“The Constitution is manifestly the product of a cultural theory”, Geoffrey Galt Harpham



Geoffrey Galt Harpham (Kenan Institute for Ethics/Duke University) esteve presente no encontro Matters of Culture e apresentou o ‘statement’ sobre o conceito de Humanidades e a cultura americana.

  1. The academic area most deeply invested in the idea of culture, the focus of this gathering, is what is in America called the humanities. In one way or another, the humanistic disciplines all focus on and produce cultural knowledge, and are inconceivable apart from some concept of culture.  The humanities, moreoever, are the source of the idea that knowledge itself is culturally conditioned, an idea that has been expanded to include the sciences and social sciences, to their dismay.  So for me the idea of culture leads us directly to a consideration of the humanities, and especially of the differences between the humanities and other disciplines. 
  1. A few years back, I wrote a book called The Humanities and the Dream of America in which I made the claim that as an academic category—as opposed, say, to a philosophical or literary one—“the humanities” was an American invention, a product of the post-WWII period when a victorious nation determined to create an educational system that not only served the needs of the nation but broadcast to the rest of the world, much of it devastated by the war, the values and principles on which a free nation was based. This system, unlike any other then in existence, was to be universal, liberal, and general.  That is, it was to be designed to serve the maximum number of people possible, to be non-vocational or instrumental in that it encompassed a variety of disciplines to be studied in themselves, and—the most distinctive feature of all—to be oriented toward the production of citizens rather than professionals or employees. 
  2. The premise was that education so conceived would give all people the tools they needed to be able to determine their own ends beyond the mere accumulation of wealth or the choice of a job, and to participate in a meaningful way in governance. Education was to be training for life for the individual, and, for the society at large, a means of ensuring the equality of access to opportunity on which democracy was supposed to be based.  As a direct outcome of initiatives taken at this time, college enrollment grew quite dramatically, and a system of “community colleges” designed to prepare for college people whose high school training was inadequate was put in place.  In the words of James B. Conant, the Harvard president who convened the committee that provided the architecture of this system, the purpose was “to cultivate in the largest possible number of our future citizens an appreciation of both the responsibilities and the benefits which come to them because they are Americans and are free.”  While many of the specifics of the program this committee came up with seem outmoded, impossible, or otherwise undesirable, the entirety constituted, in the words of the political theorist Wendy Brown, a “radical democratic event.” 
  1. I draw attention to this moment because this is the moment when the idea of the humanities as a distinct set of disciplines—history, language and literature, study of the arts—came into focus as the heart and soul of the entire curriculum. The very first “Program in the Humanities” was created at Princeton in 1930.  The concept of the humanities gathered strength throughout that decade and the one following, and emerged by the end of the war as the focal point of what was called “general education.”  Indeed, the concept of the humanities was indispensable to this system.  Without a robust concept of the humanities as the site of non-quantifiable knowledge, the proposed curriculum would have lacked depth and flexibility; it would have been unable to make any claim about developing citizens who could exercise free choice, or who enjoyed significant freedom.  Without the humanities conceived as the study of cultural knowledge to which all citizens had access, the system could not claim to create a sense of cultural cohesion.  And without the humanities considered as a discipline of evaluation and judgment, the system would lack moral seriousness. 
  1. The point is that the idea of the humanities that emerged at this time grew directly out of a normative theory of culture. This is in fact the American innovation in educational theory—the educational system grows not out of the needs of the professions or the civil service, but out of a shared understanding of the ends of culture.  Or, to put the matter in another way, a strong and well articulated understanding of a common culture produced, as one of its offshoots, a system of education designed to support and extend that understanding.  And so, while the global reach of English has meant that the term “the humanities” is universal, the practices and even the concepts behind the humanities are not universally consistent.  In Portugal, in Japan, in Germany, in South Africa, the term means different things because the local culture has its own history, its own values, its own institutions, which are not necessarily reflected in the “American” concept of the humanities.
  1. I do not mean to claim that the United States has any monopoly on freedom, autonomy, self-determination, or any of the other virtues that the humanities are supposed to develop. Nor am I saying that the humanities actually do all the things that they are supposed to do, even in the very best instances.  A disconfirming reality is too depressingly available for anyone to make such claims.  What I am saying is that the humanities, as this term is understood in the United States, is a different concept from the humanities elsewhere because in the United States the concept grew out of a very specific normative understanding of culture.  This understanding properly resists globalization, as globalization resists it. 
  1. One feature of the American system seems, however, somewhat less parochial and naïve than others.  I am referring to the strong emphasis on the interpretation of written documents.  It could be claimed—and in a forthcoming book I do claim—that the country was founded on the premise that all people should be interpretively competent, able to determine for themselves not just the meaning of texts, but the intention behind those texts.  Asserting this right to interpretation was the essence of the Reformation, and none asserted it more strongly than the English Puritans, who were forced to leave their country because they insisted on the irrelevance of learned clergy in the reading of the Bible.  Puritanism as a theocracy lasted only a few decades, but this strong insistence on the right of all people to interpret foundational texts was transposed onto the Constitution, which was, out of respect for this insistence, written in simple language so all could understand it.  Universal literacy and interpretive competence were written into the founding document of the nation. 
  1. People had to be able to interpret the foundational law because the meaning of the law, unlike statutory law, was always to be in dispute and always yet to be determined. The Constitution stipulates the conditions under which other laws or regulations may be enacted, and sets limits to their authority regardless of the actions of legislatures or other governing bodies.  Interpreting the Constitution thus becomes a civic responsibility enjoined on all; it is also a primary means of social progress, as groups appeal to the Supreme Court to see in the Constitution what they see.  While there are different theories of Constitutional interpretation, the most powerful—even, to some, disturbingly powerful—approach appeals to the “original intent” of the Founders and Framers of the text.  The humanities in America, and in particular the discipline of English, respond to this feature of American civic life by stressing the interpretation of texts, and especially interpretation based on the concept of intention.
  1. The Constitution is manifestly the product of a cultural theory—the same theory that has produced an educational system in which “the humanities,” construed in a particular way, have emerged. It is a peculiar system, but in its aspiration to freedom and equality of opportunity, its derivation from a concept of culture, it has, I think, a lot to recommend it—more, perhaps, than a system in which access to higher education is restricted by examinations or other means, or one in which education is itself restricted by a neoliberal imperative to produce not citizens but wage earners and employees.

Geoffrey Galt Harpham, Lisbon, February 2016


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