American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 24

Perspectives on the Humanities
and School-Based
Curriculum Development

Transformations in the Humanities
Stanley Chodorow

Richard Ohmann

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

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

Richard Ohmann
Wesleyan University

At the Rancho Mirage Institute last summer [1993], I listened to teacher fellows from Los Angeles, Minnesota, and Cambridge-Brookline (I had to miss the San Diego report) review their work of the previous year. These are some of the main issues they discussed:

  • What texts are important to teach? How are they related to the traditional canon? Where did that canon come from? What parts of our whole culture does it represent or leave out? How should it be revised, for a more inclusive understanding? What should be added and left out? How do we connect new entries to older traditions and texts?

  • There was a widely shared assumption that in a multicultural society learning should be culturally complex, that it should admit many voices, experiences, and perspectives. Participants criticized not only the literary canon, but the conventional presentation of history, as monocultural or Eurocentric, in its identification of our society with its origins in Puritan settlements, the founding fathers, and so on.

  • Most participants agreed on the importance of bringing students’ varied cultures into the curriculum, through oral history and related strategies. They also saw a danger in this approach, that of celebrating only the culturally particular, and of essentializing each subculture or cultural mix — the “ethnicity of the month” approach, as one person called it. How to locate identities and cultures in the whole social process? How to cherish difference yet find common ground.

  • There was a widespread wish to bring forward in the humanities women’s experiences, women’s voices, women’s history, and to make gender a main category of inquiry and understanding. Some also advocated teaching and learning about sexuality — at the very least recognizing that many of our students are, and many of our writers have been, lesbian or gay, and not hiding that experience behind a tacit idea of the “normal.”

  • Some urged that the humanities take account of popular cultural forms, and integrate their study with the study of high culture, as in the Minnesota “history cans,” that included newspaper writing, popular song, documents from working class movements, and so on, along with canonical texts and forms.

  • Teacher-fellows called for more than recognizing the variety of our cultural experience. They wanted critical pedagogies that explore how the very categories we use to grasp experience and identity — high, popular, normal, queer, straight, black, white, Latino, masculine, feminine — are made and remade on the field of culture, rather than being given facts of nature.

  • I heard much about such pedagogies: for instance, about inviting students to take initiatives in choosing emphases, projects, and texts to bring what is important in their lives into their school learning. How to do that critically, teachers wondered: how to respect students’ interests and experiences without yielding to the mistrust of intellectual life endemic in our society?

I am pleased to see how much common ground there is among university and public school teachers. To note these shared interests and aims, though, also forces recognition that many teachers of the humanities in schools and colleges share something else, the hostility and suspicion of powerful groups in our society: of educational conservatives, of some on the political right, of mass media pundits, of many but not all religious fundamentalists. Much of what the ACLS participants are up to has, like many projects of university humanists, come under extraordinary fire recently in widely broadcast attacks on multiculturalism and “political correctness.” The charges are all too familiar: that multiculturalism amounts to the erosion of “the” western tradition; to denigration of the good and the beautiful and a subversion of values in general; to a privileging of the third rate, a campaign for ignorance and a denigration of capital “C” culture. It’s corollary, in this view is “political correctness,” which puts the very possibility of civilized discourse under siege and enforces a tyranny of newspeak and censorship.

Not that there’s nothing here to criticize: a “PC” moralism that sometimes amounts to little more than a politics of words and gestures; a rigid multiculturalism that sees every culture as self-enclosed, pure, and knowable only to its members, so that learning and critique are all but impossible. But so much more comes under assault, including much that is fresh and interesting and democratic in humanistic scholarship and teaching. Why has this happened now? What is the historical conjecture in which we gather to pursue this project?

Here is one thought I have been exploring: that with the fall of the USSR and of “actually existing socialism” almost everywhere, the durable forms of Cold War battle have quickly become antiquated. Of what use now in galvanizing domestic reaction is the anticommunism that was the air we breathed for forty years and more? With dissidence pried loose from any illusion of links to the evil empire, the task of maintaining the status quo in the U.S. must find a new basis. When internal challenges to domination and privilege can no longer be understood as communist subversion, the right and many not on the right turn to an assault on social movements that have in fact grown more and more separate since 1970, when “the” movement began to lose what coherence it had, and many of its constituent groups veered toward identity politics. The right has picked up on that change in the forms of dissidence, and has mounted one assault after another on entitlements won in the 1960s and 1970s: on affirmative action, women’s rights, gay rights, children’s rights, workers’ rights. On the ideological front this strategy materialized just after world socialism began to crumble, in the attack on multiculturalism and political correctness.

Let me take that conjecture as a bridge to three others, about the world-historical changes of the last five years, and the bearing they may have on work in the humanities. First, in spite of the forces arrayed against identity politics, issues of racial and ethnic and sexual identity will continue to sit high on our agenda, and the fall of the Soviet Union will make the more heated and volatile. We see in the Balkans, in Central Europe, in the republics of the former USSR, an eruption of ethnic hostilities and national claims unmatched since at least the mid-nineteenth century; they find parallels in similar divisions from India to South Africa, from Spain to Britain and Canada. Nationalism seems now the privileged mode of popular assertion, even as established nation states lose their autonomy. The great movements of people across national boundaries, following the imperatives of the flexible labor market, are augmented by movements of refugees. The United States is more a nation of immigrants now than at any time since the immigration of 1924 shut down earlier migrations. New ethnicities gather; some old ones regroup as their homeland counterparts struggle for nationhood (Ukrainian, Croat, Serb, Lithuanian). Black Americans and other groups seen as racially different continue to face repression, discrimination, and the hard choice whether to resist in separatist or integrationist terms. Gay and lesbian people are finding more of a voice and forming more of a political and educational movement. Asian-American Studies appears alongside Afro-American Studies, Chicano studies, women’s studies. All these movements overlap with and enter into the humanities. Multiculturalism will be with us for quite some time, its forms changed in ways I can’t predict by the global surge of ethnicity.

Second, the end of the Cold War itself changes everything in this country. Most of the talk about this has been happy talk — the liberation of peoples, the release from fear of nuclear war, the peace dividend; and I do not want to spoil anyone’s evening by cynically refusing the grounds for hope. But I do want to flag some questions about the peace dividend and its potential for diverting money to education. I wonder. For decades the peacetime military, the Cold War military, has not just been a drain on the economy: it has been a site of knowledge production, an alternative education system, and a place where very many young people have jobs, who might otherwise join the reserve army of the unemployed. The expanding proportion of young people in universities and the lengthening period of their stay have served the same purpose, and helped adjust the labor market to the boom — and bust — cycle. Were the army and other services to spill a million or so people back into private economy, along with those laid off from military production, would the colleges be able to absorb the surplus?

As for the public schools and public universities, one thing is clear: the taxpayer revolts that dotted our landscape in the 1980s and gathered into a national strategy of the Republican Party have set in place a massive reluctance to pay for education, and widened the “savage inequalities” of Jonathan Kozol’s recent book. Now the old Sputnik rationale for strengthening American education is gone with the Cold War. Gone, too, is the Cold War rationale for deficit spending, as we heard quite explicitly in the 1992 political campaign. A Ross Perot commercial said, “the enemy is not the red flag of communism but the red ink of the national debt,” and the other candidates gave at least lip service to that principle. If anything like the sacrifice that Perot and many businessmen call for in the interest of debt reduction should come about, it’s hard to see how funding for the work we do can remain at even its present skimpy level.

Third, at the same time, a different rationale for policy comes forward with the fall of the Soviet Union, filling up space occupied by the old one, but doing so with needs and ideas that will not play out in the same way at all. Our competition now is not the Soviet behemoth, but resurgent Europe, invincible Japan, the Asian gang of four, soon China. And the competition is not military but quintessentially economic. The very national interest has been purified, distilled to its innocent, 1920s form: the business of America is business. To be sure, perils to the national interest remain here and there around the globe, and we can expect clean little wars now and then to fight back tyranny, “restore democracy,” and defend oil or the like. But mainly the national interest will be spelled out in terms of productivity, competitiveness, efficiency, technological development, and so on.

Where will the humanities be borne by such imperatives? I can hardly guess; but I note that in the legislative and political arenas, the economic rationale for education reigns almost without challenge. Already in 1989, the education President stated just four goals of his education bill:

I believe that greater educational achievement promotes sustained economic growth, enhances the nation’s competitive position in world markets, increases productivity, and leads to higher incomes for everyone.

That’s it. I don’t think that the Democrats’ understanding of education’s task is much different; nor in fact is that of Albert Shanker. We are not talking here about citizenship in a democracy or about timeless values, but about economic measures of success. Thus, the increased pressure toward vocationalism, against humanities and the liberal arts; for instance, the sharp rise of college courses in technical, business, and professional writing. Some of the work we and you do is already, in effect, subcontracting for business. But that is not enough. We don’t do enough for profits that business is willing to consign to the educational system the task of matching knowledge and skills to the job system. Business is giving less to public education. It is doing more education internally ($50 million a year at Ford, $30 million dollars at GM, and so on and on). Why not? If the only interest is the competitiveness of American business, why not educate just the workers you need in just the ways you need? Why pay for literature and history? If South Carolina can attract a new BMW plant partly by offering to supply the company with pre-trained workers — as recently happened — isn’t such an expenditure of state funds more obviously beneficial than increasing support for the state university system or for humanities in the schools?

Privatization moves on quickly in another way, too. We have all been hearing about Whittle Communications and its Channel 1 — required viewing, commercials and all, for about eight million students. Now comes Whittle’s Edison Project, backed mainly by Time-Warner and a British media firm, and headed by former Yale president Benno Schmidt, planning as many as a thousand for-profit schools within a decade. Should the voucher system become a reality, of course, it would open wide the education market for private investment. I’m not sure what the place of the humanities might be in this new environment.

If I am right in these conjectures, three things follow. First, teachers of the humanities are inextricably caught up in debates that drive national and global politics, now and for some time to come. I reject the idea that our work is nothing but political, but it can’t be non-political. Too much is at stake, including democracy. Second, the economic pressure on education is intense and will probably become worse. Funding will be meagre. We will be urged to be productive, practical, efficient, vocational. The climate for broadening the principles of humanistic education is inclement.

But third, our society has never needed more than it does now the kind of vision and critical thinking offered, at their best, by the humanities and by public education. The old socialist vision is moribund. The Cold War “triumph” of capitalism has produced no new vision, and many new fears about the tired old one of endless economic growth, for the “haves” of the nation and the world. What better place than the humanities to stimulate vision, to begin imagining a new direction for history, that might lead toward friendly cohabitation of the world’s peoples on this beleaguered planet?

Note: Portions of this text are adapted from an article appearing in Radical Teacher 44.