

What’s most revealing to me in these debates is the crisis in democratic thought that roiled American intellectual life during the era. At Yale you had both pragmatic naturalists and neo-Aristotelian meta-physicists duking it out for control of the curriculum—and both sides maintained that their particular philosophy worked best in a democracy. This was a very common debate to the era. That many on the Yale curriculum board, as described by Bryan, seriously believed these two impulses could be reconciled testifies to their belief in a consensus that could not possibly have come to pass. The Yale curriculum debates seem chaotic for this very reason: there was no reconciling such disparate philosophies of knowledge and democracy.

And yet, such a reconciliation of sorts did occur—even though Bryan describes such a reconciliation as a fracture. The separation of these and many other theories of knowledge into separate disciplines does not necessarily undermine the notion of a postwar liberal consensus. To the contrary, division into disciplines was itself a nominally pragmatic, scientific approach to knowledge that was in and of itself an aspect of the mid-century consensus. Such a consensus was best distilled by Clark Kerr’s description of the “multiversity” that would divide the former university into constituent parts, thus rendering it more useful to the Cold War state. In any case, it’s a tribute to Bryan’s paper that I’m thinking about these issues in this way. Very compelling stuff.

Afrah Richmond’s paper on race and reform at Harvard shows the limits of postwar liberalism, whether such a sensibility represented a consensus or not. Harvard’s leaders were racial liberals, moderate, to be sure, but enlightened relative to much of the American population. But no matter such enlightened attitudes, Harvard was unwilling to undertake institutional reforms until compelled to do so by militant black students. These black students were steeped in Black Power and thus offered an institutional critique that undermined liberal assumptions about how racism—an atavistic attitude supposedly held mostly by white southerners—would eventually wither away by the sheer force of American goodness.

More generally, I think Afrah’s paper is an excellent reminder of the limits of moderation, perhaps best expressed recently by Obama when he criticized the Tea Party in Congress for shutting down the government by comparing them to workers who walk off the job when they don’t get their way, which is the only way workers have ever gotten their way—by collectively walking off the job! By being unruly! In any case, I’m curious how exactly Harvard blacks convinced administrators to finally give in and make some concessions, in the form of Afro-American Studies and affirmative action. Did they respond to specific threats made by Harvard protestors? Or were they more generally responding to larger national currents, which included blacks protesting on campuses across the country, most famously at Cornell in 1969, where they brandished guns as an extra incentive (an act that permanently scarred Allan Bloom).

To conclude: I don’t think the postwar liberal consensus needs to be troubled so much. Yes, liberal intellectuals who self-consciously fashioned consensus as an appropriate political and intellectual style overstated the degree to which it existed by a mile. But it still helps us explain the years between WW2 and the sixties. Even in the area of race, where it is a serious stretch to say that northern liberals and Dixiecrats adhered to a consensus. And yet, Afrah convincingly demonstrates that even the most enlightened of northern liberals were fine with things as they were. That they only changed their mind when Black Power unmasked their moderation as deeply reactionary.

2 Thoughts on this Post

  1. I think the last comment is way, way overstated:
    “And yet, Afrah convincingly demonstrates that even the most enlightened of northern liberals were fine with things as they were. That they only changed their mind when Black Power unmasked their moderation as deeply reactionary.mment of ”
    I would say it is at best only half right. No evidence is shown of these sweeping statements. Although the important and necessary role of the Black Power movement should in no way be denigrated, but the light tossing of terms like “reactionary” and every single one of “the most enlightened” seems a bit overheated.
    I say this respectfully to Prof. Hartman with whom I have tussled in a friendly way on this previous point on another recent occasion. We will have to agree to disagree at least on that point without either of us amateurishly re-enacting a poorly played scene from that silly movie “The Fight Club.” I am happy to agree that I think the gist of his comments about re-looking at the concept of “consensus” is mostly on target.

    • Thanks, Tom.

      1) No offense taken, of course.

      2) Conference comments, as a device, tend to be overstated, to generate conversation (in that way they’re sort of like a blog post).

      3) That said, Black Power had a very real effect on college campuses that is hard to overstate.

Comments are closed.