The Humanities and the Dream of America
by Geoffrey Galt Harpham
University of Chicago Press, 2011
Cloth: 978-0-226-31697-0 | Paper: 978-0-226-31699-4 | Electronic: 978-0-226-31701-4
ABOUT THIS BOOKAUTHOR BIOGRAPHYREVIEWSTABLE OF CONTENTS

ABOUT THIS BOOK

In this bracing and original book, Geoffrey Galt Harpham argues that today’s humanities are an invention of the American academy in the years following World War II, when they were first conceived as an expression of American culture and an instrument of American national interests. The humanities portray a “dream of America” in two senses: they represent an aspiration of Americans since the first days of the Republic for a state so secure and prosperous that people could enjoy and appreciate culture for its own sake; and they embody in academic terms an idealized conception of the American national character.  Although they are struggling to retain their status in America, the concept of the humanities has spread to other parts of the world and remains one of America's most distinctive and valuable contributions to higher education.

 

The Humanities and the Dream of America explores a number of linked problems that have emerged in recent years: the role, at once inspiring and disturbing, played by philology in the formation of the humanities; the reasons for the humanities’ perpetual state of “crisis”; the shaping role of philanthropy in the humanities; and the new possibilities for literary study offered by the subject of pleasure. Framed by essays that draw on Harpham’s pedagogical experiences abroad and as a lecturer at the U.S. Air Force Academy, as well as his vantage as director of the National Humanities Center, this book provides an essential perspective on the history, ideology, and future of this important topic.

AUTHOR BIOGRAPHY

Geoffrey Galt Harpham is president and director of the National Humanities Center. He is the author of many books, including, most recently, The Character of Criticism.

REVIEWS

The Humanities and the Dream of America offers a compelling account of what’s been happening to the humanities and why we should care about it—and them. What the humanities can do for us—and it is a lot!—is intimately dependent on our personal judgment about what we ought to do. Geoffrey Galt Harpham very convincingly shows the richness of the American project named in the term, which he eloquently glosses as the business of ‘the disciplines that speak of the human.’ Persuasive, rich, and worth debating with, this extremely readable book will be picked up by politicians, scholars, and the general public alike. There is nothing else like it out there.”

— Michael Wood, Princeton University

“This is a rich and significant collection of essays on the state of the humanities, the nature of teaching and research, the history and social function of the university, and the place of books in our contemporary experience. The Humanities and the Dream of America is a book that readers will engage with, argue against, agree and disagree with—but above all else, it is a book that readers will have to take very seriously.”
— Seth Lerer, University of California, San Diego

TABLE OF CONTENTS

- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0001
[humanities, self-understanding, humanists, disciplines, knowledge]
The often idealizing and universalizing discourse of the humanities obscures the drama of their appearance in the tumultuous interwar period and their consolidation as a discourse of crisis in the immediate aftermath of World War II. The humanities do not own the project of human self understanding; by long-standing convention, they merely supervise it. Human self-understanding can pursue many paths. Advances in computer science, genetic engineering, evolutionary biology, and neuroscience have contributed immensely to the understanding of fundamental human capabilities and faculties, and this rumbling avalanche of facts and theories is not just adding to the sum of knowledge but changing the nature of the disciplines, and the relationship of discipline to discipline. Humanists now face the disconcerting but exciting prospect of watching their subject mutate before their eyes. (pages 1 - 20)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0002
[humanities, crisis, scholars, community, self-doubt]
The category of the humanities seems even to humanists themselves a mere administrative convenience, a kind of phantom entity rather than a real principle of identity; and like all things administrative, it is resisted with indifference. Crisis has become simply incorporated into the most accustomed ways in which humanistic scholars understand themselves and their work. The crisis is the rationale in that some scholars seem less interested in exposing students to the wisdom of the ages, the magic of art, and the rigors of history than they are in being observed in a dramatic, and sometimes entertaining, state of self-doubt. A clearly articulated rationale for humanistic inquiry would, however, help displace the attention from the professor to the profession, and also to focus the profession's attention on the community whose support it seeks and whose long-term interests it aspires to serve. The underlying aim of humanistic study is always to construct, through the materials provided by the text, an understanding of a human intention, an account of how and why this particular text came to be the way it is, and the conditions under which the text emerged. (pages 21 - 42)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0003
[philosophy, language, races, culture, evolution]
Philology was understood in very different terms, not as an empirical study of a limited field but as a speculative undertaking oriented toward deep time and distant things. Philology became new or modern when it found a way to conjoin a limited empiricism to a speculative practice with no limits at all, when it discovered a route that led from the close study of the text to the language of the text, and from there to the author, the culture the author inhabited, other cultures, the origins of cultures, and finally to human origins and the mysteries surrounding those origins. Philology thus provided invaluable support to the theory of evolution. The effect of this collaboration was to create the appearance of a powerful scientific consensus around the proposition that the deepest mysteries of language and species were capable of being solved through the application of genealogy. (pages 43 - 79)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0004
[humanities, renaissance, religion, modernity, humankind]
The humanities seem to be so pacific, benign, meditative, enlightening, and enriching. The very notion of a crisis seems like a tragic interference in the noble mission of the humanities, whose interests are essentially identical to those of humankind. But the history of the humanities is a history of struggle, characteristically involving some ambivalence or uncertainty about the consequences of modernity. Renaissance humanism is often depicted as a modernizing movement dedicated to the promotion of individual autonomy, self-realization, and interpretation against traditional sources of authority. The interests of the humanities and religion converge on a number of issues, perhaps the most significant of which is the role of values and attitudes in shaping knowledge. The history of the humanities teaches that tradition is, among other things, an excellent springboard for innovation and progress. (pages 80 - 98)
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    University Press Scholarship Online

- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0005
[literary, pleasure, humanistic disciplines, humanism, self-communion]
Literary study is different. There is no smooth natural progression from an undergraduate encounter with literature up to the professorial level. Students are encouraged to develop the ability to say things about literary texts that are meaningful to them in a way that others might find persuasive, in the conviction that argumentation as such is a valuable skill. Critical humanism prepared the way for a wave of European antihumanism in the forms of structuralism, poststructuralism, and deconstruction. The humanistic disciplines of literary criticism and literary history seemed woefully undisciplined, and seemed to shrink under its stern gaze. The assumption appears to be that the pleasure of literature is based on self-communion and self-confirmation. Literary pleasure is a subject worthy of inquiry. It may be a gift to be simple, but literary or aesthetic pleasure is not simple at all. (pages 99 - 122)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0006
[liberal arts, professional education, literature, leadership, integration]
The differences between the liberal arts and professional education can be financial and political as well as moral. New area of potential collaborative pedagogy and scholarship has emerged under the aegis of the concept of leadership, a phenomenon by which literature, psychology, history, and cinema have always been utterly bewitched. One of the primary goals of traditional liberal arts education was the cultivation of leadership. Many academics today are pessimistic about the prospects for a successful integration of liberal and professional education. Professional education should be construed as a valuable component in an educational system that included among its goals the preparation of some people to assume leadership positions in the professions. An educational system that managed to broker imaginative and intellectually serious partnerships between the liberal arts and professional education would be the envy of the world. It would also be profoundly American in the very best sense. (pages 123 - 144)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0007
[humanities, nation building, society, individuality, cultural inheritance]
An active interest in the humanities was the culmination of and reward for successful nation-building. The goal toward which the entire nation strove, therefore, was a state of tranquility in which immediate needs had been met, internal opposition calmed, and external threats held at bay—a society whose citizens might explore at leisure the record of the past, seek fulfillment on their own terms, and enjoy in a disinterested spirit the pleasures of the arts. A society comprising individuals who both value their own lives and have the capacity to value the lives of others will in all probability be more creative, dynamic, and responsible than a society of managers, technicians, and engineers, as valuable as those professions are. It is in the humanities classroom that students are inspired, that the emotions as well as the rational intellect are engaged, that abstract values are shown being tested in action; and it is in the historical and literary texts studied in the humanities that students encounter instructive images of mastery and wisdom. The humanities sustain this second conception of individuality, as deeply rooted as the other in cultural inheritance. (pages 145 - 190)
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- Geoffrey Galt Harpham
DOI: 10.7208/chicago/9780226317014.003.0008
[humanities, military perspective, national investment, literary studies, individual]
The humanities have been the subject of an immense quantity of elevated rhetoric. Distinguished people have described and defended the need for a national investment in teaching and research in literary studies, history, philosophy, and the arts. Hard training is required in order to achieve an understanding so deeply counterintuitive. As humanistic study imbues people with a moral imagination, the real burden of the humanities, as opposed to their manifold pleasures and benefits, does not fall on professors, students, or the culture-loving population in general. In a culture whose commitment to the freedom of the individual often seems to begin with the freedom from guilt, the military perspective on the humanities is well worth pondering. The humanities keep one honest and human, reminding of the capacity for committing unspeakable violence and of ability to outface brutality through the transformative power of art. (pages 191 - 204)
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Notes

Index