American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 24

Perspectives on the Humanities
and School-Based
Curriculum Development

Stanley Chodorow

Humanities and the Public Schools:
Perspectives from Inside the ACLS Project

Richard Ohmann

Panel Discussion
Sandra Blackman, Sandra Okura
Sandra Sanchez Purrington, Robert Stein

Transformations in the Humanities

Stanley Chodorow
University of California, San Diego

It is exceedingly difficult to carry out the task Michael Holzman set for me when he invited me to summarize developments in the humanities during the last quarter century or so. The problem is this: The developments are bewildering, and there is no way to describe them in under four hundred pages; indeed a recent attempt, Redrawing the Boundaries,1 which deals only with literary studies, took nearly six hundred. The bewilderment stems from the multiplicity of critical stances or approaches now being taken, from the nature of the language in which their practitioners describe their enterprises and ideas, and from the fact that the approaches are still changing rapidly even as scholars coin names for them. As a result, those engaged in the various programs of critical inquiry are sensitive about any attempt to describe their enterprise in plain English, which they view as an act of reductionism, if not of aggression.

Before launching into my aggressive, reductionist introduction to the character and preoccupations of contemporary humanistic scholarship, I want to sort out some issues. First, I will concentrate on history and literature, because philosophy is not a subject taught in primary and secondary schools.

This is not to say that philosophy is stagnant. At the moment, its surface is roiled by very interesting controversies about the relevance of the findings in the neurosciences to ancient philosophical problems like the nature of mind. Likewise, science has become the model for explorations of epistemological and metaphysical questions. And all of this is controversial. Traditionalists insist on the relevance of the study of the great philosophers and on the traditional approaches to such problems as mind and epistemology, while the radicals, if I can call them that, are eagerly taking a fresh look at these problems through the study of the sciences.

The one thing nearly all philosophers agree on is the one thing, in my opinion, that you have to worry about — that is, that philosophical investigation rests on the making and analysis of arguments. If you teach your students anything about philosophy, let it be how to make and analyze an argument; everything we do in the academy depends on that skill and, more importantly, on the acceptance of the notion that common knowledge — that is, knowledge that all can obtain or accept by the use of reason — is a product of arguments about evidence and its meaning.

Second, though I want to acknowledge the controversial nature of contemporary humanistic scholarship, I do not want to concentrate on the politics of those controversies, at least the politics within the academy. But I do want to characterize the underlying intellectual debate. Very roughly speaking, the controversies in history and literature have centered on the problem of objectivity. In historical scholarship, this is a very old issue. Thucydides claimed to be writing objective history — “a history for all times” — in an implied slap at Herodotus and other “romantic” historians, and modern historians have worried a good deal about the epistemological problems of their craft. Even during the century and a half when historians took it for granted that what they discovered through research was objectively true — that it was possible to write definitive histories — they were often concerned about how a historian, who was necessarily a person embedded in time and place, could extract him- or herself from quotidian concerns to recreate a true portrait of the past.2 When I ask historical questions, don’t I ask them from a point of view and with a set of concerns that reflect my own situation? Put another way, the writing and reading of history are human activities connected in some way with other aspects of our lives — otherwise, it is hard to imagine why we would engage in them. To what extent do those other aspects of our lives affect the way we write history?

In literary studies, the question of objectivity is fresher, which is no surprise because the discipline is younger. That is not to say that philology is young — it originated in Alexandria in the third century BC — but that literary criticism as an academic subject is relatively young. It came into being in the second half of the nineteenth century as an act of rebellion against the tyranny of the classics. The question at the time was whether modern literature — that is, anything written after about AD 400, but mostly the literature of the sixteenth to nineteenth century — merited formal study. Reading it was fine; enjoying it was almost fine; but did it deserve a place in the curriculum? The traditionalists thought that the study of Greek and Latin literature, or really the study of grammar (for they only read selections from the classics and concentrated entirely on matters of linguistic analysis) would produce educated people, who could then indulge in intelligent recreation by reading contemporary literature. The radicals pointed out that the study of grammar was not the study of literature, that students did not really acquire the ability to read Greek and Latin, and that the methods of study had positively harmful effects on the students’ ability to enjoy and judge literature of any kind. In 1883, the radicals created the Modern Language Association to promote the study of modern languages and literature. In the 1890s, some of them ventured to create courses on contemporary literature (Jude the Obscure, Puddin’-head Wilson, etc.) and some survived; most who even thought of doing that were fired by their senior colleagues.3

I see that while I am supposed to be looking at recent developments, true to my profession, I have started by looking back beyond the present age. Let me continue in that vein for a moment, because I take it as a given that the retrospective is the necessary basis of the prospective view.

As literary study entered the university, it followed tradition at least in so far as it concentrated on the historical approach. The main aims of literary study were the establishment of a history of literature and the development of criteria for distinguishing “good” from “bad” works. Indeed, what might be called connoisseurship was an important aspect of early modernist studies in literature. One exponent said that he wanted to “send into [the] public, to serve as leaven, men who know good work from bad and who know why they know it.”4

The dual aims of literary study led to the formation of two schools, the historical and what became known as New Criticism. The former arose from philology and concentrated on the historical relationships and order of literary works. The literary canon derived from historicist scholarship that applied criteria of greatness to winnow the literary production of the past and to produce a genealogy of works that exemplified the characteristics of civilization. (In that imperialist age, civilization was singular, a universal culture to which all peoples might aspire.)

New Criticism seems connected to connoisseurship. It proposed to treat literary works as artistic objects and to study them in close detail. As a result, it tended to formalist studies, such as the study of poetics, but its salient feature was its ahistorical approach. For the New Critics, literary works, like masterworks of visual arts or music, had a universal, timeless significance; they represented what it meant to be human, not what it meant to be any particular human being embedded in time and place. Consequently, the historical context or the relationship of great works to other forms of writing or cultural artifacts were of trivial significance compared with the appreciation of their qualities as masterpieces. They were worth study for their own sake.

It is amazing that in the period following World War II, the proponents of these two traditions of literary study joined forces to propound a curriculum. This curriculum was based on a canon of great works — thus connected to the historicist tradition — and taught close reading of texts — thus a product of New Criticism. The unifying theory of this tradition of literary scholarship and teaching was “scientific” in the sense that it believed it possible to apply objective criteria to literature to produce clear enough distinctions of quality. It was scientific also in believing that reading great works closely would reveal the essentials of human nature as understood by civilized people.5

I won’t go into all the variants that clustered around this core curriculum of research and teaching — exegetical, psychoanalytic, and so forth — but of course different approaches were possible within the overarching theory that supported the canonical tradition. The important thing here is not the argument about which works should be part of the canon — as supporters of the canonical tradition point out, there has been constant battle over that issue — but that a canon is representative of civilization, which is singular and unique. (Once imperialism became less acceptable, this point was revised to recognize the existence of civilizations other than western or European, so a canon became the representative or bearer of the civilization that produced it, and scholars recognized at least three civilizations — “western,” Islamic, and Chinese — each with its canon.)

Contemporary literary scholarship takes its stand in opposition to the canonical tradition, in its singular or multiple form. The new scholarship arises from a rejection of the notion that criteria of quality are universal and ahistorical (or as most literary scholars would put it acultural). It starts from the proposition that all criteria of judgment are culturally generated and manifest the culture that produces them. Moreover, culture is not a singular or uniform and static thing, but a product of various, co-existing social relationships. At its most extreme, this view of culture would make each person a separate cultural entity, our individual cultures constantly being revised or changed by interactions with others. For the most part, however, the talk about cultural formation and character in contemporary scholarship resolves its focus on groups rather than individuals.

The sources of the counter-canonical view have not been fully revealed — or perhaps one should say that they have not fully revealed themselves — but some seem obvious. On the intellectual plane, the view of culture propounded in the seventies by the anthropologist Clifford Geertz has played a large role.6 Geertz reacted to the scientific model of anthropological research, which aimed at finding laws of social behavior and the universal elements of humanness. Anthropologists had long been concerned with the effect that the observer had on the quality of the data he or she collected in this enterprise, but Geertz wanted to take a step beyond the effort to define, distinguish, and therefore neutralize the observer’s effect. He argued that the observer is necessarily a part of the data observed.

For Geertz, the anthropologist is a reader, an interpreter, of the culture he or she studies, and the culture is like a text. Just as the reader affects the meaning of a literary text — that is, just as the reader’s interests, point of view, and cultural character determine the meaning of the literary text for that reader — so the anthropologist affects the meaning of alien cultures. As such the interpretation of culture can be heuristic, but it can’t be true in the sense of scientifically true — the same for everyone. One anthropologist’s reading of a culture may help others to read — may contribute to the knowledge and perceptiveness of other readers — but it will not constitute a description of that culture forevermore.

One can see immediately that Geertzian anthropology, which is strongly opposed by most anthropologists, undermines the notion that there are objective criteria of judgment out there that you and I can appropriate and apply to literature to produce an objective judgment or knowledge. But, also in the seventies, other, non-intellectual movements similarly undermined the prevailing notions of literary scholarship.

Perhaps the first of these movements to affect scholarship was feminism. In 1970, following the brilliant, lonely example of Simone de Beauvoir, Kate Millett published her Sexual Politics and started the feminist revolution in scholarship. Very advanced, and very few, women had already begun to see that the civilization represented in the literary canon and in the scholarship about it excluded women writers and the woman’s point of view, but Millett got the attention of a broad audience and started a heated debate that has only recently begun to cool.

This revolution rested on two main arguments: First, what is called culture is based on power relationships within a society. Each distinct class or group in the society has its culture, but the one identified as the culture of the society is the one produced by the dominant group. For the feminists, the culture represented by the literary canon was male, but you can see that any group could use this argument. For African-Americans, the culture was white; for African-American women, white and male; and so on. The argument emerged from the recognition by African-Americans during the sixties and by women during the seventies that the culture or civilization the academy identified as American in American Studies Programs excluded many groups in American society. I think that the women were the first to see the intellectual consequences of this recognition, but since the seventies all groups that have seen themselves as excluded have joined the intellectual revolution feminism engendered. And all have asked: Where do our cultures fit in and contribute to American culture?

The second argument of the feminist resistance was that what a literary work is depends on who is reading it. The earliest feminist work, such as that by Carolyn Heilbron in the fifties, read canonical works from a woman’s point of view. Once the revolution got going, African-Americans, Asian-Americans, Hispanic-Americans, gays and lesbians, everyone who could place themselves in a distinctive group began reading works from what they argued was their particular cultural perspective. This enterprise was fueled by the development of reader-response theory, which holds that a work is a product of the text and its reader. It is different for each reader, and for the aggregate of readers it is different over time and from place to place. A work of literature is no longer an object, out there, to be analyzed, appreciated, worshipped, whatever. It is a negotiated result of an interaction between its text and a reader and as such it is a living thing, enlivened by the reader’s heart and mind.

What one can see in this sketchy history of literary studies is a transition from an art historical enterprise to a cultural studies enterprise. The canon was a canon of literary art, and aesthetic judgments and arguments were a constant feature of literary scholarship and discourse. In its new mode, literary studies are concerned with the way literature represents and contributes to culture, which in turn is viewed as an exceedingly complex conglomerate of dominant and subject or oppressed subcultures. If the establishment of the canon was an act of cultural domination, then the interesting question is: What role did it play, or did its establishment play, in the negotiations among the cultures in the society whose values and aesthetic judgments it purported to represent? And what is asked about the canon can be asked about the works of literature on it. What role did they play in the culture of their time and in the subsequent cultures in which they played a role? One cannot answer this question without reading “around” the canonical work and without seeking to understand the complexities of olden cultures, so it is inevitable that literary studies based on the Geertzian idea of culture and on the cultural politics of contemporary American society would become cultural studies. (It should be pointed out that literary scholars engaged in cultural studies still read and teach works that were in the canon, but not because they are masterpieces — a category some of them would reject altogether — but because they were exceptionally rich representations of and contributors to culture.)

Finally, if literary works and their readers are not objects that can be precisely and definitively defined, then one has to find a way to describe their basic characteristics in relation to how they are produced. Cultural studies argues, therefore, that what a work of literature is and who a reader is — that is, what he or she brings to the work of reading — is culturally generated. Culture, not the law of nature, produces the persons and the objects they read or use or study. Yes, males are biologically different from females, but what is significant and useful in understanding human society and human beings is that manhood is culturally different from womanhood. Perhaps the best way to state this basic point is that culture produces the significant characteristics of men, women, European-Americans, African-Americans, and all of the other hyphenated Americans you can think of. A corollary is that cultural difference does not derive from biological or other physical difference and is not, therefore, inevitable, unless cultures are innate.7

Nearly all of the main approaches to literature now used in American universities fit into the general rubric of cultural studies. Feminist criticism takes as its starting point the view that women have been oppressed and that the recovery of women’s history and literature and the feminist reading of all literature will establish an independence and equality for women. Gender studies, which derives from women’s studies, takes the somewhat broader view that gender is a cultural construct and that it is one of the determining categories of personal, social, and cultural life. How you read literature depends on gender, a complex cultural element of identity. African-American, Hispanic, Asian-American, and Native American studies proceed from a similar view: While the categories they study are partly biological, the most significant aspects of difference are cultural.

The most popular or widest spread form of cultural studies is the new historicism. The old historicism focused on the primary task of writing a literary history from which a canon of great works emerged as the central tradition of civilization and on the subsidiary task of establishing authentic texts of the great works, which then could be studied for what they revealed of the intellectual and artistic tradition. The new historicism begins with the axiom that culture is a web of connecting elements (Geertz’s image). Each group in the society has its particular form of culture and because of the material processes of the society — the politics, economy, and other commonalities — every element of the web is connected with every other. Consequently, the analysis of any one component constitutes a contribution to the analysis of any other. Moreover, every element of the culture is affected by its connection to the others and proper study will reveal the connections — the study of the parts revealing a sense of the whole. The new historicists study literature as a manifestation of culture and as a participant in cultural formation.

As a result, they have seized on Roland Barthes’s famous announcement of “The Death of the Author” and on Michel Foucault’s question, “What is an Author?” Foucault argued that the idea of the author, the unique creator of a work of literature, was a historical construct, the product of nineteenth-century liberal ideology and its cult of the individual (which also produced the modern view that what gave rise to and defined the Italian Renaissance was the discovery of the idea of the individual). Barthes and Foucault argued that both the author and his or her work were products of culture and that it was really impossible to extract the author from his or her surrounding milieu and to separate out the particular, individual intentions or the independent choices of the author from the welter of cultural conflict or contention in which he or she existed and wrote. The new historicists have taken it upon themselves to analyze that cultural milieu and to produce a discursive description of literary works in place of the old historicist discrete description. The new historicist buries literature in its culture and looks at the culture in and around the works he or she studies. The old historicist extracted the work from its place and held it up for viewing as an object of universal, timeless significance.

The idea of the web of culture does not imply any particular kind of relationship between and among the elements of a culture, but the new historicists have accepted the premise of their forebears among the feminists, African-Americanists, and others that those relationships are basically power relationships. Consequently, new historicism politicizes literature in the sense that it takes political relationships to be the most significant, the basic, type. The idea of politics implied by this stance is an old one. It views the relationships among social groups — classes, genders, ethnic groups — as political, because it takes their relationships to be power relationships and politics is about power. This is politics as Aristotle thought about it, concerned with the structure of society rather than with the decisions a community might make about this or that issue.

In sum, what you will find in your literary studies this year will be a variety of approaches that mostly share the cultural studies point of view. You will also find scholars who hold fast to the basic ideas of the New Criticism and the old historicism. The conflict between the two points of view is often bitter, and as many of you will have noticed it is also not purely academic.

One of the ironies of the situation of literary studies in the United States is that the society seems to care so little about it — if the amount of money devoted to it is a fair measure — but that politicians are constantly talking about its evil influence. In part, this anomaly stems from the fact that literature belongs to everyone, so it is a common possession that the politicians can exploit for their own ends. In part, it arises from a concern for the community. In the post-World War II era, the civilization held up in the canon and the idea that the purpose of instruction in literature was to educate readers to a common point of view and pride in that civilization was taken to be one of the commonalities of American society. Cultural studies threatens that commonality, without providing any replacement. So we humanists can be accused of contributing to, if not causing, the disintegration of society, and that is something politicians can exploit.

Let’s turn to historical studies. In a sense, they both preceded and followed literary studies in the move toward cultural studies. As everyone knows, historical studies went through a revolution during the nineteenth century, a revolution usually associated with the name of Leopold von Ranke: Scientific history would establish the definitive truth about the past; the task of historians was to find the facts, which were waiting there for the finding and which would speak for themselves.8

The triumph of positivism in historical research was also a triumph of Thucydides over Herodotus — that is, the triumph of history as the study of human affairs (one should say the affairs of men) over the study of past societies and cultural mores, for Herodotus was interested in culture more than in events. Thus, a century after von Ranke, when I was a graduate student in history, politics and ideas were still the principal subjects of historical scholarship and study.

But the shift had already begun. In the late thirties, a group of young historians led by Lucien Febvre and Marc Bloch began to develop a new historiography, focused on social history and on culture. This was the Annales school, named for its journal, Annales: Économies, Sociétés, Civilisations (founded in 1938). After World War II, this school slowly emerged as dominant in France, principally as a result of the scholarly achievements of Febvre, Fernand Braudel, Emanuel LeRoi Ladurie, Georges Duby, and Jacques Le Goff.9 By the fifties the influence of the Annales school had begun to spread, leading to the foundation of new journals — the English journal Past and Present was founded in 1952 — and to a fundamental shift in western historiography. We might say that we are now moving into the age of Herodotus.

Historical studies have also been affected by the political movements that engendered cultural studies — feminism and the civil rights movement that spawned ethnic studies. The previous move into social history made young historians highly receptive to the new women’s studies, African-American Studies, and other group studies, though to establish their new scholarship in departments of history took a half a generation of hard struggle.10

Historians have not, generally, joined the cultural studies movement, because, I think, they cannot accept one of the basic ideas of the Geertzian approach to culture. History focuses on change, which means on causal relationships and chronology. Cultural studies, even in its new historicist form, focuses on relationships that are not causal. The question for new historicism is: How do the elements of a culture relate to and affect one another? For the new historicist, culture is multicultural, a kaleidoscope of shifting, colored chips that reflect on one another, affecting the way we perceive them.11 Historians may also be interested in relationships, but only because they affect the development of something — an institution, a cultural attitude, an idea — over time. Historical work implies that there is a something to be explained. Cultural studies has made every something — even literary texts — permanently contingent and thus forever imprecise.

But when you delve into historical studies this year you will find that they have much in common with cultural studies. Many historians — particularly feminists, African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans and Native Americans — are like their counterparts in literary studies in viewing culture as a product of contestation between dominant and subject or oppressed groups. Consequently, you will find a large number of engaged historians who think that their studies are about political struggles and contribute to political struggles. But in historical studies the willingness to consider the historical significance of previously ignored groups has less often led to the politicization of the subject in the sense that all relationships are read as political in nature.

As I noted earlier, the notion that all elements of a culture are connected as in a web does not necessitate that the connections are political in every instance. That was the statement of a mainstream historian who is skeptical of the claim that politics explain all. I, for one, worry that what explains everything explains nothing, but because I’m willing and because I’m a dean and have an obligation to remain open-minded I am engaged in endless discussions of this issue, and I should characterize my view as my current view.

It is appropriate that I have ended this short discourse with a revelation of the self, for a hyper-consciousness of the self is at the center of modern humanistic work. What I have tried to explain is that this egocentricity is not a self-indulgent doodling producing an elaborate and abstruse study of the navel. It is philosophically based and has important things to say about how our society and culture has formed in the past and is forming now. That is what the politicians recognize and what they don’t much like.


1. Greenblatt, Stephen, Redrawing the Boundaries: The Transformations of English and American Literary Studies (New York: Modern Language Association, 1992). [Return to text]

2. For example, R.G. Collingwood proposed that the historian had to place himself, by an act of imagination, in the time and place about which he wrote. See The Idea of History (New York: Oxford University Press, 1956), based on lectures given in 1936. Collingwood was trying to provide a basis for the claim that history was an objective science. The attitude of historians of the late nineteenth century is nicely illustrated by Fustel de Coulanges, famous for his history of the ancient city, who, when his students gave him an ovation after a lecture, is reported to have waived his hand modestly and said, “It is not I but History who speaks.” [Return to text]

3. For an account of the way American universities taught the classics and of the rebellion against that tradition, see Graff, Gerald, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1987). [Return to text]

4. Spoken by Bliss Perry of Williams College, quoted in Graff: 125. [Return to text]

5. Literary study was, therefore, related to anthropology, which also aimed at an understanding of human nature, though by the study of “primitive” peoples instead of through the literature that represented, while it demonstrated the highest development of human character, the civilized state. [Return to text]

6. See Geertz, Clifford, The Interpretation of Cultures: Selected Essays (New York: Basic Books, 1973). [Return to text]

7. Some might argue that culture is a “natural” product of the human creature, but those engaged in cultural studies would respond that the character of the culture produced is not biologically determined. Put another way, culture might be natural to human beings, but the character of any particular culture arises from social and political processes. [Return to text]

8. The story of Fustel de Coulanges related earlier (note 2) represents the confidence of this movement. [Return to text]

9. Marc Bloch died in a Nazi concentration camp in 1944. [Return to text]

10. On the relation of that struggle to the objectivity question, see Novick, Peter, That Noble Dream: The “Objectivity Question” and the American Historical Profession (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1988). [Return to text]

11. Multiculturalism is not, therefore, merely an expression of identity politics but has a philosophical underpinning also. These sources of multiculturalism may strengthen one another, but I am not certain anyone has looked at that aspect of the movement. [Return to text]