American Council of Learned Societies
Occasional Paper No. 5

Learned Societies and the
Evolution of the Disciplines

Saul B. Cohen


George W. Stocking, Jr.

The Cost of Professionalism in the Humanities

David Bromwich
Andrew W Mellon Professor of Humanities
Princeton University

Let me start by referring to a book in the philosophy of science that has had tremendous impact in the humanities, Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions. Kuhn argued there that what had once seemed to be, in an enlightenment story about the progress of science, a series of gradually widening discoveries that enlarged the domain of knowledge, had in fact been a succession of revolutions: each rejecting certain plausible discoveries for the sake of certain others that lay along the path it happened to favor; and each sometimes preferring such pragmatic virtues as coherence and order to the supposedly scientific virtues of testability (with respect to a hypothesis) and conservatism (with respect to established evidence). Thus Kuhn appeared to say that in moments of crisis the very shape of knowledge changed, so that, in any given revolution, the character of the knowledge won or lost was determined by the interests of the discoverer.

This way of looking at science, in the light of the sociology of knowledge rather than the facts of the universe, was by some readers taken to imply that even our securest assumptions about the world were conditioned as much by consensus, or what Kuhn himself called the psychology of research, as by a disinterested pursuit of truth apart from ordinary human motives. Kuhn for his part, it later became clear, actually thinks it is a fact that there are facts, that science does find some of them, that much of the knowledge that is thus gained may eventually be transformed without being destroyed. He is a believer in at least a version of scientific progress. But these complexities of his position did not commonly survive the moral that many people in the humanities read into his story. It came through to them something like this: “All knowledge, even the knowledge we once imagined to be ‘hard,’ is partly defined by context, including above all social context. Truth does not issue naturally in a right perspective on the subjects of learned inquiry. Rather truth itself is a product of someone’s choice of a perspective. Further, since the dominant perspective may change quickly, and several often contend at once for preeminence, there is no idiom of justification that will assure the claims of any one perspective over any other.”

It will be evident that even on a more careful reading than this, Kuhn’s argument might lead to two quite different thoughts about the relationship between knowledge in the sciences and the humanities. It could make one see the motives and conditions of scientific discovery as more similar than anybody had thought to the motives and conditions of, say, literary interpretation. Let us call this levelling downwards—downwards, I mean, only on a scale that runs from certainty to uncertainty. But the argument could equally make one see the methods and procedures of humanistic scholarship as more rational than anybody had thought, because more akin to the motives and procedures of scientists, once we have eliminated the ideal of pure scientific truth. Let us call this levelling upwards. Now an odd feature of the development of the humanities in the last 10 years—and, much more, in the last five—is the way that the self-image of scholars in these disciplines has passed through both kinds of levelling at once. In literature above all, there is a sense today that the scholar-theorist is adding to hard knowledge: the vogue of such words as “tracking,” “rigor,” and “determination” testifies to this. Yet accompanying it is a sense that the terms of discourse could change very quickly indeed and leave stranded all one’s previous interests, findings, rigors and determinations. But then (goes the consoling thought) that just is what happens to knowledge. The result of this new self-image for the humanities has been a weird combination of assurance and world-weary irony, traits once confined to the sort of libertine who was played out before the age of 30.

Of course the change of atmosphere I have described is more true of literature departments than of others in the humanities. By an accident of institutional arrangements, they alone have been entrusted, for a generation now, with the teaching of humane letters, of the great old books, of what has come to be called “the canon.” And they show the change most visibly because they give signs of wanting to give up this inherited trust. Other disciplines, like philosophy and history, did that long ago: to teach reading at a high level was thought to be a task insufficiently professional or rewarding for them, and probably unrelated to real knowledge. It was natural for people in literature to envy the seriousness with which these rich neighbors added to their research by subtracting from their teaching along a whole range of possible encumbrances. Gerald Graff, in a recent and representative study called Professing Literature, firmly dismisses the complaint that a similar professionalism, if it took hold in literary study, would make for shallower conversations between teachers and students. “Such a complaint,” says Graff, “leads nowhere, for it envisages no role for the professional interests of the scholar except to extinguish themselves.” I think this paints too stark an alternative. There are professional interests, and then there is teaching, which is usually somehow related to those interests. The complaint in question says that we now risk forgetting the separate worth of teaching, talking, and thinking about books which are bound to relate to our interests, but which may relate to our published researches only indirectly. The novice literature instructor was never expected to contribute to the higher learning from a freshman class on Hamlet or Don Quixote. It was assumed that what the instructor had to say would merely add to the student’s sense of taking part in a conversation larger and other than that given by his daily surroundings. This understanding has to do with an acknowledgement of culture not as familiar and acceptable but as unfamiliar, and distant, and worthwhile under a description one can only make for oneself. I mean here by tradition an awareness of the impalpable links that bind one person to others remote from himself, the recognition Burke thought more vital to humanity than any social contract, and which he called “a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art.”

This is the idea of tradition which a self-conscious academic professional in the humanities is now likeliest to reject. It is only a story after all, and a story difficult to believe, perhaps nothing but an ideological construct (in which case the function of criticism will only be to say whose interest it serves). Such a rejection can be drawn upon to license particular suspicions about the worth of canonical texts. The last phrase however is somewhat misleading. In the sense in which the Hebrew Bible was canonized—made permanently meaningful and put forever in place—by the Christians who renamed it the Old Testament, there have been few canonical texts in secular literature. In the history of English criticism, for example, both before and after the subject was studied in universities, Shakespeare is the only author who has been truly canonical for more than 40 years at a stretch. On the other hand, it is true that there have been reading lists that lots of people deferred to for a long time. The quarrels now going in the humanities concern how much continuity such lists ought to have from generation to generation, and the avant-garde position holds that there need be no continuity at all, except what is warranted by the demands of a given mode of teaching or advocacy. And here, avant-garde and professionalist reasoning are at one. Why extinguish what we know in advance to be our own political and professional interests?

Somewhere in the background of this tendency are strong feelings of both anxiety and inadequacy concerning the great books that are held in suspicion. How can I say anything true about them without reading the secondary literature? And in a book far out of my field, what reward is there in that? Still the feelings could not be as strong as they are without some cooperation from an idea of knowledge that the humanities have wrongly borrowed from the sciences. It ought to be possible to defend some kinds of reading and teaching without the pretense that all this some day will be knowledge. The humanities, at least, have often been defended on just such grounds; which a master of Eton, William Cory, once summarized as follows: “You are not engaged so much in acquiring knowledge as in making mental efforts under criticism.... A certain amount of knowledge you can indeed with average faculties acquire so as to retain; nor need you regret the hours you spend on much that is forgotten, for the shadow of lost knowledge at least protects you from many illusions. But you go to a great school not so much for knowledge as for arts and habits; for the habit of attention, for the art of expression, for the art of assuming at a moment’s notice a new intellectual position, for the art of entering quickly into another person’s thoughts, for the habit of submitting to censure and refutation, for the art of indicating assent or dissent in graduated terms, for the habit of regarding minute points of accuracy, for the art of working out what is possible in a given time, for taste, for discrimination, for mental courage and mental soberness. And above all you go to a great school for self-knowledge.” I want to devote the rest of my time to saying how we have lost sight of the distinct worth of arts and habits.

One reason it has been plausible lately to attack a curriculum of old books is that so many of its advocated are conservatives of the type whose reverence for culture borders on superstition. People like this want the old books for the sake of what I will call the vitamin-injection theory of tradition. Crudely speaking (but the theory is crude), these people tend to argue that a faithful acceptance of the habitual loyalties of a culture may in itself help to fortify the self-esteem of a society. Read enough of the great books of the West, and you will see the point of defending the West. And in doing so you will acquire a lasting immunity to all the varieties of alienation to which intellectual workers are prone. It is a silly theory but worth noticing here because the present Secretary of Education is one of the people who believe it. The process described anyway does not include thinking about books, or interpreting them, or arguing about them in a spirit of self-trust. Rather one comes to the right books with a received image of one’s culture, and then uses the books as primary documents to confirm that image: as if, only after having read them all could one say, “Yes, I found it there.” For books to work in this way, however, one must have been finding what one was expected to find. A curriculum used like this becomes a machine for coming of age in a culture; and the culture in question it must appear is that of a museum only.

Clever up-to-date academics have no trouble making fun of this conservative theory. They can give more objections than I just did, and they always have a good time doing it. But their own ideas are really no better. For short, let me call their iconoclastic view the onion–skin theory of culture. This will take more time to explain than the vitamins. There is a concept of human personality, broached by a character in Hermann Hesse’s novel Steppenwolf, according to which the layers of a character are just like the skins of an onion. Start to peel them away and you will go on peeling until you arrive at nothing. It follows (if one thinks through the metaphor) that there is no deep or shallow in matters of character. What the iconoclasts are saying is that there is no deep or shallow in matters of culture. Accordingly, once we have seen that any consensus in education is founded on nothing stable—nothing, anyway, more stable than social coherence, political agreement, personal and moral belief—then we can take pleasure in finding that all education has become a scene of “dissensus”: a barbarous new word, current in American studies, but one that nicely fits the general pattern in the humanities. The onion-skin theory of education, which is also a theory of cultural liberation, would be credible if we could be sure of one thing. For it assumes that in unmasking layer after layer of cultural meaning, to expose the context, grounding, and presuppositions in which meaning is embedded—that in performing all this work, the reader will learn something that has not been planted there already. But what hope is there of that? This, more or less historicist, therapy of unloading meanings is, like the anti-historicist therapy of loading them, a Socratic game that only one can play, and in the classroom that one is the teacher. It would be hard to show that either technique is congenial to thinking.

Thinking I take to be the process of creating, through reflection and judgment and, when necessary, invention rather than mere acceptance, a relation true for oneself between certain parts of one’s experience and certain parts of the world. “True for oneself” because thinking goes on in a single mind. It cannot be done, though it may be helped or hindered, by a school, a guild, a network, a profession, a learned society or corporate body of any imaginable kind. Many of the heroes of American culture—Emerson, Thoreau, Whitman, Dickinson, William James, Marianne Moore, to some no closer to the present—work from a similar premise. But it is a premise that both of the theories named above agree only in despising. For them, thinking is always subordinate to the large purposes of a culture—purposes, in the command of which individual thought and language is supposed to be ordered by a discourse already in place. Beside this point of general concurrence, their dispute about whether the ends of Western culture are beneficent or the reverse is a comparatively trivial affair. The evidence therefore suggests to me that in our time, a belief in the arts and habits of thinking about oneself through books is exposed to an unexampled assault from two apparently opposite impulses. They represent the voices of professional and cultural conformity, with a professional and cultural distrust of the individual mind.

Having taken the argument this far, I am not sure that it has enough implications, respecting the work of learned societies, even to justify my presence here today. But maybe the message (to call it that) is simply the good of encouraging thought in whatever shape, and the good of discouraging an ever more refined academic professionalism (including every variety of dissent that needs an ism to establish its identity). Doubtless this sounds obscure. But it is not at all obscure in its applications. The voice to distrust is the “we”-voice of collective judgment. “One of our best recent studies of X,” “A perspective that will help us inestimably in the advanced discussions of Y,” “Clearly a Z that we will be learning from for a long time to come.” Conformity needs this voice—will never go without it for long—because the solitude in which a great book is written and read is something it wants to forget. In the study that I mentioned earlier, Gerald Graff endorses as good medicine for the humanities a proposal by another scholar: “We need to teach not texts themselves but how we situate ourselves in reference to those texts.” How many we’s are here! And in a mood of such more than fraternal solidarity, who will be so tactless as to object that we do not even know who we are, except in the long run. Certainly we, who read, and some other earlier we, give the context for every word that has a meaning for us. But the problem of thinking comes back however we avoid it, from certain passages in the work of a great writer. It will touch the reader of Wordsworth’s phrase, in his ode about childhood, which speaks of “the faith that looks through death,” and evidently has no religious consolation in view. It is there even for the reader of Swift’s remark that climbing is done in the same posture as creeping. We do consciously and unconsciously always situate ourselves with respect to texts. And yet powerful words also, perhaps otherwise, situate themselves in a mind that thinks.

The humanities have for most of two centuries tried to say something intelligent about the first sort of activity, but they have traced to the second a surer reason for their own existence among the subjects of a curriculum, and I do not think they were wrong to do so. But from a misguided analogy with both the social and natural sciences, from the anxious sense of a profession that depresses every sense of a vocation, and from the idea that research and teaching ought to be as closely related as knowledge and reading are reputed to be, there is some chance that the first sort of activity will come to displace the second entirely. If a scholar of the humanities ceased to be, in Panofsky’s great phrase, one who rejects authority because he embraces tradition, and became instead one who embraces authority because he rejects tradition, I am unable to predict the consequences but I see no reason to suppose the result would be happy for education or for culture. The learned societies can help at this moment by using to advantage the fact that they exist. Just when we in the humanities (and by “we” I do mean all of us) are increasingly reluctant to say what we stand for, or what our work would mean if it turned out not to be knowledge, you can help simply by opening the discussion of these matters outside the universities, where, like any discussion confined to a settled group, it is rapidly growing airless and stupid. You can set flowing the intelligent energies of public opinion, which, once they start to work, are a remedy for the asceticism of the solitary reader, as much as for the craft and cunning of a profession.