Friday, September 1, 2017

Geoffrey Galt Harpham's "What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?"

Geoffrey Galt Harpham is visiting scholar and senior fellow of the Kenan Institute for Ethics at Duke University and former director of the National Humanities Center. His books include The Humanities and the Dream of America.

Harpham applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?: The American Revolution in Education, and reported the following:
On page 99, I'm talking about the exaggerated role of opinion in American civil society. The Declaration spoke of "a decent respect to the opinions of mankind," and the democracy that arose from the Revolution presumed that all citizens would be capable of formulating independent opinions on a wide range of questions on all the issues involved in self-governance including, crucially, the interpretation of the Constitution, the law of the land. The nation was founded on the rock of opinion. Unfortunately, opinion is not at all rock-like. It is inherently debatable, unstable, changeable, and a nation lays such great emphasis on the value of the individual opinion is vulnerable to gusts of irrationality. Page 99 mentions de Tocqueville's alarm about the tropism to tyranny and demagogy in the United States. I suggest at the bottom of the page that the Constitution's system of checks and balances was an attempt to counter the tyranny of the majority. On subsequent pages, I develop the argument that the American educational system was formulated as a means of developing and disciplining the mighty but unstable force of opinion. The prominent role accorded in this system to the humanities, and to English in particular, reflects that fundamental mission. This, then, is the rationale behind the American system of education, which, although under stress in this country, has produced spectacular results, and is now being widely emulated by other countries.
Learn more about What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? at the University of Chicago Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue