In the United States today, education, especially in its public forms, paid for by taxpayers, is frequently the most contentious subject on the agendas of politicians, pundits, public-policy researchers, private-foundation funders, controversy-loving TV talking heads, pedagogical “experts” and, of course, teachers, parents and students.
At the university level, at both public and private schools (although, given the amount of federal funds pouring into research at many private institutions, what is truly “private” anymore?) administrators often find themselves preoccupied with such issues as underage drinking, as well as sexual harassment and abuse, not to mention identity politics and its effects on free speech inside and outside the classroom. Who has time nowadays to consider philosophically the self-enriching aspects of higher education? What is or should be its purpose? To equip students to land good jobs? Or should it be to focus on intellectual stimulation and a deeper, broader understanding of the world, which will make students better prepared to go out into that world and contribute meaningfully to it?
Against this backdrop, in an era of powerful information technology, dramatic income disparity, and cross-cultural misunderstandings (which have played no small part in countless, endless wars), an unusual “book” has just been re-issued. Originally published in 1970, Blueprint for Counter Education, by Maurice Stein and Larry Miller, sought to provoke a radical transformation of a so-called liberal arts education ¾ which was (and still is) marked by a divide between the humanities and the sciences ¾ in both its content and the way it was presented and studied.
Originally released by Doubleday ⎯ in retrospect, it is remarkable that such a mainstream publisher would become involved in such a subversive project ⎯ Stein and Miller’s Blueprint has just been reissued by Inventory Press, a small, New York-based company. Its new, slipcased, facsimile edition faithfully recreates its original design by Marshall Henrichs, which consisted of three fold-out poster-charts and a large-format paperbound book. It adds a second book (the new Instruction Manual), which contains essays looking back at the creation, purposes and impact of the original project. This new, second book also contains, among other components, excerpts from interviews with Stein, Miller, and Henrichs, which were conducted by Jeffrey Schnapp and Paul Cronin between 2012 and 2015.
In the 1960s, Stein, a sociologist, had become known for teaching such innovative courses as “Social Theory” and “Sociology of Literature” at Brandeis University in Massachusetts. In these courses he took what would now be called a broad, multidisciplinary approach to examining art and literature. In fact, for Stein, those subjects merely served as starting points for a wide-ranging consideration of cultural, social, political and economic ideas that had emerged and cross-pollinated over the centuries. Among them, he enthusiastically sought affinities.
Stein and his students regarded their subject matter ⎯ and the wider world outside academia ⎯ in the context of such contemporary events and trends as the controversial war in Vietnam, the rise of the mass media (especially television’s increasing influence), and the demands of the Civil Rights movement, nascent feminism, and, in Europe, events like the May 1968 student protests, which called for changes in university curricula and an opening-up of France’s elitist, top-tier schools.
Blueprint is not a conventional book. Instead, its poster-charts group together clusters of related theoretical or intellectual themes, or the names of the artists, writers or other thinkers associated with them; they also point to thematic-evolutionary links between the innovations or visions for which they were known. Blueprint’s “charts,” as Stein and Miller refer to them, also offer a road map for a journey through the intellectual history that shaped the outlooks and conditions of the modern age.
Shooting Script, the paperbound book accompanying Blueprint’s charts, which is, again, part of the new, reissued edition, includes Stein and Miller’s own essay explaining the genesis of the project. It offers tips on how to use the charts as a pedagogical tool. Shooting Script also contains an illustrated, experimental-form essay about the German Dadaist artist Kurt Schwitters (1887–1948) by the Polish-born poet and avantgardist Stefan Themerson (1910–1988), and a Fluxus-style questionnaire by Naphtali “Tuli” Kupferberg, the American countercultural poet and founder of the 1960s rock band The Fugs, who died in 2010. Most notably, Shooting Script contains reproductions of the title page and table of contents from a large number of books and journals representing the work and ideas of a wide range of authors. These are the same thinkers, artists, and titles that appear on Blueprint’s charts.
If all of these cultural reference points sound mixed-up and unlikely, that was, in a way, the whole point of Blueprint’s bring-together-the-varying-disciplines approach.
It did so by anchoring its thinking and method around two poles of thought that were big on the radar screens and in the cocktail party chatter of Sixties-era intellectuals: the ideas of the German-born sociologist, philosopher, and political theorist Herbert Marcuse (1898–1979) and those of Marshall McLuhan (1911–1980), a Canadian who analyzed and put forth theories about the nature and impact of mass media. If, for Stein and Miller, Marcuse’s critiques of capitalism, political systems, and consumer culture evoked the kind of progressive social-political change they hoped to foster, McLuhan’s critical outlook (he coined the phrases “global village” and “the medium is the message”) offered fresh, revealing ways in which to think about culture, technology and the future.
In the late 1960s, Miller was an undergraduate majoring in history at Brandeis ⎯ he studied there with Marcuse ⎯ but he left to work for Students for a Democratic Society, the nationwide, leftist, student-activist group. Later he returned to the university and took Stein’s ostensibly literature-centered course, but by that time, Miller recalled in a recent telephone interview, “it was about just about everything ⎯ literature, art, social theory, psychoanalytical theory, whatever was in the news or in the air; Maury used to come to class with an attaché case filled with books and newspapers.” Miller, who now teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Dartmouth, added that, in his teaching, Stein proposed “a vision of education for the contemporary university that was rooted in a variety of modernisms” and in the belief that an understanding of modernism’s fundamental principles should lie at “the heart of the curriculum of a contemporary university.”
However, Miller explained, as he and Stein later came to view the effects of academia on what one might call the radical essence of modernism, “the university had professionalized, socialized and declawed it; it had robbed it of its edge.” By contrast, it’s the revolutionary spirit of modern-era thinkers of all stripes ⎯ André Breton, Rainer Maria Rilke, Paul Valéry, James Joyce, Ludwig Wittgenstein, Gertrude Stein, Igor Stravinksy and many others ⎯ that is the subject matter and focal point of Blueprint’s charts.
By citing the names of pioneering visionaries through whose diverse ideas and works modernism’s principles, outlooks, and sensibilities were articulated, Blueprint offers both a record of their evolution and a guide with multiple points of entry for exploring it. In one of the charts, big arrows on the left-hand side, marked “Marcuse” and “McLuhan” and surrounded with the titles of each writer’s well-known books, point to concentric circles featuring the names of thinkers, publications, films, or institutions that share similar values or sensibilities. Another chart shows a big, red, U-shaped light bulb, each arm of which represents a Marcuse- or a McLuhan-associated force field of related ideas or tendencies, with the Marcuse side of the composition calling attention to “modernism as [a] meditative environment” and the McLuhan side to “postmodernism as [a] participatory environment.”
Stein, who is now 90 years old, spoke with me by phone from his home in Massachusetts. He said, “We were trying to integrate the domains; the inspiration for our concept came from the Bauhaus and Black Mountain College, which, at different times earlier in the 20th century, had tried to integrate the arts and political thought.”
After Miller earned his undergraduate degree, Stein hired him to help him prepare a manuscript for publication as a book. Stein had enjoyed success with such earlier books as The Eclipse of Community: An Interpretation of American Studies (1958), which he had authored, and Identity and Anxiety: Survival of the Person in Mass Society (1960), which he had co-edited. Miller told me, “It was a very long, shaggy manuscript, but the seeds of what would become Blueprint lay in it.” Over time, inspired by the classroom blackboards Stein used to cover with notes as well as an encounter with Moonstrips Empire News (1967), a suite of 100 collage-based screenprints by the British Pop artist Eduardo Paolozzi, the two collaborators took material from the big manuscript and gave it different forms. They made rough sketches, transferred it to cards, and eventually produced “charts” on actual blueprint sheets and Mylar. These visual presentations of their ideas evolved into graphic designer Henrichs’ published poster-charts, with their bold, simple palette of black, white and red.
Jeffrey Schnapp is the founder and faculty director of Harvard University’s metaLAB (at) Harvard and faculty co-director of the school’s Berkman Center for Internet and Society. In a recent telephone interview, Schnapp, who contributed the essay “Blueprint for a Blueprint” to the new edition’s Instruction Manual, said, “The 1960s was a time of extensive experimentation with alternative pedagogies. Before Blueprint was published, Stein and Miller actually went out and field-tested their ideas at various colleges. Ultimately, what they created was a library; a library is the very core of their project.”
In the late 1960s, Stein and Miller joined the faculty of the new California Institute of the Arts. Established near Los Angeles with funding from Walt Disney’s family and other benefactors, the school welcomed its first class of students in 1970. With a teaching staff that included such now well-known artists as Allan Kaprow (of “Happenings” fame), John Baldessari, and Nam June Paik, the composer Morton Subotnick, and other notables, Stein and Miller hoped that CalArts would provide a welcoming proving ground for the further elaboration and implementation of Blueprint’s pedagogical ideas ⎯ and ideals.
Miller told me, “What we were doing was multidisciplinary long before ‘multidisciplinary’ became the buzzword at many different levels of education that it has become today. However, even then, as CalArts was getting started, we could see that our ideas would not be embraced there.” Stein and Miller even tried, unsuccessfully, to recruit Marcuse to join the new school’s faculty. Eventually they moved on from CalArts. Tellingly, Miller also observed, “Today, multidisciplinarity itself has undergone some of the same changes that modernism did in the 1950s and 1960s. It tends to be taught by specific-discipline-oriented people who tend to tame it to serve the purposes of the bureaucratized university.”
Looking back at Blueprint’s original publication from more than four decades ago, Stein said, “We were speaking to that moment in time. A later moment might have required something completely different.” (Fast-forward: Stein, Miller and Schnapp all told me that, today, of course, such an ambitious project could be expansively developed digitally in the form of a website linked to and exploiting the vast resources of the Internet. While their innovative project presented itself two-dimensionally, in printed form on paper, a contemporary Blueprint would be “alive” in real time.)
Nevertheless, even in its now humble-looking form, the spirit of Stein, Miller and Henrichs’ Blueprint for Counter Education remains resonant today. At its core lies the daring notion that, at any given time, in any given place, as needs and circumstances change, any group of people has the potential to build its own house of ideas.