What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?

Course of Study, Amherst College, 1824

Perhaps because the traditional academic year has ended, and probably in part because of the tides and undertows of the current election, we seem to be awash just now in excellent essays about the purposes and state of the humanities.

To do my part to put a stop to that, I am here to ask what the liberal arts have to do with early American studies.

I suspect we tend to take the relationship too much for granted.

As the intellectual historian Lorraine Daston pointed out in one of these recent essays, the liberal arts (artes liberales) began their conceptual career as the studies proper to a “free” man in medieval and Renaissance Europe—which is to say, the form of learning that was appropriate to the propertied citizen. Unburdened by the need to study mechanical arts, the liberal citizen could take up such matters as rhetoric, geometry, and logic. Much later, in a democratic context, some scholars took up the banner of the “humanities”—formerly signifying the branches of secular literature, as distinguished from theology—in an assertion of ethical authority. They drew a contrast between the moral purpose of humanistic study and the mastery of the natural world that was promised by other branches of modern scholarship.

In either that medieval or that modern formulation, the concept of the liberal arts presupposes they are distinctive because citizenship involves obligations. The liberal arts are the arts of social duty. In other words, studying the liberal arts is supposed to teach us how free living can be done better. Most of today’s defenses of the liberal arts make an argument along those lines.

It seems to me that this can mean either of two potentially contradictory things in practice.

First, as the arts of citizenship, the liberal arts may be the arts of politics (whether broadly or narrowly defined). That is, we may undertake liberal scholarship to persuade, to warn, to channel or impede power, or to define a community.

There are times when we all embrace this approach. Every scholar I know has dreams of speaking truth to power. Nevertheless, most of us also suspect that politics may be toxic to our work. We have long understood the best scholarship as requiring a measure of political withdrawal—what Latin writers called otium (meaning both “leisure” and “study”), as opposed to officium (“office” or “duty,” i.e., public business). There is thus a strong ascetic tradition in our conception of scholarship.

Alternatively, therefore, some branches of the liberal arts may be understood more critically as the “humanities” in a newer sense: they are the arts of flourishing (or surviving) as a human person rather than the arts of citizenship per se. Of course, this approach is political as well, but it tends to be so in a less direct and potentially more skeptical way. This humanistic approach purports to defend the values of a community that is larger and higher than any scholar could hope to influence. It does not reject politics (though it may pretend to), but it defies complete identification with any particular civitas or public.

At least, that seems to be the theory. In practice, the humanities have often been guilty of advancing the interests of a certain group of people—typically a group that already holds great power—by portraying their interests as those of everyone else. In this, however, the humanities are hardly unusual.

I think most researchers and teachers probably approach the liberal arts in both of these ways at different times or even at the same time. In practice, they are often indistinguishable, and mostly we do not consciously choose one approach over the other. Nevertheless, I believe there is a permanent tension between them. If humanities scholarship implies obligations that transcend the politics of any community, then it can call into question the ultimate value of politically active scholarship. To celebrate the transcendent is to question the immanent.

What does this distinction mean for early American studies?

Most U.S. citizens, I suspect, understand early American history in terms that are broadly civil or political rather than humane. The language of American exceptionalism—lately championed by the right but more quietly shared by much of the contemporary left as well—demands it. So do most of our systems of funding.

The NEA and NEH, for example, exist explicitly to protect “the world leadership which has come to the United States” by preserving U.S. influence “in the realm of ideas and of the spirit.” (Notice there how the language of the humane and universal is harnessed without qualification to state power.) The so-called Wisconsin Idea, which people often understand as providing a rationale for public higher education funding throughout the country, calls for university scholars to extend a “beneficent influence” to “every home in the state.” And of course, history’s place in everyday civil society is typically defined by its value in contemporary political debates. To the extent that early Americanists are part of the same structures of discourse as all other historians, we have a political role.

More specifically, furthermore, U.S. citizens look to early American history for founding myths. This habit is not limited to conservatives. It didn’t even start with conservatives. It is startling how universal and insistent this habit is. For generations now, early American historians have been tasked with explaining to Americans who they are and what their national purpose is.

This is a good basis for publishing trade books that people will want to buy. It can even promote excellent scholarly work. But in an age of public austerity and Hobbesian digital media warfare, it seems to be dangerous ground for a critically inclined academic to stand on for long. The risk is great that civil imperatives will override the duty of truth-telling, whether through populist assaults on higher education or simply through the scholar’s temptation to tickle the public’s itching ears.

Because of this, I think we also need to be able to defend early American studies as something humane—if only for our own sake. The humanities have outlasted kingdoms and empires because scholars have preserved a sense of higher mission. What, then, is the humanistic purpose of early American studies? I mean early American studies as such. What is the early Americanist’s proper role as a potential critic of political power or sordid preoccupation in the name of something universal?

Certainly, early Americanists can claim to do whatever any other historically oriented scholars can. But I think we need to be prepared to do more. We need to able to explain our work as a distinctive, irreducible contribution to the humanities.

In a week or so, I will consider some of the possibilities in another post.

3 comments on “What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?

  1. […] things that I read and thought about were Jonathan Wilson’s piece What Do Early Americanists Offer the Liberal Arts?, L.D. Burnett’s short post on the advice we receive on writing, and (3) […]

  2. Benedict@Large says:

    On one American history course I took, the final included the option of taking five period novels and using them as insight to the history of the time they were written. I found the exercise fascinating because even as I was majoring in American literature, it was a question my own literature courses had never asked me. I probably gained more insight into both areas of study when I wrote that paper, enough to say I remember it as a highlight even now, 40 years later.

  3. […] week, in the first part of this post, I argued that we tend to justify the liberal arts in two potentially contradictory […]

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