Heimert on mind and thought in modern America

IF Harvard University professor Allen Heimert were to offer a course in American intellectual history next fall, he ``wouldn't find much to say about American thought since 1945.'' The best thinking by Americans in the past 40 years has been commentary about what has already been said, Dr. Heimert states - Daniel Bell's ``The End of Ideology,'' for example. The trend has been toward descriptive, not exploratory thought - technical method rather than expressive and original utterance.

American education has ceased to incline people to think in larger terms, and instead worries about classroom management and ``skills acquisition.'' ``There's supposed to be something wimpy and unreal about higher ideas.''

For many, Heimert, the often gruff master of Harvard's Eliot House, is an unsung hero of the academy: ``A true professor - a guy you go to for the real thing,'' a former student says. He has collaborated with some of the finest American scholars of the mid-20th century - Reinhold Niebuhr and Perry Miller, among them. His 1960s book on the religious origins of the American Revolution startled the secular academic world. And though panned or ignored at the time, it's proved to be a taproot for a new generation of scholarly work.

To Heimert, the problem of mind and thought in modern America derives from an overemphasis on ``analysis - a felt need for problem solving.'' That is, ``You put your mind to saying there is something wrong - there are homeless people sleeping on grates. So you put your mind to that problem rather than to the nature and destiny of man. It's a belief that the kind of thinking that used to constitute the intellectual life of the republic is a luxury. We should instead get to work solving problems - budgets, deficits.''

He also worries about an earlier 20th-century issue - that the human mind too often mirrors the machine.

Lionel Trilling's assertion that the American novel was taken over by sociology parallels Heimert's concern about colleges: that the academic meal ticket is based on statistical analysis, computer modeling, dogmatic ``provability.''

``Yet equations and mathematical calculations somehow don't have the same resonance as, oh say, the Lincoln-Douglas debates, or [William] James's ``The Principles of Psychology,'' he says.

The definition among scholars of the questions worth asking is too often based on ``what questions can be answered?'' - making for limited questions, he says. ``I tell my graduate students that if they are doing a dissertation with the idea of proving something, than then maybe it's not worth doing. Maybe what's worth doing is something that can't be proved - but opens people's minds a little.''

Last year, with Andrew Del Banco of Columbia University, Heimert edited the first anthology of Puritan-American writings in 50 years. Understanding the Puritans is a key to understanding America, he feels, ``probably for the simple reason that Puritans took ideas extremely seriously - which can't be said for all periods of American history. They had a capacity for heightened experience, and an unusual capacity for articulating it.''

Arguing among themselves, Puritans phrased many of the enduring issues in America - the role of institutions, individualism and community, the idea of redemption, and the problem Jonathan Edwards called ``the infinite capacity of the human heart for self-deception.''

These issues have ceased to be a serious part of public discourse, Heimert adds. Puritan culture is distinctive for the reason that their thinkers were ``central to the activity of the whole society. You can argue, in fact, that intellectuals were central to the activity of American society until after the Civil War. Then you put Whitman's ``Democratic Vistas'' beside some of Henry Adams's self-pitying essays - and see that Whitman is making a last desperate effort to make creative expression central to American life. Adams is saying it isn't going to work.''

Further, one can't really understand Hawthorne, Emerson, Melville, or Irving without some knowledge of the Puritans.

Heimert says it's important for younger scholars to place more emphasis on synthesis - on disciplined, interdisciplinary work. Specialization has led to what Frederick Jackson Bate calls ``the oil drilling theory'' of learning, where the scholar digs deeply into one tiny aspect of a subject. ``There's an abundance of analysis, with a minimum of synopsis.''

There's also more room now for a synthesis in the humanities - for blending ``the usable past'' with new work being done on women and minorities. Heimert doesn't value, however, neo-Marxist, deconstructionist, or new historicist views of race, class, and gender. (``They just want to kvetch; to say `Huh, huh, huh. So you think everything's been nice, eh? Hah, hah, hah!'')

He wants a better grasp of historical process - how and why a culture's collective mind changes from one period to another. ``We're teaching snapshots rather than the move in thought, say, from Jonathan Edwards to Emerson.''

The question to be addressed today, Heimert concludes, is to ``what degree are we in the final stages of the rise and fall of the American empire? Are we going to be the next Britain?

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