HARDLY A WEEK goes by without a new attack on the irrelevance of the humanities or the inefficiencies of general education. Policy leaders, increasingly under the sway of economic modes of reasoning, claim, without much evidence, that the humanities do not prepare students for work or the world. Their emphasis on aligning higher education with the short-term needs of business casts the time spent in general education as a waste of resources with tremendous opportunity costs. Less utilitarian voices on the right challenge the humanities and general education for their alleged “liberal” biases and distance from the common concerns of life; recent right-wing provocations around “free speech” on campus are predicated on the idea that colleges and universities are little more than indoctrination factories. Despite the growing Republican hostility to science, it is the humanities that bear the brunt of this assault. Unfortunately, efforts to defend both the humanities and general education for their roles in helping to create the individual capabilities necessary for common life appear to have little purchase among policymakers.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s new book What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education enters this debate with a unique and provocative twist. Harpham, formerly director of the National Humanities Center and a literary critic of note, builds upon his previous book, The Humanities and the Dream of America (2011), to argue that the humanities, properly understood, are crucial not just to cultural capacity in general but to American culture in particular. His arguments are based on a crucial set of claims: that the United States is — despite all of the assumptions about its anti-intellectualism — a fundamentally textual civilization, that the centrality of texts leads to a particular tension between private and public judgment, and that these tensions mean that the humanities’ emphasis on developing a capacity for interpretation is central to public life. Although none of these claims seem to me entirely persuasive, they do provide a thought-provoking interpretation of a possible tradition of educational thinking that is worth exploring.

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In The Humanities and the Dream of America, Harpham put forward two interlinked and counterintuitive propositions. The first was that, despite the long history of the “liberal arts” and “humanism,” the humanities as an organized area of study only emerged in the 20th century. “By midcentury,” Harpham argued,

the phrase “the humanities,” referring to a collection of academic disciplines devoted to the study of philosophy, literature, the arts, and sometimes history, was appearing with some regularity. Defined in opposition to science, ideology, mechanization, behaviorism, mass society, the overvaluation of rationality, and modernity in general, the humanities were identified with notions of empowerment, liberation, cultivation, civic responsibility, and almost invariably, ethical behavior and the development of character.

The second proposition was that the humanities, understood in this sense, emerged specifically in the United States, at elite universities during the 1930s. Although clearly other nations had similar approaches, this configuration of the humanities was, he insisted, characteristically American. To be sure, this academic arrangement had complex relationships to the longer tradition of the liberal arts and to discourses of culture; very little in the disciplinary knowledge of the humanities was particularly new. Indeed, the interwar humanities were, in part, a reactionary development.

But the idea that the humanities could function as an organized sector of knowledge and teaching — and that it could do so on a democratic scale — was new. The exigencies of the historical moment were crucial to this development: although the humanities emerged in the United States during the interwar years, their cultural status was enhanced by the country’s leadership role in the new postwar world. According to Harpham, the institutional success of the humanities was not only due to the expansion of higher education and concerns about democratic governance, but was specifically a function of the Cold War.

Harvard University’s General Education in a Free Society offered the crucial conceptualization of the humanities within general and liberal education. Commonly known as the “Redbook” (for the color of its cover), General Education in a Free Society was a protean text. Its greatest influence appears to have been in promoting lower-division general education in colleges and universities, though its notion of the centrality of general education was far too capacious for postwar academic institutions. Arguably, the Redbook was the last attempt to define higher education as a humanist enterprise that was not a defensive gesture: its authors — a Committee empaneled by Harvard President James Bryant Conant — asserted that the humanities and social sciences lay at the core of higher education. The aim of education was the instillation of “wisdom,” conceived as an “art of life,” a cultivation of the “whole man.” None of these lofty terms would survive the intellectual challenges of the next half-century. But they proved to be powerful arguments in the midcentury debate over the creation of a mass higher education system in the United States.

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? draws its title from a story told to Harpham during a university visit. Harpham was approached by “an elderly man” who had come to the United States 50 years earlier as a refugee from Cuba, without connections and knowing no English. After a few years, he was able to obtain a GED and enroll in a community college. Seeking to fulfill a general education requirement, he found himself in a class on Shakespeare, where “Mr. Ramirez” (to use Harpham’s pseudonym) was thrust out of his element. One day, the class was reading a Shakespeare sonnet, and the teacher asked, “Mr. Ramirez, what do you think?” Harpham reports that Mr. Ramirez didn’t know what to answer and was relieved when the teacher moved on, but he was so struck by the question that he went on to become a professor of comparative literature.

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? is simultaneously an exploration of the roots of the Redbook’s confidence, an argument for the humanities in an age without that confidence, and a recognition of the historical specificity of Mr. Ramirez’s experience. Harpham of course knows that Mr. Ramirez’s story was tied to a particular Cold War investment in general education and educational access that the United States has now largely abandoned. He is equally aware that there were always limits to these opportunities for African Americans, Latinos, and other minorities. But he also wants us to recognize that the opportunities were genuine — and genuinely important. Moreover, contrary to the notion that the expansion of higher education during the 1950s and 1960s was solely the result of Cold Wa–era affluence, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? argues that this midcentury commitment was deeply rooted in crucial traditions of reasoned opinion and debate as necessary conditions for American democracy.

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What Harpham calls the “American Revolution in Education” resulted from the intersection of two separate streams of influence. On the one hand, there was the Protestant revolt against Catholicism and the reformed challenge to Anglicanism. As he tells it, the Protestant emphasis on the individual reading of the Bible gave dissent from orthodoxy a central place in the American tradition, making the country’s political life a history of constant and dispersive conflict. On the other hand, Harpham points to the civic requirements imposed by the new constitutional republic, where the importance given to “opinion” led to the incessant practice of interpretation. From Harpham’s perspective, the writing of a relatively simple and widely distributed Constitution both necessitated and provoked a democratic debate about meaning. Contesting the terms of the constitutional order became an ongoing practice in the early republic, given the relative weakness of the court system and the inchoate structures of American government. Despite the common assertion that Americans are a practical people, the upshot of Harpham’s analysis is that American political and civic culture is intensely textual. Reading practices lie at the heart of whatever common culture Americans can claim.

This centrality of reading practices imposed a variety of complications on early American culture. Issues we might think far removed from politics or policy assumed fundamental roles: the power of fiction, of rhetorical eloquence, of oratory pointed to a belief in a reality that could be fundamentally shaped and created through words. After all, the United States was a country that sought to declare itself into existence and then remake itself through a document. That the historical reality of state- and nation-formation was far messier and more complicated did not stop citizens from believing that the nature of those claimed acts of origin should determine who they were and what the United States should become.

In a provocative move, Harpham presents Frederick Douglass as the most profound embodiment of the intersection between private conscience and textual interpretation. He views Douglass’s 1850s interventions into constitutional debates as a seizing of the American tradition of textuality for a profound democratic purpose. Douglass’s ability to read the Constitution as ultimately opposed to slavery enabled him to declare the text a “glorious liberty document.” According to Harpham, Douglass basically insisted that a “correct” reading of the Constitution required an interpretation of silences. In Douglass’s resonant words, from his 1852 speech “What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?”:

Read its preamble, consider its purposes. Is slavery among them? Is it at the gate way? or is it in the temple? it is neither. While I do not intend to argue this question on the present occasion, let me ask, if it be not somewhat singular that, if the Constitution were intended to be, by its framers and adopters, a slaveholding instrument, why neither slavery, slaveholding, nor slave can any where be found in it. What would be thought of an instrument, drawn up, legally drawn up, for the purpose of entitling the city of Rochester to a tract of land, in which no mention of land was made? Now, there are certain rules of interpretation for the proper understanding of all legal instruments. These rules are well established. They are plain, commonsense rules, such as you and I, and all of us, can understand and apply, without having passed years in the study of law. I scout the idea that the question of the constitutionality, or unconstitutionality of slavery, is not a question for the people. I hold that every American citizen has a right to form an opinion of the constitution, and to propagate that opinion, and to use all honorable means to make his opinion the prevailing one.

In this speech, Douglass brings together the various strands of Harpham’s argument about the nature of American civic culture: its textuality, its interest in intentionality, its emphasis on correct method, and its essential democratic tendency. The fact that it was Frederick Douglass who made these claims — a man formerly enslaved, hounded by his enemies, driven by his conscience to break with his early allies, and consistently militant and activist in his opposition to human bondage of all sorts — is essential. Of course, it took a brutal war to destroy slavery, after which the equality the abolitionists sought was violently subverted as the American majority accepted the continued subordination and disenfranchisement of the country’s African-American population for a century and beyond. Still, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? strongly suggests that the dream of democratic culture embedded in Douglass’s challenge never truly died.

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But how do we get from Frederick Douglass in the 1850s to “Mr. Ramirez” a century later? Harpham’s surprising answer is the mediating role of the New Criticism in the 1920s and 1930s. Although the New Criticism is mostly dismissed now as an obsolete formalism that sought to wall off the text from the world, Harpham argues that it brought democratic interpretation into the academy and empowered a democratized vision of general education.

As Harpham shows, the New Criticism was as much a pedagogy as a research program. Late 19th- and early 20th-century English studies was divided, to use Gerald Graff’s terms, between scholars and generalists. Scholars based their authority on a Germanic tradition of philological rigor while generalists, believing this approach missed the element of genius in literature, embraced the theater of charismatic teaching. Ultimately this divide was settled in practice through the separation of graduate training from an undergraduate curriculum of appreciation. This arrangement allowed both sides to participate in a larger project of “criticism” that would, on the one hand, establish the professional status of literary critics while, on the other hand, maintaining the undergraduate enrollments that kept professors employed.

The New Criticism provided the means to bring these two visions together into one pedagogical program. As envisioned by I. A. Richards and elaborated by William Empson, the New Criticism’s emphasis on close reading and the structures of language allowed professors simultaneously to claim a new, more scientific method and to dazzle undergraduates with interpretive possibilities. Moreover, because the New Criticism opened up a seemingly endless debate about authorial intention, it made literary criticism into a powerful tool for tackling the interpretive dilemmas of American civic culture. New Criticism, in short, transformed constitutional interpretation into literary interpretation and therefore opened up the possibility of training students to read the texts of America in a more critical fashion. As Harpham writes:

Perhaps without intending to — intention being hard to determine — the New Critics were relaying, renewing, and translating into modern academic terms some of the most deep-laid assumptions in American culture, beginning with the singular importance of the individual interpretation of a certain kind of text.

The final turn in this history was biographical. Richards moved to Harvard, where he was placed on the committee that drafted the Redbook (indeed, he was a central figure on it). As a result, the humanities — and literature in particular — were given a central place: what the Redbook proposed was, in effect, a great books course whose emphasis would be “the fullest understanding of the work read rather than of men or periods represented, craftsmanship evinced, historic or literary development shown, or anything else.” The practice of interpretation would thus form the heart of college and university education. And, in contradiction to everything that passes for contemporary common sense, the Redbook defined general education as the core of higher education, as opposed to what they called “special’ education (i.e., one’s major field of study). This is the context in which Mr. Ramirez had his formative experience with the interpretation of Shakespeare.

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Harpham’s book provides an innovative and important account of the deep roots — as opposed to the contingent Cold War aims — that underlay the prominence of general education and the humanities in the decades following World War II. But his account falters, I think, when he comes to consider the subsequent decline into utilitarian economism. To be fair, his discussion of this process is a minor part of a study whose real emphases lie elsewhere. But because his discussion of decline throws retrospective light on his analysis of the “American Revolution in Education,” it cannot be ignored.

As must anyone concerned with the eclipse of the cultural authority of the humanities, and literature in particular, Harpham delves into the so-called “theory wars” of the 1980s and 1990s. Although this is well-trodden ground, he offers an innovative twist, arguing that the fatal flaw in the importation of continental theory into US universities was its hostility to the American tradition of individual interpretation. As he puts it:

perhaps the gravest fault, in the eyes of critics, was that English teachers, who had in the general education program been entrusted with teaching heritage and the interpretive skills necessary in a constitutional democracy, had suddenly sworn allegiance to foreign masters who did not share American values, beginning with the values of humanism, the humanities, and even the human. Behind the debates dominating the theory wars was a thinly veiled struggle between American and foreign modes of thinking.

I want to be clear: Harpham is not dismissing the power or intellectual importance of continental theory or the work done under its inspiration. In fact, some of his own earlier work drew on its insights in compelling ways. But he does argue that this theory’s reduction of the importance of individual interpretation served to displace the humanities and English from its position of authority within the academy.

There are, I think, several reasons to doubt this account. First of all, Harpham’s provocative depiction of an American tradition of democratic interpretation is a bit of mythmaking. This is evident from the start when he locates its origins in an impetus to separatist dissent rooted in the Reformation and instantiated in the earliest colonies. As any consideration of the actual histories of those colonies demonstrates, the act of separation usually served to produce its own orthodoxy. Massachusetts Bay Colony, which swiftly swallowed up the Plymouth settlement that Harpham mythologizes, permitted individual interpretation only within clear boundaries established by church and community. In Virginia, the oldest of the colonies that would eventually become the United States, the approach to matters of conscience was completely conventional and Anglican. In short, for all the forces in American history working to expand the possibilities of democratic interpretation, there were always powerful countervailing forces working to limit and diminish it.

Harpham is entirely correct to claim that Frederick Douglass in the 1850s pioneered a brilliant mode of interpreting the Constitution in terms of its hidden meanings and tendencies toward liberty. But it is hard to see how his actions were part of an American tradition of interpretation. Indeed, Douglass and his fellow counterculture of abolitionists were profoundly internationalist, self-consciously opposed to dominant notions of the American republic. Douglass did turn to the Constitution, but he did so in order to undermine the constitutional republic in its current form. He wasn’t simply, as Harpham asserts, an “inheritor” of the Revolutionary “story,” he was one of its most formidable critics. To be sure, Harpham is aware of these issues. And he could easily respond that it was precisely the structure of American constitutional democracy that made dissents like Douglass’s possible (although given the ever-present dangers Douglass faced, it is hard to see any such structure specifically enabling his interpretation). Harpham’s position smacks of a certain kind of American exceptionalism.

Seeing Douglass as an internationalist critic of American traditions rather than an internal reformer opens up new vistas for understanding the history of the last 40 years. While the Cold War expansion of general education sought to prepare US citizens for the country’s new role in the world, the student activists of the 1960s and 1970s struggled to broaden the contexts within which that new role was understood. While the New Critics helped bring the practice of disciplined interpretation into the university, the new academic movements of the 1960s and after drew upon a long counter-tradition of African-American thought that was deeply internationalist in perspective. W. E. B. Du Bois was an internationalist at his core, and the Civil Rights movement was a new Reconstruction rooted as much in the global struggle over decolonization as it was in constitutional debates. That these new understandings might lead to a rethinking, not just a revitalization, of the traditions of the United States should not be surprising: after all, in the terms set by the Redbook itself, the debate has always been over the definition of “heritage” and the possibilities of change.

Postwar internationalism was not a new phenomena. Long before Lévi-Strauss and Derrida infiltrated the academy, the leaders of Massachusetts Bay had looked to England and Geneva, Jefferson and Franklin to France, Emerson to Germany, and the thinkers of the 1940s and 1950s to Freud and Marx. Indeed, the theory wars of the 1980s were simply another manifestation of a long-standing impulse to expand American heritage. Harpham is surely correct that something is lost if you turn your back on the national tradition, but it is also true that something is gained as well.

Moreover, the decline of the cachet of English — at the undergraduate level at least — began well prior to the theory wars. If Allan Bloom had truly been worried about the future of the European tradition, he would have spent less time criticizing professors of literature and students of philosophy and more time contending with the ideas of his friends in the University of Chicago economics department. It was their influence in undermining any consideration of a non-economic common good that better explains the rejection of the American Revolution in Education.

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Today we confront what might be considered the post-Brexit university. Not only are humanistic values being challenged by the increasingly utilitarian approach of policymakers and university administrators, but the very idea that higher education should foster an international perspective that exceeds local political interests is under threat everywhere, from Turkey to Eastern Europe, from England to the US Department of Education. Viewing the internationalist moves of the 1960s to 1980s not as a loss of national purpose but as an attempt to grasp our place in an increasingly complex world might also enable us to see the extent to which the United States has always been crisscrossed by international imperatives.

None of this is to deny the value or importance of Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s attempt to make a claim for the humanities in these trying times. What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? is compelling and essential reading for anyone concerned with the relationship between humanistic activity and American democracy. It is a virtuoso demonstration of what can be accomplished when an erudite scholar seeks to place the humanities “on native ground” (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Kazin). But I think the book should be seen, above all, as a provocation, an invitation to the kind of interpretive debate it centrally defends. It challenges us to place the humanities in a broader historical context, to grasp the changing meanings of American traditions as they confront a new and less stable world than the Redbook (or even “Mr. Ramirez”) ever did.

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Michael Meranze is professor of history at UCLA. He co-edits the blog Remaking the University.