Rebecca W. Bushnell. A Culture of Teaching: Early Modern Humanism in Theory and Practice. Ithaca: Cornell UP, 1996. xiii+210 pp. ISBN 0801483565 Paper; 0801432359 Cloth.
Charles David Jago
University of British Columbia

Jago, Charles David. "Review of A Culture of Teaching: Early Modern Humanism in Theory and Practice." Early Modern Literary Studies 2.3 (1996): 7.1-10 <URL: http://purl.oclc.org/emls/02-3/rev_jag2.html>.

  1. Rebecca W. Bushnell's A Culture of Teaching: Early Modern Humanism in Theory and Practice is concerned with history. Specifically, the book shows that history is sometimes negated or replaced with ideological fictions in order to expedite political agendas. In such cases, this study suggests, the continuities between the cultural forms of the past and the present are lost. For Bushnell, it is precisely this perspective that has been subsumed in the recent, highly politicized debate surrounding humanism and the humanities.

  2. Despite its title, A Culture of Teaching is not an overview of either humanism or humanist pedagogy. Rather, in keeping with its study of history, the text focuses on contemporary discussions of humanism and attempts to reframe them through "local readings" of early modern humanist theory and practice. Methodologically, Bushnell's practice of local reading is derived from anthropologist Clifford Geertz's conception of "local knowledge" and may be described as a close reading of culture that attempts to distance itself from preconceived theories of how culture works.

  3. Without discussing Geertz in this forum, it is important to mention that Bushnell reacts against new historicist appropriations of Geertz's methods because she finds that these undermine the logic of local knowledge by fitting the local into a Foucauldian frame, "so that the saturation of power obliterates the disruptive effects of 'decentering' things"(22). Bushnell, who contends that "implicit in my method is the belief. . . that 'humanism' was never a coherent ideology, whether construed in the most general terms as a value system or in the narrower sense of an intellectual and pedagogical practice,"(14) maintains that to focus on the local means to "appreciate the multiple and contradictory possibilities of a historical moment"(22). Her brand of literary historicism, which foregrounds and leaves unresolved the paradoxes and contradictions of early modern humanist discourse, produces a study that revises both traditional and revisionist accounts of humanism by injecting skepticism and a restrained Derridean undecidability into the debate.

  4. Bushnell's study of early modern humanism purports to describe "the unstable terms of rule, control and autonomy in humanist education"(181) and to suggest that "in both theory and practice early English humanist pedagogy . . . matched the heterogeneity of early modern society and politics"(19). The first chapter "Humanism Reconsidered," sets the stage for the close reading that follows by arguing that the culture of humanism needs to be read anew because its recent politicization has affected its interpretation in the scholastic community. In the following four chapters Bushnell studies the language of humanist discourse as it relates to the authority of the schoolmaster and the autonomy of the student; the nature of the child; knowledge and reading; and tradition. Each topic allows Bushnell to contest revisionary readings of humanism and to emphasize the problematics of reading humanism as a holistic cultural phenomenon.

  5. In chapter two Bushnell revises Richard Halpern's Foucauldian reading of the practice of corporal punishment in The Poetics of Primitive Accumulation . Instead of reading corporal punishment as reproducing the authoritarian practice of sovereignty on the body of the child, Bushnell recognizes a complex interplay between freedom and subordination in the classroom. Reading closely texts from Mulcaster, Ascham, Erasmus, and Valla, she points to unresolved "impulses in humanist pedagogy's opposition to corporal punishment in schools" and notes that although humanist pedagogy reproduced social and political authority it also offered "to form a free citizen, who learns in a free space of love, pleasure and play marked off from the political sphere and even from the family"(44). The chapter concludes with a compelling reading of the contumacious relationship between the young James VI and George Buchanan in which she shows how the prince was "fashioned paradoxically as a monarch with a subject's demeanor,"(62) and how Buchanan's schoolroom "was a place for oppositional thinking and politics at the same time that it was meant to fashion a king"(71).

  6. In chapter three, "Cultivating the Mind," Bushnell contests Catherine Belsey's assertion that humanism produced a despotic conformity that "subsumed its birth in resistance to authoritarianism"(73). Bushnell contends that humanism generated both authoritarianism and resistance. Her argument is based on a close reading of early modern interpretations of the nature of the child, which is conducted alongside a fascinating parallel reading of the horticultural discourse of the period. Considering Erasmus in particular, she points out that humanism offered a double view of the child's nature that recognized both "an essential human nature and that each person is particular, with different inclinations or propensities that defy generation"(102).

  7. In chapter four, "Harvesting Books," Bushnell contests Anthony Grafton and Lisa Jardine's representation of the humanist practice of reading in From Humanism to the Humanities as the monotonous memorization of classical texts and the slavish imitation of classical style. Bushnell offers an alternative picture of humanist practices of reading in which, rather than being read and memorized as a whole, parts of classical texts were appropriated for diverse uses. She argues that in early humanist practice "the point of reading a book was not to provide an "anatomy" or an understanding of its argument or structure; rather the end was a harvesting or mining of the book for its functional parts -- useful to borrow for the reader's own writing or to serve as practical conduct rules or stylistic models"(129). Reading the text as a whole, she notes, was a later manifestation of humanist practice that did not have its origins in humanism itself but was part of a larger trend of textual practice.

  8. Chapter five, "Tradition and Sovereignty," reframes Richard Helgerson's "politicizing of humanist poetics" in Forms of Nationhood by complicating "his binaries of the gothic and classical, the medieval and the humanist, by re-examining the negotiation of history, authority, autonomy, and nature in the debate over formal innovation" (146). Close readings of Sidney's Defense of Poetry and George Buchanan reveals a double view that negotiates between the demands of imitation and originality. Considering James VI's The Essayes of a Prentise in the Divine Art of Posie and Samuel Daniel's The Defence of Rhyme Bushnell shows that the concept of neoclassicism was not unified and might be put to various political ends. If neoclassicism challenged the legitimacy of authority by obviating tradition, it nevertheless could be equally well used to support authority. Similarly, though classical meter might have been associated with restraint, rhyme could impose a more severe discipline on the poet. For Bushnell, humanist discourse shows that terms such as "nature," "reason," and "tradition" were "Janus-faced" -- sometimes subverting, sometimes reinforcing, absolute rule.

  9. Turning her attention to the schism in contemporary discussions of humanism and the humanities, Bushnell invites us to see the terminology and alliances of the opposing positions as less absolute than they may appear. Arguing that we have "not escaped the conflict between the assimilation of the past and creative autonomy implicit in early humanist poetics,"(182) she concludes that the contentions surrounding humanism today were imbedded in humanist educational practice "from the beginning"(185).

  10. One may read this text as attempting to move humanism, both in its present and past manifestations, away from discussions of power -- discussions that have come to dominate discourse in the humanities since the influential work of Michel Foucault became incorporated into critical practice. Bushnell uses "local readings" to historicize early modern humanism in such a way that the highly politicized issue of power (possibly the very issue that, has split the humanities today) is neutralized. This strategy is apparent in her attempt to read Foucault out of early humanist practice while carefully preserving his cultural critique's power to generate cultural readings in later times. Power is present in this study only as a problematic term in relation to the local, historical reality of the complexities of humanist discourse. Thus, Bushnell, whose stated strategy is to decenter Foucault-inspired discourse by pointing to the binaries generated by the idea of power, creates her own binary between history and cultural criticism's use of theory. Theory is criticized as simplifying the complex relations of history by imposing foreign values upon it. Bushnell, however, fails to recognize that reading cultural criticism as history's other is itself a theoretical move; nor does she recognize that her method of local reading theoretically assumes that history is inherently a complex and shifting thing. Though her readings are powerful and will undeniably broaden our understanding of early modern humanism, her appeal to the micro-historicism of local reading does not appear to be a ready way of resolving the issue of power in either the study of early modern humanism or in the academy.

Responses to this piece intended for the Readers' Forum may be sent to the editor at emls@arts.ubc.ca.

© 1996, R.G. Siemens (Editor, EMLS).
(December 31, 1996)