U.S. Intellectual History Blog

The Culture Wars at UT Dallas

This evening it was my pleasure to attend a talk by our own Andrew Hartman, who came to the University of Texas at Dallas to discuss his hot-off-the-presses book, A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars. Andrew’s talk was sponsored by the School of Arts & Humanities at UTD. Our current S-USIH President, Daniel Wickberg, a professor in the School of A&H, introduced Andrew to the audience – professors, grad students, undergrads, and members of the community. All of us, I am sure, were most grateful for the work that went into putting this event together.

For his talk, Andrew chose to focus on the culture wars in higher education. He touched upon various issues covered at great length and much depth in his book’s eighth chapter, “The Battle for the American Mind.” The first slide, of course, was an image of his book’s fantastically unique dust-jacket in its eye-catching shades of teal, rose, and ecru. The second slide, alas, was a photo of Lynne Cheney. And with that, we were off on a jaunty tour of the conflicts that had wracked higher education in the late 1980s and early 1990s – reader response theory, deconstructionism, the assault on the canon at Stanford and elsewhere, the plaint of Allan Bloom and the boisterous response of Lawrence Levine, the reservations of Richard Rorty, the caveats of Todd Gitlin. In other words, the whole ball of disputatious wax.

I won’t summarize the substance of Andrew’s talk – I could hardly do justice to his arguments. For that, please consult his book. But I can say something about…wait for it…his style.

Andrew gave a great deadpan delivery of some of the more outrageous pronouncements of storied culture warriors, from the aforementioned Cheney to the pugilistic William Bennett to the pretentious Allan Bloom, with many stops in between. He played straight man to the multifarious polemical pugilists whose diffuse divagations made the curricular conflicts of the 1980s and 1990s such damn delightful reading. Andrew chose his pull-quotes well, and the audience laughed right when it should have. In short, it was a really fun talk.

The Q&A was also excellent. The first question went to Prof. Wickberg, as was fitting. He asked Andrew to talk a little bit about his periodization – about why Andrew saw the 1980s as a particularly significant moment in these more longue durée debates within American culture about, say, foundationalism. (I am not doing justice to the nuances of the question, because I wasn’t taking notes –- but I hope you get the idea.) Andrew responded by emphasizing the salience of the 1960s in setting the stage for the battles of the 1980s – an argument that he has sketched out here in general terms at the blog before, but that was probably new for many of those in attendance tonight.

Indeed, the audience at the talk this evening was lively and engaged and wonderfully inquisitive. Andrew fielded a broad range of questions. I can’t cover them all, but I’ll give a brief sample…

  • A questioner made the astute observation that “French theory” seemed to have more of an impact in the United States than it did in France, and asked Andrew to opine on why that was the case.
  • Another interlocutor suggested that the Left had in fact won the culture wars and wondered what that boded for the university.
  • Another audience member asked if the opening of the canon and other shifts in the 1980s and 1990 were perhaps related to generational change.
  • A questioner commented on a particular strain of American exceptionalism: the oft-repeated statement that the U.S., unlike any other country, was founded on an idea. The questioner wondered if this particular manifestation of American exceptionalism – the centrality of ideas — might explain some Americans’ anxiety about the university in the 1980s.
  • Another audience member asked if Andrew’s focus on cultural conflict was perhaps obscuring a more fundamental contest in which neoliberalism – particularly, the logic of the market – emerged as the victor.

These are just some of the questions that Andrew had to field this evening. And I gotta tell ya, in all honesty – he. did. all. right.

I have attended my share of lectures and talks at the university – that’s one of the great pleasures and privileges of being attached, however loosely or temporarily, to an institution of the higher learning.  So I have gone to lectures, either out of duty or out of delight, or some combination of the two.  But this talk was something else; this was something special.  At this talk, I saw my professors and my friends and my S-USIH colleagues all come together in conversation about things that not only matter to all of us in higher education, but that particularly matter to me in my work, right now, as I am immersed in the writing. Gosh, I thought as I sat there, what a benediction on this path that I walk — no, that we walk. What a benediction on the community we all build together here, in the real world of the university and the equally real (if slightly less solid!) world of online interaction — day by day, course by course, conversation by conversation, post by post, comment by comment. How marvelous to see that all come together in one sparkling hour. It was a wonderful evening. I wouldn’t have missed it for the world.

If you have a chance to go hear Andrew talk about his book, do it.

But if you can’t go hear Andrew, go hear somebody talk about his or her work. Go listen to a scholar tell about the project that she has given her life to, that he has given his best for.

Go ask questions.

Go argue.

Go applaud.