Irving Babbitt: Literature and the American College

Essays in Defense of the Humanities    

National Humanities Institute, 1986 (1908)

Publisher’s Description:

In publishing this new edition of Irving Babbitt’s Literature and the American College, with a new exclusive introduction by Russell Kirk, the National Humanities Institute addresses one of the most significant questions of this or any age: the role of education.

While it would be unwise to prescribe a rigid, centralized curriculum for America’s schools, equally dangerous is the tendency, quite prevalent in recent years, to move away rom any common body of educational content, any coherence of educational purpose. What is needed, according to Babbitt, are standards of selection that can be used in developing curricula so that those things that are truly important to all Americans – as persons and citizens – are included. From such standards will emerge a common body of educational content that embodies the best that the long history and tradition of mankind has to offer.

Though first published in 1908, the insights in Literature and the American College are in many ways more pertinent now than in Babbitt’s own time. Drawing strength from some of civilization’s oldest traditions, the book defines and defends the classical discipline of humanitas as an answer to the erosion of ethical and cultural standards brought on by scientific naturalism and sentimental humanitarianism. The development of intellect and moral character are intimately related, Babbitt emphasizes. Far more than by abstract argument, man learns by example and by concrete action or experience. The quality of a society largely depends on the quality of the examples it chooses to follow. It is beter to follow the “wisdom of the ages” than the “wisdom of the hour”. Questions regarding reality are best answered by those who have let their own experience be enriched, ordered and interpreted by that sense of the universal that emerges from the human heritage of literature, art, and tradition.

Prevalent trends in American education tend to associate the ethical life with sentimental sympathy and unrestrained impulse. By contrast, Babbitt holds, a proper understanding of history and the classics leads to a quite opposite concept of morality: one based on restraint and self-discipline, “a sense of proportion and pervading law”.

Irving Babbitt (1865-1933) joined the Harvard faculty in 1894. Though formally a professor of French and comparative literature, Babbitt’s concern with the perennial issues of human existence caused his writings to range far beyond literature to politics, education, philosophy and religion. Renowned throughout the world as an American literary scholar and cultural thinker of unusual intellect, learing and insight, Babbitt was the leading figure in the movement called American Humanism, or the New Humanism, which for more than two decades provided the focal point for one of the most hotly contested debates ever to rock the American literary and academic world. Agaist those who espoused an easy yielding to feeling, impulse and unrestrained imagination, Babbitt was an advocate of a transcendent moral order and of such traditional virtues as moderation and decorum.

Literature and the American College was his first book. Among his other books were The New Laokoon (1910), The Masters of Modern French Criticism (1912), Rousseau and Romanticism (1919), and Democracy and Leadership (1924).

From Russell Kirk’s Introduction:

“Babbitt’s educational insights, eight decades after Literature and the American College first was published, in some ways seem more pertinent to our own time than to his. For the subtitle of Babbitt’s first book is Essays in Defense of the Humanities; and in these closing years of the twentieth cetury, humane studies have a hearing once more. Why are the humane disciplines important to the person and the republic? What is this ‘humanism’ and how is it related to humanitarianism? Does literature have an ethical function, so to form good character among the rising generation? Is the literary discipline meant to support a moral order? Are there perils in academic specialization?j How is continuity of culture maintained? Is it possible for humane studies to provide in public schools a satisfactory alternative to either dogmatic religious instruction or to the civil religion of ‘secular humanism’? Literary studies neglected, does there remain any cement to make a curriculum cohere? What should a tolerable literary curriculum provide? All these are some of the questions being asked nowadays about the humanities. Babbitt’s forceful little book is concerned with just such difficulties and aspirations.”


“Literature and the American College is a quite short book originally published in 1908…It is a book, in other words, approaching its centenary, but so solid are its substance and implications that it barely shows its age. Rereading it in a handsome new edition – introduced by Russell Kirk with a long essay detailing some of the “progress” made in American education since Babbitt wrote – has been for this reader a high pleasure indeed. The book seems undiminished in vigor and freshness and relevance since I taught it on a graduate level at Brandeis 30 years ago [1957]…What Babbitt has to say about the classics and the ancients, American civilization and character still deserves to be known and pondered by all those interested in education, whether as teachers or as students…Russell Kirk perceives what may be called a central thrust in Babbitt’s passage: “Even though the whole world seem bent on living the quantitative life, the college should remember that its business is to make of its graduates men of quality in the real and not the conventional meaning of the term. In this way it will do its share toward creating that aristocracy of character and intelligence that is needed in a community like ours to take the place of an aristocracy of birth, and to counteract the tendency of an aristocracy of money.” Kirk’s comment following this passage is: “If the American democracy is to be led by an aristocracy, let it be an aristocracy of humanists, people of moral imagination, sound learning, strong character – not a class the members of which are born to rank and power (an unlikely development in the United States) or an oligarchy of financiers and industrialists (a very real possibility, it seemed, in Babbitt’s day, what with the Rockefellers and Harrimans whom he drubbed in his books).” For the college, Babbitt suggested an ever-vigilant, stubborn rear-guard resistance against too early specialization in an increasingly mechanized modern world, a resistance to fetishizing academic degrees, and emulation of a teacher such as Socrates, who had passed beyond specialization (even specialization in what was known in his time as wisdom and which he labeled sophistry) to a concern with what all the specialties should be designed to serve. Babbitt’s – from the beginning – seemed a voice crying in the wilderness. That voice, to some of us at least, seems to have lost none of its power, persuasiveness, and urgency with the passage of time.” – Milton Hindus (Brandeis University), Reflections, Vol. 6, No. 4 (1987)

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