Tag Archives: Geoffrey Galt Harpham

What is an education for? Remembering the American Revolution

History can remind us of just how expansive our ancestors could be, and how foreshortened our own vision has become.  One thing that makes our current discussion of higher education so difficult is the dramatic impoverishment of the range of our discourse about educational purposes: the narrower our frame of reference the more cramped our imagination, the more limited our creative responses to crisis, and the fewer our possible options.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham begins his sixth chapter with a citation from John Adams.

I must study Politicks and War that my sons may have liberty to study Mathematicks and Philosophy.  My sons ought to study mathematics and Philosophy, Geography, natural History, naval Architecture, navigation, Commerce and Agriculature, in order to give their Children a right to study Painting, Poetry, Musick, Architecture, Statuary, Tapestry and Porcelaine.

Of this particular citation and others like it, Harpham goes on to say,

[It] is worth recalling that once upon a time the ruling class–which had also been the revolutionary class–imagined that they were risking their lives, their fortunes, and their sacred honor in behalf of a futurity where what would come to be called the humanities would dominate the concerns of the citizenry.  They humanities, they felt, would represent the crowning achievement of a nation that, having prevailed in war, would build its new society on a foundation of such economic, political, military, and social security that citizens could enrich their lives by turning their attention to the study and appreciation of material and textual artifacts…Adams, Jefferson, and others believed that a general concern for the humanities represented not only the best possible future for the new nation but also the natural progression of mankind, if freed from fear and want.

 We are, of course, a long way from that vision now, our educational vision cramped by a cultural imagination that extends no further than security, economic security first and foremost, but other kinds of security as well.  The quest for security leads fathers to discourage their sons interest in poetry and philosophy and insists that they study business, or leads other students to declare as education majors so they “have something to fall back on”.  It’s worth noting that Adams spoke in a period far more precarious and insecure for the American Republic than anything we face today, and so our current obsessions and fears that education ought to be about employment first and always seems spiritually and ethically….empty.  In the midst of a national experiment that could still have failed, Adams was able to imagine that work existed for the higher purposes of education, rather than education existing for the “practical” purposes of work.

Not that there was no debate between advocates for what is now called professional education and what we continue to call the liberal arts.  It was, in some respects, ever thus, even if it seems more thus now than ever. Harpham points out that John Locke was a philosopher in favor of what we now call professional education and dismissive of the preciousness of the liberal arts.  Harpham also points out that it is a good thing the Lockes of the world did not win the argument and the Adamses did since no one would now be reading either one were it not for the continuing if weakened importance of a liberal arts education.

However,  I think there’s an irony in Adams’s formulation (and in Harpham’s appreciation of it) since it seems to assume that fear and want are defined qualities that can be addressed, finite needs that can be satisfied.  We live in a society that in some respects makes a living off the generation and regeneration of fear–the beneficiaries being our massive security industries–the prisons, the military, homeland security, gated communities, home security systems, and on and on.  We are also a culture defined by the generation of want rather than its satisfaction.  As much as I admired Steve Jobs, Apple is a company built on the generation of desire for things people never knew they wanted, and the iconic Apple is one small mythic reminder of the infinite allure of the new product hanging like fruit from the lowest shelf.

The irony of Adams’s formulation is that there is never any end of want, and our insatiable desires generate, at a minimum, the ongoing fear that we will somehow lose track of all our baubles or have them taken from us.  And our fundamental fears for our children have to do with the fear that they will have fewer baubles than we have.  And so finally, if want and if fear are potentially never ending–like the wars that Adams feels compelled to study–what room left ever for those higher human ideals that Adams deferred for himself. I think he deferred them unknowingly for his sons and daughters and granddaughters and grandsons as well. Are they not deferred always, if we begin with the belief that security is the means and education is at the end? In the world we have created we will never be secure enough for the poetry and philosophy that Adams at least desired for his progeny.

A couple of years ago I tried to think through my own rationale for the purposes of education.  You can listen to it here as you have interest:  Convocation Address: Education for Praise

Can a liberal arts ethos and a professionalized research faculty co-exist?

I’ve been reading Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s recent book, Humanities and the Dream of America, whiling away the hours on my exercise bike.  Ok, half hours.  I’ve been struck by the similarities in analysis between Harpham and Andrew Delbanco’s analysis of the college as a distinctly American achievement, having just finished Delbanco’s meditation on the nature of the college a week or so ago.

For both, the fundamental antagonist to the ideals of the liberal arts has not been professional programs per se–though undergraduate programs in things like businesss, nursing, and engineering (and a host of others) are favorite bete noirs of our current humanistic discourse about the purposes of education.  Rather, for both the real threat lies in the research university and the ethos of specialization that it entails.  This emphasis of specialized knowledge is itself inherently narrowing, and is opposed to the generous expansiveness of spirit that, at least in theory, characterizes the highest ideals of a liberal arts education.

Like Delbanco, Harpham draws on Newman as a first resource for the fully articulated ideal of the idea that education should enrich our human experience, fitting us primarily for a life well lived, rather than for the specifics of a living.  I’m intrigued, though, that Harpham brings out this ethos not only as characterizing the curricular choices and the spiritual, ethical and cultural teloi of the undergraduate [side note, we no longer would use a word like teloi; we would invoke learning objectives];  more than that, this ethos characterizes the faculty and their understanding of their role in the life of the mind.

Moreover, the institution devoted to producing Newman’s protege bears little resemblance to today’s institutions of higher learning. Newman’s idea of a university had no room for either specialized or comprehensive knowledge, and the professors who taught there should, he fervently believed-it is the very first statement in the book-have nothing to do with research, an obsessive activity best conducted by those whose minds were too sadly contracted to engage in full life. …

Newman intuitively understood that the real threat to liberal education in his own time was not the shade of Locke but the spirit of research then crescent in Germany. By the end of the nineteenth century, the United States had begun to Germanize its academy, with some university faculties organizing themselves into departments that granted degrees that came to constitute credentials. With credentialing came professionalism, and with professionalism growth. President Lawrence Lowell of Harvard (1909-33) laid the foundation for Harvard’s eminence as a research powerhouse by encouraging his faculty to think of themselves as professionals.4 This meant adopting impersonal criteria of scholarly competence within each discipline, cultivating a spirit of empirical and methodological rigor, and coming to agreement about what would count as standards of achievement in a small, self-certifying group of mandarins

The new professionalism functioned as a way of insulating the university from extra-academic pressures by creating a separate world of academe that could be judged only by its own standards. But professionalism was accompanied by its dark familiars, partition and competition. A professionalized faculty was a faculty divided into units, each claiming considerable autonomy in matters of hiring and promotion, and competing with other units for salaries, students, office space, and prestige. Such competition naturally placed some stress on amity, and so while undergraduates were expected to enjoy four stress-free years in the groves of academe, the faculty in the same institutions were facing the prospect of going at it hammer and tong, competing with each other virtually face to face, for the rest of their lives.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (pp. 127-128). Kindle Edition.

This seems about right to me, and it might pass without comment, but it raises a troubling contradiction.  In most of the strong defenses of the liberal arts that I hear, the notion that faculty should abandon research or that the fullness of the liberal arts spirit is best embodied by a faculty full of generalists is never among them.  Indeed, quite the opposite.  We want an institution to display its commitment to the liberal arts precisely by giving more support to faculty research so that faculty can become more and more specialized, more fully recognized in their professional disciplines, more disconnected from the immediacy of their liberal arts institutions, and less able to exemplify the generalist qualities that we say we value as fully humanizing.

What this argument for the liberal arts wants (I’m not saying there aren’t other arguments), is a research university, or at least a research college, with a commitment to research in the liberal arts and all the prestige that entails.  What we definitely do not want to do is give up the right to writing books that no one wants to read so that we can demonstrate our particularly specialized knowledge.

The faculty, as Harpham recognizes, is fully professionalized, and in many respects in the liberal arts we have created specialized professional programs, imagining that our students are professors in embryo.  The college major is now, in many respects, a professional program ,and it is worth noting that the idea of a college major is coextensive with the advent of the research university.  Indeed, I have heard the argument that we should have much larger majors in the humanities than we do have because the size of the major is a measure of its prestige in the college, competing then as it would with the gargantuan programs in engineering, nursing, and many of the hard sciences, programs that students can barely finish in four years, if they can.  So much for our sentimental sop about the value of breadth of mind and spirit.

Can a research faculty that shows no real interest in giving up the ideals of research exemplify and support a genuine liberal arts ethos in an American college today (leaving aside the question of whether liberal arts colleges will survive at all)? I am not sure what the route out of this conundrum actually is.  I stopped in the middle of Harpham’s chapter where he actually has just noted that faculty in the liberal arts are essentially professionals and conceive of themselves as professionals in ways quite similar to their brethren in professional programs.  I am not sure where he is going with that insight, but I look forward to finding out.

What is the Digital Humanities and Where can I get some of it?

As I’ve started listening in on Digital Humanities conversations over the past 12 to 18 months, and especially in the last three or four months as I’ve gotten more fully onto Twitter and understood its potential for academics, I’ve realized that I am mostly just a bobbing rubber duck in a great wave of ignorant interest in Digital Humanities.  “What is this thing, Digital Humanities, and where can I get some of it?”  seems to be a general hue and cry, and I’ve added my own voice to the mix.  Some of that wave is no doubt driven by the general malaise that seems to be afflicting the humanistic ecosystem, and mid-career academics look back with rose-colored nostalgia to culture wars of the 80s when our classes were full and our conflicts were played out in middle-brow journals so we could feel self-important.  Maybe digital humanities will make us relevant again and keep our budgets from getting cut.

On the other hand, I think that most people recognize that many different aspects of digital humanities practice seem to coalesce and provide responses to driving forces in academe at the moment:  our students’ need for technical proficiency, the increasingly porous border between distanced and bricks and mortar instruction, the needs to connect effectively with the public while maintaining high standards of academic rigor, the need for our students to be involved in “real world” experiential learning, the effort to provide opportunities for serious and original undergraduate research, the need to support collaborative forms of learning.

I have been terribly impressed with the generosity of Digital Humanities folks in responding to these repeated pleas to “Show me how to do like you.  Show me how to do it.”   There’s been a lot of different things I’ve discovered over the past year, and as many more than have been put out.  The most recent is a bibliographic blog compiled by Matthew Huculak.  As with any bibliography it is an act of interpretation. There are inclusions I’ve not seen elsewhere–Franco Moretti’s book on data in literary studies was on the list and is now on mine. [Though I admit this is at least as much because I had Moretti as a prof while a grad student at Duke, the same semester I completed my first essay ever on a Macintosh computer].  The blog skews toward the literary–and I have increasingly realized that while there is this strong discourse of solidarity among digital humanists, the traditional disciplinary divisions still play a strong role in much of the practical work that is actually done.  DH’ers have conferences together but it’s not always clear that they work together on projects across their humanistic disciplines. There are also obviously omissions (I thought that the new Journal of the Digital Humanities should have made the list).

My larger concern though is that I’m actually beginning to feel that there may actually be a glut of introductory materials, so many different possible things to do at the beginning that it is actually impossible to point to a place and say, “this is where to start.”  To some degree on this score the Digital Humanities are reflecting what Geoffrey Harpham has indicated is a basic feature of the Humanities in general.

In a great many colleges and universities, there is no “Intro to English” class at all, because there is no agreement among the faculty on what constitutes a proper introduction to a field in which the goals, methods, basic concepts, and even objects are so loosely defined, and in which individual subjective experience plays such a large part. This lack of consensus has sometimes been lamented, but has never been considered a serious problem.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham. The Humanities and the Dream of America (p. 101). Kindle Edition.

The details don’t quite apply.  I’m not entirely sure individual subjective experience is at the heart of DH work, and that is one of the biggest bones of contention with DH work as it has been reflected in English departments (see my reflections on Fish and his comments on DH in yesterdays post).  But I do think the general pragmatic feel of humanities departments where you can begin almost anywhere, which is in stark contrast to the methodical and even rigid approach to immersing students in the STEM disciplines, may be characteristic of DH as well.  Start where you are and get where you want to go.

In reading Harpham, I was reminded of one of Stanley Fish’s essays, which one I forget, in which he talks about the best way to introduce students to literary criticism is not to give them a theory, but to give them examples and say “Go thou and do likewise”.  I’m increasingly feeling this is the case for the Digital Humanities.  Figure out what seems appealing to you, and then figure out what you have to figure out so you can do like that.