Skip to main content

What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez?

The American Revolution in Education

Geoffrey Galt Harpham’s book takes its title from a telling anecdote. A few years ago Harpham met a Cuban immigrant on a college campus, who told of arriving, penniless and undocumented, in the 1960s and eventually earning a GED and making his way to a community college. In a literature course one day, the professor asked him, “Mr. Ramirez, what do you think?” The question, said Ramirez, changed his life because “it was the first time anyone had asked me that.” Realizing that his opinion had value set him on a course that led to his becoming a distinguished professor.
            That, says Harpham, was the midcentury promise of American education, the deep current of commitment and aspiration that undergirded the educational system that was built in the postwar years, and is under extended assault today. The United States was founded, he argues, on the idea that interpreting its foundational documents was the highest calling of opinion, and for a brief moment at midcentury, the country turned to English teachers as the people best positioned to train students to thrive as interpreters—which is to say as citizens of a democracy. Tracing the roots of that belief in the humanities through American history, Harpham builds a strong case that, even in very different contemporary circumstances, the emphasis on social and cultural knowledge that animated the midcentury university is a resource that we can, and should, draw on today.

224 pages | 5 1/2 x 8 1/2 | © 2017

Education: Higher Education, Philosophy of Education

History: American History

Literature and Literary Criticism: General Criticism and Critical Theory


"In his attempt to revivify the discourse in support of liberal education, Harpham, in effect, expands the script, making the American system of general education out to be an aid to democracy that is deeply grounded in American culture. . . it is still easy to imagine his historical argument finding its way into the speeches of university presidents in the US."

New York Review of Books

"Compelling and essential reading for anyone concerned with the relationship between humanistic activity and American democracy. It is a virtuoso demonstration of what can be accomplished when an erudite scholar seeks to place the humanities on ‘native ground’ (to borrow a phrase from Alfred Kazin). But I think the book should be seen, above all, as a provocation, an invitation to the kind of interpretive debate it centrally defends.”

Los Angeles Review of Books

“In this vitally important and timely new book, the celebrated critic Geoffrey Harpham recovers the promise of the humanities in American higher education. He shows how interpreting texts has long been inseparable from democratic aspirations, and why English became the central humanistic discipline, the site of these aspirations, in the United States.  Brilliantly conceived and beautifully written, What Do You Think, Mr. Ramirez makes a powerful case for reviving a model of general education centered in the humanities.”

John Stauffer, Harvard University

“The humanities in an American key, Harpham argues in this deft and incisive book, are fundamentally interpretive arts that form not just readers but citizens. And so, he concludes, the humanities are deeply democratic arts that help shape a society committed to argument, persuasion, and the idea that every citizen can and should contribute to the endless conversation that is American democracy. Harpham’s story is also a timely caution that in the United States the health of democracy has long been tied to the fate of the humanities.”

Chad Wellmon, University of Virginia

Table of Contents


I        The American Revolution in Education
Mr. Ramirez Comes to America
Teaching the Intangibles: General Education in Postwar America
Limitations of the Whole Man
Breaking the Stranglehold of the Present
James B. Conant, American Radical

II       Rights of the Pryvat Spyrit: From Dissent to Interpretation
From Separation to Society
From Faith to Fiction
From Origin to Originalism
From Eloquence to Abolition
From America to English

III      The Peculiar Opportunities of English
English and Wisdom
The Meaning of Literature
The Birth of Criticism from the Spirit of Compromise
I. A. Richards and the Emergence of an American Humanities
Turning Science into the Humanities: The New Criticism
The Persistence of Intention

Postscript: In Praise of Depth

Be the first to know

Get the latest updates on new releases, special offers, and media highlights when you subscribe to our email lists!

Sign up here for updates about the Press