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This is Part I of Jeremy Cohan and Benjamin Y. Fong’s interview with Moishe Postone on the Sosc Core at UChicago and the aims of general education. To read Part II, on teaching social theory (Freud, Marcuse, Fanon, Marx, Durkheim, Weber, and others), click here.

Moishe Postone, who was Thomas E. Donnelley Professor of the College, History, and the Center for Jewish Studies at the University of Chicago, passed away in March of 2018 after a long battle with cancer. A founding editor of the journal Critical Historical Studies, he is best known for his important and novel reinterpretation of Marx in Time, Labor, and Social Domination. His passing is a serious blow; his mind and his person will be deeply missed.

In the spring of 2015, we sat down with Professor Postone to talk about everything except Marx. Our conversation focused on the authors read in the Social Sciences Core (Sosc Core) sequence that he chaired from 1990 to 2016, Self, Culture and Society. Professor Postone was the most formative influence on the Self, Culture and Society curriculum during his tenure as chair and was a passionate advocate for general education requirements.

All undergraduates at the University of Chicago are required to take a year-long, three- quarter course in the Sosc Core. Self, Culture and Society (“Self”) is one of the three most popular Sosc Core sequences at the University, the others of which are Classics of Social and Political Thought (“Classics”) and Power, Identity and Resistance (“Power”), both of which are mentioned below. The reading list for Self, Culture and Society, circa 2015, was roughly as follows:

The Wealth of Nations (Adam Smith)
Capital and other writings (Karl Marx)
The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (Max Weber) 

The Elementary Forms of Religious Life (Émile Durkheim)
The Savage Mind (Claude Lévi-Strauss)
Historical Metaphors and Mythical Realities (Marshall Sahlins)
Discipline and Punish (Michel Foucault)
“Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” (Walter Benjamin)
“The Fetish Character of Music and the Regression in Listening” (Theodor Adorno)

Introductory Lectures on Psycho-Analysis (Sigmund Freud)
Eros and Civilization (Herbert Marcuse)
The Second Sex
(Simone de Beauvoir)
Black Skin, White Masks
(Frantz Fanon)




Benjamin Fong: We wanted to start by asking you to talk a little bit about the history of the Core—the Sosc Core in particular—your involvement in it, when you started, and any sort of changes, institutional or otherwise, that you’ve seen over the years.

Moishe Postone: I’m only vaguely aware of the prehistory of this course. There used to be three years of Sosc core that you had to take, and at the end of each year-long course, you took a six-to-nine-hour comprehensive exam. In April you began reviewing and you suddenly saw the stuff that you thought you understood in October through November through very different eyes. I think this was very useful. The other thing that was useful was that nothing that you did during the year counted. You wrote papers, and you got an exam at the end of each quarter, but they were only advisory, to let you know how you were doing. The advantage was that if you got depressed for a few weeks or you got mono, it doesn’t really knock you out. You can recover. The disadvantage is that April and May are high Dexedrine and methedrine ingestion time.

But by the time I got to the College [as a student], there were two years of Sosc Core. The first year was more or less Classics of Social and Political Thought. (There was another variant, which was Documents of American History.) And the second year was Self, Culture and Society, which was sort of like a theoretical capstone. And when I began to teach in the Core in ’87, there was only one required year, and so you had variants. You never used to have variants. The College used to be much smaller and more self-selecting. They pride themselves now on admitting only 7 percent of applicants, whereas a generation ago, it was 40 percent. But it was 40 percent of people who really wanted to be here, and it was a very edgy, sort of avant-garde place. It’s not anymore.

BF: So Power, Identity and Resistance and Classics of Social and Political Thought as distinct Sosc Core sequences came into existence when it was narrowed down to one year?

MP: Yes. But Power didn’t exist. There was only Classics and Self. There were faculty in the Eighties who suggested that everyone teach a module on what they are interested in, and they got their wish. You can imagine how chaotic that was. That conglomeration was known commonly as “the state of nature.” After a while, the deans decided to drain the state of nature, and they put in a course called Wealth, Power and Virtue. Then it became Power. One guy in Power, actually as a marketing ploy, added “Identity and Resistance.” There’s nothing on identity in that course. It’s power all the way down.

Self, Culture and Society was kind of the same as it is now. The winter quarter used to be the apotheosis of Claude Lévi-Strauss. Everything led up to him. So you read a lot of Durkheim, you read Saussure, and you read Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams. And all of it was to lead to the last class, which was Lévi-Strauss.

Jeremy Cohan: Was this because of Lévi-Strauss’s influence at the University of Chicago?

MP: Yes, the anthropologists who created it were largely structuralists. And they thought this was the final say in science. There were those of us who respectfully disagreed. There were other things that I objected to back then: a common assignment in the spring quarter was that students should interpret a dream of theirs. I don’t think this is subject for a paper. I thought this transgressed a certain boundary between the personal and the pedagogical.

BF: So in 1987 you took over Sosc…

MP: That’s when I started teaching it. I took it over around 1990. Today, 25 years later, I’m a little worried for the course. I think the university has lost a sense of the centrality of general education, in favor of things that are indistinguishable from other universities. You know, “UChicago,” where you fold away the “Where Fun Comes to Die” t-shirts. When I was a student, which was an earlier geological age, there was a lot of fun, but there were no fraternities or sororities. There were clubs, lots of clubs, jazz clubs and blues clubs, and there were a lot of neighborhood people who were kind of bohemian, so it was maybe the only semi-bohemian neighborhood between Greenwich Village and North Beach. You had people who were early in their career in Hyde Park. You know, Second City, Mike Nichols and all that. But Bob Dylan was also here first before he went to Greenwich Village. What a little schmuck he was. We all thought, Nothing will ever come of him. He’s just a bad Woody Guthrie imitator. When he started, there were various keepers of the flame. There were the communist kids, for whom folk music meant a very particular thing—Woody Guthrie. To commercialize that was just anathema. Then there were other kids who were very much into the blues. There was a great blues house band that played every Wednesday night in the dormitory where the business school is now. That was The Butterfield Blues Band, and Elvin Bishop. That was just part of the neighborhood.

At any rate, I digress. General education for me—which was so mind-boggling for me—is about not just breadth but more importantly primary texts. I’d never had that. Most students don’t have that.

There wasn’t an emphasis on information. When I was a student, I had to take two years of Humanities Core. Everybody did. One quarter of the Humanities sequences was History as a Genre. We read three books: Thucydides, the first volume of Gibbon, and Trotsky’s History of the Russian Revolution. Try to imagine three more disparate approaches! It was just fantastic.

The Western Civilization Core (and its offspring, European Civilization) reads primary sources—historical sources in translation. A lot of the non-European Civilization cores don’t. They don’t have enough faculty, and they teach them secondary sources. At least that’s what I’ve been told. And many of them are lecture courses. I think that’s fine to broaden your education, but it’s not the same as a general-education course. It should be possible, no matter what civilization you’re studying, to give students primary source material, and for them to figure out what’s going on. For me, it was the equivalent of an intense study of cultural anthropology. You can’t read a Greek or a Roman text the same way you would read a mid-twentieth century American text. That’s something you have to learn.

We don’t read those kinds of works anymore, but we still insist that students don’t read secondary sources on Durkheim, Freud, or whatever, but learn rather to grapple with the texts. And I’m worried because there’s a breadth to the course that is inimical to scholarship. Even people that are more progressive want to teach in their specialty.

JC: So you feel that that pressure against the Sosc Core is coming from the faculty, not from the students?

MP: It’s from the faculty. There used to be a cohort of people who were very much a backbone of this course, but they were all senior. It didn’t occur to me at the time. Bill Sewell, Bert Cohler, Ralph Austen, Jonathan Z. Smith. J. Z. Smith was a great presence in the course. He didn’t just give his great lecture [“Do the Rite Thing”] in the winter, he actually taught sections. Staff meetings were very different. For me, administratively, it meant that I could call somebody up and say, I have 150 internship files to go through, I could use a second pair of eyes—you know, that sort of thing.

So now I’m afraid that the course is hanging by a very thin thread, which is me. I believe deeply in general education. And I think the canon wars obscured its importance. I don’t think that everything written in the last fifty years is a lot better than what was written before then. It’s a bad way to go. In the social sciences, we don’t teach a canon in the humanities sense. We teach fundamental theory, which is not the same as a canon.

A theorist is trying to explain a phenomenon. By reading theory, students become aware of the phenomenon that the particular theorist is trying to explain, how this particular theorist goes about trying to grapple with this phenomenon and why they develop the kinds of categories they do in order to make sense of it. If you read theory like this, the categories themselves become a) up for grabs, b) something students become self-aware of, and c) something that students are taught how to spot, which is a skill. That’s very different from teaching positions, for example. And I’m afraid that a lot of teaching has become the teaching of positions. This is true even of the way in which Smith, Marx, Weber, Durkheim, etc. are taught. In many places, or in graduate school, as well, students are taught just enough—Weber, ah yes! rationalization and bureaucracy. Marx—ah yeah! class struggle.

JC: The PowerPoint intelligence.

MP: The hope is to generate depth. They can then cover more on their own. I think students actually need more general-education requirements, but that’s not gonna happen. To uncover texts with students, to show them how somebody is thinking, and what they’re doing with their categories, or why they think they have to come up with these categories, makes them much more self-aware of a whole variety of discourses in which they participate. And sometimes I think that doesn’t kick in for a while. There are many people who’ve had general education who talk about it kicking in long after they graduated. It is a shame. Education used to be seen as a kind of repose, between school and your adult professional life. It’s losing that quality very rapidly.

A long time ago, when Hutchins [President of University of Chicago from 1929-45, and architect of the Core Curriculum] created this general-education college, people in the departments wanted to have nothing to do with that. The departments were graduate departments, period. So you had a separate college faculty. Sometimes the College would hire people that the departments wouldn’t because they were, I would say, too broad for the departments. Daniel Bell and David Riesman had College appointments here, though they were not appointed to the department of sociology. And they couldn’t have been.

Edward Shils, I think, barely had a B.A. People like Bell and Riesman, whatever one thinks of them, were very wide-ranging in their interests. Sociology’s become increasingly narrow, so much so that it’s narrowed itself out of existence. It’s like the Thin Man.

BF: What is your intuition as to what drives this move away from general-education requirements and toward narrow specialization?

MP: What you’re rewarded for in the University, especially for junior faculty. You’ve got to publish, you’ve got to publish in peer-reviewed journals, and you don’t have time for this.

JC: I’m curious to hear a bit more on the political question of general education. So oftentimes, the debate today, in our post-canon-wars moment, seems to be conservatives who believe in general education—David Brooks in the New York Times believes we have to learn about virtue…

BF: Truth, Beauty and Goodness.

JC: And it’s radicals who believe in jettisoning general education. I’m curious what you think about this dichotomy and how you might see a way out of it.

MP: The problem that I have is that both think that they are teaching Truth. And both use a similar vocabulary. “As we have learned from Plato…” “As we have learned from Derrida…” or “As we have known since Foucault…” These are uncontested. I think one of the ironies with a lot of post-Marxism is that it’s resolutely against the idea of progress, except epistemologically. There’s been epistemological progress. Foucault is closer to the truth than Marx or Weber or Durkheim or Freud. There’s the great epistemic break of the 1960s and ’70s, whereas the real conservatives know that ever since Plato, it’s been downhill. Some would make an exception for Aristotle.

For me, there’s a similar habit of thought. I regard it as being critical on a surface level and uncritical on a deeper level. Starting with Plato you can come up with a powerful critique of modernity, the veil of illusions, and claim that real meaning resides elsewhere. And starting with Foucault—basically, everything is power/knowledge, except for me. There is a glaring absence of reflexivity in a lot of post-structuralist thought, as far as I can tell. The whole tradition that goes from Hegel to Marx to Lukacs to the Frankfurt School—people are unaware of it. They pick up bits and pieces of Adorno or Benjamin in the humanities. But when I hear from students taking the Humanities Core that Benjamin’s essay is really kind of a Romantic piece, with nostalgia for the aura, I think: this is really kind of appalling.

JC: Is it something about the texts themselves in a general-education course that undermine this approach? Is it any original sources? Is it these particular works in this tradition?

MP: It depends on the course. When I took what was then called the History of Western Civilization, it was very different. We weren’t reading Pericles’s Funeral Oration in order to see the sorts of categories with which we can understand our world, but rather to try and see his categories, and what his world meant to him. One of my general-education professors once asked, rhetorically, to a large audience, when reading the Oration of Pericles: “Which twentieth-century politician does he remind you of?” The wheels were turning. Everybody’s thinking: “Well, Pericles is a great man, so it’s got to be somebody we like—FDR, or maybe JFK.” “No,” he said, “it’s Mussolini.” But then he would say why Pericles wasn’t Mussolini, and why Mussolini wasn’t Pericles, because they’re operating in fundamentally different contexts. The same language used in fifth-century Athens, if used in twentieth-century Italy, has a completely different significance. I learned an enormous amount in that course.

But that’s very different from reading Freud or Durkheim or whomever to work out the categories with which they’re trying to explain our world. It’s a different exercise, and a different hermeneutic. I would never put them in a hierarchy. Both are very important. One is, if you will, a little more historical-ethnographic, the other more theoretical.

JC: This is a bit of an aside, but do you think that if higher education were free, it would be one way to regain a sense of the value of general education?

MP: No, though I do believe that higher education should be free. But I don’t think what’s forcing this to happen is the fact that it’s not free. I think it has to do with the professionalization of the disciplines, and the corporatization of the university. The university’s spent a lot of money on middle-management MBAs, instead of on faculty or on students. There was a time where faculty were more self-aware. In the Nineties, there were a few discussions about reforming general education. The University brought in McKinsey. Faculty members like myself and Andy Abbott were very opposed. You had these 27-years-olds, who, as we used to say in Canada, didn’t know shit from shinola, and they’re telling us what education is supposed to be using their metrics. We basically said: we don’t know what you’re talking about, and we’re not going to pay any attention to you. At that point, in the University of Chicago faculty, you could do it. Now, you can’t because the administration has bought it.

General education is basically an attempt to democratize what had been an elite mold. It’s a combination of Humboldt, with the whole idea of Bildung, and a little bit of Oxbridge, I think. There used to be the idea of an educated gentleman, who was able to confront a whole range of problems, from sewage in Calcutta to tribal warfare in Iraq on the basis of having thoroughly studied the classics. Now, we don’t do that kind of canonical education, and Sosc Core is of course much more critical than that. But the attempt to promote critical awareness flies in the face of vocational education. So it’s a critical attempt. I think it could be a profoundly democratic attempt.

Years ago I had a job teaching at a place called Richmond College, which was part of the City University system of New York. Out of a bunch of historical accidents, Richmond College became a hotbed of a certain kind of loosely defined left, maybe a playpen for the left. I was teaching there, Paul Rabinow was teaching there, Alan Wolfe was teaching there, quite a few people. I proposed an undergraduate course on Simmel and Weber, and I forget who else, maybe Marx. I was told I shouldn’t do that since these were working-class kids. I made them write a paragraph for every class. I wanted them to see, eventually, that they could understand this stuff. It took a lot of work, but I think it was successful. There can be something profoundly democratic about taking fundamental texts and having as many students as possible grappling with them. So if I had my druthers, not only would education be free, but there would be courses like this in all schools.

Photo by: Beth Rooney for the Chicago Chronicle

Read Part II of this conversation here…
Behind Our Backs: Moishe Postone on teaching social theory


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