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Intellect and Public Life: Essays on the Social History of Academic Intellectuals in the United States.

Appearances to the contrary notwithstanding, intellectual work is more nearly a communal enterprise than a matter of individual achievement. The social and institutional context in which thinkers live shapes their thought more powerfully than they are aware. Of the many lessons my generation of historians learned from Thomas Kuhn, none is more elementary or more influential than this, and among Americanists no one took the lesson more fully to heart than Thomas Bender. For nearly two decades he has been exploring the structural underpinnings of what used to be called "the life of the mind" in America: the social role occupied by people of intellectual distinction; sources of intellectual authority; means by which reputations and judgmental criteria are established; the web of relationships that bind thinkers together into a school of thought; the bearing of intellectual work on public culture.

Bender's motives as a historian have always included an element of candid reformism. He suspects that the rise of the university in its modern form during the closing decades of the nineteenth century gave such free rein to the forces of professionalization and specialization that it may have done less to advance learning than to narrow intellectual horizons and weaken public culture. He writes the history of the university neither to condemn it nor to celebrate it, but to understand its limitations and bring into focus possible alternatives. He is a critic, but a "connected" or even a "friendly" one, who cheerfully acknowledges his own indebtedness to the university, not only for his paycheck and the classrooms in which he teaches, but even for the professional mode of inquiry and exacting standards of judgment by which he finds it wanting.

The university is not the only way of providing for the care and feeding of intellectuals. In New York Intellect (1987) Bender contrasted the "academicization" of intellect that set in after the Civil War with two earlier modes of organizing intellectual life in New York City, neither of which assigned central importance to institutions of higher education: "literary culture" at mid-century and "civic culture" before that. In Bender's interpretation, each of the three schemes had its own characteristic vices and virtues, leaving little room for any simple story of progress or modernization. Although he acknowledged real strengths in the modern university and scrupulously avoided any suggestion of a golden age in the past, the prevailing imagery of the book tended toward declension. What worried him was the tendency of "academicized" intellectuals, smugly enclosed within their own autonomous disciplines, to move farther and farther out of touch with the concrete problems and gritty particularities of city life.

Seven of the eight essays in Intellect and Public Life tell similar stories of declension. The eighth strikes a very different note, as we shall see. The first three, all previously published, construe the emergence of the modern, professional, discipline-based university as a response to the breakdown of earlier city-based ways of sustaining intellectual activity. Taking his cue from Kuhn, Bender views the university as the most recent in a succession of "cultures of intellectual life" and asks why earlier cultures came to seem inadequate. He finds the answer in a prolonged urban crisis, precipitated by population growth, an egalitarian ethos, increasing ethnic diversity, and changes of scale attendant on the communication-transportation revolution. By the closing decades of the nineteenth century cities no longer sufficed as a nurturing context for intellectual work because they could no longer provide the "effective audience" intellectuals needed in order to formulate issues, focus inquiry, set standards, earn a living, and achieve recognition. As urban culture lost coherence and opportunities for collaboration among geographically distant thinkers proliferated, the trans-local forms of affiliation so characteristic of university disciplines became an increasingly attractive alternative.

Horace Mann was among the first to complain about the "superficiality" of the lyceum lecture circuit. Henry Tappen, who hoped to establish a great metropolitan university in New York City, pointed at mid-century to the "hosts of mere expert empirics, who without learning succeed in gaining a reputation for learning and ... invade the most sacred offices of society." E. L. Godkin of the Nation lamented the "disintegration of opinion" and called for the infusion of "discipline and order" into American life. The problem, Bender concludes, was not so much that existing institutions of higher education were failing on their own terms, but rather that "a general and profound perception of disorder in urban culture caused intellectuals to ask something radically new of higher education." Although he admits that the modem university came into being as a way of solving genuine problems and has been "astonishingly successful in producing new knowledge," he worries that its hegemony "has left Americans with an impoverished public culture and little means for critical discussion of general ideas." (11, 41-42, 39, 46)

The next four essays, three of which are published here for the first time, complicate and refine the story of declension. Two are devoted to prominent New York academicians, Lionel Trilling and Charles Beard, neither of whom was satisfied to address an audience of professional academics. One essay concerns the emergence of the so-called "New York intellectuals," who found through the Partisan Review an audience of exceptional distinction and breadth. The essay that does most to extend Bender's interpretation of "academicization" is about Columbia economist E. R. A. Seligman, whose career Bender appropriately takes to be emblematic of the social scientific vocation generally.

In the Seligman essay, initially delivered at Princeton's Davis Center in 1987, Bender's concern with the fate of public culture takes on a somewhat narrower meaning, nearly reducing in practice to a question of the class location of the new social scientists. Seligman and Daniel DeLeon both began lecturing in Columbia's School of Political Science amid the growing class tensions of the 1880s. Seligman remained at Columbia and had a distinguished academic career, while DeLeon left the academy and became leader of the Socialist Labor Party. It is not clear that DeLeon regretted his departure, yet Bender construes it as evidence that professionalization brought about "a narrowing in the spectrum of legitimate social analysis," even as he also acknowledges that professionalization on Seligman's terms "moved the general discussion of economics to the left." Given the Kuhnian premises of Bender's work, one might have expected him to explain this narrowing of the spectrum not solely in terms of politics and interests, but also as a product of the dynamics of "normalization" in a professional community of inquiry.

Seligman was a principled centrist, who acknowledged the reality of class struggle but strove to bring left and right together. He resisted those, such as John Commons, who denied the possibility of knowledge independent of class loyalties. Bender traces Seligman's leading role in landmark events such as the founding of the American Economic Association (which occurred the year after the creation of the AHA, not the year before, as Bender mistakenly reports), the founding of the American Association of University Professors (1915), and the resignations of Charles Beard (voluntary) and psychologist James McKeen Cattell (involuntary) from Columbia University during World War I. He concludes, unpersuasively in my view, that Seligman's defense of knowledge transcending class loyalties involved a class affiliation that he was loath to acknowledge. Bender also complains, not quite accurately, that the AAUP defined academic freedom solely in terms of expertise, thus contributing to the erosion of public discourse. In fact, Seligman, who wrote the first draft of the AAUP's "Statement of Principles," wanted to confine academic freedom protections to statements within the speaker's domain of expertise, but was overruled by the other founders. Bender's claim that "academics who spoke directly to the public ... were not defended" is not true of the case that contributed most directly to the founding of the AAUP, that of Edward A. Ross at Stanford in the late 1890s, in which Seligman played a pivotal role. (135)

The volume's closing essay (written in 1990) disarmingly brings into question all that has gone before. How many scholars have the candor or courage to admit that "the interpretive frame out of which my judgments flowed may have been faulty?" Bender even goes so far as to wonder if his critical stance toward professionalization has reflected in part a generational variety of "self-hatred." He now entertains the possibility that under modern conditions the university-based authority of experts might actually be better suited to a pluralistic and interest-driven democracy than the ideals of civic humanism that originally inspired him.

None of these bracing self-criticisms signifies abandonment of his original concern with the vitality of public culture, about which he promises to say more in a volume now in preparation, titled History and Public Culture. Nor, we can be sure, is Bender about to endorse either the narrow scholasticism or the cynical careerism that too often prevails in academe today. I especially look forward to reading what he will have to say about the provocations of Stanley Fish, who contends that anti-professionalism always serves professional ends, and Hayden White, for whom the danger in historical studies is not professionalization, but its close kin, "disciplinization." White deplores disciplinization because it so rudely imposes intelligibility on the buzzing confusion of the past, a complaint well calculated to raise the hackles of even the most anti-professional professional historian.

There is much to lament in the rise of professional expertise, but also much to applaud, and separating the wheat from the chaff cannot proceed in good faith as long as we professors indulge the illusion that we ourselves are not professionals and owe nothing to expert authority. No one has done more than Tom Bender to wean us away from that illusion, even as he reminds us how far short the profession falls of its own intellectual ideals.

Thomas L. Haskell Rice University
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Author:Haskell, Thomas L.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1994
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