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Book Review: What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?

While weighing the value of humanities courses, the book says the concept of humanities is one of America’s biggest contributions to higher education.
BY BrainGain Magazine Staff Writer |   24-08-2018

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? The American Revolution in Education,by Geoffrey Galt Harpham, published by the University of Chicago Press Books.

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?

Well-known American academic Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s bracing book takes its title from a striking anecdote. Harpham met a Cuban immigrant on a college campus, who talked to him about arriving, penniless and undocumented on America’s shores in the 1960s. He eventually learned enough English to earn a GED, and make his way to a community college.

The immigrant took an English Literature course only as a requirement and found himself not so much studying novelist E.M Forster’s literary style as keeping his head down in class. But one day, the professor asked pointblank, "Mr Ramirez, what do you think?"The question, said Ramirez, was torturous because he had “no thoughts, and nothing to say.” But the moment changed him. For the first time in his life he'd been asked for a personal opinion. Realizing that his opinion had value inspired Ramirez to become a distinguished professor of comparative literature.

The Red Book

That, says Harpham, was the midcentury promise of a well-rounded American education. Serendipitously, Mr Ramirez arrived in an American classroom when the general education movement was cresting. The author says that Harvard’s famous Red Book, titled General Education in a Free Society, published in 1945 championed the humanities as “that part of a student’s whole education which looks first of all to his life as a responsible human being and citizen.”

In other words, the Red Book advocated for a post-war higher education system that assumed, in essence, that patriotism included the moral obligation for citizens to at least be intelligent, well read and well-informed.

It was a Golden Age for general education and the humanities were considered absolutely essential. Literature, philosophy, and history were promoted as the text-based academic endeavors best suited to strengthen "the intangibles of the American spirit," not only because they fostered skills relevant across a wide range of professional activities, but because they encouraged sustained reflection on key texts.

How Sputnik Changed Education

Harpham argues that the humanities are an invention of the American academy in the years following World War II, when they were first conceived as an expression of American culture and an instrument of American national interests. The author chronicles how the Golden Age of general education was rudely snapped by the dawn of the Cold War and the battle for space dominance between the Soviet Union (USSR) and America.

Sputnik 1 was the first artificial Earth satellite which the Soviet Union launched into an elliptical low Earth orbit on 4 October 1957. Though Sputnik was a relatively simple satellite compared with the more complex machines to follow, its beeping signal from space galvanized the US to enact reforms in science and engineering education so that the nation could regain technological ground it appeared to have lost to its Soviet rival.

“The space race demanded educational aims that were explicitly focused on technology and corporate management. The Red Book's emphasis on books seemed suddenly archaic and extravagant,” noted the Pacific Standard.

Why the Humanities Still Matter

Author Geoffrey Galt Harpham

Photo courtesy: Maclean’s Canada

However, in What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez? Harpham, a senior fellow at Duke University's Kenan Institute of Ethics, argues eloquently that it's time to resuscitate the Red Book and the big-four humanities fields — philosophy, history, political science, and English Literature — from a downward spiral. Universities are coming round to the idea that the more science and technology dominate our culture, the more we need the humanities to build skills in critical reading, writing, and thinking. 

Harpham’s impassioned defense of humanities courses like English, history and “soft” sciences like psychology and political science echo what Professor John Horgan famously told a freshman class at Stevens Institute of Technology while teaching them a required humanities course.   

“In your science, mathematics and engineering classes, you're given facts, answers, knowledge, truth. Your professors say, “This is how things are.” They give you certainty. The humanities, at least the way I teach them, give you uncertainty, doubt, skepticism,” said Horgan.

The humanities professor ended with a caveat: “If I do my job, by the end of this course you'll question all authorities, including me. You'll question what you've been told about the nature of reality, about the purpose of life, about what it means to be a good person. Because that, for me, is the point of the humanities: they keep us from being trapped by our own desire for certainty.”

The concept of the humanities linked so closely to upholding the ideals of democracy and critical thinking remains one of America’s most distinctive and valuable contributions to higher education.



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