U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (6/16/2011)

1. The Educational Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois: An Intellectual History

This is the title of a short (189 page) new book by Derrick P. Alridge. Here’s a review by Jon N. Hale, assistant education professor at Muskingum University. The review is quite informative, and here is Hale’s conclusion (bolds mine):

Alridge provides a very important analysis and delineation of W.E.B. Du Bois’ educational thought. This book is critical for foundations of education scholars who present the traditional dichotomous Du Bois-Washington relationship that is too often used to represent black education ideologies during the Jim Crow era. This book is also important for historians interested in continuing to explore the tenets and nature of the Long Civil Rights Movement, especially the centrality of education as a critical site of racial, cultural, and ideological contestation. Beyond these specific academic circles, Alridge is an articulate author who engages primary sources and the socio-political context of his subject in a way that is meaningful, accessible, and informative to all readers. The Educational Thought of W.E.B. Du Bois is a well-written and supported text that makes important contributions to the field of education and history.

2. When It’s Good to be Decanonized and Desacralized

Marshall Berman argues, in Dissent, that the fall of communism was the best thing to happen to Marx and Engels. I agree. [Note: The essay is actually “the introduction to [a new] Penguin Classics Deluxe Edition of the Communist Manifesto published [this past] March.”]

3. Science as Cultural Integrative Force in U.S. History

Check out David A. Hollinger’s take on this: “The Unity of Knowledge and the Diversity of Knowers: Science as an Agent of Cultural Integration in the United States between the Two World Wars,” Pacific Historical Review, 80 (May 2011), 211-30.

4. The Faulty Mind of An Historian

Ta-Nehisi Coates is reading Shelby Foote’s trilogy on the Civil War. Having learned more, however, about Foote’s philosophy of history regarding the Civil War, Coates (properly) faults Foote’s “white romanticism.” Here’s the conclusion of Coates’ post on the subject:

[Foote] gave twenty years of his life, and three volumes of important and significant words to the Civil War, but he he could never see himself in the slave. He could not get that the promise of free bread can not cope with the promise of free hands. Shelby Foote wrote The Civil War, but he never understood it. Understanding the Civil War was a luxury his whiteness could ill-afford.

5. FYI: TOC for the Forthcoming American Studies (50 3/4, June 2011)

– “One Nation Over Coals: Cold War Nationalism and the Barbecue” – Kristin Matthews
– “When Modernism Was Still Radical: The Design Laboratory and the Cultural Politics of Depression-Era America” – Shannan Clark
– “What Almost Was: The Politics of the Contemporary Alternate History Novel” – Matthew Schneider-Mayerson
– “Howard Fast’s American Revolution” – Neil York
– “Black Presidents, Gay Marriages, and Hawaiian Sovereignty: Reimagining Citizenship in the Age of Obama” – Judy Rohrer

From here.

6. A New Journal and Society

There is now an “International Society for the Study of Skepticism.” Its first journal, appropriately titled International Journal for the Study of Skepticism, came out last month. Here is the society’s “about us” page.

7. Deweyan Playground Rhymes

Here’s a little Thursday humor for you.

9 Thoughts on this Post

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  1. Tim, having just read Allan Bloom’s introduction to _Closing of the American Mind_, I’m struck by the juxtaposition of #2 and #3. Not sure I can yet formulate a coherent thought about this juxtaposition, or how it relates to Bloom’s argument — but there it is.

    Bloom bemoans the tendency behind #2, lauds the spirit of rational inquiry behind #3 and identifies it as a unifying principle in the formation of a distinctly American culture, yet also identifies #3 as an ultimately unsatisfactory endeavor unless that spirit of rational inquiry is turned towards interrogating and being interrogated by the books which are at risk due to #2.

    Meanwhile, decanonization moves from #2 to #3, and not vice versa — the humanities dethrone(d) the sciences by relativizing absolutes. Amusingly, Bloom seems to reserve his greatest ire for historians and the practice of thinking historically. Guilty as charged, I hope.

  2. LD: Agreed on Bloom’s probable contradictory feelings on #2 and #3. But Bloom is not the only one to lament the rise of historians, and their relativizing or essentializing tendencies, in the late twentieth century. The findings of professional historians (as well as antiquarian pedant types) have cramped the desires of people who hope that history proves whatever truth/constant they want to propose (truths about religion, gender, identity, political ideology, etc.). The details of the past always get in the way. On the other hand, some historians (and pseudo-historians) have also forwarded essentialist arguments based on lighter contextual explorations over time. Some limited number of things are persistent, and this bothers the historicist crowd. In sum, history is a disruptive force—depending on how the inquiry is framed. – TL

  3. Bloom borrowed his critique of historicism from his teacher, Leo Strauss, whose objections to it reflected a much broader intellectual tendency in late Wilhelmine and Weimar German-Jewish thought (for those really interested in this topic, see David N. Meyers, Resisting History: Historicism and Its Discontents in German-Jewish Thought (Princeton University Press, 2003). (And to clarify: anti-historicism is hardly an exclusively German, Jewish, or German-Jewish phenomenon, but Bloom stands very much in this particular lineage.)

  4. Ben, my advisor was just explaining this very thing to me today. I am beginning to think that all roads through the Culture Wars lead to Strauss. But for all his suspicion of historicism, Bloom finds it (occasionally) useful. Maybe Strauss did too. Perhaps I will have to wait for your book to find out.

  5. LD,

    There’s a difference between history and historicism. An historical story about political philosophy is at the heart of Strauss’s work (and Bloom’s book). But both would have been at pains to insist that their uses of history were not historicist.

    Also: as someone working on Strauss, I’m pretty sure that he is not the font of the culture wars. I’d draw the causal arrow the other way: Strauss and the Straussians had as much influence as they did because of the culture wars, which gaved their ideas more purchase than they otherwise would have had (and then, in turn, helped shape the culture wars, even if they didn’t cause them).

    If you’re reading this, Andrew, what do you think?

  6. I think Ben’s right on this one. Strauss in fact rarely gets mentioned in most of the discourse on the culture wars that I’ve been examining, except sometimes by left-leaning critics of neoconservatives, as a sort of scary European straw man. Even Bloom, who seems to be the only student of Strauss’s whom I would consider a first-tier culture warrior, only mentions his mentor once in “Closing” (as Ben knows better than I do). Irving Kristol studied with Strauss, but I believe he would have ended up at his culture war positions independent of Strauss–he was part of that swirl of social thought that led to the neoconservative lash out against the so-called “new class,” a position with origins elsewhere. In short, Strauss might have expressed antipathy to historicism, relativism, antifoundationalism, etc., as well as anyone, but such an expression would have happened without Strauss (if we’re allowed to pose a counterfactual). By the way, welcome back LD!

  7. One of the last things M.J. Adler got right in his career, in terms of great books, philosophy, and cultural elitism, was his critique of Leo Strauss via Allan Bloom.

    In the late 1980s, in an appearance on Buckley’s *Firing Line* (May 1988 and June 1989 appearance), Adler laid into Bloom for the latter’s elitist interpretation of the great books tradition and anti-democratic tendencies. Here’s a quote from Adler’s May 88 appearance: “The two great political philosophers that Bloom admires most are Plato and Rousseau, and neither is a democrat in my sense of the term. Neither would take Mill‘s view that democracy is the ideal form of government with a long future and almost no past.” [Aside: I transcribed the whole show at one point, but this quote is from a Stanford U. archives summary of the program. You’ll see more in my book.]

    So, insofar as Adler was a culture warrior, he attended to the Straussian tradition. But it was late in Adler’s career, just before he shot himself in the foot. And I agree with Ben that the Culture Wars caused some to attend to Strauss and his disciples, and not vice versa (except via Bloom, in passing, as Andrew noted). – TL

  8. @Tim, this is a great quote from Adler — so glad you posted it. Gonna have to buy your book.

    @Andrew, thank you for the welcome back. I haven’t been in a very intellectual frame of mind lately, so didn’t have anything of value to add to the discussions here. However, now that I’ve (belatedly) fulfilled my promise to you to review the Age of Fracture forum over on my blog, I can come back here and hop into the fray with a clear conscience.

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