A new book argues that American democracy depends on an unlikely source: the English department.

The story of Mark Zuckerberg and Facebook is, of course, also a story about Harvard University. After all, the Facebook founder conceived of the idea for his social network (or stole it, depending on your point of view) while a member of the Crimson; Zuckerberg, who never actually graduated, was the school's commencement speaker in 2017. But well before Zuckerberg and social media—and the Internet, really—there was the Red Book.

Produced by Harvard in 1945 and named for the color of its cover, the Red Book (officially titled General Education in a Free Society) lofted ambitions equally grand—and more civic-minded—as Zuckerberg's creation.

The brainchild of Harvard University President James Bryant Conant, the Red Book aimed to be, in the words of Columbia University sociologist Daniel Bell, "the bible of general education." Written by professors and administrators, the Red Book proselytized for a post-war system of higher education that, in conjunction with the new G.I. Bill (passed in 1944), opened American universities to citizens of all creeds and colors while instructing them in the ideals of civic virtue and self-realization. It assumed, in essence, that patriotism included the moral obligation to be intelligent.

A copy of the Red Book.

A copy of the Red Book.

The humanities were absolutely essential to this mission. Literature, philosophy, and history were promoted as the text-based academic endeavors best suited to strengthening "the intangibles of the American spirit," not only because they fostered skills relevant across a wide range of professional activities, but because they encouraged sustained reflection about key texts. All told, the Red Book was an ambitious articulation of America's potential as a democratic nation, a dream of what a polis of intelligent citizens might look like, a vision on par with the country's founding documents.

And it was a bust. Real life intervened. The emergence of the Cold War (and the concomitant space race) demanded educational aims that were explicitly focused on technology and corporate management. The Red Book's emphasis on books seemed suddenly archaic and extravagant. Additionally, there was a fear among chancellors and professors that allowing the untutored masses into Shakespeare seminars would, in the assessment of University of Chicago President Robert Maynard Hutchings, turn universities into "educational hobo jungles." So, even as the ink was drying on the Red Book, Conant himself had to admit that the book was, within a year of publication, "already rather stale."

Facebook, with its emphasis on hyper-connectivity and immediacy, proved far more amenable to the American temperament, inadvertent proof that we get the book we deserve.

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In his provocative new study, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, Geoffrey Galt Harpham, a senior fellow at Duke University's Kenan Institute of Ethics and a noted literary critic, argues that it's time to resuscitate the Red Book. The title of Harpham's book refers to an anonymous older gentleman—real name unknown but called "Mr. Ramirez"—who approached the author at a conference years ago and recounted his own transition from uneducated Cuban refugee to literature professor. The development, Ramirez explained, was catalyzed by one unforgettable moment: A community college teacher asked Ramirez for his thoughts on a passage from Shakespeare. Ramirez had no idea. But the question moved him. For the first time in his life he'd been asked for a personal opinion. This proved to be his entrée into becoming not only an academic, but, with the expectation that he enter the public armed with thoughts, an American.

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?

This anecdote forms the core Harpham's thesis. Ramirez was essentially being asked by his teacher to provide an independent interpretation—and not just any interpretation, but a personalized, individual one derived from personalized, individual thought. The humiliation of not having one might have stung, but it gave Mr. Ramirez permission to develop a habit of mind that, as Harpham describes it in a phone interview with Pacific Standard, was essential not only to Ramirez's career, but to the functioning of American democracy as a whole. Ramirez, over a lifetime of study, developed a skill that any viable democracy—or at least one attentive to the threat of authoritarianism—must foster. Harpham calls it "interpretive competence."

To have interpretive competence means more than just aping opinions. Facebook and other forms of social media do that well enough. As Harpham explained, opinions, in order to responsibly shape ideas and attitudes in the public sphere, take work to be "refined and disciplined." Such refinement, he adds, a la the Red Book, is best achieved through the humanities. Because the humanities are largely text based, they require students to slow down and interpret, reflect, and—through eloquent argumentation—bring others around to their point of view. In so doing, the humanities are an ideal vehicle for teaching public discourse that, no matter how contentious or diverse, strengthens democratic values.

Harpham's claim that "a democratic society is knit together by a collective commitment to argumentation and persuasion" might sound rhetorically pat—just another impassioned aspirational plea to rescue the humanities from their downward slide into irrelevance. But we've committed ourselves to collective argumentation before—and done it exceptionally well. Harpham returns to the founding of the United States, making a strikingly original case that the birth of American democracy required the interpretive competence of early Americans—elites and commoners alike—who undertook the essential civic-minded task of developing and defending a range of opinions about the nation's foundational documents—including the Declaration of Independence, the Bill of Rights, and the rest of the Constitution—well into the 19th century.

The widespread textual and civic engagement of early Americans was indeed something to behold. Europeans, whose comparatively hierarchical societies and commonwealth governments prevented a similar kind popular engagement, took notice of America's commitment to informed opinion. In an address to the House of Commons, Edmund Burke marveled over the interpretive savvy of rebelling Americans, saying that citizens were "acute, inquisitive, dexterous, prompt in attack, ready in defense, full of resources." A generation later (although he was partially responsible for labeling Americans as anti-intellectual), Alexis de Tocqueville surmised that Americans worked diligently to interpret their founding documents because (not only were those documents written in order to be interpreted—a novel idea), but "everyone is more or less called upon to give an opinion of state affairs." They were expected to not only have an opinion, but to have one informed by the individual interpretation of a text.

This expectation—and the benefits of fulfilling it—was hardly limited to prominent white men. Escaped black slaves were included in the national interpretive project as well. In one of the book's most riveting sections, Harpham investigates the abolitionist Frederick Douglass' interpretation of the U.S. Constitution as an anti-slavery document, an assessment that placed him at odds with other radical abolitionists, including William Lloyd Garrison. In his 1852 speech "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?," Douglass—who Harpham calls "the hero of my book"—offered an originalist interpretation of the Constitution that, building on the fact that word "slavery" is not mentioned in the Constitution, made the case that the founders did not intend for it to condone slavery in perpetuity. Correct or not, Douglass' interpretation won the day, keeping mainstream abolitionism within the constitutional framework and thus enhancing its legitimacy with more moderate northerners. Significantly, it was an argument Douglass never could have made had he not (in addition to becoming literate) carefully studied the poems, essays, and dialogues in a popular journal called The Columbian Orator. That was his English department.

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Harpham's most difficult task might be justifying the English department as the venue best suited to promote the kind of interpretative competence that led Douglass to success. Historical interpretation, after all, hinges on divining the meaning of various documents authored by the past and arranging them into plausible narratives that require ongoing defense. So, why literature?

Harpham's response to this challenge is at once intriguing and emblematic of his book's critical importance to an all-inclusive American democracy: The idea of America—including "representation" and "the people"—is built on metaphors. Metaphors, which are essential to literary expression, require us to impute value and meaning in order to make sense of them. To read Shakespeare is to enter into a world of metaphor that demands us to imbue intentional vagueness with intentional specificity. It's not a skill that we normally think of when we think about the fate of American democracy. It's also not a skill that's necessarily supported by Facebook, whose informational immediacy mitigates against sustained reflection. But it is a skill that, as the defunct Red Book reminds us, we neglect at the expense of an ongoing democratic experiment whose lifeblood is an informed electorate.

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