I'll Take My Stand (1)

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I’ll Take My Stand

The opening “Statement of Principles” by the group of twelve Southern writers brought together in I'll Take My Stand, first printed in 1930 in limited quantity, bears close scrutiny by anyone interested in the argument over the role of the humanities in education. While it takes as its organizing trope the conflict of “Agrarian versus Industrial” it is easily recast into a modern frame by considering it in the light of the continuing debate over traditional versus vocational education. However, the rhetoric is easily pigeonholed as region-specific or time-specific. The resistance to industry reflected in these historic essays draws deeply at the well of the humanities, and the introduction seems incredibly cognizant of the wider implications— the book breaks the bounds of an anachronistic luddite artifact of a culture long since passed. Indeed, it seems prudent to examine the definition of “Industrialism” offered here:

Industrialism is the economic organization of the collective American society. It means the decision of society to invest its economic resources in the applied sciences. (x)
If the book is a battle cry against this movement in America, then like the first civil war, the South surely lost. However, the introduction speaks to an anxiety which in its own way anticipates deconstruction:
The word science has acquired a certain sanctitude. It is out of order to quarrel with science in the abstract, or even with the applied sciences when their applications are made subject to criticism and intelligence. The capitalization of the applied sciences has now become extravagant and uncritical; it has enslaved our human energies to a degree now clearly felt to be burdensome. The apologists of industrialism do not like to meet this charge directly; so they often take refuge in saying that they are devoted simply to science! They are really devoted to the applied sciences and to practical production. Therefore, it is necessary to employ a certain skepticism even at the expense of the Cult of Science, and to say, it is an Americanism, which look innocent and disinterested, but really is not either. (x-xi)

Curious distinctions are at work here— first, the identification of a schism between abstract and applied science. This is still true. Funding for pure research is hard to come by. It’s the economic focus that defines America— so by definition “science” in a real sense is hardly disinterested or innocent. Though carpal-tunnel is more of a threat in most modern professions than black lung, nothing much has been changed when it comes to the “burdensome” nature of applied science. The Southern answer to the problem of casting off that burden is leisure, and I must say I like that answer. The penalty of the endless work/leisure explosion is proposed as a two-edged sword:

Turning to consumption, as the grand end which justifies the evil of modern labor, we find that we have been deceived. We have more time in which to consume, and many more products to be consumed. But the tempo of our labors communicates itself to our satisfactions, and these also become brutal and hurried. The constitution of the natural man probably does not permit him to shorten his labor-time and enlarge his consuming-time indefinitely. He has to pay the penalty in satiety and aimlessness. The modern man has lost his sense of vocation. (xlii)

I can’t help but think of the way that the tempo of vocational education has entered into the humanities— hundred year spans are taught with a few choice predigested words which support the current critical trends, and there is precious little time for reflection. The best of teachers though do take the time to attempt the expression of the soul of literature and history— that yesterday indeed has and does invest itself in today. But I had to put myself under the magnifying glass when it comes to my own consumptive patterns.

I am a voracious consumer— not of status symbols, modern conveniences, etc., but of information. In the consumption of information, there is no satiety or aimlessness. The consumption of information is indeed a vocation. I find myself far more drawn to that than agrarian pursuits. The current trend in reading I’ll Take My Stand is to read it as metaphoric. I think this is a good thing; the appeal to tradition that it represents is heartfelt and erroneous. But the appeal for a critical appraisal of technology in light of what it displaces is important, even today in an information rather than commodity driven economy.

More to come, I’m sure.