Historian John Toews and the Comparative History of Ideas Program

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UW history professor John Toews has chaired the Comparative History of Ideas Program (CHID) since 1982. Through his pioneering efforts the program has become one of the leading interdisciplinary undergraduate majors in the country. "Many of the nationally recognized UW undergraduates of the last few years--winners of national fellowships, dean's medals, and so forth--have been graduates of the CHID program and they are now scattered among all of the prestigious graduate programs in the country," notes Toews.

The Comparative History of Ideas Program has its origins during the late 1970s in a seed grant for interdisciplinary studies from the National Endowment for the Humanities. Shortly thereafter, Toews came on board and began to help shape and build the program. Toews helped to develop a thematic focus on multi- culturalism and the politics of identity, including gender and race. "Our theme became an analysis of the historical production, recognition, and interpretation of culturally defined difference," notes Toews. "Recently we have moved thematically toward issues of civic or 'public' culture, that is, to concerns about the creation of languages and spaces in which cultural differences can find common ground, and to cultural forms that cut across the boundaries of gender and ethnicity, and that have a universalizing tendency--in both good and bad senses--such as consumerism and cybertechnology."

In recent years, the program has developed a regular, integrated foreign study component of the curriculum in which 12 to 20 students go abroad for a quarter and pursue the comparative study of thematic projects they have begun here, such as minority cultures, gender identities, and the use of public spaces. "We have also started to experiment with project courses that involve collaboration between students and non-university groups and institutions--public television and museums, for example," notes Toews.

As the program grew, especially in the late 1980s and early 1990s, the program moved toward creating a pedagogical style which placed great emphasis on students' initiative and participation in all phases of their education. "CHID is popularly known I think primarily for its student-based ethos," says Toews. "We have many student-run activities--not just focus groups and self-created seminars, but also a journal, student advisors and facilitators, most of our office staff, and groups that work on the expansion and revision of the curriculum. One of our aims has been to help students take possession of their own education, help them make their own learning one of the 'subjects' of their education, and provide the conditions for the creation of a kind of communal ethos based on participation in common and collaborative projects."

"Many people think we have skimmed off the cream of the best students in the humanities and social sciences, and have thus gained extra visibility and credit. We think that the atmosphere of CHID provides an opportunity for regular students to become the 'cream' because it takes their competence seriously and recognizes them as co-teachers and co-scholars. We have had remarkable success in terms of national recognition for our students--four Mellon Fellowships and a Beinicke Fellowship in the last three years," notes Toews.

Enrollment in CHID was approximately 150 undergraduate majors in 1996; that's roughly equivalent to that of a mid-sized department in the College of Arts and Sciences--yet the CHID has no faculty positions itself. The program has a permanent staff director, James Clowes, whom Toews describes as a "genius in decentralized, student-run education and administration," but all of the CHID faculty are borrowed from other campus units. "We have thus become a kind of nodal point for complicated interdisciplinary exchanges, and are involved in a proliferating number of councils and consortia which bring together people from across the campus for specific projects, such as foreign study, or for curricular collaborations, such as linked courses." In addition to Toews, the program's faculty committee includes Ernst H. Behler of comparative literature and Germanics; Mary W. Blundell of classics; Douglas P. Collins of Romance languages and literature; James K. Mish'alani of philosophy; Ross Posnock, Leroy F. Searle, and Karen Shabetai of English; and Eugene Webb of comparative religion.

In addition to building up the Comparative History of Ideas Program, Toews's own scholarly work was recognized with a fellowship prize in 1984 from the John D. and Catherine T. MacArthur Foundation--one of the famed "genius grants."

Toews's writings have had an impact in three main areas. His book, Hegelianism: The Path Toward Dialectical Humanism, concerns the reconstruction of the historical contexts and trajectories of nineteenth century German thought in the tradition that evolves from Kant and Hegel to Kierkegaard, Marx, and Nietzsche. His work placed the transformation and differentiation of this stream of thought within the historical context of early nineteenth century academic intellectuals adapting to the pressures of secularization and social modernization. "Because it touches on the historical meaning of so many important strands of thought in our own century--Marxism, aesthetic modernism, religious and humanistic existentialism--the book has maintained its place as standard reading in most graduate programs and in many advanced undergraduate courses," he observes.

In 1987, Toews published an article in the American Historical Review entitled "Intellectual History after the Linguistic Turn," which was taken up by scholars not only in history but also across many of the social sciences and humanities. It set the agenda for a debate about the nature of historical understanding in a postmodern context--one that has continued for about a decade. "I have continued to remain involved in this debate and many of my invitations to speak and contribute to symposia around the country are clearly tied to my participation in this issue," notes Toews. "The central question in these debates is how far one can push the perspective that all 'identities'--national, ethnic, racial, gendered, sexual--are historically constructed, and thus 'contingent' rather than 'essential' or 'natural.'"

An article by Toews published in The Journal of Modern History in 1991 entitled "Historicizing Psychoanalysis: Freud in His Time and for Our Time," brought another facet of his work into the limelight. His attempt to situate Freud's theories within their contexts of origin and reception raised considerable discussion about the validity and significance of Freudian theory for current times. Toews is especially interested in the ways that Freudian theory can be used to understand the cultural construction of masculinity and femininity.

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