August 5, 2008
Over at the United States Intellectual History weblog there is a roundtable discussion on my book, Education and the Cold War: The Battle for the American School, including reviews by Joe Petrulionis and Tim Lacy. My comments follow. The roundtable includes, among other items, a discussion of the merits of Marxist theory in intellectual historiography.
Check it out:
The Dailykos bloggers have been hammering Obama’s recent rightward shift. One blogger, interestingly enough, even used a deep analysis of my book Education and the Cold War (regarding the differences between good and bad pragmatism) to frame his argument towards Obama’s stance on FISA. See the article here. This blogger (Cassiodorus) argued–again, using my book–that pragmatism is bad if it is only an attempt to achieve power within given constraints, as opposed to a good pragmatism tied to utopian visions about how society can be better.
June 20, 2008
Academician and New York Times regular Stanley Fish is, again, involved in a debate about whether or not professors should be explicitly political in their teaching. This current debate began when Fish, in print, objected to the recent creation of a Chair in Conservative Thought and Policy at the University of Colorado, arguing that there was no need for such an explicitly political appointment.
I have always found Fish’s argument that professors should divorce politics from scholarship (which I don’t separate from teaching) as either naive or sanctimonious or fatuous, perhaps some combination of all three. There are myriad ways to argue against Fish. I’ll quickly make three:
1) Imagine what the historical discipline would look like if all historians consciously sought to divorce politics from their scholarship. (It’s an impossible counter-factual.) There never would have been a revision of the traditional view that the Cold War was caused by an expansionism inherent to the Soviet system. (There never would have been the traditional view to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political Cold Warriors.) There never would have been an explosion of social history rooted in Sixties zeitgeists, which, among other things, explored slavery from the point of view of the slaves. (There never would have been a traditional view of slavery to begin with, formed as it was by explicitly political apologists for slavery.)
I could go on, but I think my point is made. Perhaps these are examples that Fish might argue are separate from “politics” properly defined, since he seems to define political behavior as merely partisan, or as how people vote. But many such historical revisions were grounded in very immediate political and partisan concerns. For example, many of the Cold War revisionists (William Appleman Williams, Gabriel Kolko, Christopher Lasch, etc.) were highly active in leading campus teach-ins.
2) This leads me to my second point. Our knowledge as professors, as people who have spent years, sometimes decades, studying topics that are very political, often (not always) puts us in a position to understand a political situation better than our students, better than most people. We would be remiss in keeping such knowledge to ourselves rather than sharing our analyses, as the Cold War revisionists did during the 1960s teach-ins. This does not mean a biology teacher has the right to share her thoughts on President Bush, unless it is with regards to President Bush’s opinion that all schools should teach evolution and “intelligent design” equally–then that biology teacher would be remiss in not sharing her expert knowledge.
3) Lastly, who cares if a professor is trying to proselytize? It happens everywhere, all the time. Yes, many university professors tend to be liberal, especially in the humanities, but it’s one of the few institutions where that is so. The left should happily trade away the universities for the two dominant institutions largely controlled by more conservatively-inclined people, the military and the corporations. Does anyone mean to tell me leaders in these institutions don’t proselytize political views? Please.
I remain unconvinced that teachers should even attempt political objectivity. It is my experience that students see through such a disposition as false, that students want their professors to be advocates for something, political or otherwise. If my goal were to convince my students to vote Democratic, or to convince them that George Bush is a war criminal, then I would not be a very good teacher because these goals are expedient, partisan, and, frankly, boring. But my goal is to get my students to question their presuppositions, both epistemological AND political. Having such a goal is what gets me out of bed in the morning, it’s what drives me, makes me passionate and, as such, it’s what makes me an effective teacher. If such passions were stamped out by professional “objectivity” as advanced by Fish, then I’d be a bad and boring teacher.
In terms of not alienating students, style matters. My conservative students tend to really like my classes because they’re well aware that political disagreement is never the basis for how I evaluate them, in fact, quite the opposite, as those students who are willing to challenge me or the material in thoughtful ways, with use of evidence, thrive in my class.
In the end, I guess I’m not naive or self-important enough to think that my students care all that much about my politics or objectives, that they’ll seriously notice the difference between me being “political” or me being “objective.” The only thing they will know for certain is if I’m boring.
All that said, I’m perfectly fine with the conservative hire at the University of Colorado (although CU should hire back Ward Churchill, too). I like Crispin Sartwell’s take on it in an op-ed he wrote for the LA Times, titled, “The Smog of Academic Consensus.“
I am currently reading Susan Jacoby’s widely celebrated The Age of American Unreason in my spare time, and am 3 chapters in. So far, the book deserves serious criticism, especially from historians, since she makes grandiose claims about the history of unreason (or anti-intellectualism) in the United States, and yet she willfully ignores anything written on the topic by a historian since Richard Hofstadter. She at once sees herself as carrying on the spirit of Hofstadter, which is fine, but also seems to think, by implication, that nothing of value has been offered on the topic since Hofstadter. (Again, I am only 3 chapters in, so perhaps she addresses recent historiography in later chapters.) Let me give two examples, drawing from educational and religious history, which she treats in similarly formulaic fashion.
Along educational lines, she acts as if Adolphe Meyer, who’s An Educational History of American People was published in 1957, had the last word on nineteenth century educational history. Thus, her rendering of this complex history boils down to a black-and-white morality tale between the forces of reason who seek to educate the illiterate masses, and the forces of ignorance, who resist formal education because they are, well, ignorant (or because their leaders dupe them into remaining ignorant). Never mind that, as numerous historians since 1957 have shown, people often resisted formal education for other reasons, including class, since the educational bureaucrats of the 19th century trying to get children in schools shared the class and regional background of those trying to get workers in factories. To grasp such a fundamental argument, Jacoby needn’t have dealt with recent historical literature, averse to it as she seems. She could have read and digested the arguments made by Michael Katz in his 1968 groundbreaking work, The Ironies of Early Education Reform.
In terms of religious history, again Jacoby attempts to stuff square pegs into round holes. She is a master of ahistorical and anachronistic thinking. For instance, she refers to all evangelicals across US history (or, all non-moderate, non-“mainline” Protestants) as “fundamentalists” who prioritize religious doctrine over scientific evidence in their understandings of the world. She notes that the term “fundamentalism” did not come to be used until the twentieth century, but maintains its appropriateness for describing the religious and secular beliefs of nineteenth century Americans, failing to recognize that the etymology had an historical rationale, that is, it came into being when a sizable group of religious leaders did in fact question religious fundamentals.
As such, again, she makes simple that which is paradoxical, and thus religious history becomes another story of good versus evil, or rather, rational versus irrational. The good, rational people are those who adjust their religious beliefs to the ever-changing modern world (mainline Protestants), the bad, irrational people are those who maintain a religious absolutism (“fundamentalists,” Mormons, Catholics, etc.) Again, never mind that many of Jacoby’s so-called fundamentalists sought God as a form of resistance to Mammon. (And what about abolitionists such as John Brown? Was his religiously absolute opposition to slavery so irrational? If so, let us all be so unreasonable.)
Had Jacoby nodded to recent historiography, such as the brilliant and controversial work of Charles Sellers (The Market Revolution) she might have, at the very least, been compelled to grapple with the fact that debate exists on these historical issues. Reasonable and rational people have cause to disagree vehemently with her narrative. Jacoby’s problem is that she replicates Hofstadter’s mistakes by conflating political and religious differences with psychological abnormality. And yet she fails to replicate Hofstadter’s qualities, namely, taking history seriously on its own terms, not merely as clay to be shaped to narrow contemporary pursuits. If Hofstadter stands for historical paradox and complexity, Jacoby stands for ahistorical simplicity. And there’s nothing rational or intellectual about that.
April 20, 2008
On the blog that I co-edit with a number of other US intellectual historians, a compelling discussion has developed in response to a piece I posted. It includes references to Obama’s “bitter” comments, Niebuhr’s Christian realism, and Slavoj Zizek’s interpretation of fundamentalism. Check it out:
April 10, 2008
March 27, 2008
This book review originally appeared in the journal Socialism and Democracy Vol. 21, No. 1 (March 2007), 143-147.
Book Reviewed: Dan Berger, Outlaws of America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity (Oakland: AK Press, 2006). 432 pages.
The Weather Underground–an armed, clandestine, white revolutionary group that formed out of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS) 1969 break-up–is currently a fashionable topic of discussion amongst radicals and historians of the left. This is not surprising. The historical context in which the Weather Underground formed is similar to contemporary realities. The United States is again waging a bloody imperialist war against a non-white, former European colony. And young American radicals are, again, searching for effective ways to counter their government’s actions in an atmosphere hostile to dissent. The current crop of student radicals has the potential advantage of being able to learn from the successes and mistakes of their “sixties” forerunners.
Dan Berger, author of Outlaws in America: The Weather Underground and the Politics of Solidarity, a voluminous historical account, goes further than any other young radical in his efforts to mine the usable past of the sixties. Outlaws of America is the work of someone who is both a committed leftist and a serious scholar. The work is not without its problems–such as Berger’s apparent need to apologize for former Weather Underground members. But these problems stem from what makes the book good: it’s based on an impressive number of oral interviews with over twenty former Weather members. This speaks to the contradictions of oral historical research. Berger’s subjects have become his friends and mentors, particularly David Gilbert, one of the founders of the Columbia chapter of SDS and a former Weather Underground member. (Gilbert is serving a life sentence in various New York state prisons for his role as the driver of the getaway U-haul during a 1981 Black Liberation Army “expropriation” that resulted in the deaths of one Brinks armed guard and two police officers.) But despite this weakness, there are too many good things about Outlaws to not take it seriously.
Most astutely, Berger works to counter the myth of “two sixties”–one good, one bad-–a myth often propagated by former sixties radicals themselves, such as Columbia University Professor Todd Gitlin. According to this conventional wisdom, whereas non-violence, interracial cooperation, participatory democracy, Martin Luther King, Jr., and the Port Huron Statement marked the “good” early sixties, violence, irrationalism, nihilism, narcissism, nationalism, Malcolm X, the Black Panthers, and the Weather Underground signified the “bad” later sixties. Similarly, whereas the “good” antiwar movement understood Vietnam as a tragedy of good intentions gone awry, the “bad” variant couched their critique of the war in “crude” anti-imperialist rhetoric, which alienated those working-class Americans who were doing the overseas fighting and dying–-those whom the “good” left sought as allies. Berger works to unmask this dichotomy as false, pointing out that, by this simplistic formula, King himself voluntarily made the transition to the bad sixties in 1966 when he began critiquing the war in language similar to Malcolm X.
Berger belabors the point that the Weather Underground was a product of their times. This truism is ironically built into the very concept of the group, named after an indicative Bob Dylan verse–“You don’t need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows.” If the Weather turned to violent forms of resistance, it was because the state was violently repressing dissent. This brings to mind an oft-cited passage from Paolo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed: “With the establishment of a relationship of oppression, violence has already begun. Never in history has violence been initiated by the oppressed.” By the fall of 1967, violence was in the air and in the streets. With the onset of draft riots in places such as Oakland and New York, antiwar protesters “were beginning to look, talk, and act like urban guerrillas,” taking up Che’s call for “two, three, many Vietnams” (Outlaws, 45). An increasing number of white antiwar activists wanted to join with anti-colonial forces across the planet. They wanted to show solidarity with the Third World. Solidarity, according to Berger, is the key to understanding the Weather Underground and the 1969 SDS split.
Although “two, three, many” factions would eventually spell the demise of SDS, the two most important splinter groups at the infamous 1969 convention were the Revolutionary Youth Movement (RYM), which eventually became the Weather Underground, and the Progressive Labor Party (PL), a Maoist sect. The essence of the split was over whether to prioritize race or class, an “either-or” problematic that has long divided the American left (and spawned scholarly sub-fields such as critical labor and whiteness studies). The RYM (proto-Weather) sect believed that Ho Chi Minh, the Black Panthers, and non-white nationalists throughout the world were the vanguard of the revolution, and that militantly opposing white supremacy was the best way for white revolutionaries living in the “belly of the beast” to lend support to the revolution. Solidarity. The PL faction, on the other hand, “saw race as divisive” and insisted that all nationalism was reactionary, including that of the Black Panthers. They believed that organizing the American working class was the most important task for activists.
Berger does not hide his sympathy for the RYM/Weather faction. To him, their willingness to walk out on SDS signaled that hundreds of white radicals had consciously chosen to side against white supremacy. Berger smoothes over a complex history of the American left when he writes that the RYM faction “did not want … to fall victim to the same fate as all the major social justice movements in the United States, from populism to unionism to women’s suffrage” (85). Here Berger seems to imply that the left’s historical racism has weakened its position on the American political spectrum. Although there are obvious instances of this being the case, more often the opposite has proven true: the organized left has consistently taken less racist stances than the rest of American society, stances that, if anything, have relegated it to the margins. Consistent with this lack of nuance, Berger inaccurately portrays the SDS split as between the Old and New Lefts. “PL’s hostility to anti-racism and national liberation,” Berger argues, “showed that the organization was part of the Old Left” (78). Actually, SDS was re-living a 1930s Old Left debate over the Communist Party’s “Black Belt Nation Thesis,” which explicitly supported black nationalism as a legitimate form of working-class resistance rooted in the international struggle. To stretch this line of argument even further back, SDS was in some ways replaying sectarian battles that took place within an even older left, when southern Populists such as Tom Watson sought an interracial alliance against the “special interests.”
After the dissolution of SDS, the Weather Underground built what David Gilbert describes as “an unprecedented if seriously flawed group that carried out six years of armed actions in solidarity with national liberation struggles” (91). The first violent Weather action occurred in Chicago in October 1969, during what came to be known as the Days of Rage, as young radicals intentionally did battle with the police to prove their willingness to fight against the racist war machine. Spanning three days, Days of Rage resulted in over 300 arrests, some based on serious felony charges, and dozens of injuries, including eight protesters with gunshot wounds. These actions were not widely supported by the larger movement–only a few hundred participated as opposed to the thousands Weather predicted.
Perhaps the most significant if unintended result of Days of Rage was that it compelled Weather to go underground in order to avoid lengthy and costly legal battles. Once underground, Weather rhetoric became increasingly violent, due in part to the fact that their comrades in the black liberation struggle were being murdered by the state, such as when Black Panther leader Fred Hampton was shot in his sleep by Chicago police. But until a powerful bomb accidentally exploded in a Greenwich Village townhouse on March 6, 1970, killing three members of the group, Weather’s conception of revolutionary violence was little more than an abstraction. Afterwards, it became something much more personal and visceral: the horror of the accidental death of their friends in the townhouse explosion engendered a sense of sympathy for their projected victims. (The intended target of the bomb was an Army officers’ dance.) Although they did not entirely eschew the philosophy of violent resistance–especially since the violence of the state had increased both overseas and at home–the group made a firm commitment to refrain from harming people.
In the course of the next seven years, the Weather Underground set off dozens of bombs that damaged millions of dollars worth of property, but never seriously injured anyone again. Weather termed its property-destroying bombs “armed propaganda” because their targets were carefully chosen in response to state and corporate violence and because they issued widely distributed “communiqués” explaining their rationale after each bombing. They had become the masters of the revolutionary spectacle. For example, they bombed the U.S. Capitol on February 28, 1971, as a response to the invasion of Laos and the continued fighting of the war under the auspices of “Vietnamization,” an action Nixon described as “the most dastardly act in American history” (165). In retaliation to a massive increase in the scale of bombings in North and South Vietnam, Weather bombed the Pentagon on May 19, 1972. They responded to the killing of Soledad Brother George Jackson and to the infamous Attica prison massacre of 1971 by bombing various corrections offices. In 1973, the Weather Underground bombed International Telephone & Telegraph (ITT) headquarters in New York City for its complicity in the overthrow of socialist Salvador Allende, Chile’s democratically elected leader.
Berger thinks these symbolic bombings were widely cheered by young rebels and that the Weather was generally popular in the larger New Left movement. It is true that, for most of their time underground, very few Weather members were ever caught, speaking to a tremendous aboveground network of support. However, cleverness notwithstanding, surely Berger overestimates the degree of popular support for the Weather’s “armed propaganda” campaign, an overestimation that might be rooted in a more serious misunderstanding of the times. In his close reading of the radical sixties, Berger misses the broader history of that important decade. When Berger writes that “to speak of revolution in 1969 was not hyperbolic,” he seems to forget that student radicals were not the only ones on the move. The 1960s is best understood as a time of polarization, as the American conservative movement grew even more rapidly than did the New Left. Berger misses the point that, although a majority of Americans came to oppose the Vietnam War by the end of the decade, an even larger majority opposed and even disdained the antiwar movement. Thus, just as the Weather Underground had a network of support, so too did the FBI, demonstrated by polls that showed a majority of Americans backed violent crackdowns on student and black unrest. Nixon was elected less for his assurance that he would end the war in Vietnam than for his promise to bring order to the streets of America.
Despite these problems, Berger’s book deserves wide attention and should be viewed as one important scholarly revision of sixties radicalism. Berger correctly posits Outlaws of America as part and parcel of the “ideological battleground” and “contested space” that are the “sixties,” entreating us to fight for the radical sixties. In this sense, his work is guided by the historical philosophy best enunciated by Frankfurt School Marxist Walter Benjamin, who, in the midst of Nazi barbarism, wrote, “Only that historian will have the gift of fanning the spark of hope in the past who is firmly convinced that even the dead will not be safe from the enemy if he wins.”
February 13, 2008
From today’s Washington Post:
Banaa: The Sudan Educational
February 12, 2008
In the realm of social and political philosophy Marx is unavoidable. Robert Heilbroner wrote,
We turn to Marx, therefore, not because he is infallible, but because he is inescapable. Everyone who wishes to pursue the kind of investigation that Marx opened up, finds Marx there ahead of him, and must thereafter agree with or confute, expand or discard, explain or explain away the ideas that are his legacy.
But it is not just that Marx stands out ahead of us in the field of political philosophy, social science or economics. Rather, as Jameson notes, it is essential to recognize Marxism as a theory which cuts across a myriad of disciplines.
I think it is crucial to insist on the fact Marxism is the only living philosophy today which has a conception of the unity of knowledge and the unification of the “disciplinary” fields in a way that cuts across the older departmental and institutional structures and restores the notion of a universal object of study underpinning the seemingly distinct inquires into the economical, the political, the cultural, the psychoanalytic, and so forth. This is not a dogmatic opinion but simply an empirical fact.
With this in mind I would like to begin a short series of Marxist criticisms of John Rawls who is considered by many – including President Bill Clinton – to have most clearly articulated the foundational principles of the Democratic party.
The following is a very short introduction for those of you unfamiliar with these theories. In short, Marxism is a philosophy which advocates for the establishment of a classless and stateless socio-political order, the basis of which is the communal ownership of the means of production. Based largely on the works of Karl Marx, “The immediate aim of the Communists is the same as that of all other proletarian parties: formation of the proletariat into a class, overthrow of the bourgeois supremacy, conquest of political power by the proletariat” (Communist Manifesto). Some time after state power has been seized, “all production has been concentrated in the hands of a vast association of the whole nation, the public power will lose its political character” and class distinctions will disappear. Political power, Marx argues, is only the organization of one class’s power for the oppression of another, and as Marxist organization ultimately destroys class antagonism by eliminating its economic basis, political oppression as such under a Communist government is impossible.
Marxist government stands in stark contrast to the social and political order advocated by John Rawls in A Theory of Justice. Rawls conceives of a Just social order as one in which individuals are accorded the most liberty, so long as that liberty does not infringe upon the freedom of others. Secondly, he argues that economic inequality is only justified insofar as it benefits the poorest members of society. The following entries are an attempt to put these two theories of Justice into dialogue, critiquing the both the Rawlsian Original Position and the Principles of Justice from a Marxist perspective.
February 9, 2008
Shortly after the Russians launched Sputnik in 1957, Hannah Arendt quipped that “only in America could a crisis in education actually become a factor in politics.” The Cold War battle for the American school – dramatized but not initiated by Sputnik – proved Arendt correct. The schools served as a battleground in the ideological conflicts of the 1950s. Beginning with the genealogy of progressive education, and ending with the formation of New Left and New Right thought, Education and the Cold War offers a fresh perspective on the postwar transformation in U.S. political culture by way of an examination of the educational history of that era.
“In contemporary American culture, ‘the conservative 1950s’ have become something of a cliché. Hartman’s smart book gives new historical substance to the term, showing us how–and why–our schools turned Right during the Cold War. Even better, he makes us question whether the schools ever really turned back.”–Jonathan Zimmerman, Professor of Education and History, New York University
“Hartman is a wise and sensible guide through the thickets of historical flow, economic structure, political condition and cultural context. An encounter with Education and the Cold War is fortification for the important struggles ahead.”–William Ayers, University of Illinois at Chicago; Author of Teaching Toward Freedom
Introduction: An American Crisis * John Dewey and the Invention of Childhood: Progressive Education in the Beginning * Education as Great Depression Experience: The Unraveling of the Popular Front and the Roots of Educational Vigilantism * From Hot War to Cold War for Schools and Teenagers: The Life Adjustment Movement and the Ideology of Maturity * Communist Teacher Problematic: Liberal Anticommunism and the Education of Bella Dodd * Progressive Education is Red-ucation: Conservative Thought and Cold War Educational Vigilantism * Crisis of the Mind: The Liberal Intellectuals and the Schools * From World-Mindedness to Cold War-Mindedness: The Lost Educational Utopia of Theodore Brameld * Desegregation as Cold War Experience: The Perplexities of Race in he Blackboard Jungle* Growing Up Absurd in the Cold War: Sputnik and the Polarized Sixties * Conclusion: The Educational Reproduction of the Cold War
Andrew Hartman is Assistant Professor of History, Illinois State University.