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“Intellectual History for What?


U.S. Intellectual History Conference 2010

Casey Nelson Blake


Columbia University

Daniel Bell famously wrote in 1960 "The differences between the intellectual and
the scholar, without being invidious, are important to understand. The scholar
has a bounded field of knowledge, a tradition, and seeks to find his place in it,
adding to the accumulated, tested knowledge of the past as to a mosaic. The
scholar, qua scholar, is less involved with his ‘self.’ The intellectual begins with
his experience, his individual perceptions of the world, his privileges and
deprivations, and judges the world by these sensibilities."

What is striking to me about the presentations we have just heard is how their
authors write as scholars and intellectuals. They have reflected on the traditions
that inform their work as historians, and on the institutions that have shaped
those traditions—graduate school, institutions of higher education more
generally, and journals of opinions. And whether implicitly or explicitly, they
have spoken of the personal reasons that have led them to do the work they do.
The latter is quite unusual in a conference of this kind and is an approach that I’d
like to see be a more prominent feature of discussions of our field, particularly if
we take seriously our responsibility to students. That is not to say we have heard
personal revelations or declarations that “identity” determines intellectual or
political commitments. Instead, several of our panelists have reflected
thoughtfully on what might be called “the subjective necessity” of intellectual
history. George Cotkin reminds us that the Vita is about la vida, or life. Those of
us who admire his work know that all his inquiries are inspired by William
James’s question, “What makes a life significant.” Rochelle Gurstein describes
her choice of graduate study with the late Christopher Lasch as an effort to
understand “how we have come to inhabit what we normally think of as our own
private thoughts, feelings, perceptions, taste, sensibility.” The practice of
intellectual history allowed her to understand the centuries-long processes that
shaped the inner life while also freeing her from “the confines of [her] own
subjectivity and the provinciality of our own historical moment.”

These reflections have taken me back to my own experiences as a graduate


student at Rochester in the late seventies and early eighties, which I recognize
were hardly typical of those enrolled in other programs then or since.
Rochester’s program was not only non-professional but decidedly anti-
professional, both in its emphasis on training across the boundaries of field and
discipline and in the urgency with which many of us approached the study of
ideas as related in some way to pressing public concerns. Perhaps others were
concerned about finding a methodology that could stand up to the challenge of
the “new social history” or elevating the visibility of intellectual history in
professional organizations and journals. Those preoccupations prompted some

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stimulating discussions, as we were reminded in last year’s plenary on the
Wingspan Conference; but I fear an exclusive focus on methodological
breakthroughs may obscure the memory of other impulses that were deeply felt
at the same time—and that I dare say are still deeply felt by young people who
enter this decidedly unfashionable field today.

As presumptuous as it may sound, it was profoundly important to many at


Rochester to figure out where we “stood” in relation to social theorists, cultural
critics, and philosophers who brought historical learning to bear on
contemporary debates. To discover where we “stood” on Adorno, Raymond
Williams, the Marcuse-Brown debate about Marx and Freud, on Arendt,
MacIntyre and the revival of the civic-humanist tradition was in some respects to
discover where we “stood” with ourselves. Similar motivations were at work as
we plowed through the great tradition of American historians who dared to think
big—the Beards, Hofstadter, Perry Miller, William Appleman Williams--all of
whom we read as both scholars and intellectuals (in Bell’s typology). To put it
another way, we studied intellectual history because we wanted some guidance
about the conduct of public and private life. Rochester was not the only place for
this approach to historical inquiry: similar ambitions inspired many American
Studies grad students and junior faculty at Yale at roughly the same time—and no
doubt at other programs as well.

I raise these issues not to play a trump card of some kind, or suggest that such a
distinctly anti-professional approach yielded greater scholarship than that
generated in other venues. Rather, I mention them because I believe they have
relevance to our work as teachers, particularly as teachers of undergraduates. If
calls for “public intellectuals” are to mean more than applauding “publicity-
seeking” intellectuals, then I believe we need to reflect more on the teaching we
do—perhaps our most important venue for addressing a public of non-
specialists—and the on institutional settings in which we do it.

There are of course many ways to teach the history of ideas and culture: as
ideologies; as formal systems of thought enabled by specific institutions; as the
questions generated by communities of inquiry; as civic discourse and public
rhetoric; and much else besides. In my own case, I have found that
undergraduates respond most powerfully to an approach that explores how ideas
are generated by the lived experiences of people we call “intellectuals” as well as
those we don’t. I try to approach lived experience as felt experience and
reflected-on experience and give particular attention to the biographies of
younger thinkers who struggled to find their way in societies rarely organized for
their convenience. In large part I am responding to what I perceive is our
culture’s failure to give young people examples of how to grow up and lead
satisfying lives. I am hardly going to stand up as an example of how to do that,
and I don’t claim that figures like William James, Jane Addams, or James
Baldwin give students road maps for life. There are temples of worship and
twelve-step programs for that. But I believe that what Christopher Lasch called a
“conversational approach to the past,” a dialogical process of discovery and self-

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discovery, is one of the greatest gifts we intellectual historians can offer the
thousands of generalists who pass through our classrooms each year.

This kind of work is more easily done in certain contexts and at certain times
than others, and the presentations by Elisabeth Lasch-Quinn, Wilfred McClay,
and David Steigerwald bring home powerfully the institutional and ideological
challenges we face today. An unholy alliance of pseudo-populists, market
fundamentalists, and neo-liberals “racing to the top” of test scores has launched a
savage war against learning. In response, many within the university are circling
the wagons around practices that should have been rethought years ago. I would
like to conclude by saying a few words about the research university as a
challenge—perhaps the greatest challenge—to those who believe in intellectual
history as a resource for reflection on the conduct of life. As we know, the
research universities that emerged in the United States in the late nineteenth
century represented a powerful rebuke to the classical curriculum of the liberal
arts college, which took as its mission the character-formation of young people
and the training of a leadership elite in the civic arts. Those goals did not entirely
disappear in the research university, but they were increasingly relegated to the
least-valued sectors of the institution—usually to core curriculum and humanities
programs freighted with the tasks of teaching writing and creating a sense of
“community” among freshmen finding their way in large institutions. These were
and remain labor-intensive programs that demand a lot from faculty, and
teaching of this kind is often viewed as “service” supposedly unrelated to
scholarship (a huge error in the case of intellectual historians, in my opinion).
And of course such teaching results in few material or professional rewards. This
may explain why even the most vaunted core-curriculum programs—such as the
one at Columbia—depend on the labors of graduate students, adjuncts, and
junior faculty who are required to do a “tour of duty” in the Core before tenure.
Training in the civic arts has become the domain of debating clubs and other
extracurricular activities that many students pursue with one eye on their law
school applications. Meanwhile, the “marginalization of morality” within the
American university—as Julie Ruben calls it—has culminated in moral
instruction by “residential life” administrators, who sponsor workshops in sexual
conduct and multicultural “sensitivity” during freshman orientation (workshops
that are promptly forgotten once classes begin). Without a common commitment
to character formation and civic education—without a common commitment to
anything—it’s no wonder that the university is often such a fractured and
fractious place

To say that intellectual historians have never felt entirely comfortable in this
institutional setting is an understatement. The disciplinary status of history has
always been a bit fuzzy—is it a social science or part of the humanities, or both?—
but the homelessness of intellectual historians in research universities has been
even more acute. We may do better in liberal arts colleges, religious institutions,
great-books schools like St. John’s, progressive colleges that still try to practice a
pragmatist pedagogy, or in schools like Cal Poly that have a policy of “benign
neglect” when it comes to the humanities. Many of us who work in universities

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have more in common with faculty in other fields than we do with our fellow
historians. I have had some of my most rewarding experiences in the classroom
teaching with colleagues in American literature. In teaching graduate students, I
have often found that those whose undergraduate studies were in subjects other
than history are the ones best prepared to write about the history of ideas and
intellectuals. But it’s in the undergraduate classroom where I am most aware of
the disconnect between what the matters to the research university and what
matters so deeply to my students and to me.

Today the research university is in deep trouble, for reasons that are so familiar I
don’t need to rehearse them here. It worries me that our field has contributed so
little to public debates about higher education. Scholars in literature, moral
philosophy, and religion have intervened more forcefully, and more effectively,
than we have. Meanwhile, a good many blogs operating on the margins of the
academy, or well beyond its orbit, are rising to a challenge that most intellectual
historians have yet to acknowledge. The editors of one such blog, The New
Inquiry, write:

The growing supply of career academics has flooded


the university job market, and 21st century
technologies have thrown traditional media into
crisis. Although the future of higher education and
print remains obscure, these cultural sea changes
have yielded one definite side effect: an abundance of
young writers and thinkers resolved to pursue a public
intellectual life for its own sake—a pursuit ordered
and enabled by Internet technology.

The people writing in such venues are searching for alternative ways of living a
life committed to ideas, even as the economic infrastructure for such a life
crumbles beneath them. They are also, I’m delighted to see, seeking out writings
that almost disappeared from humanities curricula during the last two or three
decades. Those drawn to Addams, Croly, Bourne, Trilling, Ellison, or Sontag
don’t want to “complicate the narrative”; they want to enter the moral narrative
of their own country and master it. Nor do they seem to spend much time
fretting about methodology: “method-ism” is in many respects what the research
university does best, and its pulse is fading as fast as that of the university itself.
Something is happening here, and we don’t know what it is, but any honest
person knows what it isn’t: the Berkeley of 1960, the Columbia of 1950, the
Madison of 1920, and the Ann Arbor of 1900 are not coming back. Given that
reality, I have to ask if the research university really is the best place to address
the question of “intellectual history for what?”

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