U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (10/19/2009)

1. Score One For Blurring Genre Lines With Intellectual History: Dan Ernst at the Legal History Blog highlights a new release that qualifies, I think, as a work on the intellectual history of the U.S. working class: Catherine L. Fisk’s Working Knowledge: Employee Innovation and the Rise of Corporate Intellectual Property, 1800-1930 (University of North Carolina Press). I categorize this under “process and technical innovation” as viable parts of the life of the mind.

2. Revisiting the Scandal of the Evangelical Mind: At Religion in American History, Randall Stephens, co-editor of RAH with Paul Harvey, offers snacks from the meal that was a conference hosted by Gordon College—“The Scandal of the Evangelical Mind, 15 Years Later.” Stephens walks us through the good and the bad in relation to Mark Noll’s classic, and more recent scholarship, by recapping some of the conference’s panels. As a former Evangelical, I particularly wish I had been there.

3. Perversely Satisfying: It’s somewhat self-serving, professionally speaking, but I cannot help but find stories like this perversely satisfying. I particularly love this paragraph from Mr. Shears’s HNN promotional summary:

Unoriginal Misunderstanding…certainly does not claim to settle the issue of what press freedom meant in the 18th century; one of the few certainties in this area is that more evidence will be turned up and further examination of historical evidence will allow us to understand it better. Yet originalists say we must base our legal interpretation of the press freedom guarantee on what judges think its meaning may have been two centuries ago. What qualifies judges to declare, as a matter of law, what historical evidence is worthy of consideration and which interpretation is correct? Has any judge ever been appointed to the U.S. Supreme Court because of his or her abilities as a historian? As historical scholarship evolves and shifts, would Constitutional interpretation change with it? What standards apply to judicial determination of history? Without addressing these questions, originalism merely allows judges to cloak their own views as historical truths. Thus, when history is addressed in court opinions, you don’t find discussion of the uncertainties of what we know about the past or all the complexities and contradictions that the study of history reveals, but vehement argument about how historical evidence supports the outcome the judge believes to be correct.

4. A History of History Departments in the U.S.: Sometime in August or early September I printed William G. Palmer’s article from the June 2009 issue of Historically Speaking. It took me awhile to read the piece, but I was pleased find in it a number of interesting anecdotes from the author’s new book, titled Gentleman’s Club to Professional Body: The Evolution of the History Department in the United States, 1940-1980. For instance:

– Many departments in the 1920s and 1930s had “dollar-a year men”—independently wealthy scholars who essentially worked for nothing (or close to nothing). [Me: It’s nice to know that adjuncting was formerly an elite, gentlemanly occupation. But having an elite history isn’t going to go get those student loans paid, no?!]
– Palmer credits James B. Conant with moving the focus of history faculty credentials away from teaching and toward publication and scholarly achievement.
– George Pierson, formerly chair of Yale’s History Department, hired C. Vann Woodward to replace David Potter on the grounds of two vocal recommendations from John Morton Blum and Edmund Morgan, and five minutes of deliberation.
– Pierson also had declared that a woman would teach at Yale only over his dead body. But he ended up hiring the department’s first female faculty member, Mary Wright, in 1959.
– Wisconsin’s William Appleman Williams directed 37 completed dissertations in an 11-year span.

Apart from these tidbits, another interesting fact about Palmer’s book is its publisher: Booksurge, an on-demand publishing division of Amazon.com. This might be the first intellectual history I’ve seen published in the current on-demand style.

5. A Third Way—In Biology: This InsideHigherEd piece chronicles of the efforts of biologists trying to teach evolution in Christian colleges with faculty confessional statements containing conservative clauses, or interpretations, on biblical inerrancy. I was particularly intrigued by references to the BioLogos Foundation and this book by Richard Colling. From my own readings on the subjects of concern, I thought that “Intelligent Design” could have some crossover with strains of evolutionary theory (if not random natural selection) by way of chaos theory math. By this I mean that apparently “chance” happenings, or developments, are not always chaotic or unintelligible. I wonder if there’s a general history out there on the teaching of biology in Christian educational institutions that ranges beyond the Scopes Trial and the 1920s? …Whenever I ask myself this kind of question I’m invariably surprised by the richness of existing scholarship.

6. Intellectual History on The Daily Show: Jon Stewart interviewed Jennifer Burns, a former student of David Hollinger’s, for the Oct. 15 The Daily Show about her new book on Ayn Rand. – TL

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Thanks for all the great links, Tim.

    I’m just watching the John Stewart Interview. I’m wondering–has anyone (perhaps Burns herself) ever explored the effect of the Ayn Rand high school essay contest on perpetuating her influence? I know I planned to read her books every year because I sought every scholarship I could. Well, almost, because I never did read her work, but the essay contest certainly put her name into my head.

    I think studying the reception of works of literature and philosophy is fascinating but also hard to bound and source.

  2. Lauren,

    I have either never heard of, or forgotten, the “Ayn Rand high school essay contest.” Tell me more.

    I’ve been thinking about reception history for a long time. Some people scoff at efforts in that arena, as if the whole endeavor is slippery and silly. But people read articles about books. And those articles influence buying and reading decisions. So I don’t understand the “outright rejectors.” If blurbs and reviews were so silly as to have no value, well, publishers would’ve stopped seeking them long ago. Of course I agree with those who say you can’t take reviews at face value due to word restrictions, scholarly networking, etc. But those predispositions help one obtain some understanding of how books are distributed and received. And of course not all reviews are the same.

    – TL

  3. Jennifer will be chairing a panel on twentieth-century capitalism at the upcoming USIH conference, and a review of Goddess of the Market will be posted on the blog shortly. (In the interest of full disclosure, I am on the panel, and, well, I’m writing the book review as well!)

  4. Mike: Thanks for reminding me/us of this. I was sure her name was on our program, and even searched for it when I wrote the post, but I somehow overlooked or missed her commentator slot. Lots of high quality scholarship will be represented next month. – TL

  5. The Ayn Rand essay contest is still going on. When I was in high school there were two contests–reading one of her books for 9th and 10th grade and another for 11th and 12th (Anthem and Fountainhead). They’ve added Atlas Shrugged for 12th grade and college. What I remember from high school was that the topic was something about how the books affected your life. Now they seem to have added more specific questions from the books: [google ayn rand high school essay contest].

  6. Lauren: Maybe my small-town, middlebrow high school didn’t inform us about the Ayn Rand essay contest because of Rand’s atheism and the sex in her books? – TL

  7. I grew up in a very small, very conservative Arizona town, so I don’t know about it. Could be possible.

  8. Hi, you’re dead on about the Ayn Rand essay contest; part of Rand’s longevity is due to the organized promotion of her ideas. On my blog I’ve been writing a lot about my work in the Ayn Rand Archives and how Rand’s estate has hindered her influence in many ways, but the essay contest is definitely a winner in terms of her public profile.

    To the larger point, one book that influenced me quite a bit is Jonathan Rose’s Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes, and his concept of a “history of audiences.” If there had been more extant scholarship on Rand, I would have focused more on this angle: as it is, I thread reception history through most chapters of my book while keeping the focus primarily on Rand. I recommend Rose’s book to anyone interested in cultural or intellectual history.

    Looking forward to meeting everyone in New York very soon!

  9. Dear Jennifer and Lauren,

    You two might be interested in this. Apparently S.C. governor Mark Sanford is a Rand fan. [But with fans like this, who needs enemies?, Tim says snickering.]

    – TL

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