U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Ideas and Practice

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A few weeks ago, I had an exchange on Facebook with Leo Ribuffo about encouraging people to get a doctoral degree. Leo and I are much alike in some ways—I think our backgrounds in the NY metro area account for certain aspects of a common worldview that spans generations. But I am hopelessly more optimistic about the prospects for doctoral programs than he is. I have built a new one at IUPUI in American Studies and the thought of that makes Leo shake his head (not the first time my work has made him do that).

Leo made the quite valid case that the job market and the intellectual climate poses challenges that no advisor should wish on a student. The crisis that besets the humanities is real, of course, substantiated by stories of the hundreds of Ph.D.s applying for the few plum positions in universities and declining enrollment in humanities majors across universities the world over.

Thus concern about a crisis in the humanities sounds practical: students are not taking as many courses offered in history and other majors so there should be decline in the number of people training to teach those courses. However, and Leo would agree with me here I think, such practical considerations do not negate the intellectual value of humanities training. When he (or another of our colleagues) appears on CNN or C-SPAN or some other more contemporary media, their training, experience, and work makes them relevant and respected. I’m not the only one listening to them!

My enthusiasm for the work of my colleagues lead me to propose something different for the American Studies program at IUPUI. Last summer, the state of Indiana’s Council on Higher Education approved the creation of a doctorate degree in American Studies at IUPUI that trains students to be pretty much anything but teachers in college. The idea for this program combined my intention to leverage the geographic position of IUPUI in the middle of a big Midwestern city and my admiration for scholars who can speak directly to contemporary social issues. Like most universities, IUPUI has research centers and faculty who collectively provide methods and research that cut across almost any issue that might interest students. Moreover, I am working to partner these students with organizations, corporations, and government agencies that will sponsor—both financially and intellectually—aspects of student projects. These students will do thinking and research that many of these external partners could never justify if they had to hire such people as consultants. One analogy for this approach is to see the students working in humanities-based labs on questions that connect them to groups outside the university.

While we can discuss and debate the general idea of this program at some point, I have a more immediate question for our community. I am teaching a course in the spring that links how American Studies scholars think to how the world operates. In this class, I am using American Studies to cover a great deal of scholarly terrain—from intellectual history to sociology. What I need are ideas on the kinds of books and people students and I should discuss.

So far I have a short list of books that speak to my intention to suggest WAYS to think about contemporary problems rather than, necessarily, the background to teach courses about those issues. Below is a brief annotated list of folks who provide examples of ways to think about contemporary issues, please add to it:

  1. Tom Sugrue, The Origins of the Urban Crisis: In many interesting ways, Detroit is the photographic negative of Indianapolis. Both began the century (and persisted through mid-century) as cities devoted to the automobile. But Indy diversified into bio-tech and expanded its tax base through something called Uni-Gov (that made the county and the city one and the same). Indy did not have a major riot, though it certainly has a history and continuing problem with segregation. I see Sugrue as an exemplar for using streams of thinking—historical, sociological, geographical, and political—to build an analysis of urban America.
  2. Melinda Cooper, Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism: I included this book primarily on Andy Seal’s strong and specific recommendation.
  3. Sid Vaidhyanathan, The Googlization of Everything (And Why We Should Worry): I am a big fan of Sid’s clear-headed thinking and his intention to historicize the organization of information through one kind of technology.
  4. John Lewis Gaddis, The Landscape of History: Gaddis remains among the most important influences on my intellectual development. I know, he has his faults, but he also created the Contemporary History Institute at Ohio University and taught us to see intersections between disciplines in ways I seek to reflect in the development of the Ph.D. program at IUPUI.
  5. Richard Rothstein, The Color of Law: This has to be one of the most talked about books of the first half of 2017. Rothstein’s ability to write across law, social policy, and history recommends his book to a group of students who will need to do the same thing as they work in Indianapolis.
  6. Elizabeth Hinton, From the War on Poverty to the War on Crime: a critique of social policy steeped in intellectual and political history.
  7. Corey Robin’s updated edition of The Reactionary Mind: I want students to think about how we understand conservative ideology from a source that will surely provoke discussion.
  8. Diane Ravitch, Reign of Error: The Hoax of the Privatization Movement and the Danger to America’s Public Schools: A title that addresses Indiana’s claim to fame as ground center for “choice” in public schools

13 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ray,

    Before commenting on the course and list of books, I should mention that, as some people reading this comment already know, I’m not an American Studies scholar (or a historian; I see no need to get much more autobiographical than that here).

    You write that the course “links how American Studies scholars think to how the world operates. In this class, I am using American Studies to cover a great deal of scholarly terrain—from intellectual history to sociology.”

    This is not at all meant to be snarky, but I’m not aware that American Studies scholars think differently than other historians or, for that matter, many historically-oriented social scientists. They have their own specialty and their own canon of great/classic works, I suppose, and maybe some unique methods, but I don’t think that necessarily adds up to a unique way of thinking. So my sense of the course is accordingly a little fuzzy.

    As far as the book list goes, it seems slanted toward public policy and contemporary history and interdisciplinary work. The two titles I happen to have read (most or all of) — the Gaddis and the Robin — seem sort of the odd ones out here.

    As for what should be added, maybe certain parts of C. Wright Mills’s The Sociological Imagination. Yes, it’s more than a half-century old, but the appendix on scholarly craftsmanship (pre-digital-age though it be) is probably still worth reading, and also still pertinent is the emphasis on the importance of specific problems at the intersection of historical forces and ‘lived experience’ (though Mills doesn’t use that phrase, at least not as I recall).

    And one other thought off top of head, which actually is more in tune with the thrust of the list than the Mills:
    Gerald Grant, Hope and Despair in the American City: Why There Are No Bad Schools in Raleigh (Harvard Univ. Press, 2009).

    I’m sure other commenters are likely to have a lot of other suggestions, so for now I’ll leave it at that.

  2. Louis:

    I agree, AMST scholars and the people on my list do not think differently from each other. And yes, I am interested in books and writers who offer ways to think through contemporary problems. Gaddis and Robin are different from each other but seem to me to be relevant to demonstrating how historians try to incorporate other disciplines in understanding their world (Gaddis) and working backwards from a contemporary political moment to understand where conservatism comes from (Robin). While neither deals with public policy directly they do address how we see patterns across time. I am looking for writers who have helped other think through contemporary issues.
    Thanks for the response and for the suggestions on who else to add to my list.

    • Fair enough.

      I wouldn’t say I’m a huge fan of The Landscape of History, though it’s certainly not bad. I guess (been a while since I looked at it) it does do something with how historians incorporate other disciplines. There are probably others that do similar — but you did say Gaddis was an important influence on you, so its inclusion is understandable.

      On conservatism — and this is I trust my last suggestion — might want to look at Albert Hirschman, The Rhetoric of Reaction. (I’m a fan of Hirschman and have read some of his work, though not that particular one.)

      Corey R. in The Reactionary Mind is, in my view, less interested in “where conservatism comes from,” except in a very general way, and more interested in making an argument about conservatism’s nature and continuity across time. The book’s line, as I read it, is that conservatism has an ideological core (defense of hierarchy, particularly in the ‘private’ spheres of workplace and family) and that core stretches from Burke to Palin — as the subtitle of the book (orig. edition) says. That’s an oversimplification and condensation, of course, but that seems to me the nub of the argument.

      • I should probably have read Corey’s blog post on the second edition before writing the above. Looks like there are some significant changes (and for the better), while not altering the basic argument.

  3. Dear Ray–I don’t disagree with you about the value of learning in humanities/social sciences even if these do not bring the desired employment. I think our main difference is that I have looked into the eyes of too many disappointed PhD students.

  4. Thanks for this post Ray. We’ve talked briefly about this program once or twice, and I really like what you’re trying to do with it. One book that I think may be useful in thinking about both historical and contemporary issues as well as helping students grapple with the relationship between things like stereotypes, discourse, and ideology, is Philip Deloria’s _Indians in Unexpected Places_. At the very minimum, it’s introductory essay which focuses on expectation and anomaly would be useful in explicating how and why we interpret meaning from ordinary things. While the book obviously focuses on Native Americans, I think there’s a lot to be gained towards developing a self-awareness and critical theory.

  5. My guess is that many of your students will work in the nonprofit sector so it’s important that they recognize that the sector encompasses far more than volunteers and charities. I don’t need to tell you that IUPUI is a leader in the study of philanthropy, but what’s a good comprehensive but critical and contemporary book on the topic? I can only think of old books: Dwight Macdonald on the Ford Foundation, “a large body of money completely surrounded by people who want some,” Jacques Barzun, “The Folklore of Philanthropy” in The House of Intellect (very acerbic) (1959), Waldemar Nielsen, The Big Foundations (1972) and The Golden Doors (1985), anything by Pablo Eisenberg, a great guy, who reviews a new book by Olivier Zunz, https://www.thenation.com/article/foundation-business-olivier-zunz/. Warren Buffett’s son wrote a good column on the “Charitable-Industrial Complex” in the NY Times: http://www.nytimes.com/2013/07/27/opinion/the-charitable-industrial-complex.html?_r=1&

  6. Thanks to you all for responding to my inquiry. It helps to think through this program with people not inside my feedback loop!

  7. Since there seems to be an urban history angel to the course–understandably–how about Mike Davis, City of Quartz. Davis is one of the clearest writers when it comes to describing how capitalist development screws up a city’s landscape for most of its inhabitants.

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