HL90 FY: Culture Wars

There are more great HL90s to take this spring! Steve Biel and Lauren Kaminsky shared more with us about their new course, “Culture Wars,” which meets Monday, 12:45-2:45 this spring.

What inspired you to teach this class?

You don’t need to look further than the latest news story about a purge of books from a school library to be aware that culture wars are raging again and that politicians and the media are thriving on them. We thought it would be timely to venture back from the current moment to explore the culture wars of the 1960s-1990s, and to take seriously the ideas and beliefs that informed them. If culture wars tend to produce more heat than light, making the effort to understand them historically—to reconstruct their contexts, to pay careful attention to both their vehemence and their substance—strikes us as a very worthwhile challenge. We’ll do this by spending time with a variety of materials: polemics, speeches, essays, memoirs, fiction, television, films, and photography.

What is a something you’re excited to share with students?

There’s such a rich variety of events and materials connected to the culture wars that we had a hard time making choices for the syllabus. We could have probably spent a whole week discussing how and why Vice President Dan Quayle decided in 1992 to take on a popular TV sitcom character, Murphy Brown (played by Candice Bergen), for choosing to be a single mother. As it turned out, we’ll be starting the course with that incident to help set the scene before moving back into what the historian Andrew Hartman describes as the threats posed to the “normative culture” of the U.S. by the New Left and counterculture of the 1960s, and the reactions to those threats.

What’s something surprising students might not know about this topic?

William Bennett, a leading culture warrior, went on a date with the singer Janis Joplin long before he became President Reagan’s Chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities and Secretary of Education. More substantially, we think that the course will bear out how much culture matters, often to the surprise of those who wonder why people seem to think, believe, and act against their economic interests. President Nixon recognized this early on when he seized on the concept of the “silent majority”—“the large and politically powerful white middle class,” as described by an administration-allied group, that was “deeply troubled, primarily over the erosion of what they consider to be their values.”

What do you want students to take away from the class?

Our current culture wars aren’t identical to those of the 1960s-1990s, but our present moment isn’t unprecedented either. We hope that the class will give us an opportunity to broaden and deepen our perspectives on how and why the terrain of culture has been so contested—on what’s at stake in battles over schools and curricula, art and popular culture, families and relationships, identities and affiliations. 

How can students learn more?

Visit our Canvas site, look at the syllabus, and apply!

Published by Hist & Lit

Committee on Degrees in History & Literature at Harvard University

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