An open access publication of the American Academy of Arts & Sciences
Winter 2009

The humanities & social change

Gerald Lyn Early
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Gerald Early, a Fellow of the American Academy since 1997, is the Merle Kling Professor of Modern Letters and director of the Center for the Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis. His books include “The Culture of Bruising: Essays on Prizefighting, Literature, and Modern American Culture” (1994), which won the 1994 National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. He is also editor of numerous volumes, including “The Sammy Davis, Jr. Reader” (2001); “Miles Davis and American Culture” (2001); “The Muhammad Ali Reader” (1998); and “Body Language: Writers on Sport” (1998).

The mere exercise of reading the text as it really is will make the reader moral and wise in a direct way that no systemic body of dogmatic teaching can rival. . . . The real point of close reading is that it produces the right sort of person–a person of evident worth.

–Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities1

The humanities today seem caught in an irresolvable contradiction. At any given moment, they see themselves either as cultural gatecrashers and agents of radical social change or cultural gatekeepers and champions of tradition, often unsure of which act they are performing. It is hard to say whether the tension posed by this disjunction propels the humanities as potent forces in American culture or disables them as insecure, incoherent areas of study. The social, economic, and political changes of the postwar era have served only to exacerbate this sense of disjunction and sharpen opposing impulses, not resolve them.

All of the major changes in American society since the late 1940s–from revisions in immigration law to the advent of effective, mass-produced birth control; from the relaxation of taboos against obscenity to the creation of the GI Bill–can be subsumed under one concept: the democratization of American society. These changes have made any status claim based on unfair or unmerited advantages, including those proceeding from particular physical traits, cultural differences, or emotional and psychological conditions (that do not result in violent behavior),2 both legally untenable and morally illegitimate. In effect, a greater number of people now enjoy greater accessibility to American cultural and social institutions.

The civil rights movement extended these transformations into the lives of black people in the United States, probably our nation’s most visibly persecuted group; but it also changed how the nation overall sees racism and, more generally, social and political hierarchies based on something “natural” or biological. The paradigm shift in the situation of blacks resulted in similar movements and changes in the legal and social status of women, Hispanics, homosexuals, and other groups that had been victimized or socially degraded in America. Presently, efforts to change the status and treatment of the physically disabled, the chronically ill, the overweight, the learning disabled, the emotionally disturbed, and others continue this endless quest for equality and liberation from irrational, or seemingly irrational, prejudice that significantly affects people’s ability to exercise the full benefits and entitlements of American citizenship. . . .

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  • 1Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine, From Humanism to the Humanities: Education and the Liberal Arts in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century Europe (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1986), 148. Here Grafton and Jardine reflect on the changes that Erasmus brought to humanist training.
  • 2These days, scholars commonly refer to this advantage as white privilege, or white male privilege.