Tag Archives: history

Humanities, Pretty Much Dead, Are Mostly a Hunt for Racism and Sexism

A number of prominent liberal intellectuals, such as Leon Wieseltier, acknowledge that the humanities are in trouble. There “really is a cultural crisis,” he said at a recent Aspen Ideas Festival. This is an improvement over the mass denial of a few years ago, when the standard retort to conservatives went something like this: “You just don’t like the direction the humanities have taken” or worse: “You old-fashioned types are angry that the humanities are no longer a Eurocentric dead-white-male thing—get over it.”

But when the politically-correct president of an Ivy League university recounts how far the humanities have fallen at her school, as Harvard’s Drew Gilpin Faust did at the same festival, it’s hard to dismiss the thesis.  The numbers Faust cited for Harvard are astounding.  Currently, she said, about 14 percent of Harvard undergraduates major in a humanities field.  That’s higher than the national rate, but it’s down from the 25 percent rate at Harvard when Faust started her tenure as president nine years ago.  Most of the withdrawal, she noted, was due to students heading toward the hard sciences (not the social sciences).  When it comes to enrollment in humanities courses in general at Harvard, the trend there is downward as well, a drop of ten percent over the same period of time.

Related: Are the Battered Humanities Worth Saving?

We can add to the testimony of liberal leaders at the administrative level a story in the Chronicle of Higher Education about literature professors who think that literary studies have become so cynical and paranoid that they are turning people away.

When English turned into a practice of reading literature for signs of racism, sexism, and ideology, it lost touch with why youths pick up books in the first place, said University of Virginia Professor Rita Felski.  And Duke professor Toril Moi told the Chronicle reporter, “If you challenge the idea of suspicion as the only mode of reading, you are then immediately accused of being conservative in relation to those politics.

And added to that story is the pile-up of reports demonstrating declining majors and enrollments, along with a dreadful job market for recent PhDs (see here, which shows that, in 2014, nearly half of all humanities doctoral recipients —45.7 percent—had no employment commitments:  We can’t dismiss the thesis of decay any more.  We may disagree about the causes of the slide, but everyone agrees that we need to rebuild and reinvigorate the fields.

Related: More Bad Numbers for the Humanities

The San Diego Union-Tribune recently carried a sad story on one attempt to revive the humanities, at the University of California, San Diego. The program foregrounds social themes, not works of beauty and genius.  The photo that introduces the story shows a panel speaking to a room of 30 or 40 people. The caption states the topic: “Challenging Conversations: Race and State Violence. “The question it raises is: Do the organizers really believe that an event such as this one will draw more first-year students into English, Art History, Classics, and French?

The problem isn’t just that discussions of race, violence, and politics have become so predictable and joyless.  It is that nothing in identity-focused discourse steers youths toward the humanities instead of toward the social sciences and fine arts.  If there is a campus symposium on how race played out in the last election, there is no reason to think that a humanistic approach to it will follow.  It sounds more like Political Science or Sociology than English or History.  So does the other event on the “News” page, “Community, Arts, and Resistance.”

The standard response to this disciplinary distinction is to insert humanities materials into the act.  Yes, the professors say, we talk about race and class and other topics traditionally at the center of the social sciences, but in our case, we examine the representations of them in novels and movies and culture in general.  This is not a step away from reality, they contend, because literature, art, music, and media do what is called cultural work.  They shape norms, impart values, construct stereotypes, and reinforce ideologies.  Analyzing humanities works, then, is essential to the understanding of society.

Maybe—but the claim is beside the point.  In this case, that is, regarding the material state of the humanities today, what counts is whether such approaches that foreground social issues in works of art and literature are going to encourage more undergraduates to choose humanities majors and courses. Unlikely.

First of all, if a 20-year-old has a particular passion for racial, sexual, or other identity themes, chances are that he isn’t inclined to filter it through Shakespeare or Wagner or Woolf.  A few of them will, but not because of their identity interests.  History is a stronger possibility, we admit, but when our youth looks at the requirements for the History major, he will find much of it lies outside his interest.  If you’re fascinated with race in America, you don’t want to spend much time on the ancient and medieval worlds.  Much better to choose one of the “Studies” departments.

Second, if students do come into college loving Victorian novels or foreign films or Elizabethan drama or Beethoven, it probably isn’t due to the identity content of those materials.  They love Dickens because a high school English teacher dramatized Miss Betsey so well, or because the students identified with David Copperfield (which is a whole different kind of identity-formation than the one academics have in mind when they discuss identity).  It’s not that undergraduates already interested in the humanities discount identity issues.  They accept them as part of the work, certainly.  But those issues are not the source of inspiration.  The first draw isn’t race, gender, sexuality, nationality, etc., in American film.  It is Intolerance, City Lights, Ambersons, Vertigo . . .  Students want works of art first, social themes within them second.

And so when the UCSD project breaks the humanities up four areas—Equity, diversity, and inclusion; global arts and humanities; public arts and humanities; and digital arts and humanities—one has little hope.  Why is equity at the top, especially when we consider how much great art emerged out of unequal societies?  Why invoke the bland divisions of global, public, and digital?

Here are the sentences that follow the four-part breakdown on the Institute’s web page: Through these wide-ranging and cross-cutting themes, we view the arts and humanities as a vibrant collection of different fields—including the humanistic social sciences and STEM fields—that interrogate the humanistic enterprise from complimentary [sic] and sometimes disorienting perspectives. The IAH thus values difference, cultivates exchange and prioritizes transformative ways of thinking and working together.

The language here is deadeningly abstract — “cross-cutting . . . interrogate . . . prioritize”—the very opposite of a humanistic turn of mind.  The statement goes on to claim that the Institute offers “exciting programs,” but where in this conception is the excitement of the haunting search for Anna on the island in L’Avventura and the uncanny sequence of images in the last five minutes of L’Eclisse?  Does this ethnic/politics focus for the humanities make space for the grand spectacle of Act II of Aida?  Does it allow for Nietzsche’s fiery words about nihilism in The Will to Power?  Does it respect the dark sublimity of the last paragraph of The Dead?

These are the things that lure students to the humanities and keep them there, not this adversarial social framework that turns the humanities into sociology for people who like art.

Progressives Shoot at Shakespeare

Dana Dusbiber’s statement in The Washington Post deploring the teaching of Shakespeare in high school English courses evoked universal scorn and laughter. Her thesis is simple: Shakespeare is too old, white, male, and European for 21st-century American students, especially those of color.  His language is dense and unfamiliar, enough so that Dusbiber herself can’t always understand it.  He is the result of white people’s tastes.  He’s a routine, not a fresh discovery.

The Common Core English Language Arts standards (quoted by Dusbiber) require a play by Shakespeare in high school, but she treats the rule as a hidebound imposition.  It makes for a boring and alien class experience.  When are bureaucrats going to realize that the student population needs something else?  When will they stop peddling old-time, non-diverse classics to youths who don’t like them—and with good reason?  We need to assign words, images, and ideas closer to their real lives.

Commentators jumped on Dusbiber for anti-intellectualism, low standards, and incompetence. But why attack Dusbiber for voicing standard progressive premises? Her opinions are not the complaints of a narrow-minded and eccentric individual. They are entirely in keeping with multiculturalist notions.  True, she delivers a blunt and inexpert expression of them, but her conclusions and practices follow logically from the race and gender focus of reigning education theory of the progressive kind.  She says nothing that gainsays the following truisms about the English class:

  • Students need “representation”—black students need to see black authors and black characters (humanely portrayed), and it’s best if they are presented by a black teacher.
  • The past is irrelevant or worse—history evolves and mankind improves (if steered in the right social-justice directions); to emphasize the past is to preserve all the injustices and misconceptions of former times.
  • Contemporary literature is better—it’s more diverse and more real.
  •  Classics are authoritarian—they deny teachers and students the freedom to chart their own curriculum and take ownership of their learning.

Dusbiber adopts all of these assumptions.  Her error lay not in her ideas but in her inarticulate version of them.  A more sophisticated rendition would have blocked much of the hostile response, but reached the same conclusions.  We should aim criticism not at her, but at progressive education in general.  Everything she said she heard before in teacher training programs.  Shakespeare can’t survive hack teachers, and he can’t survive progressive principles, either.

One particular response recognized the threat progressivist to the Bard and aimed to dispel it on progressivist grounds.  Written by Elizabeth Stoker Bruenig, “The Progressive Case for Teaching Shakespeare” appeared in The New Republic. For Bruenig, Shakespeare is defensible even in the non-white urban American classroom for two reasons.

One, his distance from us compels us to reflect upon our own condition.  As we enter the world of Hamlet and Henry V, we must imagine a world of different values and beliefs and mores. This in turn excites in youths a “political imagination,” Bruenig says, that makes us regard our own time more critically.

The second rationale has a political meaning, too, but a concrete one.  Politicians often invoke historical references to bolster their positions.  It is crucial, then, for youths to know these references in order for them to assess their political uses and abuses.

It is hardly necessary to note that if this is the best progressive argument for Shakespeare, he hasn’t a prayer.  One doesn’t need to read a whole Shakespeare play in order to pick up historical allusions in contemporary politics.  A Wikipedia entry will do.  The same goes for encountering the strangeness of the past.  Why struggle through the scenes of King Lear in order to understand the situation of the poor in Renaissance Europe?  (Bruenig chooses the poor as her example.)  You could do the same by choosing more accessible materials such as paintings and videos and museum artifacts.  Nothing Bruenig contends justifies Shakespeare over anything else.

The problem is that progressivism can’t make the argument. Shakespeare endures in the classroom on aesthetic and cultural grounds that progressivism refuses.  It casts aesthetic excellence as a political tool, the imposition of one group’s tastes upon everyone else.  And it marks the culture at whose pinnacle Shakespeare stands (the English literary-historical canon) as an outdated authority.

To say that Shakespeare is central to our cultural inheritance—beloved by audiences in the 19th-century American west, quoted by presidents, source of countless American idioms—is to dispel the multiculturalist breakthrough of the mid-20th century.  If progressivism reigns in secondary and higher education, Shakespeare, Pope, and Wordsworth are doomed.

The Campus Assault on American History

As a professional historian at Hamilton College, I teach my students that the United States was founded on the principles of limited government, voluntary exchange, respect for private property, and civil freedom.  Does any sane parent believe that more than a tiny fraction of students graduate from college these days with a deep and abiding appreciation of the worth of these principles? 

For Doubting Thomases, look no further than the eleven elite liberal arts colleges that comprise the New England Small College Athletic Conference (NESCAC), which includes Amherst, Williams, Trinity, and Wesleyan.   Not one of these eleven colleges requires undergraduates to take a single course in American history.  Even worse, a substantial majority of these eleven elite colleges do not even require that students majoring in history take any American history courses. And none of the eleven history departments requires a two-semester American history sequence for its majors.

Non-Western history, however, has a privileged status in a majority of the departments.  Amherst requires of history majors that they take only “one course each in at least three different geographic areas.” The United States is but one of six geographic areas from which students can choose.  Bowdoin College’s history department offers eight fields of study.   Four “non-Euro/U.S. courses” are required, but not one US history course. In 2007, one-third of all history majors at my college, Hamilton, were graduated without one course in American history. 

As the American historians in my department battled to remedy this disgrace, the majority voted a minor concession: Starting with the class of 2012, majors must take one course in US history, although the non-Western requirement would remain: “Three courses must focus upon areas outside of Europe and the United States.” The downgrading of American history continues.

Politics and the Race/Class/Gender Trinity

My City University of New York colleague David Gordon has penned a convincing analysis about the current state of history in higher education. I share, and fully endorse, his critique about the direction of the field, with the vise-grip of the race/class/gender trinity “distort[ing] historical enquiry.” Stressing above all else victimization and oppression poorly serves both unbiased intellectual life on campus and the students that we teach.

Gordon’s article focuses on the dramatic expansion of gender history, observing how specialists in the topic have increased their representation to around 10 percent of all historians. (As Gordon points out, that percentage doesn’t include historians of race–a more popular topic, and one even more dominant among U.S. historians–or historians of class.) This expansion, moreover, has occurred at a time of overall contraction of history departments, especially in cash-starved public institutions. So what Gordon terms the “distort[ing]” effect of gender history is more than the profession simply expanding into a new area–it’s evidence of the profession contracting in other areas. In this zero-sum environment, advocates of “traditional” subfields have lost out.

If anything, then, Gordon could have presented an even more alarming case. And while I’d like to embrace an ideal that history departments might embrace a more pedagogically diverse vision in the future, I don’t see any evidence that it will occur. I’m certainly not aware of any department that has come under the dominance of the race/class/gender trinity that then launched a major hiring drive in political, or diplomatic, or military, or constitutional, or business history.

Less convincingly, Gordon suggests possible political influence on the profession’s current state. It’s quite clear that the early move toward race/class/gender was accelerated by contemporaneous political developments (such as the student protests at Cornell and Columbia in the late 1960s, or a second wave of politically correct campus protests in the 1980s). And it’s also true that a handful of politicians–such as the odious former New York City councilman Charles Barron, a close ally of the CUNY faculty union–continue to champion de facto racial or gender quotas in faculty hiring, or a certain type of “diversity” instruction in the classroom.

But in general, I don’t see much evidence that these hiring patterns–much less these curricular and pedagogical patterns–are driven by “politicians who want votes.” If anything, the problem is the reverse. A general indifference by politicians to the lack of intellectual or pedagogical diversity on campus is preventing state legislators in particular from providing a necessary (and appropriate) oversight role.

Nor, I should note, is there much evidence for Stanley Kurtz’s post-election theory implying a connection between the ideological imbalance among the faculty and the fact that “our colleges and universities have been quietly churning out left-leaning voters for some time.” It seems to me that Republican opposition to issues such as marriage equality (backed by 70 percent or more of all 18-24 year olds–not just those who attend college–in Maine, Minnesota, and Maryland last week) and the DREAM Act (which has two-to-one backing from all voters under 34 years old–not just those who went to college) more convincingly explains why 18-24 year olds strongly backed the Democrats in the 2012 elections.

Neither party has an interest in an ill-informed electorate: Democrats increasingly have presented themselves as technocrats, an approach that presumes voters will be able to comprehend public policy debates; Republicans increasingly have presented themselves as defenders of the Constitution, an approach that presumes voters understand what is (and is not) in the Constitution.

Cowardice provides an easy explanation as to why Democrats have avoided addressing the decline of academic diversity in the academy. In political terms, race, class, and gender correspond to black voters, unions, and feminists–three critical elements of the Democratic Party’s base. Tackling the situation on campuses would risk antagonizing base voters.

But what accounts for the Republicans’ reticence? Quite apart from the policy importance of promoting quality education, politically, the issue would seem to be ideal for the GOP. (Consider, for instance, the inexplicable silence of the Republican-controlled Iowa House of Representatives regarding persistent evidence of ideological slanting at the University of Iowa.) Alas, over the past four years the highest-profile Republican politician to involve himself in higher-ed issues has been Virginia attorney general Ken Cuccinelli–who decided to go after a former University of Virginia science professor, in an effort that did little to advance the cause of pedagogical diversity on campus.

I don’t think, in the end, that historians can blame politicians or political pressure for the profession’s sad state. Blame instead lies with the scholars themselves, and the diversity-obsessed administrators who have abandoned the academy’s traditional fealty to the broadest possible range of intellectual debate on campus.

The Mangling of American History

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The evolution of the historical profession in the United States in the last fifty years provides much reason for celebration.  It provides even more reason for unhappiness and dread.  Never before has the profession seemed so intellectually vibrant.  An unprecedented amount of scholarship and teaching is being devoted to regions outside of the traditional American concentration on itself and Europe. New subjects of enquiry — gender, race and ethnicity — have developed.  Never have historians been so influenced by the methodology and contributions of other disciplines, from anthropology to sociology.  

At the same time, never has the historical profession been so threatened.  Political correctness has both narrowed and distorted enquiry. Traditional fields demanding intellectual rigor, such as economic and intellectual history, are in decline.  Even worse, education about Western civilization and the Enlightenment, that font of American liberties, and the foundation of modern industrial, scientific and liberal world civilization, has come to be treated with increasing disdain at colleges and universities.  

Continue reading The Mangling of American History

Oliver Stone’s “History” as Propaganda

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The 1997 film Good
Will Hunting
features Matt Damon’s character in a conversation with Harvard
students, touting Howard Zinn’s People’s History of the United States as a way to better understand the American past. The scene was cringe-worthy for at least two reasons. First, there was something more than a little off-putting about a movie whose lead character demonstrated raw intellectual ability celebrating what amounted to a work of propaganda. Second, Damon’s subsequent insinuation of college students’ unfamiliarity with Zinn’s arguments was ridiculous, given the ubiquity of Zinn’s book on 1980s and 1990s history course reading lists.

I suppose it might be seen as a sign of progress that
this generation’s equivalent of the Zinn book, Oliver Stone and Peter Kuznick’s The Untold History of the United States, will likely not have much of an impact on campus: apart from Middle East Studies departments, unabashed propaganda is out of fashion in the contemporary academy. Moreover, Stone and Kuznick spend most of their book attacking U.S. foreign policy, asking questions that–despite their far-left, fact-challenged approach–don’t conform to the race/class/gender paradigm that dominates the study of the United States in most U.S. history departments.

Continue reading Oliver Stone’s “History” as Propaganda

Our ‘Historically Illiterate’ Young

David McCullough on 60 Minutes last night:

“We are raising children in America today who are by and large historically illiterate…I ran into some students on university campuses who were bright and attractive and likeable. And I was just stunned by how much they didn’t know. One young woman at a university in the Midwest came up to me after one of my talks and said that until she heard me speak that morning she’d never understood that the original 13 colonies were all on the East Coast. And I thought, “What are we doing that’s so wrong, so pathetic?” I tried it again at several other places, colleges and universities, same thing. Now, it’s not their fault. It’s our fault. And when I say our fault I don’t mean just the teachers. I mean the parents and grandparents. We have to take part. The stories around the family dinner table. I say bring back dinner if you want to improve how children get to know history.”

Pleasure Island

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The kids! The boys! They’re all donkeys! – Jiminy Cricket

Beloit College recently released its annual “Mindset List,” the findings of a yearly survey which attempts to take stock of the cultural touchstones that each generation of college freshman is, or is not, familiar with. Most of the observations are benign: “They can’t picture people actually carrying luggage through airports rather than rolling it,” for instance. But, predictably, at least one of the observations on the list is distressing to those of us carrying the fire of the Western intellectual tradition. The List claims that “The Biblical sources of terms such as “forbidden fruit,” ”the writing on the wall,” ”good Samaritan,” and “the promised land” are unknown to most of them.”

Why does it matter if the Class of 2016 is ignorant of the source of these references? Educationally, such unfamiliarity is symptomatic of higher education’s drift, nay, dog-paddle, away from tradition of the Great Books, the time-honored mechanisms for defining and explaining Western thought and virtue, what the 19th century poet Matthew Arnold called “the best that has been thought and said.”  In earlier times, we might have taken hope in the university’s liberal arts tradition to remedy this sort of deficit. Currently, however, there is little hope that the American post-secondary system is doing much to stem the tide of ignorance. 

Continue reading Pleasure Island

How the Colleges Skew U.S. History

American history has been radically transformed on our campuses. Traditional topics are now not only marginalized but “re-visioned” to become more compatible with the dominant race/class/gender paradigm.

In two posts last fall, I took a look at U.S. history offerings at Bowdoin College. The liberal arts college, one of the nation’s finest, long enjoyed a reputation as a training ground of Maine politicians, at both the state and federal level. The staffing of its History Department suggests that the college has abandoned that mission, with the intent to exclude significant portions of the American past. (Two of the department’s five Americanists specialize in U.S. environmental history; the department’s only non-environmental 20th century U.S. historian has a Ph.D. in the history of science.)

The department’s own U.S. offerings featured a heavy course emphasis on Western U.S. history, including a history of California, seemingly odd choices for a school in Maine but a subfield that heavily stresses such
trendy themes as environmental degradation, exploitation of Native Americans, and discrimination against Hispanics and Asians. In the previous semester, the department’s token “traditional” course topic, a class on the Cold War, was taught by the school’s historian of science and featured heavy use of film.

What about the situation at a larger–and more nationally renowned–History Department? To find out, I turned to the fall 2012 offerings at UCLA.

The department’s webpage excitedly announces three new course clusters in which undergraduates can specialize. Two of the topics raise eyebrows: “Gender, Sexuality, Women” (tailored to those, apparently, for whom the department’s more general race/class/gender approach isn’t enough) and “History in Practice,” which seems to invite politicization. “This cluster,” the
department indicates, “aims to provide an organizational footing for the
Department’s commitment to applying history in the service of the larger
community.” The third new cluster is oral history.

At the class level, this semester the UCLA department website lists 16 courses in U.S. history since 1789. No courses deal with the Early Republic or the early 19th century. The only coverage of the Civil War comes in the form of small portions of thematic courses dealing either with race or gender (Slavery: Narrative, Novel, and Film, History of Women in the U.S., 1860-1980).It offers no classes on U.S. military history or U.S. constitutional history. The only standard survey comes in the class dealing with the New Deal, World War II, and the immediate postwar period.

Look what the department emphasizes. A quarter of the classes deal with race. Another two courses focus on ethnicity–including Asian-American cuisine; another two focus on gender. Fifteen or twenty years ago, students might encounter these courses in an ethnic studies department, not a history department at one of the nation’s leading public universities.

Consider, moreover, what students receive from two of the few UCLA courses whose topics, at first glance, appear to be “traditional.” One course, on social movements in the 1960s and 1970s, is hopelessly slanted toward the left. We might expect some treatment of significant right-wing social movements, including the grassroots conservative activists profiled in Rick
Perlstein’s Before the Storm; the conservative women mobilized by Phyllis Schlafly to oppose the ERA; the pro-life activists mobilized by Roe; and perhaps most broadly, the emergence of a powerful grassroots movement of
conservative Christians who played a critical role in American society for the
next three decades.  But these are not covered. Whom does the course profile? African-Americans, Mexican Americans,  Native Americans, “At Large Advocates,” and “Radical Women and Gay Women.”

Continue reading How the Colleges Skew U.S. History

The Perils of Student Choice

The release of SAT scores last week gives strong ammunition to proponents of a core curriculum. As reported in the Wall Street Journal , reading scores hit their lowest figure in four decades. Writing scores hit their lowest number since a writing component was added to the exam six years ago; in fact, writing scores have dropped every year except one, when they were flat.

The College Board, which administers the exam, attributes the decline to two factors. One, more second-language students are taking the exam; and two, not enough test-takers follow a core curriculum. James Montoya, vice president of College Board, is quoted to that effect in the story, and he states the case even more strongly in the College Board’s own report. In his opening remarks, Montoya asserts that “students who complete a rigorous core curriculum do better in high school; they do better on the SAT; and they are more prepared for college. This holds true across all socioeconomic and ethnic lines.”

What a contrast to the education establishment, which regards a core curriculum as narrow and authoritarian! Parents are inundated with this argument during campus tours, where backward-walking guides assure them that students have ample license in their coursework. The proliferation of choice complements trendy ideas of student empowerment and student-centered learning that caught on in the 1960s and drifted quickly up to higher education.

However, those who favor a core curriculum now have certified announcements by the College Board against a high-elective approach. They may also take heart from a survey released this week by American Council of Trustees and Alumni. Administered by Roper, the first question asked respondents if colleges and universities should force students to take classes in “core subjects” (writing, math, science, U.S. history, economics, foreign language). Fully 70 percent answered “Yes.” More than half (54 percent) of them agreed that they were “Very” or “Somewhat” surprised that many institutions do not have those requirements. Most respondents (57 percent) also said they believe schools do a “fair” or “poor” job preparing students for the job market, while 46 percent believed that institutions do not give student’s “their money’s worth.”

The combination of dissatisfaction with the overall product plus the endorsement of core curricula marks a timely opening for reformers.

Look What they’ve Done to U.S. History

If you doubt that leftist activists now dominate the study and teaching of U.S. history, take a look at the program for the 2013 American Historical Association conference in New Orleans. The pattern  is similar to the University of Michigan’s history department, discussed here yesterday—a heavy emphasis on race, class, and gender, with more “traditional” topics frequently reconfigured to conform to the dominant paradigm.

Of the approximately 70 AHA panels devoted to U.S. history, a few unintentionally confirm the critique of the academy as a hotbed of left-leaning political activism. On a panel entitled “Using Oral History for Social Justice Activism,” scholars look at their partnership with “activists” seeking to undermine “the dominant historical narrative.” Yet the “narrative” that these social justice activists pursue seems to conform to, rather than undermine, the academic status quo—Chicano activists, anti-war activists “working in G.I. Coffee houses,” and “Shirley Chisholm’s best friend, secretary and hairdresser.” It’s hard to imagine much opposition in the contemporary academy to exploring the history of any type of underrepresented racial or ethnic groups—or certainly anti-war activists.

Continue reading Look What they’ve Done to U.S. History

In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender

The University of Michigan history department has 28 tenured or tenure-track professors whose research specialties in some way relate to U.S. history after 1789. Race is the favorite topic; at least eleven of the department’s professors indicate that their research in some way deals with race in America. Gender is the next prominent area of specialization; at least seven of the professors offer research in this area (with some overlap with race). Race and gender are, obviously, important themes in U.S. history. But are they of such importance that they should dominate to this extent the Americanist wing one of the nation’s major departments? And is Michigan fulfilling its mission of preparing future citizens by offering such a limited view of the nation’s past?

With the rise of the race/class/gender approach, subfields perceived as excessively “traditional" or overly focused on “dead white males” have gone into decline—or, in the case of political history, have been “re-visioned” in the hopes of transferring focus to topics oriented around themes of race, class, and gender. Since (at least in large departments, or at elite institutions) U.S. history hires in the national (post-1789) period come in subfields, looking at personnel specialties can give a sense of exactly how a university does—or does not—fulfill its obligation to train future citizens in the foundational events of their nation.

Continue reading In History—the Obsession with Race, Class and Gender

The No-Art Art History Textbook

In a story
helpfully marked “Not the Onion,” Gawker reports that Toronto’s Ontario College
of Art and Design is requiring students to purchase a $180 art history textbook
that has no images of art at all. The father of one student says the publisher
of the book, Global Visual and Material Culture: Prehistory to 1800, apparently
couldn’t get the copyright permissions settled in time for the print run. But
the school’s dean disputes that, saying the textbook was always intended to
have no pictures. “If we had opted for print clearance of all the Stokstad
and Drucker images,” the dean wrote in a letter to students,
“the text would have cost over $800.”

Capitalism and Western Civilization: Liberal Education

CapitalismEducation pic.jpgSpeaking of business and management majors, Douglas Campbell and James E. Fletcher argue
in A Better Way to Educate Professionals that their students “should have a strong base in the traditional liberal arts and the physical sciences….to effectively work with people to understand and solve problems as well as to accomplish individual, organizational, and social goals.”

The  management consultant Peter Drucker agrees, writing in The New Realities (1989):

Management… deals with action and application and its tests are
results. This makes it a technology. But management also deals with people, their values, their growth and development–and this makes it a humanity. So does its concern with, and impact on, social structure and the community. Indeed, as everyone has learned who, like this author, has been working with managers of all kinds of institutions for long years, management is deeply involved in spiritual concerns–the nature of man, good and evil.

Management is thus what tradition used to call a liberal art–“liberal” because it deals with the fundamentals of knowledge, self-knowledge, wisdom, and leadership; “art” because it is practice and application. Managers draw on all the knowledges and insights of the humanities and the social sciences and ethics. But they have to focus this knowledge on effectiveness and results.

For these reasons, management will increasingly be the discipline and the practice through which the “humanities” will again acquire recognition, impact, and respect. 

The Romans educated their governing elites in the artes liberales, the
“liberal arts.” To them, artesmeant skills and liberales referred
to a free man. Liberal arts were originally something like “skills of the
citizen elite” or “skills of the ruling class,” who were expected to debate and
decide on issues of public policy. The Renaissance deplored ignorance and
exalted the power of the educated mind. For its elite, it stressed education in
the skills and prudence necessary to be successful in a life of work and to be
a public-spirited citizen and member of the ruling class. The Renaissance
demonstrated the need for balance in the knowledge provided by science,
humanistic studies, and religion. In today’s sophisticated capitalist economy,
business or corporate executives and managers constitute an economic ruling
class that should be provided a similar education and capabilities.

But our universities have adopted an orthodoxy that dismisses a priori as
“white male ideology,” the very idea of an educated person, of a cultivated
human being provided with broad and humanistic knowledge of the kind esteemed in the Renaissance. The liberal arts have largely been eliminated from
education, replaced by the social sciences and postmodern multiculturalism,
with their animus against Western civilization and objective knowledge.
Postmodernism in the academy still vehemently denies the efficacy of science,
the value of reason and humanistic studies, and the need for religion and its
moral precepts, while fostering the unrealistic and immoderate illusions of our
academic and college-educated elites.

In Post-Capitalist Society (1993), Drucker discusses the clash between postmodern multiculturalism and the classical Western education in our colleges and universities. 

A motley crew of post-Marxists, radical feminists, and other “antis” argues that there can be no such thing as an educated person–the
position of those new nihilists, the “Deconstructionists in this group assert
that there can be only educated persons with each sex, each ethnic group, each race, each “minority” requiring its own separate culture and a separate–indeed an isolationist–educated person….These people are mainly concerned with the humanities….Their target is…the universalism that is at the very core of the concept of the educated person….

The opposing camp–we might call them the “Humanists”–also scorns
the present system.  But it does so because it fails to produce a
universally educated person. The Humanist critics demand a return to the
nineteenth century, to the “liberal arts,” the “classics.”…They are in a direct line of descent from the Hutchins-Adler “Return to Pre-Modernity.”
 

Both sides, alas, are wrong. The knowledge society must have
at its core the concept of the educated person. It will have to be a universal concept, precisely because the knowledge society is a society of knowledges and because it is global–in its money, its economics, its careers, its technology,its central issues, and above all, in its information. Post-capitalist society requires a unifying force. It requires a leadership group, which can focus local, particular, separate traditions onto a common and shared commitment to values, a common concept of excellence, and on mutual respect.
 

The…knowledge society…thus needs exactly the opposite of what
Deconstructionists, radical feminists, and anti-Westerners propose. It needs the very thing they totally reject: a universally educated person.
 

Drucker argues that the productive use of knowledge now determines the competitive position of countries as well as companies (see my earlier article Knowledge Workers). More than possessing a bridge to the classical past, the educated person also “needs to be able to bring his or her knowledge to bear on the present, not to mention molding the future.” He adds:

The Western tradition will, however, still have to be at the
core, if only to enable the educated person to come to grips with the present, let alone the future. The future…cannot be “non-Western.” Its material civilization and its knowledges all rest on Western foundations: Western science; tools and technology; production; economics; Western-style finance and banking. None of these can work unless grounded in an understanding and acceptance of Western ideals and the entire Western tradition.
 

This is the very point that Steve Balch emphasizes in Metamorphosis: 

What happened in, and through, the Western world during the last
three hundred years is unique in the history of civilization. Western
civilization is not just another civilization. It represents a metamorphosis in
humanity’s estate. The other civilizations of the world have been reborn in,
and through, that of the West

Tragically, the kind of liberal education that Drucker recommends and Campbell, Fletcher, and NAS seek for future managers is no longer available in today’s academy.Campbell and Fletcher note that the saturation of the liberal arts “with
Marxist doctrine is particularly confounding. Marxism, radical-collectivism and
hostility to free enterprise are the antithesis of the traditional liberal
arts’ search for truth, virtue, beauty and the meaning of human existence, and
its commitment to intellectual freedom and personal choice.”

Moreover, the NAS report The Vanishing West demonstrates that education in the Western foundations sought by Drucker is no longer provided at most colleges and universities. Peter Wood observes in Epic Battles: “The
report brims with the relevant details. But the basic picture is clear and
simple. American higher education has by and large taken itself out of the
business of teaching undergraduate students any kind of orderly overview of
Western civilization.”

Thus, academia fails to provide the kind of enlightenment that Drucker considers
essential for management and business professionals. Instead, as Jay Schalin
notes in The Reopening of the American Mind, they are smothered in a “postmodernist fog that clouds the mind and renders graduates unemployable for all but rudimentary functions.” Ironically, the nation’s economic competitiveness is the worse for lack of a proper liberal arts education at America’s colleges and universities.

The changes recommended by NAS to restore that education need urgently to be
implemented.

The Honorable William H.Young served as Assistant Secretary for Nuclear Energy from November 1989 to January 1993.. 

How ‘Money Men’ Hijacked a Famous College

dartmouth.jpgCrossing the snow-covered Dartmouth green one night, I stopped, looked around, and asked, “Who owns this place, and by what right?” More than half a century later, I have still not resolved a complete answer to that question. But I can give you my short-form response: A small group of willful people, mostly money men disdainful of undergraduate education, have stacked the board of trustees, made an unannounced decision to convert a liberal arts college into a major research university, and “earned” themselves huge commissions on sales of their own securities to the college’s endowment while keeping details of the transactions secret.

A note on the history: Most of America’s early colleges were founded
by church denominations, whose control gradually weakened as costs and
instructional quality rose. The pivotal stage in this history occurred
in the decades following the Civil War, when alumni, having assumed the
major burden of support, began asserting claims for seats on the board
of trustees. Dartmouth alumni battled longest and won the most
significant concessions in 1891. Responsibility for the college was to
be vested in each and every alumnus; excepting the ex officio members
(the state’s governor and the college president), half the trustees
would thereafter be elected directly by the alumni body, and the other
half by the entire board.

Continue reading How ‘Money Men’ Hijacked a Famous College

How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

Not far into an important book published recently is a table displaying results for one question on the North American Academic Study Survey, a poll of professors, administrators, and students administered in 1999.  The survey is the basis for The Still Divided Academy by the late-Stanley Rothman, April Kelly-Roessner, and Matthew Roessner, which reviews the results and draws balanced conclusions. 

The table lays out the rate at which four goals were judged by faculty members as “essential” to education.  Here are the results…

Continue reading How Much Is Western Civ Valued on Campus?

Bowdoin’s History

The NAS has announced that it is undertaking an intriguing case study examining “the curriculum, student activities, and campus values of Bowdoin College as a case study to learn what a contemporary liberal arts college education consists of,” with the hopes of creating “a template for how such a rigorous study could be undertaken at other liberal arts colleges and universities.”

The project’s announcement prompted me to take a look at Bowdoin’s history department. Admittedly, I do so from a biased perspective–I’m a resident of Maine, and very much recognize and admire Bowdoin’s contribution to the development of my state. For much of the 19th and 20th centuries, the college’s graduates dominated Maine politics, economics, and culture; the state’s two most recent towering political figures (former senators George Mitchell and Bill Cohen) are Bowdoin alums. Until fairly recently, at least, Bowdoin saw as one of its central goals not merely providing a high-quality liberal arts education but also training the next generation of Maine leaders. That commitment appears to have diminished, or vanished entirely.

Continue reading Bowdoin’s History

Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Herb London and KC Johnson have already posted on the disappointing findings of the ACTA project What Will They Learn? But it is worth pondering some of the implications of the report.  One of the more striking of them is the “Slightly less than 20% [of colleges surveyed] require U.S. government or history.”  As KC noted, the bar for qualification was set pretty low, with ACTA reporting that it

gives schools credit for U.S. Government or History if they require a survey course in either U.S. government or history with enough chronological and topical breadth to expose students to the sweep of American history and institutions.  Narrow, niche courses do not count for the requirement, nor do courses that only focus on a limited chronological period or a specific state or region.

Note that breadth is the only requirement. If within that requirement a teacher emphasizes racial or gender issues, if he or she highlights the guilty record of politicians, business leaders, or religious organizations, or if he or she emphasizes any other theme with sufficient scope, then the course would count and the school would get credit.  But less than one in five schools qualified.

Continue reading Why Don’t Progressives Support U.S. History for Freshmen?

Are Military and Diplomatic History Making a Comeback?

Last week, the American Historical Association released a members’ survey regarding how historians classify themselves. In contrast to critics (including me) who have suggested that the profession has aggressively diminished approaches to history deemed “traditional,” Inside Higher Ed reports that “designations of military history are up by 39 percent over the decade, for instance. Diplomatic history is up by 36 percent.” We’re experiencing a veritable flowering of pedagogical diversity within the field!

Not exactly.

First, the survey used a new methodology. In contrast to previous surveys, which asked AHA members to list their three chief areas of interest, this one allowed respondents to list as many as five areas. Quoting again from Inside Higher Ed: “Robert B. Townsend, deputy director of the AHA, said the data do not indicate whether a greater percentage of historians are studying those areas with gains, or whether these historians always had such fields as their fourth or fifth area of interest.”

To illustrate the meaninglessness of allowing such a “fourth” or “fifth” classification, take an example from my own research. My first book (Peace Progressives) has some primary research in the Swarthmore College Peace Collection of various women’s peace groups, for a minor section of one chapter; and for my most recent book on the 1964 election, I had a bit on Lady Bird Johnson’s pathbreaking whistle-stop campaign. Under the AHA’s new survey guidelines, I could, therefore, identify women’s history as my fifth area of research interest. But–and for good reason–I never would be considered for any women’s history positions on the basis of that research; or considered qualified to teach a women’s history course. 

Continue reading Are Military and Diplomatic History Making a Comeback?

Religion on Campus, Then and Now

                           By Jonathan B. Imberreligion.bmp

Until 1969, on the campus where I teach, all students were required to take two semester s of Bible, which made the Department of Religion a central force in the life of the institution.  When I arrived twelve years later, with no Bible requirement any longer in place, the only remnant of a mutually reinforcing dynamic of religion and religiosity was the continuing office of the college chaplain.  In fact, my first committee assignment was to the Chaplaincy Policy Committee.  The chaplain sought the faculty’s counsel about how to integrate the role of the chaplaincy into the life of the College.  Alas, in my early years, the Chaplaincy Policy Committee was eliminated, representing more than a lack of purpose.  The truth was that the office of chaplain needed to be reinvented.

The Long Escape

Before describing that reinvention, let me look back at one of the grand traditions of American Protestantism, which, after all, was the central force in the creation of most of the small, liberal arts colleges across America.  In New England, until well into the nineteenth century, a large number of the men who attended these private colleges went on to become ministers.  The public universities were already well ahead in providing opportunities for other occupations, but it was not until the end of the nineteenth century, with the founding of such universities as Johns Hopkins, that the shape and mission of most elite schools took on their modern and quite similar character. 

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Why Study Western Civilization?

In predictable fashion, Inside Higher Ed has reported on “The Vanishing West,” the National Association of Scholars’ study on the virtual disappearance of Western Civ courses from our colleges, by quoting only critics.  But the criticisms are the same ones I’ve been hearing for the 20 years I’ve been in academia.

Princeton Professor and president of the American Historical Association Anthony Grafton gives the oft-repeated (including in student essays on the topic) reason that today we have a “radically different” student body that might not be “as interested in such courses.”  Of course, no one asks students if they are “interested” in the required math and science courses.

Grafton also says that the “increasing specialization among professors” means that they are not equipped to teach such courses and might not “enjoy” doing so.

The latter reason points to a serious institutional problem. 

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The Disappearance of Western Civ

If you happened to attend college back in the day, the term “Western Civilization” was common currency among most undergraduates: it was something you expected to wrestle with, usually during your freshman year.  In one way or another, “Western Civ.” covered the intellectual, cultural, artistic, religious and political heritage of European civilization, erected on the twin pillars of Greece and Rome.  The American Constitution, of course, was also a direct descendent of this tradition, as even a cursory reading of the Federalist Papers would confirm – you’d understand why the upper chamber in our national legislature was called the Senate, or that the original Republicans had nothing to do with a political party.  None of this necessarily excluded the study of other civilizations, needless to say.  But there was a settled consensus among America’s educators that all college graduates, irrespective of their major fields of study should know something about the events, personalities and institutions which were largely responsible for such modern hallmarks as liberal political institutions, scientific inquiry or market capitalism, which have shaped and dominated the contemporary world far beyond the confines of Europe and America.  One way or another, that’s certainly what most students did.

How times have changed, as we document in the new National Association of Scholars  report, The Vanishing West, 1964-2010, available here.  Between 1964 and the present, the study of Western Civilization has literally disappeared from most college curricula.  Not only is it not required, you’ve often got to search  pretty hard to find individual history courses that tangentially cover bits and pieces of the themes once commonly encountered by most undergraduates.  Often enough, you can now collect your very expensive college degree – believe it or not – without studying any history at all.  Or if you do take a history course, you’ll often find equal weight apportioned between one that examines US Foreign policy, 1900-1950 or another that analyzes the erotic secrets of antebellum plantation mistresses.  The only criterion in most cases seems to be student choice, whether it’s the fall of Rome or the rise of Elvis Presley – take your pick.   And whereas the study of history once focused on the game-breaking events, ideas or dominant actors that made a difference, the only thing that seems to matter nowadays is race, gender, class, ethnicity, or the equality of all cultures.  In a way it makes things such as Western Civilization a lot easier to understand: it can all be reduced to the “narratives of white men” (you wouldn’t believe how often I ran into that irksome categorization in the process of gathering our data).  Think of it: Julius Caesar, Isaac Newton, Ludwig van Beethoven or Groucho Marx all fit in nicely here.  If students learn anything at all about Western Civilization these days, it’s likely to be through the lens of oppression, racism, sexism and colonialism.  If only I were making this up.

None of this, of course, is to argue that the past was a Golden Age, or that we should now try to reinstate the standard Western Civilization survey as it typically was found in 1964.  That in itself runs contrary to the tradition of inquiry which has defined the Western tradition since Socrates.  But if you think that history education is a civic obligation, that there are seminal events, people and institutions that should be imparted to college graduates whatever else they do, then our survey confirms that American higher education in 1964 certainly made that effort, whatever its shortcomings.   It’s certainly not what your hefty tuition buys you these days, and we hope that our survey will give prospective students and their parents a sense of what they’re paying for.

Golf, Diversity and Bowdoin History

Yesterday’s brief account here on Bowdoin College and the apparent disarray of its history department drew a lot of attention, though we did not link to the full original article. The reason we did not link is that the text from the Claremont Review of Books appeared to be proprietary–sent only to subscribers for their use only. But Review editor Charles Kesler offered us permission, so here is “Golf Story,”  a remarkable bit of journalism by Thomas D. Klingenstein. The author played a round of golf last year with Barry Mills, the president of Bowdoin College, and had a brief back-and-forth about liberal schools’ penchant for racial diversity and distaste for intellectual diversity.  Mills then seriously mischaracterized that back-and-forth in his convocation address a few weeks later. The Klingenstein essay briefly sets the record straight, then proceeds with a thoughtful discussion of the issues raised by and lessons learned from the exchange.  Thanks to Roger Clegg for noticing “Golf Story” before we did. 

Update:

The student newspaper, the Bowdoin Orient, provided excellent coverage of the story and Power Line, one of our favorite sites, has a memorable commentary on what it calls President Mills’ s “fabulation.” 

U.S. History as Taught at Bowdoin (Ugh)

“There are any number of courses that deal with some group aspect of America, but virtually none that deals with America as a whole. For example, there is African-American history from 1619 to 1865 and from 1865 to the present, but there is no comparable sequence on America. Every course is social or cultural history that looks at the world through the prism of race, class, and gender. Even a course on the environment (offered in the history department) “examines the links between ecology and race, class, and gender.” 

Continue reading U.S. History as Taught at Bowdoin (Ugh)

The GOP Was Wrong–So Was the Historical Association

By now, most people who follow either politics or higher education know the story of William Cronon. The University of Wisconsin professor published a lengthy post critiquing the policies of Governor Scott Walker, and a week later penned a New York Times op-ed raising similar themes. In between the dates of the two essays, the Wisconsin Republican Party filed an open records request demanding any and all e-mails from Cronon’s university account that mentioned Republicans, several public employee unions, and the GOP state senators targeted for recall. When Cronon publicized the Open Records Law request, the state GOP received reams of criticism, both nationally and within Wisconsin; it seemed as if the Republicans’ chief motive was to intimidate–or at least badly inconvenience–a state employee who had criticized them publicly.

In the end, the Wisconsin Republicans got what they deserved. They hoped that what amounted to a bad-faith act would serve them well politically, and instead their decision backfired. If anyone will be deterred from future actions based on this event, it’s likely to be the Wisconsin GOP, not Governor Walker’s critics in the academy. To paraphrase Brandeis, sunlight–in this instance, Cronon’s publicizing the GOP’s Open Records Law filing–proved the best disinfectant.

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