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American Literary History 14.2 (2002) 328-347
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Looking for the Human in the Humanities
To a degree reminiscent of the 1920s, corporate power and its intense sales-oriented, profit-seeking styles were released "big time" in the US during the 1980s. During the same period, humanities and social science academics trained in the 1960s came into senior status. 1 The movement toward ever-increasing corporate influence and wealth took place alongside a movement toward the emancipation of women and ethnic minorities and its many academic advocates. 2 The many books on this list represent a conflict between these two parts of society: 1980s corporate bull-runs and 1960s academic enfranchisement in the humanities. Traditional academics were let down because the expansion of the traditional curriculum meant, to them, that "great works" and "rigorous study" were being diluted or ignored. 3 Progressive academics were impatient because of resistance to the increasing possibility of real access to education and privilege for all people. These progressives tended to the view that universal access to the university is the key to a just and humane society; however, universities, private and public, including progressive faculty members in the humanities, have become increasingly dependent on corporate support. Although these two developments did not have to result in "culture wars" and deeper conflicts of interest, they did. 4 Today, both of these conflicting social movements continue to happen at once: an increasing percentage of the population has access to postsecondary education, 5 while, at the same time, colleges and universities, dependent on corporate and government support, are trying to increase student-faculty ratios, 6 eliminate tenure, 7 and radically curtail academic freedom. 8 The disputes (which might more accurately be called "curriculum wars") over what books matter in the humanities have been, at the same time, about these fundamental changes in society, centering around increasing access to education 9 as well as the increasing need of corporate interests for a narrowly well-educated, highly controllable work force. All of the reviewed books are related to this problem. [End Page 328]
I learned the most from the four memoirs of the faculty members in the generation before mine, and I became especially absorbed in Carolyn Heilbrun's. This sort of book may teach more than do the argumentative treatises (from the Left as well as from the Right) about how to respond intelligently to the professional debates, and it may provide guidance about changing our curricula to maximize access to university education for all people—to humanize postsecondary and graduate education in this palpable way. Robert Heilman's, William H. Pritchard's, and Alvin B. Kernan's memoirs are the stories of (relatively) traditional academics; Heilbrun's and Terry Caesar's are accounts of more progressive academics. I did not find any of them to be dogmatic, as, for example, are Allan Bloom's, Lynne Cheney's, Dinesh D'Souza's, or Roger Kimball's books. The three memoirs by the retired male faculty members are conservative, and if their accounts are to be believed (always something to consider), they give us a sense of why the academy is slow to change.
Robert Heilman was 93 when his book, The Professor...