U.S. Intellectual History Blog

Parsing the Mid-Century Magisterial Male

In research for my book, I often run across footnotes referring to the two-volume primary source collection on higher education edited by Richard Hofstadter and Wilson Smith, Americn Higher Education: A Documentary History (Chicago UP, 1961). When Tim started his recent series regarding Hofstadter’s views on education, I decided it was high time I acquired a copy of the collection for myself.  I found a used set online for less than $20.

Because it gathers many key texts in the history of American higher education (or excerpts of key texts) into one place, this is still a highly useful anthology.  But, remember, it’s a “Mad Men” era anthology, and it evinces a Mad Men era sensibility.  It includes no documents related to the founding of the Seven Sisters, no documents about (or by) women in higher education more generally, nothing about HBCU’s.  There are several interesting texts regarding land grant universities, but in this mid-century “definitive” work edited by one of the era’s most esteemed historians at one of its most prestigious schools, the high-prestige schools and the eminent men who led them at various times take up by far the most space.

The introduction to the collection is just a few pages long and is found in the first volume. It gives a brief overview of past collections and explains the need for this one, but does very little in the way of editorializing about the arguments, debates and questions represented within the anthology.  As is often the case, though, the acknowledgments are the most interesting and perhaps the most informative sections coming from the editors’ hands.

Here are the acknowledgments, from the penultimate paragraph of the Preface to Volume One (there is no prefatory material in Volume Two):

We gratefully acknowledge the assistance of those who helped us in preparing the manuscript for publication.  An initial grant of funds to begin typing the documents was made in 1958 by the University Research Committee of Princeton University.  Thereafter our expenses were met by a generous grant from the Committee on the Role of Higher Education in American History.  Walter P. Metzger advised us on the areas of interest to be represented in the documents.  Without the enthusiastic efforts of graduate students in American history at the Johns Hopkins University, who proofread the typescript, the volume would have taken much longer to complete.  Those who helped in this way were Lynn Parsons, James McPherson, Owen Edwards, James Crooks, and Travis Crosby.

From this we learn that the labor of putting together the anthology – or the labor of delegating the labor – probably fell mostly to F. Wilson Smith, the junior scholar of the editorial team.  Smith, who passed away in 2015, earned his PhD from Columbia and joined the Princeton faculty in 1953 – apparently as an ABD, since his dissertation was not published until 1955.  I guess if your advisor was Richard Hofstadter, landing a job at Princeton was not a tough thing to do.*  And having Richard Hofstadter as a co-editor probably didn’t hurt in terms of securing funding, a publisher, and so forth.  Per Smith’s obituary, he moved on to Johns Hopkins in 1958 – where, it seems, he worked with the above-named graduate students – before heading to U.C. Davis in 1964.

We also learn that Walter P. Metzger, Hofstadter’s colleague at Columbia and his co-author on the 1955 tome, The Development of Academic Freedom in the United States, had a hand in the selection of the texts.  (Metzger just passed away in 2016). And we learn that the work was supported by and of interest to The Committee on the Role of Education in American History, a group of preeminent American historians commissioned by the Ford Foundation through its Fund for the Advancement of Education, a committee whose junior members included Bernard Bailyn and Lawrence Cremin.**

So in terms of text selection and topical arrangement, the anthology reflects not simply the thinking of Richard Hofstadter and/or Wilson Smith, but rather the research interests and professional and scholarly pursuits of an entire cadre of (for the most part) American intellectual historians.  Thus, a historian of sensibilities might look at the structure and content of this anthology alongside the near-contemporary monographs of Bailyn, Cremin, Hofstadter, Metzger and others writing on American education to get a sense not only of the prevailing – perhaps “consensus” – view of the history of education in America, but also of the shared assumptions and frames of thought that made such a view possible and plausible.

What would emerge from such a study is, more than anything, a certain style, I think, a certain voice.  I know this voice; you know this voice.  I sometimes seek it out in reading, to soak up some of its extraordinary self-confidence, its fluid and unperturbed ease of expression. I call this prose voice “Mid-Century Magisterial Male.”  I’m fond of it, the way one is fond of one’s elderly avuncular acquaintances.  Sometimes I borrow this voice; sometimes I borrow it without even realizing.  Once or twice I have been compelled to take it up, over my objections, because it would make my argument “better” by replacing some other registers available to me, effectively suppressing the tell-tale sounds of my irritated response to some of the Magisterial Male academics I have encountered in the archives and in the round.

In any case, that’s the style of this anthology – Mid-Century Magisterial Male – and I don’t know that Hofstadter shaped this style of thinking about education (or anything else) so much as this style shaped Hofstadter.  This is what comes of paying attention to Foucault and viewing this particular author (or, in this case, editor) as a precipitate of the text.  This approach has the effect of rendering the question of Hofstadter’s elitism or Marxism somewhat less central.  I don’t know whether that’s a good or bad thing – I suppose it depends on what question one is trying to answer.

As to Tim Lacy’s question, from his recent comment, regarding the editorial stance of introductory remarks in the anthology – well, there’s not much editorializing at all.  Here, for instance, is the introduction to the selection from the works of John Dewey:

John Dewey (1859-1952) was born in Burlington, Vermont, and received his B.A. at the University of Vermont in 1879 and his Ph.D. at the Johns Hopkins in 1884.  He taught psychology and philosophy at the University of Michigan and Minnesota up to 1894, when he became Professor of Philosophy at the University of Chicago and in 1902 the director of its school of education.  From 1904 to his retirement he was professor of philosophy at Columbia University.  His voluminous writings in philosophy, psychology, education, and politics won him world-wide renown, and he was acclaimed a major figure in the tradition of American pragmatism.  More than any other writer, he molded the progressive movement in American education.

That’s a pretty bare-bones introduction to an author – biographical facts, professional history – and is in keeping with the other entries in the anthology. But perhaps we can glean something from word choice here and there in the last few sentences of this summary.  The mention of “voluminous” writings across several fields is factually true, and might be read as either admiring or somewhat disdainful.  So, a possible reading: “The man wrote a lot – too much! – and never really mastered one subject, but flitted about the intellectual landscape.”  To read the passage that way would reflect more than anything one’s prior conclusions about the Mid-Century Magisterial Male line (if there was just one line) on John Dewey.  More important, perhaps, is the passive voice in the second half of that assessment of Dewey’s career:  “he was acclaimed a major figure in the tradition of American pragmatism.”  Was he or was he not a major figure in Pragmatism?  Well, he was regarded as such, “acclaimed” as such.  Do the editors believe he deserved such acclaim?  They don’t say. But what the editors can say for sure about Dewey is that he, “more than anyone,” is responsible for shaping “the progressive movement in American education.”

For the Mid-Century Magisterial Line on the progressive movement in American education – or for just Hofstadter’s line – we will have to look elsewhere.

One text I would suggest:  “The Revolution in Higher Education,” Hofstadter’s bespoke essay in the crucial but under-discussed anthology edited by Arthur M. Schlesinger, Jr., and Morton White, Paths of American Thought (Boston: Houghton-Mifflin, 1963).  I’ll write about that anthology next week – and then I have to get back to Plato.  For even though he will keep, I will not.


*I’m assuming here, but I think it’s a safe bet, and I’m sure looking at the acknowledgments to Smith’s first book would settle it — or one of our readers can. I did look at Smith’s dissertation in ProQuest; it does not name his committee, but throughout it he cites Hofstadter’s forthcoming work on academic freedom. That, and the fact that Hofstadter agreed to co-edit a volume with Smith, would indicate a close mentor/mentee relationship.

**Sol Cohen, “Revisiting the History of Urban Education: Historiographical Reflections,” in History of Educaiton: Major Themes, vol. II, Education in its Social Context, edited by Roy Lowe (New York: Routledge, 2000), 406.

9 Thoughts on this Post

  1. Ha! Just today, after reviewing Paula Fass’s excellent bibliography of Hofstadter’s work, in *The Hofstadter Aegis: A Memorial*, eds. Stanley Elkins & Eric McKitrick (Knopf, 1974), I too planned to read “The Revolution in Higher Education.” I’ve had the Schlesinger-White collection on my shelf for years. I also found five other articles in Fass’s biblio, related to education, that may bear on my questions about Hofstadter’s philosophy of education. As I said in a comment to Livingston’s post/reply, I’m leaning toward an answer that RH’s philosophy of education was entirely developed in relation to (and in the context of) higher ed, and therefore suffers from “elitism” (or elitist tendencies) when (mis)applied to K-12.

    Otherwise, I appreciate your relay on the tone and facts of the editorial comment in the Hofstadter-Smith volumes. I’ll take your word for it that there’s not much for me, therein, on RH’s philo of edu. – TL

  2. Sure, it sounds delightful now

    On a more serious note — I had a meeting a little while back with someone who wanted to talk to me about professional development and networking in the current (non) job market, about how people who are not in TT jobs can find and be part of a collaborative intellectual community. Good conversation, but one of the questions threw me: “How did you develop your voice?”

    Whatever answer I gave to that was sufficient and true, I guess. But it’s almost the wrong question. The wonder is not that any of us develop a voice of our own; the wonder is if we can somehow keep it and, after everything, manage to use it.

  3. On Hofstadter’s tone, style, and GENDER, check out this footnote (in the pic linked below) from The Hofstadter Aegis (Knopf, 1974), p. 308.

    Given that his spouse began contributing in 1947 (with her “exceptional editorial gifts”), it stands to reason that Age of Reform, Anti-Intellectualism in American Life, and other works benefited. Perhaps Beatrice effected the “magisterial male” that you’ve heard in RH’s texts? – TL

    • Tim, thanks for this. (Per our convo, I fixed the image display.) The Mid-Century Magisterial Male style owes a lot, perhaps, to the erasure of “female speech” — of “feminine” language and of female labor. Think of Diana Trilling, editing the less-gifted Lionel’s manuscripts all their married life, to the point where she might have been regarded as a co-author of his most fluid prose, only to discover that he literally erased her hand in the margins of his manuscripts, so that the archives echoed with his voice alone.

      We can’t make any claims for Hofstadter’s reliance (or lack thereof) on his wife’s collaborations beyond noting that someone thought it worth mentioning in a festschrift — and, again, thank you very much for noting it. But it’s worth thinking about how much the style of this (rough) intellectual cohort owes to the obfuscation and/or devaluation of “the feminine voice.”

      • Tim, I’m looking forward to that post. I continue to have some things to say about “this” at my own blog, and I’m going to keep on with that. Just for here and just for now, though, I’ll say this: I see an obvious connection here to the development and growth of the 20th century idea that “true scholarship” does not involve “teaching,” even while someone like Hofstadter was rightly renowned as a beloved and dedicated teacher. “Teaching” did not become feminized labor, especially at the college/university level, until the 20th century, and really not until the post-title-VII era at that. Shifting the “burden” of teaching to adjuncts and lecturers (the majority of whom are women) in order to free up scholars for their “real” job is another way of gendering intellectual work, so that the “unmarked” term “scholarship” really invokes (our retroactive nostalgic vision of) a Mid-Century Magisterial Male, while “teaching” is regarded (and counted) as something less.

  4. A wonderful post. My own undergraduate mentor, Hanna Holborn Gray, and my doctor father, Eric Cochran, created amazing voices on the page: hers lucid, elegant and persuasive, his eloquent, forceful and often sharply satirical. Neither fitted this model, or accepted the pathetic efforts at it that I sometimes made, and Eric in particular was a natural subversive who hated the stuffed quality of academic life. Given a prize by the University of Chicago Press for the best book by a Chicago faculty member, he filled his speech of thanks with quotes from the negative reviews. Their students were lucky. Do you know Lawrence Weschler’s Mr Wilson’s Cabinet of Wonder? It evokes the wonderful satire of the museum version of that mid century voice that David Wilson created in his Museum of Jurassic Technology?

    • Ah, thanks for this! I do not know the Weschler, but I will acquaint myself with the book forthwith.

      I always think of Jacques Barzun’s line (speaking of MCMM!): “To ourselves, we have no style; we simply are. Yet posterity will smile all the same.”

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