Johns Hopkins University Press
  • Remaking the Renaissance Man: General Education and the Golden Age of the American University

This essay examines the relationship between the “golden age” of the American university (1945–70) and the movement for general education, which sought to establish a common undergraduate curriculum for the purpose of educating the “whole man.” The movement, I suggest, repurposed the question of the “dissociation of sensibility” faced by poets, critics, and literary scholars, arguing that a common undergraduate curriculum was necessary to produce citizen-professionals who were both technically skilled and capable citizens. This question animated the work of major literary intellectuals—including Lionel Trilling and Ralph Ellison—whose conceptions of the “renaissance man” extended and refined forms of intellectual and affective attachment to the college. Through the movement’s relationship with these literary figures, I argue that we might further understand the relationship between the postwar research university, industrial capitalism, and American power.

The idea that college education exists to produce ideal citizens pertains beyond the language of commencement ceremonies and graduation speeches, exceeding even important questions of curriculum and administration. The belief that at one time educators consciously sought to create well-rounded human beings fit for democracy has come to inflect scholarly approaches to the “golden age” of the American university (1945–70), the era preceding our neoliberal period with its austerity, debt, and despoliation.1 The roughly three decades following World War II are celebrated not only for bearing witness to exponential growth in higher education but also for the unity of purpose shared by educators, administrators, and politicians. Compared to the pecuniary expedience with which contemporary universities regard their students, seeing them as so much “self-investing human capital,” mere aggregates of traits, skills, and identities to be maximized on the job market, postwar documents from the 1947 President’s Commission on Higher Education and 1964 Report of the Commission on the Humanities present students as “citizens-in-training”—persons to be equipped with the moral reasoning and critical thinking necessary for a functioning democracy.2 Moreover, this ideal is understood to have been enacted through progressive legislation, with the federal government putting it into action through reforms such as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 and the Higher Education Act of 1965.

Yet the material history of US higher education conveys a more complex understanding of the origins and predominance of education-as-citizen-training. That history, as much recent scholarship attests, is entangled with capitalist accumulation—and the attendant processes of enslavement and genocide—at the root.3 The golden age is no exception. The most appropriate framework for analyzing the postwar university might be that of “Military Keynesianism,” which acknowledges the remarkable social mobility enabled through federal economic management of the period (e.g., through the GI Bill and related [End Page 53] legislation) while clarifying the historical forces that motivated and constrained the American state’s investment in higher education.4 This approach considers the mediated relationship between higher education and the United States’ efforts to consolidate military and economic hegemony after World War II. While universities have long been studied as sites of collaboration between industries and the military during the Cold War period, undergraduate training also had a place in a diverse array of domestic and foreign policy objectives.5 Indeed, scholars have shown how expanding access to education during this period was made in response to several pressing demands, including the need to manage oversaturated labor markets, the need to expand the availability of specialized workers, experts, and scientists required by the advanced industrial economy, and, finally, the need to control racial and sexual minorities on the domestic front by ensuring that the ideal student remained normatively white, male, and straight.6

At the same time, this cross section of material and ideological demands permitted citizen-training to emerge as a purportedly universal ideal—but, crucially, only as an ideal. As I argue here, postwar educators themselves saw citizen-training less as a functional reality of higher education than as a vision to be achieved. Yet by projecting an image of education as the principal force for social and political integration, the general education movement helped obscure the exclusions, exceptions, and inequalities that persisted through the golden age. From shortly after World War I through the 1960s, general education named the wide-ranging cultural effort to preserve, reform, and champion undergraduate learning amid the rise of the research university system.7 This project involved numerous writers, critics, politicians, and administrators across a wide variety of institutions, but united them all with the goal of reconceiving nineteenth-century liberal education for the American century. Drawing on roots in literary culture, general education achieved a startling rhetorical triumph—that is, it synthesized a compelling problem and mission for undergraduate education, even as the modern university with its hierarchies, grant structures, and structures of specialized research expanded according to its own, separate logic.

More specifically, general education offered an audience of intellectuals, bureaucrats, and officials a compelling protagonist, a figure that drew on the very beginnings of humanistic study while cleverly avoiding any specific reference to the demographic makeup of American higher education—except that it was and, as far as they were concerned, would continue to be, overwhelmingly male: the uomo universale, the universal man of the Renaissance, or what the [End Page 54] Harvard Commission on General Education called the “whole man.” College matriculation has historically been portrayed as a lively spiritual drama, in which the student enters the college unformed and through his struggle with vast and competing domains of knowledge emerges well-rounded, developed, and self-directed.8 Focusing on the individual student, this drama justified the system of education through reference to this unseen, internal journey. General education adapted and restaged it as crucial to the success of American democracy, never shifting the focus from the individual even as the movement’s rhetoric frequently included references to the common good, diversity, and the nation. The Harvard Commission’s reconstructed Renaissance Man was “the good man and the citizen,” and his chief characteristic was “personal integration,” something that undergraduate education was poised to provide by training two sometimes competing faculties of human nature: “instincts and sentiments as well as the intellect.”9 The commission, like the broader movement, argued that this internal relationship between sentiments and intellect—what Lionel Trilling, borrowing from Blaise Pascal, called l’esprit de finesse and l’esprit géométrique—was of crucial economic and political value. This new man, in whom democratic feeling could be balanced with technical skill and capability, would be “both a professional practitioner and thoughtful citizen.”10

This essay examines the development of general education principally as a desire and program to “make men” for the American nation. Therefore, although the movement begins with questions of curriculum, it very quickly moves beyond matters of Great Books and “what every American should know” toward refining the means by which schooling can produce a type of person.11 Crucially, however, I do not mean to suggest that general education served as a direct arm of the state; rather, at each turn, the movement articulated a vision of the student—as what I call a citizen-professional—that expressed its own desired relationship to American power and to the state specifically. This expression drew much of its power from the significant historical entanglement of liberal education, which provided the philosophical basis for general education, and the civilizing mission of late nineteenth-century imperialism.12 I focus on a particular aspect of this inheritance: the functioning disconnect between the collective and universalizing rhetoric of educational policy, which elaborated visions of the common good, and the relentless individualism that dominated both the theory and the practice of making the citizen-professional.13 By insisting that real democracy depends on a type of person, and that education was the best way to produce that person, general education obscured real [End Page 55] questions of access and equality in education during the crucial period of the early Cold War. Instead, general education offered itself as a universal solution to political struggles around class and race that avoided any question of the redistribution of power and wealth.

Because emphasis was placed so tightly on the individual, general education eventually left the school behind. As I examine it here, the ideal of citizen-training developed into a program for self-motivation and self-creation that implicitly carried the values of American citizenship. Therefore, I begin with John Erskine’s attempt to bring a program for citizen-training, a concept derived from military mobilization for World War I, to Columbia University via the Great Books program—yet I focus on how his program was not exclusively concerned with the content or the tradition of those books. Rather, Erskine was interested in the process of discipline that such a program initiated within the individual. Drawing on his experiences in Erskine’s course, Trilling elaborated Erskine’s program into a rubric for the individual’s moral and intellectual life during the Cold War. Trilling’s concept of the liberal imagination not only emerged from the struggle to preserve the college—echoing the Harvard Commission’s emphasis on training both the sentiments and the intellect by seeking to restore what Trilling called “the will and its beautiful circuit of thought and desire”—but disseminated the notion that citizenship demands a rigorous and ongoing program of internal self-instruction beyond the bounds of the school.14

Even as the curricular aims of general education were superseded by research specialization and vocational training, its relentless focus on individual self-development persisted. It was, therefore, a movement that emerged out of a concrete set of material circumstances but that produced a compelling vision of the relationship between education and citizenship that still inflects approaches to higher education today. In my final section, I turn to the novelist Ralph Ellison, a figure well known for advocating a form of cultural citizenship, but one whose work emerged at a turning point in the discourse on education: Ellison advanced a model of the ideal citizen grounded in aestheticized labor—what he called the “discipline” of the novel—rather than schooling. In his project, we see the limitations of general education as an effort to reform the curriculum and the beginnings of an emergent mode of attachment to higher education that reproduces much of the ideals and rationales of citizen-training without the overt language of nationalism. From World War I to the contemporary emphasis on self-marketing, then, the college has articulated a vision of American citizenship as perpetual self-development. [End Page 56]

A Vast University of Citizenship

In the autumn of 1919, Nicholas Murray Butler, president of Columbia University, stood beside John Erskine, professor of English, to celebrate Columbia’s opening the first year after the Great War. As Butler acknowledged in his speech, war mobilization had completely transformed the university: “Under the clouds of war we had become to all purposes a part of the Government of the United States for the preparation and training of men to carry on that war and for the better organization of our natural resources to aid the combat.”15 Aside from sparking an infamous faculty mutiny, Butler’s enthusiastic collaboration had resulted in a series of curricular experiments, including, most important, a new course for Europe-bound officers-in-training titled War Issues.16 Recently returned from the American Expeditionary Force (AEF) himself, Erskine joined Butler that day to announce the vision that would see War Issues transformed into a permanent, peacetime element of Columbia College’s curriculum: the class Contemporary Civilization, which, along with a companion course Literature Humanities, would form the core of Columbia’s general education program. The impetus behind these changes, Erskine announced, was the belief that “the war had indicated anew the power of the mind if rightly trained, and consequently the importance of education . . . why then should not the problems of peace as well be solved by the trained mind, and why should not the training, brief but effective, be made available to all of us?”17

By “all of us,” Erskine did not mean merely the students and faculty of Columbia. As an instructor in the AEF’s “Khaki University,” teaching officers and enlisted men from across the nation, he had developed the idea of a national program of training for citizenship. Proposing this idea to General Pershing, commander of US forces in Europe, Erskine marvels at the vast potential that such a program might hold for use during peacetime: “It is the logic of our course in this war that our Army, organized to defend the ideals of civilization, is now proving itself to be a vast university of citizenship. It would be the most profitable result of the war for our country and for the world should this university in citizenship become permanent for all our people.”18 Noting that “much sentiment attaches to places of education,” he suggests that the training of citizens—were it to take place through a national service program or by some other mechanism—be modeled on colleges, which students regard as “shrines . . . of affection.”19 Indeed, for Erskine, the explicit content of this program is less significant than the attachment that its discipline would foster; therefore, students would be permitted to choose their own course of study. [End Page 57] The crucial purpose of this training, as Erskine understood it, was neither hard skills nor concrete knowledge of American government and history, but “a complete and generous education” as John Milton defined it: “that which fits a man to perform justly, skillfully and magnanimously, all the offices, both private and public, of peace and war.”20

Erskine’s evocation of Milton is somewhat portentous. The idea of education as training for citizenship indeed has philosophical roots in early modern England, when the enduring image of the matriculated student as “a gentleman and a scholar,” a justification for higher learning popular through the nineteenth century, was first consolidated and propagated.21 But Erskine and Butler, whatever their reverence for this tradition, were at the forefront of a thoroughly modernist project: the effort to reimagine the rigidly class-bound program of liberal education into a system of mass education.22 As Erskine understood, liberal education of this kind had long been an endangered species in the United States. After the Civil War, the rapid development of the nation’s productive capacities, including the conquest and settlement of the western territories, privileged more dynamic models of education—programs that, in the service of capital accumulation and territorial expansion, were more explicitly dedicated to making knowledge than to making men. Above all, two emerging models served the incorporation of America more than liberal education ever could: first, the Morrill Act of 1863 authorized the creation of agricultural and mechanical colleges in every state using the proceeds from indigenous lands claimed by the federal government; second, the founding of Johns Hopkins University in 1876 promoted the design of the German research university, in which every field assumed the character of scientific inquiry with specialized procedures and formalized standards of knowledge.23 These models threatened to overwhelm the aristocratically small programs of even the most wealthy and influential eastern colleges—a fate that Erskine, having internalized the power of industrial mobilization, believed could be avoided.

How could liberal education serve an advanced industrial power? Erskine formulated this question in response to World War I, but not for the first time. Rather, the notion that liberal education could be repurposed toward the mass “training” of disparate populations in the arts of proper citizenship had informed British and American imperialism. Under the auspices of the civilizing mission, education not only facilitated the extension of extractive and settler colonial projects throughout Asia, Africa, and the Americas but provided the ostensible justification for these policies in forging a unified class of educated natives. The founding of universities in the American territories [End Page 58] of the Philippines, Puerto Rico, and Hawai‘i anticipated the AEF’s wartime college in mobilizing masses of supposedly undisciplined students into programs explicitly created for training in citizenship. As Victor Bascara argues, higher education in US colonies relied on the vague, future-oriented concept of citizenship to reflexively justify their own existence: “Whether that citizenship was to be the United States or possibly even a postcolonial nation-state, citizenship emerges as a compelling speculative concept that not only stands at the end point of an educational process but also serves as a crowning rationale for erecting both educational systems in general and specific educational institutions.”24 Moreover, as Erskine discovered in Europe, citizenship expressed the fundamentally incorporative power of education. The AEF college, like the colonial universities, offered “a kind of laboratory course” on “what responsibility each of us owes to his fellow.”25

This responsibility points to an understanding of citizenship that remains, in Bascara’s terms, speculative—oriented not only toward the American nation but toward a coming world order molded in the American image. For Erskine, as for the colonial managers who preceded him, citizenship was a broad, open-ended concept that demanded a broad, open-ended form of education. Crucially, despite modeling his proposed “university of citizenship” on segregated institutions—the US Army officially, Columbia University de facto—Erskine suggests that this program would not separate anyone on the basis of race or ethnicity. Rather, following Milton’s wide-reaching concept of citizenship, it would be organized according to elected courses of study.26 The elision of any reference to race, ethnicity, or peoplehood places Erskine’s understanding of citizenship in the tradition of what has been called American universalism: “an egalitarian tradition of civic nationalism that distinguishes the United States from nation-states with ethno-racial conceptions of the polity, or ones in which national belonging is defined by kinship, primordial attachments, and a metaphorics of blood.”27 Presenting itself as genuinely universal, this ideal remains structurally susceptible to oversights, exceptions, and exclusionary credentials.

Erskine’s attempt to bring citizen-training to Columbia through the Literature Humanities component—the first course in the Great Books—exemplifies this tension. Undertaken with the express purpose of providing students and faculty with a space for unstructured, open conversation, the Great Books seminars also took the form of a course on the “Western tradition.” Several of Erskine’s students, including Mortimer Adler, brought this latter definition of general education to the University of Chicago, where, alongside Robert [End Page 59] M. Hutchins, they established the most famous course in the Great Books. After World War II, the Chicago course branched into a sweeping project of social reform, grounded in the Western tradition, that reinforced the notion of general education as based in a common cultural inheritance.28 However, as the next sections examine, Erskine’s program also produced a form of general education that centered less on the express content of the canon than on the imperative for individual self-development. This imperative took shape after World War II in the need for education that taught professionalism as well as citizenship and through the belief that cultured individuals might raise the nation above its divisions.

From Liberal Education to the Liberal Imagination

As a movement to reform college curriculum and structure, general education was taken up at Chicago, Harvard, the University of Minnesota, and other schools across the nation. But as a vision of the social possibilities of education, one that could theoretically be applied outside the classroom, general education in its second, more dynamic mode was also pioneered at Columbia. Trilling, as a student and professor in the college, helped transform general education from a concern of Ivy League administrators into a widespread question of everyday life in the early Cold War. Even more than Erskine, Trilling worked to make the central matter of general education—the remaking of the whole man—into a literary problem, one eminently preoccupied with what the ideal citizen should read, write, and think. He did so with conscious awareness of the close historical relationship between, at the broadest level, general education and literary culture, which he traced back to the coincident publication in 1867 of F. W. Farrar’s Essays on a Liberal Education and Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy: these texts, he argues, “constitute the rationale of our own modern theory of general education and they provide what is probably the strongest of all justifications that can be offered for making English literature a school or university subject.”29 Thus bound together, literature and general education find their justification in “what in America we call . . . the whole man.”30

More specifically, however, Trilling was aware of the role that literature had played in the development of general education at Columbia. In a short history of the college at the turn of the century, he recounts the struggle between “progressive” proponents of research and specialization and those “conservatives” like Erskine that “fell back on the Renaissance ideal of the whole man, and on the ideal of the gentlemen, of the honorable and responsible citizen of [End Page 60] the enlightened and gracious mind.”31 At Columbia, the triumph of this latter idea depended partly on Erskine’s insistence that humanistic studies remain the central element of collegiate education, for it is the study of literature and other aspects of human culture that performs the work of “making men.” Trilling had firsthand experience of General Honors as both a student and a teacher. Meeting for two hours each week to discuss one of the great works of Western culture, the course focused on what Trilling would come to call manners and morals—questions of how the sensitive and engaged individual should conduct himself in the modern world.32 It also demonstrated the close association between typically literary concerns such as aesthetics, sensation, and emotion and the more traditional purposes of schooling: critical thinking, raw intelligence, and technical skill.

For both Trilling and the wider general education movement, the confluence between sensibility and intellect came to define the problem of the whole man in the period just before and after World War II. As Frank Kermode argues regarding this period, the question of a fissure between the human faculties of cognitive thought (“intellect”) and emotion/sensation (“sensibility”) had broadened into “a pattern applicable not only to poetry but to general intellectual history, formed and codified by the expression ‘dissociation of sensibility.’”33 The phrase was T. S. Eliot’s, but the problem of dissociation had been taken up by nearly an entire generation of writers, critics, and academics—including Eliot’s friend and rival, the Cambridge pioneer of close reading, I. A. Richards.34 Believing that a robust education in the reading and interpretation of literature might both reconcile the two cultures of art and science and prepare the population for mass democracy, Richards made this problem the cornerstone of Harvard’s report, General Education for a Free Society, widely known as the Redbook.35 The report’s section titled “The Good Man and the Citizen” addresses it directly: “Man is not a contemplative being alone. Why is it, then, that education is conceived primarily an intellectual enterprise when, in fact, human nature is so complex? For instance, man has his emotions and his drives and his will; why should education center on the training of the intellect?”36 Like Richards, Trilling followed Arnold in believing that the study of culture might not only bring these faculties into balance within the individual but also remove external barriers between individuals—including, for instance, the distinction between social classes.

Trilling’s theory of the whole man, developed in response to Eliot’s dissociation thesis, advanced literary culture as one way to reconcile the divisions inherent to modern life. Of those divisions, academic specialization was perhaps [End Page 61] the most relevant to Trilling personally. Indeed, Robert Henn has argued that the concept of the liberal imagination originates with Trilling’s struggle to reconcile the demands of academic labor with his ambitions as a novelist.37 Where General Honors provided a model of the unification of intellect and sensibility, the combination of research, professionalization, and administration dulled the imaginative dimensions of his work. After the failure of his first and only novel, The Middle of the Journey (1947), Trilling began to develop the question of the whole man into one of wider theoretical import. In the dissociation thesis, he saw an opportunity to expand the impact of General Honors beyond the course itself—making the ideal of self-development central to postwar literary culture and literary culture central to the postwar world order. But he rejected the argument that intellect and sensibility were irreconcilable or even truly divided. Those who held that position, he argued, “prefer to forget the ground which is common to both emotion and thought,” presuming “ideas to be only the product of formal systems of philosophy.”38 The man of both intellect and imagination, the whole man, was possible—and it was this realization that Trilling understood to be the vital literary project of the era.

Like Erskine and Richards, Trilling believed that democracy depended on proper education. His watershed essay collection of 1950, The Liberal Imagination, opposed the best features of literature—what he called “variousness, possibility, complexity, and difficulty”—to the “organizational impulse” of modern bureaucratic systems, represented in their most repressive and extreme form by Stalinist communism.39 In his view, the dissociation between intellect and sensibility was the result less of any permanent divide than of a sociohistorical transformation in the rigid class structure of Europe.40 The nineteenth-century conflict between the rising bourgeoisie and the old aristocracies had given way to a managerial revolution, in which the rapidly diversifying professional classes of the advanced economies had tossed aside the distinct textures of thought and feeling (what Trilling called “manners”) that the previous conflict had produced. The definitive conflict of the twentieth century was the conflict between totalizing systems of politics and science and the complexity of life that they threatened. “The diminution of the reality of class, however socially desirable in many respects,” he writes, “seems to have the practical effect of diminishing our ability to see people in their difference and specialness.”41 Therefore, the purpose of general education was the revivification of the nation’s middle classes through the restoration, within every member of those classes, “the will and its beautiful circuit of thought and desire.”42 [End Page 62]

As one of the principal institutions of the rising middle classes, the university represented this conflict in miniature. The research university, like all systems in modernity, tended to reduce complexity, individuality, and difficulty into simpler and more easily reproducible forms. Yet general education, as a program grounded in culture, offered a small preserve of unity and complexity. It is no surprise, then, that Trilling’s idea of the liberal imagination shares fundamental principles with Columbia’s Core curriculum. Alongside his colleague Jacques Barzun, Trilling had taught General Honors; the pair offered Contemporary Civilization and Literature Humanities, respectively. Barzun credits teaching for developing what he calls their “methodless method”—a mode of thought that, bridging both intellect and sensibility, flouts disciplinary boundaries, “blazing through the jungle of historical, biographical, sociological, analytical, and philological circumstance.”43 This was an interpretation of the same principle that Erskine had brought to the general education program: the need for the individual to exercise his willpower in unifying sensibility with thought: “the imagination that springs from fact and is hedged in by probability, the literal imagination, the imagination of the real.”44 The student, rather than select courses that enabled specialization only in one’s chosen profession, was compelled to navigate multiple and contradictory fields, moving between the poles of imagination and intellect in exercising “this desire to fashion, to shape, a self and a life.”45

While general education served as the original embodiment of this ideal, Trilling believed that such self-fashioning must be a critical and ongoing aspect of the middle classes—even beyond the curriculum itself. Partly for this reason, Trilling, along with Barzun and the poet W. H. Auden, began a set of book clubs—Reader’s Subscription and Mid-Century—to supply educated readers with high-brow books well after they had finished college.46 This enterprise, although relying less on the rhetoric of citizenship, reflected Erskine’s desire to use cultural training as a form of social discipline. In a later essay, he reflects on the close ties between literary education and the state, suggesting the aim of making whole men was to create citizens capable of critical engagement with power:

If one undertakes the making of whole men or the construction of people, one does indeed have in mind the private lives of the men who are made whole or of the people who are constructed; but one’s intention is also of a public kind which has ultimately to do with the state and with the quality of the persons who shall control the state, or at least with the quality of the persons who shall criticize the state and make demands on it.47 [End Page 63]

In the early Cold War era, the whole man was not merely a conception of the ideal citizen. It seemed to offer a program for resolving social divisions through education and through cultural education specifically. The expansion of general education beyond the school was central to this effort.

The 1947 report of the President’s Commission on Higher Education, titled Higher Education for American Democracy, framed the need for ongoing and mass liberal education in the context of American political and economic hegemony.48 No longer isolated from world affairs, the US required education that trained its own people as well as foreign populations under its control for democracy—and the “first goal in education for democracy is the full, rounded, and continuing development of the person.”49 The principles and structure of this educational program were explicitly derived from general education, with the principal purpose of teaching the individual “to identify, interpret, select, and build into his own life those components of his cultural heritage that contribute richly to understanding and appreciation of the world in which he lives.”50 The commission was clear that this process began in college, but by no means was meant to cease after matriculation. Instead, general education would be one step toward removing the distinction between work and free time: “Because of the high degree of specialization and division of labor in industry, leisure can no longer be rewarded as mere cessation from work. The worker must use his hours away from the job to restore the wholeness of personality the machine tends to destroy.”51 Not only might college introduce the educated man to “a wide variety of interests and activities that he may cultivate later on,” but such perpetual self-cultivation may establish “a new kind of industrial and economic citizenship,” one in which “the factory is becoming a new sort of community” defined by “cooperation between labor and management.”52

The commission, much like Trilling, expressed a desire that culture might resolve the differences between classes, obviating the need for the politics of class struggle. Although outfitted for postwar industrialism, this desire had attended movements for educational reform since the nineteenth century, when the state first became interested in controlling the free time of their working populations. As Karl Marx observed of industrial England, the development of industry redounded to the working classes in the form of time: “When the time which society is bound to devote to material production is shorter, and as a consequence, the time at its disposal for the free development, intellectual and social, of the individual is greater.”53 Therefore, as the working classes sought the concrete political goal of expanding their free time (e.g., in the struggle over the working day), bourgeois classes, often together with the state, sought the [End Page 64] means of filling that time, specifically, reclaiming it from laziness and waste. As a reform movement of this kind, liberal education sought to provide young, aspiring men means of both finding a place in the world (in terms of class and profession) and internalizing that world as it existed. In the system of mass liberal education imagined by general education, the lifelong self-cultivation provided by general education would transform the former student’s free time into a form of disciplined, productive “rest.”54

Thus equipped, the educated worker would never cease from working on himself. Although it embraced the language of populist democracy, general education placed the burden of its promise on the individual student. The movement drew attention to the importance of the college through emphasizing the role it played in shaping persons. Therefore, for all the idealism of the Harvard Commission and the President’s Commission, none of the various camps within the general education movement saw the reform of undergraduate education as a mechanism for economic redistribution beyond the meritocratic enabling of deserving individuals. The national and institutional emphasis on the individual does not merely distract from systemic processes of accumulation but forms a structural part of the social reproduction of those systems.

The Limits of General Education and the Renaissance Man

In the 1960s, the optimistic, future-oriented vision of general education encountered real limits. Faced with the reality of massive research universities, which gave enormous preference to scientific and vocational specialization, along with an overwhelming influx of students, many of whom embraced cultural and political values at odds with traditional understandings of citizenship, general education began to interrogate the remaining possibilities for its mission. Daniel Bell’s 1966 examination of Columbia, The Reforming of General Education, provides a major example of how the movement shifted to address its diminished prospects in the face of both external and internal transformations. Conducted with the input of Trilling, Bell’s study makes the case for general education in terms of its value to the state—but does so with hardly any reference to training for citizenship. Rather, it is the new economic reality, expressed in terms of human capital rather than citizenship, that Bell believes is of principal interest to the nation. Noting that Columbia had already introduced the major system in 1954—a decision, he notes, that had the “pedagogic virtue . . . of giving students a form grounding in a specific discipline rather than the amorphous experience of educating the ‘whole man’”—he argues [End Page 65] that the “new men” will be scientists, technicians, and intellectuals regarded for their dissemination and marketing of ideas.55

Bell’s argument remains within the bounds of technocratic Keynesianism, making the case that such education will ultimately be of value to the state, but his effort to recast general education in the language and rationale of the market points to the close relationship between golden age and neoliberal approaches to education.56 Specifically, the open-ended, atomistic vision of training for citizenship advocated by general education ultimately proved amenable to neoliberal theories of self-promotion and entrepreneurship. Ralph Ellison offers a crucial example of this transition. Having dropped out of Tuskegee Institute only to gain unprecedented access to elite universities after the success of Invisible Man, he provides a critique of the colonialist dynamics of liberal education during the golden age while exemplifying how a form of professional self-development came to represent the ultimate expression of American universalism. His rejection of the traditional drama of Bildung therefore sets the stage for a broader, more flexible mode of attachment to the college, in which the universal values of US citizenship are to be realized neither through ethnic identity nor self-discipline but through the individual’s dedication to his or her craft. Ultimately, Ellison’s concept of education based on style and possibility remains bounded by a proprietorial conception of personhood.57 Indeed, through his model of aesthetic education that foregrounds the self as a resource to be developed and exploited, we find a material link between postwar liberalism and neoliberalism—under both, the qualities of personhood are confused with the properties of labor-power, and selfhood itself becomes a form of property.58

General education projected a vision of access and equality unstained by segregation and racism but took a generally disinterested approach to questions of race and racism as such. Therefore, while state-sanctioned white supremacy, of the kind that enabled Jim Crow laws and the quota system in elite universities, was increasingly incompatible with the American universalist rhetoric of open-ended, nonethnic citizenship of the kind promoted by Ivy League administrators and educators, advocates of general education presented increased access to quality tertiary schooling as a principal solution for ending social and economic discrimination against African Americans.59 They did not anticipate that the modes of training for citizenship that had been promoted since World War I could be once again understood as colonialist and imperialist tools of control. Ellison had witnessed the nakedly colonialist dynamics that informed segregated higher education for Blacks at the Tuskegee Institute. [End Page 66] Guided by the vocationalist philosophy of Booker T. Washington, Tuskegee had originally rejected liberal education and its notion of rounded development of the individual—in this way, it was representative of Black education in the South, which relied nearly exclusively on private philanthropy for funding. Although by the time of Ellison’s enrollment in the 1920s Tuskegee had begun to incorporate more elements of liberal education into the curriculum, the belief that Black education was permitted by and for white commercial interests still marred the institution’s purported investment in “making men.”60

In the college sequence that dominates the early portion of Invisible Man, Ellison exposes how the humanistic drama of self-development could still serve explicitly repressive ends. The narrator, attending a lengthy chapel service, experiences the intense attachment to the site of education that this drama fosters in the student. Sitting in the pews, the narrator recounts the sermonic variations on the civilizing mission:

I remember the evenings spent before the sweeping platform in awe and in pleasure, and in the pleasure of awe . . . these logical appeals which reached us more like the thrust of a firm and formal design . . . the lulling movement of multisyllabic words to thrill and console us. And I remember, too, the talks of visiting speakers, all eager to inform us of how fortunate we were to be a part of the “vast” and formal ritual. How fortunate to belong to this family sheltered from those lost in ignorance and darkness.61

Hearing philanthropists, industrialists, missionaries, and other white speakers inform the Black students of their fortune to take part in the “black rite of Horatio Alger,” the narrator is both entranced and repulsed. This “formal ritual” at once separates the college students from the masses of uneducated African Americans, instilling them with purpose and binding them to the college. Indeed, even as the narrator recognizes these men as vampire-like exploiters, with “blood-froth sparkling their chins like their tobacco juice,” he cannot but acknowledge that he has become painfully attached to this institution: “I knew that leaving the campus would be like the parting of flesh.”62

Soon to depart the campus, the narrator, like Ellison himself, realizes that school does not afford him a path to anything like self-development. It produces a sense of personal mission—and a deep commitment to the institution itself—but does not offer freedom in the manner he seeks. If college provided a necessary means of economic uplift, it did not lead to citizenship in the free and unalienated way general education had imagined it. This argument emerged from his deep suspicion of the pathologization of Black life by the state and the university, above all the sociological premise that the impoverished Blacks [End Page 67] of the American South remained uneducated and therefore “pre-individual.”63 Against white critics and scholars who studied that culture from a detached, anthropological perspective, he argued that the culture found in the South was reflective of wider material conditions: “Despite Jim Crow, Negro life does not exist in a vacuum, but in the seething vortex of those tensions generated by the most highly industrialized of Western nations,” existing as “a by-product of Western civilization, and that in it . . . are to be discovered all those impulses, tendencies, life and cultural forms to be found elsewhere in Western society.”64

Ellison was certainly not alone in holding this skepticism toward white-controlled education; indeed, the case against it would be made much more forcefully and persuasively a generation later by Black students entering white universities in the 1960s.65 However, besides being one of the first Black intellectuals to critique the notion that education offered a relatively painless mechanism for integration, he was one of the first literary celebrities to pioneer an emergent mode of relation to higher education—one that substantially revised the notion of the whole man without abandoning it entirely. Similarly to Bell’s idea of the “new man,” this mode of attachment resembles what Michel Foucault calls the “specific intellectual” in being a figure who achieves influence and power, including the ability to promote values taken to be universal, through specialization rather than broad learning.66 The domain of this specialized figure might be a laboratory or a hospital, but the most likely place he or she would be found is the university. In the 1950s, Ellison gained access to the most prestigious American universities precisely because he was a successful and famous novelist—just at the moment that creative writing was becoming a specialized form of knowledge; during this same period, he insisted that a specific practice of self-creation like the novel was the greatest way to express one’s American citizenship. Both of these dynamics—creative self-development and craft-based citizenship—came into explicit relief through his disagreement with Trilling.

As Michael Nowlin has shown, Ellison shared Trilling’s belief that literary forms such as irony developed personal traits necessary for the success of democracy.67 However, Ellison parted ways with Trilling over the latter’s critique of the contemporary novel. As part of the effort to restore “the will with its beautiful circuit of thought and desire,” Trilling suggested that contemporary writers, particularly those from the United States, did not represent an active intellectual tradition that joined feeling and emotion to systematic thought. Therefore, unable to train the intelligence of the reader to make moral and political decisions, American writing was not capable of putting “the scrutinizer [End Page 68] of it under scrutiny.”68 In his essay “Society, Morality, and the Novel,” Ellison questioned whether the creative intelligence that produced the novel was something meant for dissecting and scrutinizing: “It is the drive of the critic to create systems of thought,” he wrote; “it is that of the novelist to recreate reality in the forms his personal vision assumes as it plays and struggles with the vividly ‘eidetic-like’ imagery left in the mind’s eye by the process of social change.”69 Instead, he argued that creative work like the novel opposed the rigidity of the critical and scientific knowledge proper to formal schooling. Unlike the version of training he had received at Tuskegee, the novel did not separate and distinguish knowledge and people like the school: it was, rather, “a moral instrument possessing an integrative function.”70 More than critical systems, sociological knowledge, and school discipline, the creative force of the novel possessed an integrative force capable of binding citizens together into a national whole.

The creative discipline that Ellison advocated expressed and celebrated the unity of what he called “American identity.” Even more than Erskine’s vision of citizen-training, or Trilling’s liberal imagination, this approach internalized the open-ended nature of American universalism within the individual. As Ellison wrote in response to Trilling, the “consciously experimental and revolutionary origins” of the American nation—the civic credo that “grant[s] all citizens equality in public life and encourage[s] all residents to claim a common citizenship”—informed all of American literature, regardless of that literature’s express content.71 Every citizen was therefore already capable of living out this common life, regardless of educational status. What citizens required was simply the time and the effort—the “discipline”—to realize that for themselves. Beginning with his own development as a writer, Ellison expanded this notion into a general theory of craft. The introduction to his essay collection Shadow and Act (1962) describes how “the act of learning writing technique was, therefore, an amusing investigation of what seemed at best a secondary talent, an exploration, like dabbling in sculpture of one’s potentialities as a ‘renaissance man.”72 Acknowledging the unlikeliness of finding a concept so storied and refined as a Renaissance Man in Oklahoma, he argues that “since there is no true sociology of the dispersion of ideas within the American democracy,” he can only point to “that strange mixture of the naïve and sophisticated, the benign and malignant, which makes the American past so puzzling and its present so confusing.”73 Ellison responded to the heterogeneous substance of culture by refining writing technique, but he believed that the same could be done in jazz, painting, and athletics—all of which were “representative of certain desirable essences, of skills and powers physical, aesthetic and moral.”74 [End Page 69]

Here Erskine’s notion of citizen-training achieves a sublimated form: in Ellison’s conception, there is no longer any need for any outward education in the knowledge of what makes one an American. Rather, all of that material remains present, in a somewhat inchoate form, in the play, exploration, and discipline that goes into this process of self-definition. Contrasted with earlier models of general education, Ellison’s appears less structured and possibly more liberating; it refuses what Jacques Rancière calls the “pedagogical myth” of “a world divided into knowing minds and ignorant ones, ripe minds and immature ones, the capable and the incapable, the intelligent and the student.”75 But this is not simply a principle of human freedom for Ellison, who sees this free-form education as running deep in the American grain: self-creation is a process intimately connected to the socially and culturally disruptive force of the frontier, which encourages “the individual to a kind of dreamy wakefulness, a state in which he makes . . . rash efforts, quixotic gestures, hopeful testings of the known and the given.”76

It is this settler colonial myth that ties Ellison’s dream of cultural education through creative labor back to the citizen-making imperative of US education from the land-grant acts to Erskine’s experience in World War I. General education, as a whole, emphasizes the potential of the exceptional individual in the face of vast processes of accumulation predicated on violence. For several decades after World War II, general education provided a convenient cover for the myth. The golden age university mobilized those divisions in the interests of state-led accumulation, drawing in millions of students who desired higher wages, standards of living, and social status—while deepening the ties between advanced research and defense. The steady displacement of the planned economy after 1973, and the uncertainties that have come to define the relationship between state and university ever since, have deprioritized the integrative power of the “creative intelligence,” but have intensified the need to narrate (if not control) one’s career in just the way Ellison achieved.77 Therefore, the task of seeking a form of learning beyond the structural individualism mandated by higher education requires more than the resuscitation of liberal education, with its bromides of development and wholeness. It demands the critical assessment of the university system as a whole, as part of a wider search for durable and insurgent models of collectivity. [End Page 70]

John W. Schneider

John W. Schneider is a Postdoctoral Teaching Fellow at Pennsylvania State University. His current research examines how humanistic practices and projects from critical reading to ethnic studies have been shaped by the structure of the research university.


Many thanks to the anonymous readers and editors at American Quarterly for their feedback on this essay. Thanks also to Max Larson.

1. For an account of the golden age university that compares it favorably to the transformations of the neoliberal era, see Jeffrey Williams, “The Post-Welfare State University,” American Literary History 18.1 (2006): 190–216.

2. Wendy Brown, Undoing the Demos (New York: Zone Books, 2015), 176.

3. Central to this turn is Craig Steven Wilder’s painstaking elaboration of the financial and institutional ties between colonial universities and the Atlantic slave trade, the cotton economy, and the development of racial science: Ebony and Ivy: Race, Slavery, and the Troubled History of America’s Universities (New York: Bloomsbury, 2014). More recently, Leslie M. Harris, James T. Campbell, and Alfred L. Brophy have expanded on this foundational work, in Slavery and the University: Histories and Legacies (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2019). For theoretical accounts of the history and politics of the US university from the perspective of critical race theory, indigenous studies, and critical feminist studies, see Piya Chatterjee and Sunaina Maira, The Imperial University: Academic Repression and Scholarly Dissent (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Roderick Ferguson, The Reorder of Things: The University and Its Pedagogies of Minority Difference (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014); Abigail Boggs, Eli Meyerhoff, Nick Mitchell, and Aaron Schwartz-Weinstein, “Abolitionist University Studies: An Invitation,” Abolition University, accessed March 20, 2020,; and la paperson, A Third University Is Possible (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017).

4. Boggs, Meyerhoff, Mitchell, and Schwartz-Weinstein, “Abolitionist Studies,” 13. For a comprehensive analysis of the California system of higher education, with specific attention to central planning in the postwar era, see John Aubrey Douglass, The California Idea and American Higher Education: 1850 to the 1960 Master Plan (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2007).

5. Rebecca Lowen, Creating the Cold War University: The Transformation of Stanford (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1997), 8. R. C. Lowentin convincingly argues that the growth of the American research university has been predicated on military research since World War I, with the exponential increase in federal investment after 1945 tied to the development of anticommunist ideology and permanent mobilization. Given the dominant anticentralization ideology of the American state, war provided the only rationale for permitting such enormous and consistent federal intervention. See Lowentin’s chapter in The Cold War and the University: Toward an Intellectual History of the Postwar Years, ed. Ira Katznelson and Noam Chomsky (New York: New Press, 1998).

6. On the use of college enrollment as a form of labor market management, see Douglass, California Idea, 170–97; Simon Marginson also analyzes the role that the economic theories of Clark Kerr played in the 1960 California Master Plan for Higher Education in The Dream Is Over: The Crisis of Clark Kerr’s California Idea of Higher Education (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2016), 11–27. Regarding the state’s efforts to maintain a white, male, heterosexual norm for higher education, scholars in feminist and sexuality studies have examined how the GI Bill expanded economic benefits while incorporating crucial exclusions around gender, sexuality, and race. Margot Canaday examines exclusions pertaining to homosexuality in “Building a Straight State: Sexuality and Social Citizenship under the 1944 G.I. Bill,” Journal of American History 90.3 (2003): 935–57; David H. Onkst argues that Black veterans were systematically denied access to higher education in the South in “‘First a Negro . . . Incidentally a Veteran’: Black World War Two Veterans and the G.I. Bill of Rights in the Deep South, 1944–1948,” Journal of Social History 31.3 (1998): 517–43. Building on Onkst’s work, Ira Katznelson provides a comprehensive examination of racial exclusion in higher education in When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America (New York: W. W. Norton, 2005).

7. I have relied on the histories of general education that can be found in Christopher J. Lucas, American Higher Education: A History, 2nd ed. (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006), 193–287; and especially Geoffrey Galt Harpham, The Humanities and the Dream of America (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2011).

8. Karl Jaspers offers a comprehensive analysis of the theoretical content of one of the major variations on this drama: the German Idealists’ conception of Bildung, which played a foundational role in Wilhelm von Humboldt’s plan for the University of Berlin. See Jaspers, “From The Idea of the University (1923/1960),” in The Idea of the University: A Reader, vol. 1, ed. Michael A. Peters and Ronald Barnett (New York: Peter Lang, 2018), 83.

9. Harvard Committee, General Education in a Free Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1945), 74–75.

10. Earl James McGrath, “The General Education Movement (An Editorial),” Journal of General Education 1.1 (1946): 5.

11. This aspect of general education has generally gone unexamined, as the vast majority of studies have focused on questions of curriculum, such as whether undergraduate humanities coursework should center on the so-called Western tradition. While this is of continued importance to the history of the humanities in the United States, my purpose here is partly to identify and critique an alternative dynamic of the general education movement that does not terminate with the culture wars discourse of the 1980s and 1990s. For overviews of the quite central role that general education played in those debates, see W. B. Carnochan, The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1994); and Michael Geyer, “Multiculturalism and the Politics of General Education,” Critical Inquiry 19.3 (1993): 499–533.

12. Uday Singh Mehta explores the intimacy of the supposedly divergent ideologies of liberalism and imperialism in the context of the philosophical and political debates surrounding the rise of liberal education in Liberalism and Empire: A Study in Nineteenth-Century British Liberal Thought (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1999). Gauri Viswanathan explores how the British pioneered a model of the “Great Books” program that later became the hallmark of American general education in colonial India, where it was intended as a unifying, secularizing force for socializing the native elite into British values. See Viswanathan, Masks of Conquest (New York: Columbia University Press, 1989).

13. Here I draw on the work of Nikhil Pal Singh, who has analyzed the universalist rhetoric of the US in the same postwar era: “Behind the liberal notion of universal human capacity has been a thicket of delimiting ‘social credentials’—cultural, historical, material, biological, and psychological ‘preconditions’—for which race (and gender) have proved to be highly durable shorthand and broadly disseminating rubrics” (Black Is a Country: Race and the Unfinished Struggle for Democracy [Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004], 29).

14. Lionel Trilling, The Liberal Imagination (New York: New York Review of Books, 2008), 53.

15. “Butler and Erskine Make Speeches at University’s Opening Exercises,” Columbia Daily Spectator, September 26, 1919, 1.

16. Butler’s insistence that faculty take a loyalty oath to the United States prompted several faculty members, including Charles A. Beard, Thorstein Veblen, and John Dewey, to found the New School for Faculty Research. See Carol S. Gruber, Mars and Minerva: World War I and the Uses of Higher Learning in America (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1975).

17. “Butler and Erskine Make Speeches,” 3.

18. John Erskine, My Life as a Teacher (Philadelphia: J. B. Lippincott, 1948), 155.

19. Erskine, 156.

20. Quoted in Erskine, 156.

21. Harvard Committee, General Education in a Free Society, 243. Some seventy years earlier, the churchman John Henry Newman laid out the Miltonian framework for liberal education in his treatise of 1852, The Idea of the University, which tied the university to the making of “gentlemen” of independent mind, self-directed learning, and deep sympathy. For a brief and effective analysis of Newman’s impact on the general education movement, see Harpham, Humanities and the Dream of America, 126–28.

22. Geyer emphasizes the modernity, and specifically the state-based industrial modernity, of education (“Multiculturalism,” 501).

23. Ferguson examines the racial dimension of land-grant schools, which promoted a version of professionalism that formed a counterpoint to both slavery and indigeneity (Reorder of Things, 85).

24. Chatterjee and Maira, Imperial University, 63.

25. Erskine, My Life as a Teacher, 155.

26. Erskine, 153.

27. Singh, Liberalism and Empire, 18. See David Hollinger, Post-Ethnic America: Beyond Multiculturalism (New York: Basic Books, 1995).

28. For an exhaustive accounting of the Chicago Great Books idea and its influence on postwar institutions such as the Aspen Institute, see James Sloan Allen, The Romance of Commerce and Culture: Capitalism, Modernism, and the Chicago-Aspen Crusade for Cultural Reform (Boulder: University Press of Colorado, 2002).

29. Lionel Trilling, Beyond Culture: Essays on Literature and Learning (New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1979), 183.

30. Trilling.

31. Lionel Trilling, “The Van Amringe and Keppel Eras,” in A History of Columbia College on Morningside, ed. Dwight C. Miner (New York: Columbia University Press, 1954), 19.

32. Edward Shoben, Lionel Trilling (New York: F. Ungar, 1981), 20–25.

33. Frank Kermode, “Dissociation of Sensibility,” Kenyon Review 12.4 (1957): 169.

34. John Paul Russo examines Richards’s thought in the context of the dichotomy between intellect and sensibility, or, more broadly, science and literature, as it was theorized from Arnold to Eliot. See Russo, I. A. Richards: His Life and Work (New York: Routledge, 1989), 146.

35. Russo, 430–40.

36. Harvard Committee, General Education in a Free Society, 75.

37. Robert Henn argues that the university became Trilling’s “model for both an ideal of intellectual freedom and . . . the bureaucratized intellectual labor underlying the flaws of contemporary liberalism itself” (“Trilling’s University and the Creation of Postmodernism,” Arizona Quarterly 65.1 [2009]: 59).

38. Trilling, Liberal Imagination, 288–90.

39. Trilling, xxi.

40. Trilling, 255–80.

41. Trilling, 262.

42. Trilling, 53.

43. Jacques Barzun, “The Imagination of the Real, or Ideas and Their Environment,” in Art, Politics, and Will: Essays in Honor of Lionel Trilling, ed. Quentin Anderson, Stephen Donadio, and Steven Marcus (New York: Basic Books, 1977), 5.

44. Barzun, 5.

45. Looking back on this era, Trilling would describe the intellectual atmosphere around Columbia as one in which educational theory was dominant, “devoted to making ever more cogent its conception of what a liberal and humane education consists in.” See Trilling, “The Uncertain Future of the Humanistic Educational Ideal,” American Scholar 44.1 (1974–75): 54.

46. A brief history and overview of The Reader’s Subscription Book Club and The Mid-Century Book Club can be found in Jacques Barzun, A Company of Readers, ed. Arthur Krystal (New York: Free Press, 2001), xi–xix.

47. Trilling, Beyond Culture, 186.

48. President’s Commission on Higher Education, Higher Education for American Democracy: A Report of The President’s Commission on Higher Education (New York: Harper & Brothers, 1947), 8.

49. President’s Commission on Higher Education, 9.

50. President’s Commission on Higher Education, 49.

51. President’s Commission on Higher Education, 64.

52. President’s Commission on Higher Education.

53. Karl Marx, Capital, Volume I: A Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin Classics, 1992), 375. A more expansive discussion of “disposable time” may be found in Marx, Grundrisse: Foundations of the Critique of Political Economy (New York: Penguin Classics, 1993), 702–10.

54. In effect, school would be extended beyond the hours of the schooling day (or the years of university education) by transforming abstract “leisure time” into skholé̄—the Greek term for disciplined rest. Skholé̄ is one of the etymological roots of “school.” See Tony Blackshaw, Leisure (New York: Routledge, 2010), 3–22. The notion of “disciplined” rest, as the “techniques of existence,” forms part of the subject of Michel Foucault, The History of Sexuality, Volume 3: The Care of the Self (New York: Vintage, 1988). For Hannah Arendt, merely vacant time is not, strictly speaking skholé̄ “in which we are free from all cares and activities necessitated by the life process and therefore free for the world and its culture” (Beyond Past and Future [New York: Penguin Classics, 2006], 202).

55. Daniel Bell, The Reforming of General Education: The Columbia College Experience in Its National Setting (New York: Columbia University Press, 1966), 94.

56. Melinda Cooper offers an analysis of Bell’s relationship to both Keynesianism and the neoliberalism that proceeded it in Family Values: Between Neoliberalism and the New Social Conservatism (New York: Zone Books, 2017).

57. In that sense, both models of the whole man reinforce the “proprietorial conceptions of the self” that informed liberal self-making since the nineteenth century. See Saidiya V. Hartman, Scenes of Subjection: Terror, Slavery, and Self-Making in Nineteenth-Century America (New York: Oxford University Press, 1997), 115.

58. Stephen Schryer considers Ellison’s mode of cultural education in the context of the emerging professional-managerial classes after World War II in Fantasies of the New Class: Ideologies of Professionalism in Post-World War II American Fiction (New York: Columbia University Press, 2012). See also Luc Boltanski and Eve Chiapello, The New Spirit of Capitalism (New York: Verso, 2007), 155.

59. Drawing on Gunnar Myrdal’s immense study of race relations in An American Dilemma, the President’s Commission on Higher Education, for example, understood education to be a principal solution to social and economic discrimination against African Americans.

60. See James D. Anderson, The Education of Blacks in the South, 1860–1935 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1988), 238–78.

61. Ralph Ellison, Invisible Man (New York: Vintage, 1980), 111.

62. Ellison, 112.

63. Ellison, 86. For an example of a scholarly approach that made a similar critique of white approaches that considered enslaved people “pre-individual,” see Stanley M. Elkins, Slavery: A Problem in American Institutional and Intellectual Life (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1959), 81–133.

64. Ralph Ellison, Shadow and Act (New York: Vintage, 1995), 105.

65. Ferguson has convincingly argued that the social movements that coalesced in the 1960s were “all joined by a critique of Western man,” which unified all of knowledge in a faux universality, at the exclusion of marginalized subjects and their knowledges (Reorder of Things, 29). Moreover, Ellison explicitly opposed the founding of Black studies courses, arguing that such identity-based approaches detracted from the technique- and craft-focused labor of the American novel. For example, consider the discussion of Ellison in Harold Cruse, The Crisis of the Negro Intellectual (New York: Review of Books Classics, 2005).

66. Michel Foucault, “Truth and Power,” in Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings, 1972–1977 (New York: Vintage, 1980), 109–33.

67. Michael Nowlin, “Ralph Ellison, James Baldwin, and the Liberal Imagination.” Arizona Quarterly 60.2 (2004): 126.

68. Nowlin, 292.

69. Ralph Ellison, Going to the Territory (New York: Vintage, 2011), 239. Kenneth Burke defines “eidetic images” as a phenomenon wherein “subjective changes are interpreted as objective events,” a process that, for Ellison, renders the artist’s development a process unique and distinct from academic structure. See Burke, Permanence and Change: An Anatomy of Purpose (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1984), 213. See Ann George and Jack Selzer, Kenneth Burke in the 1930s (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2007), 107.

70. Ellison, Going to the Territory, 261.

71. John Higham, “Multiculturalism and Universalism: A History and Critique,” American Quarterly 45.2 (1993): 197.

72. Ellison, Shadow and Act, xiii.

73. Ellison, xiii.

74. Ellison, xvi.

75. Jacques Rancière, The Ignorant Schoolmaster: Five Lessons in Intellectual Emancipation (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 1991), 7.

76. Ellison, Shadow and Act, xv.

77. After 1964, Ellison’s career and income were increasingly tied to the university system—not as a teacher, but as a lecturer and writer-in-residence whose value, above all, was his prestige. By the close of the 1960s, Ellison’s close relationship with the university—which would soon include lectureships and teaching positions at Yale, Chicago, and New York University—would be analyzed and critiqued by writers less comfortable with his American exceptionalism and his refusal to teach and study African American literature as a field. Addison Gayle places Ellison at the center of what he calls the “Combine,” the established network of white critics and English professors who have made Ellison the sole Black writer permitted to be studied in U.S. universities: “[Critics’] ability to deal with Ellison by skirting the indictment of American society means that Ellison will be read in universities for a long time come” (“The Critic, the University, and the Negro Writer,” Negro Digest, January 1967, 57).

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