"I think of teaching as a kind of jazz performance..."
Q&A with Kate Tyler
In celebration of David Noble’s career as a scholar, teacher, and public intellectual, we excerpt a portion of writer Kate Tyler’s 2005 interview with him.
What is the larger theme of your work?
It’s anti-utopian. The roots of this go back in my childhood. Growing up in the 1930s, I was told that my grandparents—German and Irish immigrants—left an Old World of war and poverty to come to the New World of peace and plenty; my grandfather also left Germany to escape conscription. Yet here was my family in the Great Depression. Our dairy farm outside of Princeton, New Jersey, was foreclosed in 1940. We lived in moderate poverty. And then I was conscripted into the Army in 1943.
How did you make sense of these contradictions?
I went to Princeton in February 1945 interested in studying the idea of “progress." I didn’t think that World War II symbolized progress. And the circumstances of my early life certainly echoed what my grandparents had left behind in Europe—running counter to the idea that America was different from Europe, that progress was spatially leaving an “old world" and coming to a “new world."
You felt compelled to explore this further?
What compelled me was that dissonance between the utopian vision of what America was and the dystopian experience that I had lived and observed. I thought I might unravel some of my questions about progress by looking at major intellectuals of the Progressive Era, between 1890 and World War I—John Dewey, Thorstein Veblen, the historians Charles Beard and Carl Becker and others. That became the basis of my first book, The Paradox of Progressive Thought (1958).
What conclusions did you draw from this work?
Many intellectuals from the 1890s leading into World War I accepted the idea of a dichotomy between time and space, much in keeping with how physicists had understood time and space from Newton till Einstein. They had built up “millennial expectations" that the old, complex, unstable world that had produced World War I—the world of time—would undergo a transition to a simple and orderly new world—the world of space. By 1920, there was this terrible despair that this hadn’t occurred.
You continued to explore these themes?
I found that the Progressive Era intellectuals were part of a larger, longer pattern in U.S. history. By the 1830s, a “timeless identity" had been established for the United States; we were “nature’s nation," outside of “timeful complexity"—in a sense, outside history. That was the focus of my next book, Historians Against History (1965). I found all the major historians from the 1830s to the 1940s trying to explain time away. By the ’40s, they had to acknowledge that things had changed—the Northeast and Midwest had urbanized and industrialized, for example. But they always found a way to prophesy that we would be able to overcome the fall into timeful complexity and restore simplicity. There are echoes of this today. I suppose the closest expression of this at this moment is Protestant fundamentalism.
Did you see yourself as a cultural historian when you were hired in 1952?
I was part of the field developed in the 1940s called “intellectual history." But I liked to call it “cultural history." My graduate school mentor at the University of Wisconsin had been Merle Curti, a big figure in the field, and I had minored in American literature. Thinking about the stories novelists and historians tell, it occurred to me that inevitably they would be telling the same stories.
Did the American studies milieu influence your work?
I don’t think I would have written Historians Against History or the books that came after it if not for my experience with American studies people from English: Tremaine McDowell, Mary Turpie, and especially Henry Nash Smith, Leo Marx, and Bernard Bowron.
The title of your 1985 book, The End of American History, is particularly intriguing.
I examined how, starting in the 1930s, American scholars were being asked to give up the isolationism of the ’30s, embrace internationalism, and move from the sense of an autonomous national economy to a global economy. In the last 10 years, more and more scholars have been thinking about the transatlantic interrelationships between Americans and Europeans, and between Americans and other nations and cultures.
What is the topic of your current book project?
I’m intrigued with how the postmodern discussion about ecology and environmentalism is gradually bringing the humanities and the social sciences together with biology and physics. Science gives you a physical nature that is complex and always in a process of timeful change. It’s telling that the dominant culture that’s angry at the humanists is also angry at the ecologists. Part of my book is on the academic economists who, in the 1940s to the 1960s, using Newtonian physics, became absolute millennialists in terms of their vision of their escaping from the world of national economies (complex and timeful) to the global marketplace (simple and timeless). Those ideas still have great currency. Talking about limits—“no-growth politics"—won’t get you elected president of the United States, or leader of China, India, or anyplace else. I see the most serious challenges to the narrative of progress coming not from postmodernists, but from the ecologists—their understanding of the earth as a living body that cannot sustain continual expansion.
Why do you love teaching?
The world is no less mysterious for me than it was when I went to college in 1945. I love learning, and I love being involved in the process of learning. I love the artistic creativity of teaching—figuring out how to interrelate lectures with book lists. My syllabus changes every year, incorporating new books reflecting the move from monoculturalism to multiculturalism and from isolationism to postnationalism. I think of teaching as a kind of jazz performance: I improvise each time. I come out with more energy than when I go in. For me, it’s tremendously playful.
You’ve had good students over the years?
Oh yes, and I have particularly enjoyed directing graduate students. I don’t know whether I have the Minnesota record or not, but since the 1950s, I’ve directed about 104 dissertations, in both history and American studies