American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 23

Teaching the Humanities:

Essays from the ACLS Elementary and
Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum
Development Project


Moving to the Other Side of the Desk:
Teachers’ Stories of Self-Fashioning

Linda Wells

Transforming Canons, Transforming Teachers
Edward L. Rocklin

Shaping the Multicultural Curriculum:
Biblical Encounters with the Other

Lois Feuer

Nationalism, History, the Chicano Subject, and the Text
Darlene Emily Hicks

Ms. Higgins and the Culture Warriors:
Notes Toward the Creation of an
Eighth Grade Humanities Curriculum

John G. Ramsay

History and the Humanities:
The Politics of Objectivity and
The Promise of Subjectivity

Eve Kornfeld


Paul A. Fideler

Works Consulted

Toward a “Curriculum of Hope”:
The Essential Role of Humanities Scholarship
in Public School Teaching

Paul A. Fideler
Lesley College

. . . a decent and humane society requires a shared language of the good.
— Michael Ignatieff,
The Needs of Strangers

A Challenge that Requires
Scholar/Teachers in our Public Schools

The world outside our school doors and campus gates and its reflection in our classrooms is becoming ever more complicated. Each morning in Brookline, Massachusetts, for instance, students from 58 primary language groups head to school; in New York City the number of languages is double that. Our schools are absorbing the largest influx of immigrants since the early 1900s. And these children represent the vanguard of the cultural melting pot/polyglot that is taking shape for our immediate future. Clearly, we would all be better off if we were able to engage this circumstance thoughtfully in its full dimensions and respond to it with a sense of hope and expanding possibilities.

In this article I propose that current scholarship in the humanities has an indispensable role to play for teachers in facilitating both a deeper understanding of the present and identifying paths of hope and reconciliation from the often divisive and solipsistic forces we encounter in our classrooms.

I take this position not to advocate for the new scholarship, or to attack conventional assumptions, or to take sides in the burgeoning debate surrounding “critical pedagogy.” Far more important is that current issues of methodology and perspective are the touch points through which the humanities are engaging and responding to the forces that shape our world and delimit our choices. I will examine aspects of the postmodern critique of modern historiography, the contexts within which this critique developed, and the innovations in scholarship and pedagogy that it suggests. And, after assessing the fragmented and pessimistic tone of our current cultural “moment,” I will discuss the remedial possibilities in recent scholarship, especially the calls for more inclusive public discussion and the pursuit of enlarged understanding.

All of us who teach in the humanities, regardless of the grade level, have much to learn from and contribute to this scholarship: it is crucial that we create more opportunities to share our work and develop a sense of responsibility and advocacy for the humanities. I write with even more conviction about these matters now than I might have a year ago. My experience in the 1992–93 ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project at Harvard has confirmed my long-held belief that keeping up with current work in an area of knowledge and doing research or practicing an art form, if one is inclined, are crucial nourishment for inspired teaching at all grade levels. Exposure to current scholarship and outstanding practitioners in the humanities had a demonstrably renewing effect on the eight teacher fellows in the program from the Cambridge and Brookline public schools, all ambitious and accomplished teachers in their own right. Throughout the year, they reported that scholarship was deepening their insights into the dynamics of their classrooms and suggesting new instructional issues, materials, and strategies to them. And deep professional bonds developed among the public school and college teachers around the seminar table.

Beyond this, however, to be serious about instituting an education system in which all students reflect deeply on the world as it is, has become, and is becoming, will require not only a renewed commitment to the humanities inside our schools and colleges, but outside as well. In spite of the valiant efforts of many, the humanities remain on the margins in the continuing wave of national debate about public education, which was set off by A Nation at Risk in 1983. The most widely accepted discourse since then has focused on math and science, job skills, and cultivating national economic competitiveness. No national mandate has appeared calling for humanities funding, research, and teaching to make America ready for the next century. Meanwhile our nation’s civic illiteracy and intellectual and spiritual impoverishment proceed apace.

One reason for this is the absence of a common culture among humanities scholar/teachers that cuts across public school and higher education and can argue persuasively and forcefully for the humanities. The estrangement between public school and college and university humanities teachers in our country is deep and has been developing since the turn of the century. In those years prospective teachers began to be sequestered in “schools of education” in the universities; humanities scholars abandoned their interest in public schools and withdrew into their research; and the proponents of occupational and “life adjustment” training for the expanding numbers of working class and immigrant students defeated “the optimists,” who advocated the classical curriculum for all students (Kliebard 3–26; Perrone, Working Papers 127; Bestor 104–14, 120–21).

John Dewey, too, noticed early on the need to calibrate the schools to a changing student body and society. But, he was also a legendary optimist, if not in the classics-for-all sense. Dewey’s optimism rested in his respect for children as individuals, each with unique interests and capabilities for sustained learning, and his insistence that teachers from primary through university levels be scholars, not technicians. Scholars are “so full of the spirit of inquiry,” he wrote, “that no matter what they do, or how they do it” they awaken and inspire “ardent and intense mental activity” in their students (Perrone, Working Papers 129).1 Thus, Dewey’s disenchantment with formal teacher education did not have to do with its attention to child development issues, for he was always a careful observer of children. It rested in his assessment that the remaining normal schools and the new university schools of education were not training scholar/teachers who could probe the first principles of the subjects they taught, think independently about what to teach and why, and capture and inspire their students.

Dewey, then, was convinced that teachers, especially in a time of fundamental societal transition as his was (and ours is), must possess the scholarly skills and confidence to be “investigators,” teachers able to “change the conception of what constitutes education” if need be. Another great Progressive intellectual, W. E. B. Du Bois, was noteworthy for the natural dialogue he cultivated between his study and the world outside (West, Race Matters 40). Central to the lives of both men was this interaction between scholarship and society. It is just such a dialogue that needs to be reconstituted now and undertaken by more and more teachers.

The Postmodern Critique of Modern Historiography

Admittedly the “culture wars,” the debates that have been stirring and sometimes dividing humanities scholarship in recent years, are off-putting to the uninitiated. The arguments seem (and sometimes are) arcane and the manners of the combatants less than welcoming. Nevertheless, the debates are not frivolous and extraneous to our concerns as teachers: they provide essential insight into a range of perceptions and voices that increasingly are informing our society and our classrooms. After two decades of “high theory,” according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., the apparent relevance of this humanities scholarship to the lives of fellow citizens is “quite astonishing” (Loose Canons xiii). The terrain of the scholarship is too immense and rich to be encompassed, much less distilled, in a relatively brief essay such as this. Consequently, I will be confining myself to tentative and suggestive characterizations of its contours, drawing from historiography generally and more particularly from historical approaches to political philosophy, the lives of the poor and disenfranchised, and literature.

“Modern” historiography, Enlightenment in its spirit, assumes that historians can engage and understand the past rationally and objectively, determine the agency (intentions and degree of independent action) of historical actors, and, if appropriate, explain the process of change over time. It is attracted to large, encompassing meta-narratives of historical change (e. g., the rise of . . ., the transformation of . . ., etc.), often describing amelioration of, or progress on, a certain issue. Verification rests in “documents” (statutes, archival records, official correspondence) which it is believed reflect their environment, rather than in “works” of the imagination (poems, novels, plays, concertos) which do not. Quite often theory from the social sciences is used to help explain individual and cohort behavior. “Structuralists,” who overlap modern and postmodern historiography, use the social, economic, intellectual, or cultural environments of historical subjects to explain their behavior and in the process often deprive them of agency.

The terms “postmodernism” and “poststructuralism” are frequently used interchangeably to describe scholarship that seeks to separate itself from “modern” perception, epistemology, and knowledge (Rosenau 3 n.1).2 Postmodernists assume that the modern perspective derives its rationalism, individualism, and universalism from the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. Furthermore, the hegemonic and progressivist impulses of the Enlightenment led its enthusiasts to privilege this set of seventeenth- and eighteenth-century European commitments in the face of all other perspectives. Thus, postmodernists believe the Enlightenment and its heritage, the Enlightenment Project, have to be challenged. In addition to these scholarly values, “postmodern” is also used to refer to the present historical moment, marked by its paradigmless and skeptical tenor.

The postmodern critique of the Enlightenment Project is driven by at least three shifts in perception that have emerged in the last 30 years: a reassessment of the claims of science and philosophy; a turn toward language and its study (linguistics and hermeneutics, or interpretation) as the central component in the “human sciences”; and the view that thought and behavior in historical eras are shaped by a deep structure of unexamined assumptions.

1. In his landmark study, The Structure of Scientific Revolutions (1962), Thomas Kuhn argued convincingly that “normal” science in any age relies more on conventions and, even, social control than on logical compulsion. He found that linguistics, politics, and historical context all influenced claims of scientific truth (Kuhn; Bonds). Subsequently Richard Rorty offered a similar appraisal of truth claims in modern philosophy: they typically disguise a “contestable agreement” of a particular community of thinkers (Rorty, Philosophy; Borgmann 50). Thus, truths in science and philosophy, far from universal, are embedded in an array of contingencies.

2. The philosopher Charles Taylor is one of numerous proponents of hermeneutics who are convinced that language should be at the center of our study of human nature. He traces the roots of this commitment to the Romantic critics of the Enlightenment and, in this century, such philosophers as Martin Heidegger and Hans Georg Gadamer, who have been very important proponents of the philosophical importance of language. We have come to understand, according to Taylor, that man is above all “the language animal.” Although we continue to be attracted to the natural science approach to studying human nature because of the idea of “disengagement” that it conveys, Taylor insists that the model is implausible (1–11). Our ability to disengage is a modern myth that obscures how each of us is “constituted” by the “language” and “culture” which our “community” maintains and renews. What is required, then, for a more sound approach to human nature is a hermeneutical conception of the human sciences, in which language is understood broadly to include music, art, dance, and the range of symbolic forms (Taylor 215–16).

The incorporation of hermeneutics into historiography, the “linguistic turn,” has redirected the focus to how languages obscure, filter — in general, mediate — historians’ attempts to approach past reality. From this perspective, the past is more an array of obfuscating texts that must be deciphered than social and intellectual realities that can be encountered directly or reconstituted. Thus, the study of history is close to, if not synonymous with, the study of literature. And literary works, typically eschewed by modernists, enjoy equal status with documents: they are all approached as texts that must be treated with skepticism and linguistic ingenuity.3

3. Perhaps the boldest and most influential challenge to the Enlightenment notion of a linear, purposive historical process in which the qualities of a universal human nature are demonstrated, has been the work of Michel Foucault. He distinguished between the conscious “epistemological” level of knowledge and the unconscious “archaeological” one in any era. The unconscious level, or episteme, as he called it, is the most important of the two: although never formulated, it is a priori to everything else. The episteme provides codes to the theories and concepts in different fields of endeavor contemporary to one another: they will have more in common among themselves than any one would have with its like across time. Thus, to explore an earlier time, the historian, in the manner of an archaeologist, must dig down through the subsequent layers to the appropriate level. Within the context of this “open site” historiography, the outlooks, actions, motives, and intentions of individual agents in the past seem to be less important and structures and patterns more. Furthermore, since history is so many separate ages, or self-referential strata, one on top of another, it defies our search for an overall species goal or purpose; nor can a rational course be attributed to it. Our searching of the past will not yield a coherent and constant human condition or nature either (Foucault ix–xxiv, 367–373).

Foucault’s assessment of the Enlightenment rests on his view that “truth is a thing of this world.” It is produced by many forms of constraint and endures on the usual manifestations of power. Thus, the Enlightenment, the quintessential age of reason, had spawned through its truth claims for the human sciences an unprecedented degree of ordering, classifying, and regulating of the lives of criminals, madmen, the sick, the old, the delinquent, and the putatively normal (Gordon 131; Philip 74).

The cumulative effects of these challenges — to the objectivity of science and philosophy, to the idea of a universal and rational human nature, to a linear and purposive species history, and to a benign Enlightenment — have called into question long-unexamined assumptions about meaning, method, and proof within all areas of humanities scholarship. As I will point out, they also open new areas of inquiry and possibility as well. Nevertheless, the West seems to be in its deepest episode of skepticism since the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. Then, the revival of Academic and Pyrronhist skepticism undermined medieval scholastic assumptions about knowledge. This dilemma ultimately called forth the empirical and rational epistemologies of Francis Bacon and Rene Descartes, the Scientific Revolution, and the Enlightenment (Popkin; Shapiro; Allen). We in the late twentieth century also share a pervasive stoicism with our turn-of-the-seventeenth-century forbears. Our expectations are limited, and we assume that much in life that will affect us is beyond our control. Contemporary wisdom is to adapt to forces larger than the self. “Change” has replaced “progress” in our discourse.

The Contexts of Postmodern Innovations in Scholarship

If postmodernism teaches us anything, it is the importance of context in suggesting meaning and the parameters available for human agency. And, of course, our lives, our students’ lives, and our schools and universities unfold within contexts. We must be preparing our students to comprehend the world as it is and is becoming (or can be shaped to be). It is important, then, to appreciate that current humanities scholarship has been forged in the recent societal, global, ethnic, gender, intellectual, and spiritual upheavals that continue to jolt our equanimity. To reflect on the changes that have occurred in humanities scholarship and in the shape of American (and Western) institutions and thought since the 1950s is to become aware of startling and parallel transformations. Thus, Cornel West has it just right when he proposes to “historicise and pluralise and contextualise” the postmodern debate (“Decentering” 3). His point is that postmodernism understood most broadly is a set of responses to the decentering of Europe. The world no longer rests upon the European hegemony, which dates from the fifteenth century. Its displacement began with the fracture of the European polity in 1914 and accelerated with the ascendancy of the United States after 1944 and the decolonization of the Third World. West maintains that the last of the three is the most significant for developments in humanities scholarship because it has so much to do with the “dialectical reversal of our normal conception of order,” new identity formation and self-perception. Formerly oppressed persons now choose to view themselves as the subjects of history rather than its objects (“Decentering” 13).

Perhaps West exaggerates when he attributes all the social turmoil in the United States from the 1950s through the 1970s to decolonized sensibilities. But his larger point cannot be ignored: the post-World War II liberal consensus and its underlying Enlightenment assumptions about the nature of the world, proclaimed in the late 1940s, was short lived. It collapsed under deep questioning and the pervasive consequences of the Cold War; the social, civil rights, and gender struggles; the war in Vietnam; and the eroded credibility of traditional institutions from the family to the schools to the Presidency.4

How has humanities scholarship, especially historiography, been in dialogue with these shattering developments? The one feature of modernist historiography that has been under the most pressure from both postmodern scholarship and the decentering momentum of our postmodern era is meta-narrative. It has become much more difficult to develop one, encompassing, credible story about, let us say, the history of the United States or the progress of human rights. Postmodern historians want to avoid “privileging” one point of view in their narratives, but the alternative of attempting to incorporate all points of view or experiences often proves impractical. The result is often to abandon grand explanations altogether and to cultivate mini-narratives, stories, and descriptions.

Beginning in the 1960s, the attractiveness of the mini-narrative fit well with the deepening concern with social and political justice. What was called the “new” social history developed: it focused particularly on oppressed groups that had left little conventional documentation for historians. Through ingenious methods, historians brought to light the formerly unseen, silent and forgotten cohorts of the past. We learned much about the sex roles and families, child rearing, schooling, and work patterns of women and the poor and disenfranchised. The research was facilitated by the technology then becoming available: microfilm and microfiche made possible the wide distribution of heretofore inaccessible primary materials, and computers could compile and analyze huge data bases from parish, municipal, and census records. Theory from the social and behavioral sciences (anthropology, economics, and psychoanalysis, especially) was applied to crystallize or stretch the historian’s perceptions.

The stunning growth in black history, women’s history, family history, the history of education, and labor history attests to the vigor of this new history and the degree to which contemporary social concerns have influenced its application. An example of the capabilities of this new social history was Herbert Gutman’s reexamination of the black family, The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, 1750 to 1925. Gutman used plantation archives from counties in three southern states, manuscripts from the Freedmen’s Bureau, and census records. His resourceful family reconstitutions over several generations and his application of Sidney W. Mintz’s theory of mimetic cultures led to important revisions in our understanding of black history. Contrary to the conventional wisdom on the matter, Gutman maintained that the two-parent black family was viable throughout the punishing ordeal of slavery. And the American slave family was probably the first “Afro-American” institution, a hybrid of African and white American cultures (Gutman 3, 33–37, 151–55).

Mini-narratives have opened to our increasingly diverse student bodies histories closer to their experience and their communities. Besides the issue of privilege, however, postmodernists also object that meta-narrative, or any narrative, assumes the linearity of historical time and thus does not attend sufficiently to distinct linguistic contexts and Foucaultian layers. This has led to history as dialogue or encounter across time, in which care must be taken with contexts on both ends. In social history this often has led to immersion in the everyday life of a particular locality or village for a very restricted period of time with the purpose of developing a “thick description” of a small corner of the world.

This “encounter” approach has also been pursued fruitfully by historians of political thought and scholars of Renaissance literature. Political theorists, stifled by the hegemony of East Bloc materialism and Western positivism and functionalism during the Cold War, declared their discipline “dead” in the mid 1950s (Laslett vii). Soon thereafter ingenious historians like Quentin Skinner and J.G.A. Pocock began language-centered studies of the beginnings of liberal political theory in the European Renaissance and Enlightenment. Abandoning the meta-narrative requirement that the past must produce the present (loosely, the “whig” view of history), Skinner and Pocock were able to let the past be itself. It emerged as more complicated than it would have appeared under the requirements of narrative, but at the same time a richer setting, with much to teach us.5 For Skinner, this kind of history reveals how languages change in the dialogue between ideas and their historical contexts. Seeing great works of political theory as ideological responses to their local, immediate, and linguistic constraints adds to our understanding of political life itself. And the variety of moral assumptions and political commitments in the past become more evident; consequently we are helped to recognize the intellectual limitations placed on us by our own environment (Skinner 2: Preface). Pocock is convinced that the encounter approach allows the historian to show that political language is multi-disciplined: it addresses all the purposes and ways human beings articulate and communicate their political activity and culture. Complex societies will manifest a number of languages, each with its own biases on the meaning and distribution of authority. Therein lies the “richness of texture” to be found in the history of political thought and the reason for studying it (Pocock 5–7, 12–19, 21–23). Thus, our understanding of the “political” is broadened, not diminished, when encounter replaces meta-narrative. A wide variety of teaching options can be cultivated in this way, especially by focusing on particularly dynamic historical settings in Western or other cultures.

The study of Renaissance literature has been virtually transformed by postmodern scholarship: an interdisciplinary approach called the “new historicism” has emerged. Jean E. Howard, an advocate of this work, views all historical investigations as “interventions” into the past; objectivity is impossible. On the other hand, the late Renaissance environment and our historical moment are similar in their tone. If we can accept the tensions and contradictions that predominate in Renaissance texts, we will appreciate the resonance between our paradigmless ages. And, significantly, in this method literature no longer figures as merely the reflection of its setting: part of a textualized universe, it is a proactive agent, helping to shape the historical process and the political management of reality (Howard, “New Historicism” 15, 33).6

Stephen J. Greenblatt’s protean exploration of “self-fashioning” in the English Renaissance is an example of ingenious postmodern scholarship that has spoken strongly to us methodologically and metaphorically. Calling his method anthropological criticism and acknowledging his debt to Clifford Geertz, Foucault, Jurgen Habermas, Marx, Nietzsche, and Freud, among numerous others, Greenblatt seeks a “poetics of culture.” It would investigate the mutual interaction between the text and the world. This approach helps Greenblatt to use the writings of important Renaissance literary figures to see more deeply into their own struggles with self-fashioning, which took place within a cultural field polarized by an authority and its alien (4, 5, 9, 157). The new historicists have been influential: the Renaissance and the present do seem to have certain similarities, and self-fashioning is a compelling issue for students to work with. It requires a summoning of the self, autobiographical clarity, a close investigation of the forces in one’s environment, and perhaps a search for other settings and exemplary selves.

There is much in the new scholarship, whether mini-narrative, the pursuit of dialogue and resonance, or autobiography and self-fashioning, to broaden our understanding of the capabilities of the humanities as a way of reflection, study, and teaching. But, I am not suggesting that modern, conventional approaches to history and the humanities should be abandoned. Some issues will lend themselves to modern inquiry, others to postmodern. We become better teachers, it seems to me, as we enlarge our repertoire of materials and approaches to them. Although too many scholars have done so, we need not see modern-postmodern differences as an abyss or rupture in humanities scholarship. We should see the differences as complementary, expanding our capability to generate questions and devise the most appropriate means to pursue their answers. These are the very scholarly values and abilities that guided Du Bois and that Dewey wanted to encourage in all teachers. And, as Vito Perrone points out, they are crucial to a teacher’s ability to develop heuristic instructional topics (“Understanding Up Front” 2–3, 5–6, 10–20, 37–39).

Postmodern Society: Affinity and Pessimism

Thus far we have glimpsed the great possibilities that postmodern scholarship holds for enabling teachers to hear better the diverse stories their students have to tell and to use the humanities disciplines resourcefully to develop challenging, engaging, and worthwhile instruction for them. But, there is also a downside to the postmodern — in this instance the postmodern condition — that is often attributed to the scholarship. It is difficult to argue with Gates’s assessment that our late-twentieth-century world is “fissured by nationality, ethnicity, race, class, and gender” (Loose Canons xv). Our myriad divisions are really so many gemeinschaften, that wall us off from others while they offer us solidarity and a sense of belonging among similarly-situated and like-minded peers. The problem is the “others.” Can we be secure if we do not know them? In our determined pursuit of affinity do we inadvertently diminish our chances for a full life of the mind? Even an enthusiast for scuttling the modern synthesis like the philosopher Albert Borgmann concedes that there are problems with the traverse across the postmodern divide: an increase in dogmatism, ethnic strife, self-righteousness, and censorship (79). Our sense of fragmentation into self-enclosed communities of affinity and discourse is palpable. Certainly in our classrooms we can feel the pull of group identities separating our students along gender, race, sexual orientation, class, and other lines. All of this is matched by a pervasive, yet superficial, relativism whenever discussions move to issues of value, choice, or morality. “Everyone is equal, therefore all opinions are equal!” And the Bosnia metaphors that abound in our attempts to capture these tendencies suggest a situation in which civil war, rather than civil order, prevails.

Probably the biggest fear in developing curricula based on postmodern scholarship is that they actually will foment Balkanization and stand-off among students. Some measure of plausibility for those fears is provided by the proponents of critical pedagogy. The self-proclaimed radical pedagogues display a range of stances, however. On the one hand, Donaldo P. Macedo has described the American public school system as a sophisticated colonial model, driven by a “pedagogy of lies,” which does little more than “manufacture consent” for a corrupt social and political regime (202–204). On the other, Henry A. Giroux seeks to distance himself from the pessimism bred of the customary language of critique and domination and move toward a form of pedagogy that will make “despair unconvincing and hope practical.” He calls for reconstructing the “proletarianized” teacher force into transformative intellectuals. He and Peter McLauren would make the schools into truly democratic places that cultivate “critical agency” in students (Giroux 128, 122; Giroux and McLaren 19). As attractive as these goals are, and similar rhetorically to those I am advocating in this essay, the educational vision at the center of critical pedagogy — to use the schools exclusively to fight oppression — remains overly prescriptive nevertheless.7

Many teachers, sensing this, remain wary. They will eschew current scholarship if embracing it leads to the hyper-politicization of their classrooms. As I have argued already, this need not and should not be the case. After all, European hegemony is actually diminishing in the world, feminists long since have begun to dismantle male dominance, and racial and ethnic solidarity provide an accessible grounding for identity in a racially sensitive culture such as ours. Students may not even be aware of these circumstances, but they bring their consequences into our classrooms with them. Thus, it behooves us to use any and all scholarship that we can to respond to and move constructively with their energies.

Furthermore, few would deny that le quotidien on our postmodern terrain leaves much to be desired. It seems to have taken a heavy toll on our spirit, hope, and political vision. According to West, we have witnessed the disappearance of the spiritual communities that in the past helped Americans to face difficulties and despair. The results are lives filled with “random nows.” West is particularly concerned about the hopelessness and absence of meaning in life that is pervasive among poor urban blacks (Race Matters 5, 15). But the impression is growing that his concern applies to all our school-age youth and to 18-to-29-year-olds as well. Thus, we may be sliding into a form of hegemonic pessimism. Certainly our students should not be burdened with such a specter in their classrooms. If hopelessness has reached a fever pitch in our urban poverty ghettos and is evident more generally among our young, much of it is driven by the sense that there is no “place for me” and the belief that “we have no place to go together.” As a society we have become imprisoned in the present to an alarming degree, fenced in by an undecipherable future and a fragmented, inaccessible past (Fideler, “Historians”). Postmodern scholarship is very valuable in helping us to understand our entrapment and cultivate scaled-down narratives essential to our stories of self and community. Nevertheless, much of our current situation and the attendant hopelessness that it seems to engender is in the largest sense of the terms, moral, historical, and political. We have to find ways together to see farther ahead and back. The best kept secret in postmodern scholarship, the views of the skeptics notwithstanding, is that much of value is there for our ability to do this.

The importance of political thought in our attempt to look ahead is suggested by Tracy B. Strong, who maintains that politics at its most basic seeks answers simultaneously to two questions: Who am I? Who are We? He is convinced that rationalization, in Max Weber’s meaning of the term, had dissolved affective status relations and made economic concerns more important than politics long before the postmodern moment. Nevertheless, we now find ourselves immobilized, needing to recognize our failure to live up to a shared vision. That is to say, we need politics more than ever now; but, we are tempted to leave that often difficult “community of discourse” for other easier and more inviting realms (Strong 3–4, 159–60).

We have seen that these temptations have been heightened by the declining fortunes of the European Enlightenment Project and the concomitant encouragement to find one’s own community and story. Nevertheless, we have to ask ourselves: How wide is the circle of the we? Perhaps our preoccupations with the local, familiar, and unique, as important as they are, should be re-examined. One way to look at our recent priorities is that we have renounced all, or most, universal or species concerns. According to the historian David Hollinger, the most crucial “event” in intellectual history since World War II has been the expansion of ethnos-centered discourse and the simultaneous shrinking of species-centered discourse. We have foresworn all but our “ethnos,” our civic, moral, and epistemic communities of birth. Postmodernism, for its part, has valued affiliation and solidarity over objectivity, and we have forged an age of “anti-universalist historicism” (Hollinger 319–20, 322–23). But, as Gates points out, a mindless celebration of difference is no more viable than nostalgia for an imagined homogeneous past in working to ameliorate what ails us (Loose Canons xix). Clearly we must move forward.

The Quest for Enlarged Understanding

There are not only reasons but ways to overcome the stoicism and skepticism that have been shrinking and immobilizing our collective spirit. The seedlings from which strong trees of hope can grow have long since been planted. We simply have to mark them and nourish them. For example, just over a decade ago, Carol Gilligan expressed the belief that, through her study of women’s moral reasoning, women will arrive at an understanding of the “integrity and validity” of their thought, the experiences it “refracts,” and the “line of its development” (3–4). Beyond this, however, her goal was “to expand” the understanding of human development itself by supplying the data left out in the earlier construction of theory. The discrepant data on women’s experience can provide the foundation for a new “more encompassing view” of the lives of men and women and overall a “more generative view of human life” (174). Gilligan’s intention is a simple and elegant guide for moving ahead: validate the experiences and thought of marginalized populations and use the data gained to see our condition and possibilities more fully.

This model encourages us to build outward from affinity toward an enlarged understanding and to draw a wider “circle of the we.” There is evidence accumulating that this process is under way, even among some of the most redoubtable critics of the Enlightenment. Kuhn, for instance, has attempted to conflate objectivity and solidarity into a “single character”; and Rorty’s explanation of solidarity now shuns the strict ethnocentricity with which he had been identified proudly earlier (Hollinger 324, 328).

Nevertheless, with issues facing us of such a distinctly political cast (in the broad, rather than the partisan, sense), it is unfortunate that John Rawls’s A Theory of Justice, the work which resurrected political philosophy from its premature “death,” receives so little attention beyond the ken of political philosophy in our moment of epistemic transition. Rawls’s magisterial study developed the case for an imagined social contract that free, equal, and rational persons could accept to define “the fundamental terms” of their association, or polity. Seeking to establish “justice as fairness,” he pushed to a higher level of abstraction the Enlightenment social contract ideas of Hobbes, Locke, Rousseau, and Kant (Rawls 11).8 Rawls’s universalism and North American liberalism have made him an easy target for situation-conscious postmodern critics, and he is dismissed all too easily as yet another unregenerate modern who, in Hollinger’s words, has “confused the local with the universal” (317).

The lack of interest in Robert Nozick, an early critic of Rawls, is more puzzling. Perhaps it is because he focuses on individuals and not race, class, and gender cohorts in his theory and his conceptual vocabulary, like Rawls’s — state of nature, private interests, minimal state, utopia — seems anachronistic to postmodern historicist/linguistic parlance. Whatever the reasons, his somewhat ironic “framework for utopia” would seem to fit well in other respects with current groping from communities toward a larger sense of solidarity. Nozick argues against Rawls’s insistence that the universal principles of justice have to be agreed upon before the just and fair polity can be formed. We are all so different from one another in temperament, interests, abilities, and aspirations, according to Nozick, that, even if there is one ideal pattern for society, it is unlikely that it would be found in Rawls’s theoretical fashion. But that does not mean that the search for the perfect society cannot be undertaken starting from scratch. Nozick’s alternative is an experimental and experiential process. “Utopia will consist of utopias” (Nozick 311–12, 328–30). Individuals must see themselves as free to establish “communities” of their choice with other like-minded people. They can design communities and remain in them, improve them, or leave them. Some communities will succeed, others will be abandoned or split, and new ones will be undertaken. The framework requires a minimal state to settle disputes between and among communities, to guarantee uncoerced passage into and out of communities, and to insure that children learn of the possibilities of life beyond their immediate communities.

Nozick argues that his utopian process should be substituted for the static “end state” of typical utopias. It is in our particular communities, after all, that we realize our nonimperialistic vision of the good society. And, when the framework is infused with many such compelling visions, it delivers “the best of all possible worlds.” What is so current about Nozick, in my judgment, is the immanence, contingency, unpredictiveness, and diversity implicit in his framework. Only a fool or a prophet, he claims, would try to foretell “the range and limits and characters of the communities” that it would yield. And, perhaps most important, if one good society for all does emerge somehow from the process, it will only be because everyone voluntarily chooses it (Nozick 331–34).

In any case, the largely ignored, yet potentially valuable, models of Rawls and Nozick notwithstanding, theory of a more distinctly postmodern pedigree is alive and well and can contribute much to those who seek a road map across the divide. More and more we hear calls to synthesize voices and move on to new ground, and postmodern critique of modernism seems to be moderating. For example, Stephen K. White maintains that postmodern political theory has much more to offer than its notable assaults on Enlightenment universalism. One such contribution is its ethic of “responsibility to otherness;” another is its “moral-aesthetic sense” (White 19–21). These contrast markedly with the categorical and universal dimensions of the modernist ethic. White seeks particularly a middle way between Rawls’s universalism and Rorty’s celebration of group identity. The challenge, of course, is to recognize that the modern and postmodern predispositions can be complementary rather than binary opposites. Of the various paths forward embedded in the current scholarship, the perspectives of the historian Hollinger and the political theorist Seyla Benhabib are particularly interesting. Hollinger is less friendly to postmodernism, and Benhabib’s outlook is more deeply rooted in feminism. Both, however, acknowledge and build on postmodernism’s celebration of the local and fear of the universal.

Hollinger, unlike Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., for whom ethnocentrism has no redeeming qualities and is inimical to “America as a people” (Schlesinger 15–18), engages the unregenerate historicist/linguistic theories of the likes of Kuhn, Rorty, Geertz, and the historian and political theorist Michael Walzer. We have seen that he identifies the modern with a concern with the species and the postmodern with the ethnos. Diversity has replaced unity as the slogan to encourage respect and equality. And our “alterity-preoccupied, deeply anti-imperialist” generation of intellectuals is unprecedented in its ability to argue for enclosures and circle-drawing. The term ethnic has come to stand for “situatedness” within any bonded community. Yet, Hollinger reminds us that in an age of “deterritorialized communities” just where do we belong anyway? Communities are different in their boundaries, structures, functions, and demands. Although there is much blithe talk about communities of affinity these days, most people are involved in several communities simultaneously and pursue their lives shifting among several “we’s.” Our habit has been to over-simplify what it means to situate a person or a text (Hollinger 323–24, 328–30).

In light of these complications, Hollinger proposes a “postethnic” disposition toward affiliation in a variety of contexts. Hollinger’s postethnicity does not deny, but rather accepts consciously and critically, the many layers of we’s. The postethnic challenge is to steer a life’s path between cultural universals and the celebration of sheer difference. We must stretch the limits of the epistemic and moral “we” but do so without ignoring postmodern objections to universals. Through such devices as “immanent critique” (Rorty) and “intersubjective reason” (Habermas, Jeffrey Stout), we have to continue the search for practical dialogue across the boundaries that separate us and for a way to expand the “moral ‘we’.” The one “field of power” that is available to facilitate compromises and operating arrangements among universalist and particularist impulses, according to Hollinger, is the “nation.” In effect, we find ourselves in a veritable “state of nature” right now; we may have to rediscover or reformulate our understanding of the social compact and the nation (Hollinger 332–33, 335–37).

Whereas Hollinger encourages a postethnic political conversation that would move communities toward participation in a broader polity, Benhabib’s undertaking is to develop a post-Enlightenment defense of universalism. However, her universalism, unlike Rawls’s, will be interactive, acknowledging of gender differences, and alert to contexts. Her goal is to find a new way for reason to yield justice with dignity and the promise of happiness. To do this, Benhabib argues, we must move from a “legislative” to an “interactive” rationality (1–5). The latter actually leads to a community of inquirers in the spirit of Charles Sanders Peirce’s approach to truth-searching. Benhabib is very much a contextualist: reason and the moral self must be situated in the contexts of gender and community. At the same time, one’s context must not be considered closed or a prison. Sounding a bit like Nozick, she insists that individuals have the discursive power to challenge their situatedness in the name of “universalistic principles, future identities and as yet undiscovered communities” (8). And, in the same spirit of avoiding a break with the modern that we have seen in White and Hollinger, Benhabib holds that the seeming opposites, the “generalized” and the “concrete” other, actually exist along a continuum that extends from “universal respect for all as moral persons” to the “care, solidarity, and solicitation” that connects us to those closest to us.

Even though relations of justice occupy the privileged position within the ethical domain, they do not exhaust it. Benhabib is very concerned with challenging the long-held convention in universalist theories of justice that freedom, equality, and reciprocity apply only to the public sphere outside the household. Consequently, the private sphere, left to its own devices, has been “an opaque glass” that has left women and their traditional spheres of activity invisible and inaudible. In the spirit of Gilligan’s critique of and remedy for traditional theories of human development, Benhabib observes that this reveals an epistemological deficiency in modern political theory, not merely an omission or a blind spot. And, acknowledging her debt to Hannah Arendt, Benhabib calls us to a “moral conversation” that will enable the art of “enlarged thinking” to develop. This can happen, she maintains, if we bring “civic friendship” and solidarity to the many perspectives that constitute the political (10–14).

Hollinger and Benhabib offer different, but equally promising, visions of hope and possibility for our ability to move toward an enlarged sense of who we are as a people. They are clearly postmodern in their insistence on the epistemological importance of difference and situatedness and in their discomfort with a priori universals. Yet, they admit that their political goals are not irreconcilable with those rooted in the Enlightenment — a polity formed from reasonable discussion, deliberation, and compromise.

I can imagine distilled versions of Hollinger’s and Benhabib’s outlooks serving as very stimulating vehicles for student projects and discussions about how different communities can live compatibly and productively together or what it means to be part of a community and a polity at the same time. In conjunction with models derived from Rawls and Nozick, the mix of possibilities becomes even more exciting. Speculations about the state of nature could be developed, which in turn would inevitably lead to deliberations about the social contract and the differences between nature and polity. What is the social contract? What purposes does it serve? Historical and contemporary examples of social contract-building could be explored. The point is that current scholarship about the polity is not irrelevant; rather, it is essential for our capability to transform the divisive and pessimistic inertia of the moment toward a practical and hopeful sense of where we might be able to take ourselves together.

We must be able to look back with some comprehension as well. One of the sources of our current societal disorientation is our lack of any sense of where we have been. And the devaluing of the Enlightenment has taken much of the luster and interest away from the founding of the United States, our social contract moment. But a new study of American constitutional thought, in a modernist tone, To Make a Nation: The Rediscovery of American Federalism by Samuel H. Beer, may reverse some of that. Beer argues that the founders of the republic were not anti-democratic aristocrats seeking to protect the existing hierarchy under another name. They believed in popular sovereignty, but thought that it could be preserved only with rather complicated institutions, e.g., the Constitution of the United States. Particularly important in light of Hollinger’s and Benhabib’s work is that Beer believes that the founders of the republic explicitly designed a polity that encouraged wide participation and rational deliberation in a “government by discussion.” It was expected that involvement in that discussion would yield “broadened perspectives” for all (Sunstein 38, 39, 41).

Another timely effort to help us look back with more comprehension is Ronald Takaki’s new volume, A Different Mirror: A History of Multicultural America. Takaki works in a postmodern way, but he is attempting to revive the meta-narrative. Perhaps, better said, he is developing a multi-narrative or a pan-narrative of America’s ethnic history.9 This is bottom-up social history, in which Takaki relies heavily on personal stories and works, such as novels, poetry, song lyrics, and the like, to build his narrative fabric. He is convinced that, by sharing their stories, America’s diverse groups “are able to see themselves and each other in our common past” (16).

A “Curriculum of Hope” and the Revival of the Humanities

Looking back with interest and comprehension, looking forward with hope and expectation. These are not the worst starting points for our educational challenges in the next years. A well-grounded “Curriculum of Hope” might even be a distinct possibility. And, were we to become more articulate about how the humanities facilitate the search for a “shared language of the good,” we might begin to attract more support from the larger society.

The questioning and evaluating of just what the humanities are and can do and say with credibility to our skeptical and stoical age has been, and continues to be, painful and polarizing. Nevertheless, as I have tried to suggest in these pages, the doubt and pain brought on by this fundamental reappraisal in scholarship is bringing the humanities into a closer engagement with the world. And, beyond the uncertainty, the scholarship is already clearing paths toward the far side of the “postmodern divide.” If we scholar/teachers can find our voices, the humanities, now of a wider circle and enlarged understanding, will come into their own in our schools.


1. For Perrone’s discussion of Dewey, see Working Papers 127–32. Israel Scheffler has argued similarly that teachers be acknowledged to have “a special dedication to the values of the intellect and the enhancement of the critical powers of the young” (11). [return to text]

2. Rosenau elaborates on several differences between the two terms. Postmodernists, for example, are “more oriented toward cultural critique.” They focus on “the concrete in the form of ‘le quotidien,’ daily life, as an alternative to theory.” Some postmodernists even revert to the pre-modern and are “classical empiricists, privileging sense experience, a highly personal, individual, nongeneralized, emotional form of knowledge.” Poststructuralists are much more comfortable with theory and are particularly interested in methodological and epistemological matters. They concentrate on deconstruction, language, discourse, meaning, and symbols and “remain uncompromisingly anti-empirical.” Another important distinction, according to Rosenau, is that between “skeptical” and “affirmative” postmodernists: the former deny the possibility of truth; the later reconceptualize it within personal, local, and community contexts (chaps. 5, 7). Rosenau’s book is a useful and didactic exploration of the assumptions, purposes, and intricacies of the new scholarship. She pays much attention to the humanities, and her discussion is largely transferable to the humanities. [return to text]

3. Lawrence Stone (189–94), a modernist, and Gabrielle M. Spiegel (194–208), a poststructuralist, offer their views on history as literature in Past and Present 135 (1992). Dominick LaCapra has done much to alert historians to developments in the neighboring fields of literary criticism and philosophy (Rethinking Intellectual History 14, 29–31, 63–65). Also see John E. Toews on the “linguistic turn.” [return to text]

4. Rosenau agrees, maintaining that postmodernism’s arrival was “no accident” but rather “concurrent with — and perhaps in response to — societal upheaval, cultural transformation, political change, deep philosophical debate over core values, and disciplinary crises” (9). [return to text]

5. For a brief overview of this new historiography of political thought, see Fideler and Mayer, Introduction. [return to text]

6. Recently Howard has become more critical of the new historicism; see her “Feminism and the Question of History.” [return to text]

7. For a fuller development of this appraisal of critical pedagogy see Maxine Greene, “Reflections on Postmodernism and Education.” [return to text]

8. For a very compact presentation of his views see Rawls, “Justice as Fairness.” [return to text]

9. At the 1993 National Institute of the ACLS Elementary and Secondary Schools Teacher Curriculum Development Project, approximately one week after I had formulated the term “pan-narrative” in this article to describe Takaki’s integrative work, Terry Moreland Henderson, a Unified School District and a fellow in the UCLA/ACLS workshop, suggested to the assemblage that “pan-culturalism” has a more encompassing and enveloping tone to it than does the now over-used and fragmenting “multiculturalism.” Among other things, these examples of the need to invent terms indicate that our curricular practices and commitments have begun to outdistance our conceptual vocabulary. [return to text]