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Fields of Knowledge: French Academic Culture in Comparative Perspective. By Fritz K. Ringer (New York, Cambridge University Press, 1992) 379 pp. $64.95
Meaning Over Memory: Recasting the Teaching of Culture and History. By Peter N. Stearns (Chapel Hill, University of North Carolina Press, 1993) 254 pp. $24.95
As a guide to cleavages in American politics and culture, the debate about teaching humanities in secondary and higher education has commanded the attention of historians since at least the 1960s. The distribution of the suggested national standards for United States history in the fall of 1994 moved the debate from scholarly journals to the mass media and the halls of Congress. The works under review represent, in different ways, two of the most important contributions made by historians to that debate. Stearns' book comments directly on the state of humanities education today, whereas Ringer's study deals with the structure and transformation of the French "intellectual field" centered around higher education in the period 1890-1920. Although a common concern with the educative role of the humanities unites the two studies, the role played by the educational debates in their analysis differs considerably. In one respect, Stearns could be seen as analogous to one of the historical actors that Ringer studies. From a broader perspective, however, both writers can be viewed as participants in the current debate. (1)
For Stearns, the teaching of the humanities (history, philosophy, literature) faces a double vulnerability. In the first place, the conservative "canonists," refusing to acknowledge their own partisanship, regard the humanities as repositories of eternal truths or examples of heroic behavior, whereas their opponents reject any criterion for inclusion in the curriculum other than diversity. To Stearns, the latter do not adequately justify the inclusion of non-Western material, and they treat the history of the West largely as the history of the victimization of various nondominant groups. In the second place, the methods of teaching in the humanities are retrograde, emphasizing memorization rather than analytical skills.
Meaning Over Memory offers a broadly informed, closely argued critique of the canonists' position. Stearns himself taught versions of the canon until he became converted to the view that "Western civilization had to be taught in a world context" and that one could no longer deny the validity of what multiculturalists were saying (174). The canonical tradition--"born during the Renaissance"--in its accommodation with nationalism, elitism, and science, has become the instrument of a conservative ideology: It "favors the status quo; it promotes catechisms; it divides its students from the excitement of research; it serves concerns about race, youth, and international position that ... should be addressed more frankly and by other means" (94). The selectivity of the canon can no longer be tolerated, for its ideological function can no longer be denied. In Stearns' representation of the canon, for instance, the idealization of Athens as the cradle of democracy obscures the fact that civic citizenship was the privilege of an elite in an economy based on slavery. The canon embodies a Whig-like interpretation of history, wherein departures from the advance to democracy, like fascism, are treated only as aberrations of a Western civilization in which the dominant themes are liberating, ennobling, and sublime.
In response to canonists' conceits, Stearns proposes to mobilize the most recent advances in humanistic scholarship to shift teaching from the reverential contemplation of past value systems to the consideration of how culture shaped and informed institutions. Stearns holds that this scholarship has produced general theories that guide its inquiries, that it constantly produces new knowledge that represents usable progress, and that it provides unique possibilities for understanding social and cultural phenomena. This resurgent humanistic learning in such fields as history and literature possesses the educative attributes of a highly developed social science, able to impart crucial analytical skills, attuned to further discovery, and linked to contemporary social and cultural issues. Much of the latter part of Stearns' work constitutes a practical handbook for the implementation of a noncanonical but general education in the humanities. Insisting upon the need for central organizing questions--"real questions that require grappling with analysis and argument, not just coverage stipulations" (152)--he presents a list of the general analytical abilities that his proposed humanities program should contain: the ability to interpret and combine source materials, the ability to compare societies and cultures in order to enhance understanding, the capacity to test models applied to social and cultural phenomena, and the capacity to assess the impact of cultural factors in shaping human institutions and behaviors. He concludes that the ability to deal with diverse interpretations of social and cultural questions is the crucial skill, favorably quoting Joan Scott's comment that "interpretation is the name of the game in the humanities" (155).
This education in analytic skills cannot be otherwise value-free. Stearns maintains that the task of the educational reformer should be to "instill intelligent respect for democracy while arguing that the curricular implications support rather than undermine the thrust toward innovation" (219). Stearns must combine his rejection of a canon focused exclusively on great works and heroes of the Western tradition, his model of humanities as social science grouped around analytic questions, his acknowledgement of the importance of (a rather sketchily described) interpretation, and his assumption of the practical necessity of advocating a particular set of values, namely, democracy. Stearns maintains, after all, that "current humanities education" is …