A Crisis of the Spirit in the Age of "Colbert"
from The Nation -- June 25, 2012

On May 13 Eric Foner, DeWitt Clinton Professor of American History at Columbia University and a Nation editorial board member, gave the address at the commencement ceremony for doctoral candidates at Columbia. An excerpt of his speech follows:

I have been invited to speak at a point of transition in my own career. I have just completed my last year of full-time teaching at Columbia, although I will be teaching part time for the next four years before riding off into the sunset. This moment brings back memories of my own experience as a student and some of the teachers who shaped my life as a historian. The finest teacher I have ever known was my father, Jack Foner. Deprived of his livelihood during the McCarthy era because of his political beliefs, he made his living by freelance lecturing. Listening to his lectures, I came to appreciate how present concerns can be illuminated by the study of the past—how the depredations of McCarthyism recalled the days of the Alien and Sedition Acts, how the civil rights movement needed to be viewed in light of the struggles of black and white abolitionists, and how in the brutal suppression of the Philippine movement for independence at the turn of the twentieth century (something omitted from textbooks until recently) could be found the antecedents of the American intervention in Vietnam. This was history as collective memory and understanding, forging a living link between the past and the present.

Beginning in 1959, I was an undergraduate and graduate student here, and I received my PhD in 1969. I fondly recall some of the teachers I encountered here and the lessons I learned from them. There was James Shenton, a flamboyant lecturer who conveyed his passion for the Civil War era so powerfully that the period has remained the focus of my own scholarship ever since. And there was my doctoral supervisor Richard Hofstadter, renowned for his penetrating intellect and sparkling literary style, whose advice about the craft of writing—"make war on the verb to be" and "90 percent of writing is rewriting"—remain maxims we all should live by. I have often reflected on how working with Hofstadter shaped my career. My work has centered on the history of political ideas and the relationship between politics and society. The answers I have given differ markedly from his, but these are Hofstadter questions.

It is customary on occasions such as this to wish graduates well—as, of course, I do—and to call on them to pursue their individual dreams while also helping to improve the world we all live in. But I want to place on you a responsibility as well. In whatever area you apply your talents, in whatever walk of life you find yourself, I want to urge you to dedicate yourselves to keeping alive your education's most cherished inheritance—respect for the life of the mind. In today's society, this is not an easy task.

In the last generation, the values of the market have come to permeate every aspect of our society. The notion that the public good may be measured in other than economic terms has pretty much been abandoned. The philosopher William James once wrote that an hour spent communing with nature must be considered "a worthless hour of life, when measured by the usual standards of commercial value." The same can be said of an hour contemplating a work of art or reading a work of history. As a result, as my colleague Andrew Delbanco observes in his new book College, arguments for higher education today are almost always couched in economic terms: having more educated people is good for the economy and for the social advancement of individuals. Unfortunately, as he points out, this outlook helps to account for the fact that literature, history, philosophy and the arts—subjects that do not seem to increase economic productivity—are on their way to becoming stepchildren at all levels of education; perhaps not at Columbia but at most public schools and institutions of higher learning.

Let me illustrate my point with one small episode, which some might consider the real highlight of my career—my appearance on The Colbert Report. Afterward, one student remarked, "Professor, you may as well retire now, because you will never top that." You may wonder: does a guest get paid to appear with Colbert? You do not—but you do receive a $100 certificate that can be donated to a charity via an online network. So I looked at the website for worthy causes in New York City. I alighted on a posting from an elementary school music teacher in the Bronx. She was unable to conduct classes for her students because the school could not afford to provide sheet music. I donated my $100 to enable her to buy it.

This is pathetic. The United States spends more money on its military than the next twelve countries combined, but it cannot afford sheet music for public school students. What does this tell us about our priorities?

Shortly before Richard Hofstadter's death in 1970, Newsweek published an interview with him. It was a melancholy reflection on a society confronting a "crisis of the spirit." Young people, said Hofstadter, had no sense of vocation, no aspirations for the future. He rejected young radicals' stance of "moral indignation" as a kind of elitism on the part of those who did not have to face the day-to-day task of earning a living. Yet he acknowledged the real roots of their alienation: "You have a major urban crisis…. You have the question of race, and you have a cruel and unnecessary war." Ultimately, he went on, American society itself, not just its children, had to change.

* * *

Four decades later, we again face a crisis—not just of the economy but another crisis of the spirit. We witness the fading of the Enlightenment ideals that inspired the founders of this nation. We live in a world where scientific knowledge is subordinated to political and religious dogma, where intellect and expertise are denigrated as elitist, where demands proliferate that history be taught as an exercise in national self-congratulation, not critical self-examination. This is the frame of mind that divides the world, and America itself, into the forces of good and evil, and sees every dissenting view as disloyalty.

Hofstadter's call for Americans to reorient their values seems more relevant today than ever. And the study of history, although it may not contribute much to economic productivity, may offer assistance. Many years ago, Charles Francis Adams, president of the American Historical Association, noted that "the historical point of view, moreover, is, politically, an important point of view; for only when approached historically…can any issue be understood in its manifold relations with a complex civilization." The "economical" outlook, he added, "vital as it unquestionably often is, comes much lower in the scale." These observations are as apropos now as in 1901, when Adams spoke. For the study of history instills the very qualities so lacking among policy-makers and more broadly today—the value of critical inquiry, of subjecting all beliefs to the test of reason and experience, of questioning dogmas, whether political, religious or economic, that demand uniformity of thought. The historical frame of mind, the foundation of this university's idea of a liberal education, may assist Americans in candidly facing our problems and reordering our priorities, so that in the future Columbia's values and those of the nation may once again coincide.