The 2011–2012 academic year marks several milestones in the world of Jackson Lears, who has been called “America’s premier cultural historian.” He reaches his 25th year as a professor in Rutgers’ top-10-ranked cultural history program, and Raritan—the influential magazine of essays, art, and poetry he has edited since 2002—celebrates its 30th anniversary.
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Man of Letters
Cowboy. Baseball player. Firefighter. Doctor. Pilot. Man of letters.
Man of letters?
Okay, so a career as a man of letters wasn’t the stereotypical boyhood dream of a kid coming of age in the 1960s. But it was for cultural historian Jackson Lears, and today he lives that dream as Board of Governors Professor of History at Rutgers. A teacher, author, editor, essayist, and keynoter, Lears gives students and other contemplators of America’s big questions plenty to ponder. Religion, capitalism, politics, the arts, and their intersections: these are his passions, and he writes about them to great critical acclaim.
Lears came to Rutgers in 1986 to fill the chasm left by the sudden death of cultural historian Warren Susman. “My predecessor, Warren Susman, was a magnet for graduate students in U.S. cultural history,” says Lears. “The graduate program was one of the big reasons I came to Rutgers.”
Sought by Graduate Students
Today, Lears is the magnet. “I get emails [every spring] from people who want to know if I’m still taking graduate students,” he says.
Allison Miller is a current graduate student. “I read Jackson’s first book, No Place of Grace, when I was an undergraduate [at Sarah Lawrence College] in the 1990s,” says Miller, “and it changed everything about the way I look at history. I suppose I ended up working with him [Lears is Miller’s dissertation adviser] because he is so attentive to ambivalence as a motivating force in history. Jackson doesn’t try to cover everything possible; he presents his own interpretation. He’s a ‘big thinker’ who tries to come up with new, overarching ways of analyzing American culture instead of nesting in the details of historical knowledge. But he always has evidence to back up what he thinks.”
While the program can accept only a limited number of graduate students, it has been successful at placing Ph.D.s, says Lears, who is a professor in the School of Arts and Sciences. “I have students teaching at the University of Virginia, Carnegie Mellon, Villanova, University of North Carolina–Chapel Hill. So I’m pleased and proud about that.”
Lears says his students are vital to his work. “We have graduate students who’ve served as copy editors [on Raritan], and I’ve also hired students as research assistants. They’ve made it possible for me to publish books because I’ve not had the time in recent years to do all the hunting and gathering myself.”
Rutgers is very much the kind of place where I’d always wanted to teach. Big public universities always appealed to me. Apart from my doctorate at Yale, my degrees came from public universities. I like the vitality, the energy, the lack of pretentiousness. The mix of students, the diversity.
The Appeal of the Big Public University
Rutgers’ big public university culture supplies Lears with terrific students and an invigorating atmosphere. “Rutgers is very much the kind of place where I’d always wanted to teach. Big public universities always appealed to me. Apart from my doctorate at Yale, my degrees came from public universities. I like the vitality, the energy, the lack of pretentiousness. The mix of students, the diversity.”
Lears aims to ground his undergraduate students in the enduring values of a liberal arts education. “A lot of it boils down to the single notion of developing empathy with other people and other points of view that may be radically different from your own. Part of the reason to study history and the humanities in general is to get outside yourself, to stretch your imagination beyond the limits of your immediate experience. It involves sustained effort to understand why people think and feel and act the way they do, especially when it seems at odds with what you deem as common sense.”
In his course “Cultural History of the United States: 20th Century”—an undergraduate favorite that is almost always filled to capacity—Lears experiences how Rutgers’ diversity shapes classroom dynamics. “I think it can energize a classroom. A lot of times people will be coming out of what seems to other students like left field, but is in fact a very real place to them.”
“I majored in English and had only taken one history course before Jackson’s,” says Jonathan Quann, School of Arts and Sciences ’11, who took Lears’s class in his senior year. “What makes his lectures and writing so dynamic is his ability to weave historical ‘objective events’ into a narrative that gives one a sense of how people actually experienced what, to us, are unfamiliar contexts.” His experience with Lears inspired Quann to split his graduate school applications between English and history.
What makes his lectures and writing so dynamic is his ability to weave historical ‘objective events’ into a narrative that gives one a sense of how people actually experienced what, to us, are unfamiliar contexts.
Raritan: A Magazine of American Thought
Lears invites discussion of competing viewpoints in the classroom and that appreciation for multiple points of view is also the editorial philosophy behind Raritan, the magazine founded in 1981 by the distinguished literary critic Richard Poirier. When Lears assumed the editorship nearly a decade ago, he wrote in his first editor’s note: “Distrust of dualism allows people (and nations) to tolerate imperfection, to muddle through.”
Although some call Raritan a journal, Lears prefers “magazine,” reflecting the publication’s accessibility. Raritan invites “sustained reflection and aesthetic pleasure without academic jargon,” he says. “It reaches what Poirier called the common reader in everyone. I might be a specialist in U.S. cultural history, but I’m a common reader when it comes to genetics.”
Lears almost left Rutgers for Harvard nearly a decade ago, but the irresistible opportunity to become the editor of Raritan kept him on the banks. “Raritan offered the opportunity to continue doing what I always wanted to do but on a larger platform; and that is to be a man of letters, a public intellectual, whatever label you want to put on it. A boyhood dream.”