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The Fight in Education

An associate professor from Illinois State University gave a lecture entitled “The Battle for the American Mind: the Culture Wars in Higher Education” last Thursday, hosted by the UC Irvine Humanities Collective.

Chrisline Raymundo | Photography Intern
Chrisline Raymundo | Photography Intern

Andrew Hartman, a professor of 20th century U.S. history on leave from ISU for the 2013-2014 academic year as the current Fulbright Danish Distinguished Chair at the University of Southern Denmark, based his lecture off of his upcoming book “A War for the Soul of America: A History of the Culture Wars, From the Sixties to the Present.”

“Whether [culture wars in higher education] had political consequences perhaps is debatable, but that they had enduring historical significance is inarguable,” Hartman said. “At least I’m arguing that. I’m writing a book on it.”

Hartman believes that the culture wars did not boil down to a set of specific issues, but was essentially about how Americans should think.

“Hartman demonstrates how fights over education map out to broader debates over national identity,” Allison Perlman, associate professor in the history and film and media departments, said in her introduction of him.

The Western canon, that is the set of publications that conservatives viewed all students should read, became part of the culture wars. Previous to 1988, Stanford University required all incoming freshmen to read the same texts, including the Bible; the works of Voltaire, Darwin, Freud; and more. In 1988 Stanford revised its curricula to allow teachers to choose the specific authors they wanted to teach, and to include minority authors. Conservatives criticized and debated the issue worldwide, calling it the death of the West.

Hartman also spoke of influencers in the culture wars of higher education during the ’80s and ’90s, including Allan Bloom who wrote the book “Closing of the American Mind” published in 1987 that sold over a million copies. What people thought was a great conservative critique against liberal education, Hartman contends, is more elitist than conservative.

According to Hartman, the real question of the culture wars is this: could the U.S. have a national purpose without a defining foundation put forth through education?

“My argument is America has always had culture wars by definition, if you define culture wars as these battles over what it means to be an American. It seems a particularly American thing because America is an idea more than something rooted in blood,” Hartman said.  “But an idea is always contested, so America always had these struggles of what it means to be an American.”

Austin Chen, a fourth-year film and media studies major, enjoyed Hartman’s lecture, even though he stepped in merely because he saw the signs advertising the lecture in the hallway.

“I feel like I have a narrow view because I’m a student, but I found his points about education made sense,” Chen said.

Hartman is also the founding president for the Society of U.S. Intellectual History, whose 5th annual conference was held last Friday in the Humanities Gateway building.