U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Tim’s Light Reading (9-15-2011)

1. Rocky Balboa and America’s Mid-1970s Identity Crisis

Ted McAllister reflects on Rocky as a film having more meaning than we might otherwise attribute to it. Here’s a part of McAllister’s conclusion:

Audiences could identify with the film as it at once gave expression to the frustrations and the ideals of many Americans—it pointed to what had gone wrong with the nation even as it pointed toward the ideals Americans invested in their nation. In 1976 many people yearned for a renewed sense of pride in the United States even as they had come to distrust their government and the many elites who, they believed, had brought it to ruin. In the coming years many Americans looked for leaders who understood their point of view, who could take America out of the hands of various elites, and who could project an image of a strong and prosperous America. This new populism made possible a political realignment that sundered the New Deal coalition that had dominated American politics since 1936.

As you can see from the last line, a large part of McAllister’s essay deals with the 1970s conservative populism. He also relates the film to the American Bicentennial celebration.

2. The Meaning of Wal-Mart

An old colleague from my days at Loyola Chicago, Mark Long (now a history instructor at the University of Central Florida), reminded me of this excellent piece, appearing in 2004 in The New York Review of Books, on Wal-Mart’s place in the history of labor and business. After reading the review, authored by Simon Head, I was struck by how it captured—nay captures—a large slice of the meaning of Wal-Mart to our society. Sure, the article is mostly negative, ignoring the company’s ability to bring us “goods” at low prices. But that’s my experience and memory of the company.

3. A History of Historians in the Public Sphere

This might deserve a post unto itself, but here is an essay by Thomas Bender on historians’ past presence, and role, in the public sphere.

4. Long-form Reading, Students, and Teaching

I’ve been pondering, in a low-level way over the past few weeks, Alan Jacobs’ take on the decline of “long-form reading” among students. While thinking about Jacobs I ran across this reply. Lee Konstantinou fairly characterizes, I think, Jacobs argument, and offers a reasoned appeal for action rather than the fatalistic sense of inaction—of abandonment—at which Jacobs arrives. I think Jacobs is trying as much to understand his own loss and renewed enthusiasm for long-form reading (from “deep attention” to “hyper-attention” and back again, through a Kindle of all things!) as his students’ issues, but Konstantinou still generally gets Jacobs right. Here’s a provocative slice from Jacobs’ piece (bolds mine):

Over the past 150 years, it has become increasingly difficult to extricate reading from academic expectations; but I believe that such extrication is necessary. Education is and should be primarily about intellectual navigation, about—I scruple not to say it—skimming well, and reading carefully for information in order to upload content. Slow and patient reading, by contrast, properly belongs to our leisure hours.

Yes, I know that the word “school” derives from scholia, meaning leisure. I have tried that one on my students, with no more success than anyone else who has ever tried that one on students. When we say that education is a leisure activity, we simply mean that you can only pursue education if you are temporarily freed from the responsibility of providing yourself with food and shelter. Maybe this freedom comes from your parents; maybe it comes from loans that you’re going to devote a good many years to repaying. But somebody is buying you time to read, think, and study. This is not just a legitimate but a vital point, one that every student really should remember. But it can only be misleading and frustrating—trust me, I’ve learned from experience—to call this leisure, because leisure for us has come to mean “what we do in our spare time simply because we want to.” From this kind of leisurely encounter, education, however wonderful, must be distinguished.

5. Herbert Butterfield

Some professional historians may know Butterfield’s name because of the term “Whig history”—the fallacious tendency of nineteenth-century historians (and some today) to see all history, and political history in particular, as progressing to some particular present point (i.e. as having a teleology). However, this review of Michael Bentley’s The Life and Thought of Herbert Butterfield (Cambridge University Press, 2011) reveals the latter as a much more intriguing character than one might suspect. Butterfield did publish other works (not as much as he wanted), but also caused a scandal due to a love affair. – TL

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  1. “Bentley did publish other works (not as much as he wanted), but also caused a scandal due to a love affair.” I think you mean Butterfield.

    The Whig Interpretation of History and The Origins of Modern Science are two of the most influential works of historical scholarship published in the English language in the twentieth century, so I think we can call Butterfield’s career a success even if he didn’t accomplish everything he aspired to. We should all fail to realize our amibitions in such a fashion.

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