Saturday, February 19, 2005

Ross Douthat, Harvard, and liberal arts education

I'm a bit late in getting to the "Pile criticism on Ross Douthat" party, but I'm pretty sure that I'm not stepping on any toes here. Thanks to my friend Phyllis for providing the text of the article which, sadly, is subscription only over at the Atlantic Monthly.

Anyway, as you may have heard by now, Ross Douthat recently wrote an article for the Atlantic Monthly complaining about the failures of Harvard. There are lots of problems with Douthat's essay, not least in how willing he is to hold Harvard students largely blameless for their part in not obtaining what he considers to be a good education. But for now I'm going to focus on Douthat's conception of academic history. His flawed view of history reveals a fundamental misunderstanding about the value of liberal arts education.

Douthat claims that in recent years the humanities have become irrelevant. To explain this irrelevant, he points to "attempts by humanities professors to ape the rigor of their scientific colleagues" that led to the paralysis of postmodern. Exactly what the relationship between scientific rigor and postmodernism goes unexplained. Considering that postmodernism is generally seen as a product of literary studies, that putative relationship becomes even more dubious.

More troubling is Douthat's claim that history has slipped to irrelevance because "history departments emphasize exhaustive primary research and micro-history." The way Douthat describes it, you'd think that historians' insistence on careful archival research is a development of the past twenty years. Douthat apparently didn't learn much about the history of history as a scholarly endeavor at Harvard. If he had, he would know that Leopold von Ranke, generally considered the father of modern historical practice, articulate a vision of deliberate examination of primary sources in the middle of the nineteenth century. To the extent that historians devote themselves to the archives (a not entirely accurate description, considering that postmodernism's real influence on history has been the so-called linguistic turn which opens up sources to wider ranging interpretations than Douthat's rather dull "exhaustive primary research" suggests), it is a remnant of rather old conceptions of history, not the result of cutting-edge postmodernist theory. But another way, when have historians not emphasized primary research?

At first glance, Douthat's condemnation of the irrelevance of micro-history appears to hold more weight. It might be difficult to find the signifiance in, say, the economic history of 18th-century French parishes. But such research is valuable, for at least two reasons. First, such focused research allows historians to be far more confident in their conclusions. It's much easier to discover Sir Edward's Greys thoughts about war with Germany in late July and early August 1914 than it is to explain the origins of the First World War. In order to answer the big questions we need (relatively) authoritative answers to the smaller constituent questions. Douthat seems to yearn for historians to write broad, synthetic works that tell of important events and developments. Yet, as Kieran Healy wrote almost exactly one year ago in response to a similar plea from (Christ's graduate) Simon Schama, the big books can't be written without the supporting monographs of other scholars.

More intriguing than the slow build-up of scholarly research leading to popular books on wide subjects, micro-historical studies can themselves dramatically alter our understanding of big events. Let's return to those 18th-century French parishes. Frank Tallett has found that parish priests mobilized credit from a variety of sources. Clergy acted as facilitators and helped co-ordinate a dynamic web of credit that met the needs of the rich and the poor alike. In this respect, the economy of 18th-century France functioned as a stable (if dynamic) system. Explanations of the French Revolution that point to the economic failings of ancien régime France run aground when faced with evidence that the economy of 18th-century France was rather stable after all. In short, the micro-history that Douthat denigrates is not nearly as irrelevant as he suggests.

It's not clear to me what Douthat's ideal version of academic history is. As best I can tell, the most concrete improvement he has in mind is more survey courses for undergrads. Hardly a radical suggestion. Douthat wants students to know about the big stuff: the world wars, the founding of America, the French Revolution. But he doesn't say why. If academia has taught me anything, it's that very little is self-evident. There's a case to be made for such "canonical" knowledge, but it's a case that actually needs to be made, not just assumed. Douthat seems rather satisfied with the idea that there's a set body of knowledge out there that well-educated people possess (or, at least, should possess).

But why? Douthat asserts, without arguing his case, that the goal of undergraduate education is "to provide a general education, a liberal arts education, to future doctors and bankers and lawyers and diplomats." First of all, that's an awfully prestigious group. Douthat is conflating his ideal type of Harvard student (the type that goes on to the professional occupations he lists) with the typical undergraduate. Harvard notwithstanding, most college graduates are not going to be doctors and lawyers.

A liberal arts education, as many a Swarthmore booster will tell you, is as much about learning how to think as it is about learning particular things. Of course, this isn't an either-or scenario. It's possible (and ideal) for undergraduate classes to teach both critical thinking skills and a particular body of knowledge. Douthat overstates his position in arguing too strenuously for the value of the latter.

I've strayed rather far from my initial focus on history. To return to that, I'd argue that Douthat is wrong in his assumption that big history is the best history. The study of history should be taught at the undergraduate level, not just the facts of history itself. This is not just so some undergraduates can go on to become historians themselves. Sophisticated historical thought (which can be taught as well in a course on the Cuban Revolution as one on the American Revolution), is a valuable in its own right, more valuable, in fact, than knowledge of any particular era of history. Studying how history is done makes learning the facts easier and helps place them in a useful and sensible framework.

Towards the end of his essay, Douthat bemoans the fact that there is no body of knowledge that Harvard grads share.

The closest thing to a Harvard education-that is, to an intellectual corpus that most Harvard graduates have in common-is probably obtained in such oversubscribed courses as "The Warren Court and the Pursuit of Justice," "First Nights: Five Performance Premieres," and "Fairy Tales, Children's Literature, and the Construction of Childhood."

Douthat is rather narrow-minded in his conception of an "intellectual corpus." to him, the only things that unite Harvard grads is the information they picked up in a few popular classes. Now, I didn't go to Harvard, so I can't be certain, but I'm pretty sure that Harvard graduates learned more in their four years than a conglomeration of facts. If Harvard's doing anything right, it teaches its students how to think.

There's more to knowledge than a set of facts. Assuming Harvard's Core courses are taught well (a dangerous assumption, I know), they promote sophisticated thought and critical approaches to knowledge, regardless of their precise subject matter. The intellectual corpus of liberal arts education consists of critical thinking skills, not just a group of canonized facts. Missing this, as Douthat does, misses the very point of a liberal arts education in the first place. Douthat seems to have missed out on a lot of intellectual stimulation at Harvard, and not all of it was Harvard's fault, as he would have you believe.

(For further comments on Douthat's article, see Matthew Yglesias, who corrects Douthat's characterization of philosophy these days; Brad DeLong, who reflects on his own time at Harvard and calls out Douthat for being lazy; Tim Burke, on the difficulty of creating core courses; Caleb McDaniel, on Douthat's apparent liberalism on issues of higher education.)


At Feb 20, 2005 6:11:00 AM , Blogger Sharon said...

Nice post, Danny, but... I can't read it. The typeface is really tiny. (I had to go back to my Bloglines feed to read it.)

Actually, after a moment's thought, I've just checked it out and discovered that it's a browser issue. It's in Firefox (and therefore probably Netscape as well) that the text in posts is horribly tiny (it's the same size as in the sidebar, where the smaller size is fine); however, in IE, the posts are OK (Arial 10pt, by the look of it). I don't really know what would make that happen. But please please fix it if you can.

At Feb 20, 2005 6:40:00 AM , Blogger Danny said...

Thanks for the heads-up. I was fiddling with the fonts a bit just to see how different ones would look, and to see whether I'd get any feedback. Looks as if I just did. I'll put it back to the old font right now.

There... is that better? I'm using Firefox, too and it looks okay for me.

At Feb 20, 2005 4:45:00 PM , Blogger Blake said...

Hi Danny,

I suppose I would agree with most of your critiques of Ross' article. I enjoyed my history Cores at Harvard, including "the Meiji Revolution" and "the Chinese Cultural Revolution" (almost all history cores at Harvard are "something revolution"). I certainly appreciated being able to learn about the methods and approaches of history while studying material that I was personally interested in.

I think part of Ross's complaint, though, is that there are many Core courses which veer so far into sub-sub niches of a particular subject that they lose the interest of the students, and they waste an oportunity to provide any sort of general perspective on an issue.

At Feb 20, 2005 5:02:00 PM , Blogger Danny said...

That's a legitimate complaint. Classes on specialized topics do seem to have the potential to bore students. And if the students aren't engaged by the material, what's the point?

It's important for historians to step back at the end of the day (or class, or semester) and speculate about the larger significance of what they're studying, particularly when you're dealing with something like a Core course that is meant for a wide audience. At some point, scholars need to answer the question, "So what?" (Tim Burke has written about this somewhere) Now, this can be wildly overdone. History doesn't teach any grand lessons or give us the answers to today's problems. But you're absolutely right to point out that studying history can and should provide perspective.

At Feb 21, 2005 8:56:00 PM , Anonymous Caleb said...

Very well said, and thanks for the link! I also agree with your last comment: there are ways to connect courses and answer the "so what?" question without having to establish an agreed upon corpus of knowledge.

At Feb 23, 2005 6:49:00 AM , Blogger Sharon said...

It's still a small font, but yes, it has made the difference, thankfully. Thanks. (It's also helped to remind me that it's time to go to the opticians...)


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