Robert B. Tapp
This is a story about memory, cultural memory. How it is created, and distorted, and destroyed. And it is therefore a cautionary tale about the state of American higher education in some departments, disciplines, and research areas.
The University of Minnesota created a Humanities Program in 1950. This was one of the first such programs in US universities, and reflected the post-war situation--veterans flooding back to universities with wide experience and a need to base it in larger intellectual contexts and the need of faculties to recommit to a less immediately-practicable curriculum. While these often came into tension, there was a move to establish "general education"/"civilization"/"world history"/"great books" courses. Proponents of each were critical of the other approaches, but a clear mood was to broaden, deepen, and universalize some kind of educational core.
Minnesota created core courses in American Studies, Social Science, and Humanities. In the latter case Prof. Ralph Ross was called from New York University to build a number of courses using existing faculty. Soon the need for new faculty was apparent, and he was empowered to hire them. Such young scholars as Alburey Castell, Isaac Rosenfeld, John Berryman, Delmore Schwartz, Benjamin Nelson, and Allen Tate moved through Minneapolis, almost always with some connection to the Humanities Program.
Since there was also an American Studies Program (again one of the first in the US), the Humanities Program focused on Western and European civilization. A series of courses were built on Greek, Roman, and European civilizations. Minnesota used a quarter system with a typical 15-hour load as full time. Humanities eventually offered 10 5-credit courses in its sequence. A major would thus take a basic 50 (out of 180) credits in the core sequence alone. These courses were chronological ("epochal") and had to be taken in sequence. They focused on primary texts in translation. They were also multidisciplinary, and faculty were recruited on the basis of demonstrated ability and willingness to move beyond disciplinary boundaries. The courses included materials of music and visual arts, literature, history, philosophy, religion. In many cases faculty were hired with joint appointments in some disciplinary departments. Some eventually chose to move fully into a specialized form of teaching/research; the majority chose to stay within the interdisciplinary mode.
As a research university, Minnesota was stressing scholarly publication, and this inevitably created tensions. Diverse units of the University (business, nursing, agriculture) began to require some Humanities courses of their majors, and enrollments increased to the extent that many advanced graduate students were called in to help with teaching. The predictable then became inevitable, the Humanities Program became the third largest in a College of Liberal Arts of 30-plus departments. With the financial attrition starting in the 1970's, the knives from other departments began to show. The Program was put into "receivership" in 1972, meaning that its governance was assumed by an outside "advisory committee." Under this pressure, the Program dropped all non-Ph.D. teaching faculty, and sharply curtailed course offerings. In subsequent enrollment tallies it had dropped from third-largest to fourteenth. A new chair was brought in from outside, and I was appointed 50% to the Program (with my other half in Religious Studies).
In this new situation, the Program was given some new funds for new faculty. Junior appointments were made in musical iconography, comparative civilization (2), architectural history, cultural theory, and anthropology. Each of these persons was hired with the understanding that half of their teaching effort would be in "core" courses and the other half could be more specialized. The core courses were offered without prerequisites of chronologically previous courses. This addition/replacement of 8 new faculty in just a few years, coupled with several retirements, set the stage for the transformation that is the subject of this essay.
The changes I plan to describe must be seen against a larger backdrop of American higher education. It was becoming more universal in the sense of enrolling larger cohorts of young Americans. On the other hand it was becoming more parochial in the creation of stratified levels of schools, and in the lowering of pre-college standards and achievements. Since the Eisenhower years, the "business of America had become business," and this meant a focus on "practical arts" to the detriment of "liberal arts." Most importantly, perhaps, was the steady drop in professors' real incomes after 1970. This dropping of income, plus the tenuring of many who had been attracted to teaching during the turbulent 1960s, meant a "radicalizing" of the professoriate in many varied directions. The net effect, however, was a real constriction of most programs in the liberal arts. As money dried up, departments were forced into cannibalistic stances toward other departments, and the inevitable victims were some of the newer innovations (somewhat of a last hired, first fired principle). Where the Viet Nam experience had revealed the country's fateful naiveté of oriental cultures, universities had once responded by non-Western departments and area studies units. The Humanities Program had added 2-quarter sequences on Israel, India, and China, and a course on modern Greece.
All of these were multidisciplinary courses parallel to the original Western culture courses, epochal and stressing primary sources (in translation). During the 70s and 80s, Humanities had developed a number of exchange-agreements whereby its own faculty could teach in their own disciplinary departments and members of other departments who wanted to offer more multidisciplinary courses could do so under the Humanities umbrella.
In addition, a new introductory course was created, Life of the Mind. Most of the faculty offered a section of this course which explored humanistic genre by examples from poetry, drama, art, philosophy, science, music.
The core Humanities faculty by this time was quite diverse, both in intellectual pursuit and in ideological flavors. Specialties ranged from medieval Chinese poetry to French structuralism, from musical iconography to architectural history. One faculty office sported a full-size Lenin poster, one member spent summers maintaining status with Army Intelligence. Curricular debates were lively. A memorable one dealt with whether the first in a new series of seminars should focus on Richard Wagner.
There was a steady flow of majors, and a large contingent of students from other fields taking Humanities courses either to fulfill breadth requirements or to meet their own needs. The Humanities faculty remained productive, three members received Guggenheim grants during the period (a far better showing than any other department), and all seemed well.
Beneath the Surfaces
Beneath the surface, however, trouble was brewing. For one thing, the Program offered no graduate degrees. While most of the faculty taught in other departments with graduate programs, such arrangements were less than satisfactory. This non-graduate status also, in a time of growing financial stringency, made the Program vulnerable. Old rivals could again argue that "service" units should receive less of the shrinking pie than "graduate research" units.
During an external program review, the creation of a graduate program in the humanities had been explored, but there was only limited internal enthusiasm and limited support from the college and its dean.
A series of changes, some planned and others simply reactive, preceded the demise of the department. Resignations, retirements, and death had shifted power, and the position of chair, to the younger members of the faculty. A new proposal for a graduate Ph.D. unit emerged, excluding some Humanities faculty and including faculty from other units. Minnesota has no separate graduate faculty, and interdepartmental units are not uncommon. In times of financial stringencies, however, some fancy bookkeeping was required. The proposal stated that "no additional faculty would be required." Since present faculty were already quite fully committed, this was implausible, but it was never seriously questioned. The proposal embodied a sharp departure from the curriculum of the existing Humanities Department, however, with a good deal of argumentation that the undergraduate curriculum was "too celebrative" and lacked any critical position. Several loud dissents were raised within the department, but the proposal went forward through a series of reviews. Originally to be a "Culture and Society" degree, a number of other departments saw their turf to be endangered. (In fact, coming from a group of self-proclaimed anti-imperialists, such a title staked out an all-time imperialist domain!)
The proposal had strong support from the then-dean who claimed to favor innovations, and the proposal, when renamed "Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society," was approved. At about this time, the Humanities chair announced that diversity within a department spelled doom, and that the most "successful" academic departments in the land (under this new dispensation) were essentially homogenous, ideologically.
A series of subsequent steps, detailed below, led to the abolition of the Humanities Department at Minnesota. Some of these were planned steps, others were simply reactive. But the net effect was the death of Humanities.
Throughout the history of the department, faculty from other departments had taught Humanities courses. This was a result of joint appointments, and temporary joint appointments when other departments did not have sufficient hiring funds and Humanities did. In other cases, faculty members preferred to do some of their teaching in Humanities where they could be more interdisciplinary than they could in their home departments. Unless there was a shared salary, however, such persons did not vote on Humanities policies. Temporary faculty, however, could vote under the new constitution of the reorganized department.
The creation of a graduate unit for Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society (CSDS) changed all this. New courses for this graduate curriculum were sometimes considered "advanced" undergraduate courses, and those who taught them from other departments were given full voting status.
Clearly the new graduate curriculum required new courses. One way to create these was by borrowed faculty; the other was to reduce the undergraduate component of Department members' teaching loads. Minnesota being a research university meant that faculty spent fewer hours in the classroom than their colleagues in 4-year colleges and community colleges. Humanities faculty typically taught 2 courses in each of the 3 quarters of the year, for an annual total of 6. It was voted to drop the annual total to 5. While freeing research time for the faculty, this inexorably reduced the number of courses that could be offered each quarter.
Further to free time, the faculty voted to shift the lower-level core courses from 5 credits to 4. The official reason was to bring the classroom hours more in line with the rest of the college where 4 was the standard module. But an effect was to reduce classroom time for the faculty.
The faculty responded to this by eliminating the upper-level core courses. Until this change, most of the 10 basic courses were separately offered at "lower" levels (in large classes) and "upper" levels (in considerably smaller classes). This was partly because the college required a certain number of "upper-level" courses. The reason given was to free faculty time for other courses.
On the claim that many of the courses listed in the catalogue were no longer reflective of current faculty strengths and desires, a motion was now passed to "abolish" all present listings and submit new course proposals. Members were to do this after the coming summer break. These new courses would be submitted to an appropriate departmental committee.
A new rhetoric was emerging among the faculty members affiliated with the graduate program in Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society. This was a reshaping of the undergraduate Humanities program to reflect the graduate program. One might note that when the original graduate program was being proposed, the department chair asked the college's review council to rename also the undergraduate program, and this was voted down.
Within the faculty, however, there was a majority sympathy for this kind of shift, and a crucial vote ensued. It was voted to abolish all of the core/sequence courses that remained. The primary departmental faculty passed this 5 to 2.
It quickly became clear that none of the core courses were to be resubmitted to this committee, and that any new courses resembling them would not be approved.
When the committee met in the fall to review new courses, the pattern of the future became clearer. One faculty member had 4 of 5 courses rejected; another did better with 2 of 4. Following this meeting, these two professors protested to the dean that their academic freedom was being abridged in that they were not being permitted to teach courses for which they were prepared and for which there was evident demand. The dean concurred, and at an emergency meeting the faculty majority, amid vociferous protests, reversed its vote. This left every faculty member free to offer previous courses or to propose new courses even though they failed to pass a postmodern screening.
For a decade, the department had offered, in small discussion-type sections, an introductory course titled Life of the Mind. Different genre from different epochs were used to introduce students to materials in art, poetry, science, philosophy, literature, and religion.
The new faculty majority proclaimed this course obsolete, and replaced it with a sequence of 3 new courses. The previous policy of "only Ph.D.s" teaching was reversed, and graduate students recruited exclusively from the Comparative Studies in Discourse and Society were slated to handle these courses. These new courses were titled Discourse and Society, Text and Context, and Knowledge, Persuasion, Power. Prospective majors would be expected to take at least one of these introductory courses. In addition, the new courses that were accepted by he committee were restructured into a new set of major requirements that excluded civilizational courses even if students had already taken them.
At this point it was clear that the civilizational courses would soon be dead. The faculty members who had effected the changes opted out of teaching them, and the new major excluded them. By the nature of the materials to be covered in the new introductory courses, humanities would have a very different look.
The two dissident members decided to go public at this point (a third member who had opposed the change chose to shift tenure into the other department of his joint appointment). Going public meant an explanatory letter describing the sweeping changes and a petition addressed to the college dean asking that the department be charged with maintaining the civilizational courses which had been its hallmark, and which were required by many other majors in the college and in the larger university. These petitions went to all 3,500 members of the University faculty.
Across the land questions were being raised about the appropriateness of requiring courses in Western civilization. Minnesota's situation differed somewhat in the breadth and depth of its offerings and the fact that even Humanities majors had options, as long as they did something in the ancient world and something in the modern world. Non-majors were free to select within the 10 courses. They could focus on the industrial revolution or the modern world, Greece or Rome--as well as epochs between.
The larger question was the responsibility of a university to let its students discover where they were in human history, and do so in some depth and with some measure of objectivity. Karl Marx, Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Thomas Paine (for instance) deserve to be read/heard with attention. Western they are, congruent they are not.
The curricular changes had to be approved by two college committees. Given the widespread interest generated by the petition and newspaper coverage, this February 13, 1990 meeting was attended by college deans and partisans of both sides. By this time over 100 faculty members had signed the petition calling for the retention of civilizational courses, including Western civilization.
Debate at that meeting was intense. The Humanities chair began by describing the proposed changes as reflecting the greatest intellectual shift since Galilei. Western civilization, he said, was now realized to have consisted largely of racism and imperialism. He stated that if the College, through its committees, instructed the continuation of the civilizational courses, some other department would have to take them over since the majority of his faculty refused to teach them any longer. The committees adjourned without taking any definitive actions.
Parallel debates were taking place within the Minnesota Student Association. One veteran of many humanities courses was pushing a petition for students to boycott the department's courses until civilizational courses were reinstated and fully staffed.
Six days later, the chair of the Humanities Department called an emergency meeting. He said the decision to drop civilizational courses would have to be reversed, and the faculty so voted. Until deans and other actors write memoirs, the reasons behind this reversal remain opaque. The heretofor-triumphant faculty majority were naturally embittered.
The faculty then voted on a two-track system for undergraduate majors. All would take the new introductory course. But students (including present majors) could choose from a "traditional" sequence or select from the "new" offerings. Honest recruiting was promised so that students could choose freely which way to go.
Closing of Department
It was clear that future scheduling would not allow full treatment of the civilizational courses along with many of the newly-proposed courses. Students were about equally split in choosing the old and new majors. Nevertheless, all were surprised when a new dean, in October 1991, announced the closing of the Humanities Department (along with the Linguistics Department). Faculty, it was said, were tenured in the university rather than single departments, so only untenured positions were at risk. Faculty were encouraged to seek other departmental homes. This decision was ratified by the college Assembly, with a majority there apparently holding that some departments would have to be closed anyway, so it might as well be these two. The dean's argument was that "most" of what the Humanities Department offered could be offered elsewhere. Since a majority of the Humanities faculty now favored the term "cultural studies," this may have been true.
The minority faculty again circulated a petition throughout the university, asking the Regents (who had ultimate power to approve the closings) to preserve the sequence of Western civilizational courses somehow. There were again over 100 faculty signatories to this position.
The department closed officially in June 1992. Students majors, of course, were to be allowed to complete their degrees on whichever track they had chosen by taking alternative courses.
The faculty was to have been dispersed into various departments, but most of the former majority were finally allowed to merge with another unit into Cultural Studies and Comparative Literature.
Lessons from Rhetorical Pegs
The University of Minnesota chronicle, here rehearsed in some detail, parallels events on many other campuses. More was at stake here since a sizable department was destroyed. But the arguments and ideologies involved have been pervasive.
There are, we contend, lessons herein for Humanists of the kind associated with the North American Committee for Humanism. The central issue is what has come to be called the "Enlightenment project," with its focus on nature, science, revolution, and human rationality. The more conservative "academic" humanists might not choose to defend these, but that is a different story--for a different occasion. What continues to be instructive (we would prefer a stronger term: our kind of Humanists will ignore these at their dire peril) is the overlapping rhetorical tropes used to attack Western civilization generally, and its Enlightenment outburst specifically.
Many of the terms listed below have become shibboleths for recognition as a proper postmodernist. Some will probably pass quickly, others may well last--often for good reason. Taken together at Minnesota, however, they reflected a total transformation in the ways humanities were viewed. As an aside, it is fascinat-ing but certainly not significant that so many of them are Latinate replacements for more traditional analytical conceptualizations. Or maybe we should say Latinate via Gaul.
In a very short time, humanists replaced "books" with "texts" and the latter with "discourse." Since a smile or frown is a form of discourse, the scholarly attention spectrum was widened considerably. The older restriction to books was straightforward since everyone took manuscripts to be included. Moving to text included a variety of speech acts, and semiotics became a byword. Discourse is even more of a catchall, since it shifts the focus from object to agent, from speech to actor. This makes relativization even easier, since all discursive practices are in some sense equal. Any distinctions between "high" and "low" cultures disappears, including the border Dwight MacDonald once tried to draw around "midcult."
Nietzsche's term, filtered through Foucault, takes on a more specific meaning than it had for nineteenth-century philosophical naturalisms (Foucault 1970, 1988). Body is the place where discourse is effected/written; where the disciplines of cultures are wrought. Body is also the site of pleasure in a more Freudian sense. Where American naturalists in the John Dewey camp had struggled to rethink the place of the "mental' without recourse to any dualisms, postmodernisms have settled for a more simplistic reductionism.
Since relationships between persons and particularly groups of persons are based on power, living continually involves a struggle for power by those who have less. Issues are always being contested, and the underdogs are continually trying to subvert the overdogs. The new humanities would focus on this contest.
Curiously, this was the strategy of many of the earlier movements now called modernist, although often framed more in terms of taste than power. It is one thing to shock the bourgeoisie, another to unseat them.
The powerful, of course, resist subversion and seek ways to maintain their power. This is the maintenance of hegemony
Kant's distinction between the noumenal and phenomenal realms was a major turn in philosophy, since it denied the possibility of access to things-in-themselves. Earlier Westerners had distinguished between appearance and reality, between substance and accidents. In Kant's view, the function of critical intelligence was to recomplete the linkage between sensory perception and theoretical understanding, rescuing the scientific enterprise from Humean skepticism. Postmodernists have revived a slightly different form of that skepticism. All is representation, with humans in the position of being representors. Scientific consensus is typically rejected by reference to the shifting of paradigms (an inference Thomas Kuhn has sharply rejected (Kuhn, 1970)). Another work often cited (more by title than substance) is Berger and Luckman's The Social Construction of Reality (Berger & Luckmann, 1966).
Lyotard's writings have been the most vocal in rejecting the idea that any clear narrative can be discerned in studying the past (Lyotard, 1984). Instead, he says, there are many problematic "X's" that can only be viewed successively. No narrative can really tie them together. Darwin's narrative account, and the Biblical accounts of settling Palestine, must both be viewed as examples--fabrications created in the heat of crises to make a point so clearly that the readers will assume it to have happened, somewhere and someplace.
This mantram was adopted by Minnesota's liberal arts screening committees, a condition widespread in universities of the 1980s. New courses were screened to be sure they took sufficient account of these conditioning factors. Had the Humanities curriculum had remained unchanged since the 1950s, this would have been a valid charge. Particularly the first fruits of women's studies, in which Minnesota had been a pioneer, recovered many important contributors to human culture. Faculty were free, and exercised those freedoms to incorporate and revise their courses.
Within the department, however, this litany took on a shriller tone in the 1980s. Previous periods in history were claimed, by definition, to fall short on these measures (i.e. to be racist, sexist, and classist) and therefore only worthy of attention to illustrate these shortcomings. One of the manifestoes defending the new curriculum was circulated to other departments. One faculty member wrote a thoughtful critique to the chair of his department which was (inadvertently?) circulated, claiming that "the barbarians are at the gates," and that a destructive self-righteousness characterized the new curriculum.
Another catchword in these debates was that cultural products had to be "historically situated." In one sense, only the most ardent "great books" approach defenders could have demurred. But the practical meaning of situating was to characterize the particular blindnesses of a place and time and then to show ways in which these inexorably colored and essentially vitiated all cultural productions.
By referring to "cultural productions," proponents of the changes moved closer to denigrating the role of individual creativity. Ironically, this made it harder to see certain cultural productions as being subversive of the cultures that produced them. Hegel would have been shocked by this vulgarization of his dialectics.
This otherwise useful verb came to mean, in these debates, that every "product" being examined had to be shown as reflecting the problems and contradictions of its historical and cultural situation.
In the earlier stages of this revisionism, several members of the faculty were enamored of this German import. Taken crudely, it suggested that the meaning of an object was in the eyes of its beholders. Since this varied with time and place, no intrinsic meaning was available to any inquirer. A point worth taking seriously, but hardly a useful pivot to reconstruct a curriculum.
Much more central to earlier proposals for reconstruction was the work of the Frankfurt school. Theodore Adorno's critique of the Enlightenment became a text in several new courses, and Walter Benjamin's animadversions on art in an age of technology became de rigeur.
The theoretical underpinnings were strongly informed by Frederic Jameson's use of "late capitalism" as an explanatory category (Jameson, 1989). Since the self-proclaimed "socialist" world of Eastern Europe and the USSR was self-destructing at the very time Minnesota's cultural debates were taking place, Jameson provided a more respectable ally. Graduate students, however, were actively recruiting to their Marxist study group. One was reminded of Todd Gitlin's crack that the Marxists struggled to control the English departments while the Republicans actually controlled the White House (Gitlin, 1995).
An interesting footnote here. At Minnesota, and in many other situations nationally, traditional as well as orthodox Marxists have opposed postmodernisms. They have seen them as rejecting scientific objectivity and historical analysis. Since many socialists who had opposed the USSR/East European Marxism as aberrant, neo-Marxist was once a useful designation. Perhaps then the tradition that we have been describing should better be labelled "post-neoMarxist."
Not only the troubled situation of the Humanities Department but the financial stringencies of public universities made it unlikely that any new faculty appointments would be possible in the near future. Nevertheless the majority of the Humanities faculty asked for a position in "political economy of the arts," using this clear code word to pre-screen any group of applicants.
Curiously enough, this term was seldom used by the partisans of change. Instead, they contended that the humanities were being transformed on a world scale, and that Minnesota should fall in step. The chair of the Humanities Department even opined that this was the greatest revolution since Copernicus! This same professor, a specialist in art and architectural history, also was widely quoted for an unusual voicing of modesty when he said Who am I to criticize my neighbor for his painted-velvet living room picture of 4 dogs playing poker. (A voice in the rear said, If not you, who?)
Certain postmodern features were apparent throughout the controversy, however. A consistent relativism operated on two levels: all cultural objects were relative to their place in space and time, and all current judgments about a particular object were relative to the judges. Another Humanities faculty member said that the old curriculum existed simply to train students to go to the theater and to the art museum. This refusal to draw lines fed into the gleeful erasure of any lines between "high" and "low" culture.
The Humanities and Humanism
This dismal case history has been recounted in some detail, because it needs to be put on record, and because it points up some of the necessary relationships between the humanities and humanism--in the varied meaning of that term for secular and for religious Humanists of the kinds found within the North American Committee for Humanism.
From Horace on, humanists have sought to discover and understand whatever it is that our species has done on this planet. Ideological screenings of what is worth knowing deprive us of much of such knowledge, and give us a false sense of superiority which further strangles inquiry.
We need continually to ask how peoples have viewed what they have done and made, what criteria of excellence they have come to employ, what standards of beauty and the like. We ourselves must never retreat from making our own such judgments, knowing that they may well need revisions but must never be abandoned.
Humanists owe so much to the Enlightenment that it almost seems unnecessary to call them to the defense of science and rationality. But these are now under serious attack, and Humanists must do their homework to see that our fellow-citizens understand what is at stake. A good starting point would be the treatment of the is-sues by two scientists who took three years away from their benches to probe the assault (Gross & Levitt, 1994).
The sciences, valuable as they are, are not enough, and a self-conscious Humanism will remind us all that there are vast differences between "what is the case" (a matter for the sciences) and "what has been changed/created by humans." That latter is the realm of the humanities--which of course include our religions and our philosophies in many of their concerns. This naturalistic humanism will focus on the continuing issue of which things of the past need to be preserved and which abandoned. In so doing, it will articulate what we yet have to do in bringing about a more human and humane world. Lynne Cheney's new book articulates this well:There is a wisdom about things that really matter to be found in the humanities--a sense of how life could be different and why it is like it is; a sense of what greatness is, and excellence, and how these qualities have ennobled the world; a sense of where we stand in the progression of time and of how those who came before us delighted in the joy and dealt with the sorrow our own journey will surely bring.
Nothing is more important to human history than the preservation/improvement of the democratic culture that is evolving in the United States. And nothing is more important to that culture than its educational enterprises. Public education hinges upon the continued vitality of our higher educational echelon and that echelon is in dire straits at this moment. Financial stringencies will not only squeeze the humanities but further embitter its embattled practitioners.
Naturalistic Humanists need to ally themselves with those forces insisting that the job of history is to speak with honesty. If they do not, the right to know becomes emptied. And any discussions of any duty to know become vapid. Humanists, above all, know that the latest is not always the best. And the best of our humanist forebears have know that power is not political or military but resides in truth alone. We may differ with the Milton's in our grounding of truth, but we share his deep conviction that it indeed has a ground. Yes, a transcultural ground. Crushed to earth it will rise again. The poet also meant that persons of truth must nurture truths until that re-arising.
© 1997 by the North American Committee for Humanism (NACH) All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book, or portions thereof in any form, including electronic media, except for the inclusion of brief quotations in a review.
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