Irving Babbitt’s History of Ideas and the Making of “Men of Quality”

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by contributing editor Simon Brown

In 1908, the humanities were in peril, as they so often seem to be.  That year Irving Babbitt, a professor of French literature at Harvard, published a collection of essays he had written over the previous two decades decrying the decline of the American college and the study of literature there. His critiques targeted everything from the rising status of colleges of “business administration,” to the increasing association of literature with femininity, to the too narrow and too broad graduate training in literary disciplines to the troubling domination that football had come to exert as the primary form of “communion” that brought undergraduates together in reverence of excellence.

Babbitt diagnosed this ailing campus culture with a genealogy of its origins. His genealogy extended several centuries deep into European intellectual history, from Francis Bacon to Rousseau, to Hegel to William James, and would only become more eclectic in his later writings. Every problem represented a symptom of a condition influencing the intellectual heritage of western civilization itself. Even football could be attributed to the celebration of power as an end of itself in line with “true Baconian fashion.” One answer to these problems, as he outlined in his proposed reforms and demonstrated through his own writing, lay in a renewed attention to “ideas” and to their history.

Babbitt’s commitment to a humanistic education that teaches students to recognize ideas as they have passed from the past into the present echoed in his labyrinthine style of genealogy, and it also guided his vision of the political role that a university ought to play in a modern democracy. Over several decades he advanced an avowedly elitist vision of higher education as a means to train “leaders” who would know how best to check the passions of the crowd and moderate their dangerous demands for “social justice.” From his essays published in Literature and the American College in 1908 to his most famous work, Democracy and Leadership in 1924, Babbitt extended his vision for the humanities into a political solution to the threats he now perceived in mechanized warfare, mass immigration and Bolshevik revolution. His approach to intellectual history bound his pedagogy and his politics, both of which sought to harness the historicity of ideas to advance the purpose of higher education which “must be in a quantitative age to produce men of quality.”

By 1930, Babbitt was recognized as the dean of a circle of literary critics and cultural commentators referred to now as the New Humanists, though they preferred simply “humanist.” He and his colleagues did not eschew “New” in their name because they rejected modernity. In Democracy and Leadership, he clarified that “so far as I object to the moderns at all, it is because they have not been sufficiently modern, or, what amounts to the same thing, have not been sufficiently experimental.” Babbitt practiced his “experimental method” of cultural criticism by following the “actual consequences” of poisonous ideas like Rousseauian naturalism through their “fruits” in social life. Norman Foerster, whose edited collection Humanism and America: Essays on the Outlook of Western Civilization of 1930 celebrated Babbitt as the center of this movement, also recognized this experimental method in the history of ideas and praised Babbitt’s criticism as “in one view works of history, in another doctrinal inductions from facts.” For all his objections to Francis Bacon’s epistemology and its corrosive effects on the American college, even Babbitt could not escape the influence of Baconian induction.

He laid the foundation for this method of intellectual history in an early essay from his 1908 collection in which he sketched an alternative to the PhD in literature. He lamented how literature faculties cleaved between the two extremes of the curious generalist and the narrow specialist — the dilettante and the philologist, as he described them. He proposed an education that would go beyond both aesthetic preference and literary history to focus instead on “ideas.” The problem with his colleagues in the Romance Languages department was their “sheer inability to recognize ideas when they see them.” His ideal student, it seemed, would follow his own method of criticism which traced all cultural achievements and all social ills to those ideas developed, for good or ill, through history.

He did not specify what those ideas were which philologists always missed while pouring over concordances. He did know they lay at the intersection between “literature and thought,” that they ought to be the object of the study of literature, and that wide reading in them ultimately shaped in capable students a “disciplined judgment.” The decline of that faculty of judgment, Babbitt believed, had imperiled higher education and diluted the elite that universities were meant to cultivate. The proper study of ideas in literature and their historical consequences would help sharpen the judgment of the students who would one day determine which ideas could save western civilization, and which would jeopardize it. He later critiqued the “liberal” inclination to celebrate an “open-mind” to new ideas as a virtue in an of itself, rather than a necessary exercise “preliminary to closing it, only as a preparation, in short, for the supreme act of judgment and selection” (Democracy and Leadership, 84).

It was not just ideas that a disciplined judgment should evaluate and adjudicate, but also people – particularly students. Among his catalog of threats to higher education Babbitt reserved a place for those “more humanitarian members of our faculty,” who conceive the university as an institution for inclusion and empowerment rather than selection and judgment, “not so much for the thorough training of the few as of the uplift for the many.” Babbitt specifically referred this problem to a failure to use judgment to evaluate the few who might prove themselves capable of achieving their own disciplined judgment for the responsibility of leadership and the privilege of education that that entailed.

After an intervening period of cataclysmic war and radical revolution, Babbitt’s vision of an educated elite equipped with disciplined judgment expanded into a blueprint for modern democracy in Democracy and Leadership of 1924. The First World War proved for Babbitt the urgent necessity of a leadership class with the judgment and wisdom that could entrust them with the “means of destruction” whose technological capacity for murder was far outpacing the moral capability of the leaders who control them. This danger compounded the other threat exposed in the midst of world war, namely the demands for “social justice” that denied any difference between elite and popular and manifest in violent upheaval in the Bolshevik Revolution.

The ascent of socialists abroad and labor unions at home, who reproduced the same delusions as the “forward-thinking faculty” who wanted to lift up all students together, confirmed for Babbitt the need to reassert the hierarchy between leaders who were capable of recognizing this threat and the masses who were susceptible to embracing such a dangerous idea. He revealed the extent that this commitment to hierarchy would take him when he grimly prophesied that, amidst the clamoring for social justice, “circumstances may arise when we may esteem ourselves fortunate if we get the American equivalent of a Mussolini; he may be needed to save us from the American equivalent of a Lenin.”

Babbitt insisted on the necessity of an elite trained in “ideas” in the face of urgent historical circumstances, but his vision reveals connections between a commitment to education for leadership and conceptions of intellectual history that have persisted into the present. He conceived college education as a means to distinguish “men of quality” from those susceptible to the false idea that such a distinction did not exist, and so teaching students to identify and defend the right ideas had to be the goal of humanistic learning. Babbitt’s experimental method for tracing the history of ideas and passing judgment over them would lead scholars, students and readers to the right results. His method joins a host of other scheme to ensure the right students learn to value the right ideas. His jeremiad on the state of university faculties more committed to “social justice” than elite education echoes in a current mode of academic contrarianism found in online magazines like Quillette, which like Babbitt declares its “respect for ideas, even dangerous ones,” as judged, presumably, by the scholastic status quo they evoke. And like Babbitt, writers in this vein claim to be the lonely upholders of objective analysis and judgment of all ideas, while at the same time insisting on a curriculum that instills respect in the “core values that have defined Western Civilization” throughout history.

The trajectory of Babbitt’s thought reveals how a commitment to cultivating disciplined judgment through an education in ideas can turn intellectual history into intellectual canon. When he and others imagine the history of ideas as a pedagogy for future leaders, he blurs the line between judgment and reverence. Intellectual history, which is supposed to trace the “fruits” of ideas over time, is flattened into generalizations on the timeless values central to “civilization” worth defending. In the critical moment of political transformation which Babbitt evoked for the readers of Democracy and Leadership, the urgent necessity that future leaders defend the right ideas against the wrong eclipsed the need for any further experiment. The open mind was, after all, only preliminary to a closed judgment.

 

 

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