of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 24
Perspectives on the Humanities
Transformations in the Humanities
HUMANITIES AND THE PUBLIC SCHOOLS:
PERSPECTIVES FROM INSIDE THE ACLS PROJECT
Sandra Blackman, Sandra Okura
Sandra Sanchez Purrington, Robert Stein
Humanities and the Public Schools:
Perspectives from Inside the ACLS Project
At the Rancho Mirage Institute last summer , 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 womens
experiences, womens voices, womens 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. Its 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 theres 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, womens
rights, gay rights, childrens 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, womens
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 cant 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 anyones 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 Kozols 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, its 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 nations competitive position in world markets, increases
productivity, and leads to higher incomes for everyone.
Thats it. I dont think that the Democrats understanding of educations
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 dont 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
isnt 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
Whittles 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. Im 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 cant 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 worlds
peoples on this beleaguered planet?
Note: Portions of this text are adapted from an article appearing in
Radical Teacher 44.