Published Volume XXXIV, Nos. 1 & 2, 2021

Admirers of the work of Irving Babbitt (1865-1933), the chief figure associated with an informal school of literary and social criticism called New Humanism, have long recognized that many of Babbitt’s critics have failed to take seriously—or even to understand—his ideas. According to the political philosopher Claes Ryn, for example, even during Babbitt’s lifetime “reckless distortions of his ideas gained wide currency.” The caustic debates surrounding New Humanism that took place in the early decades of the twentieth century, it seems, encouraged critics to contribute tendentious and careless appraisals of Babbitt’s work. Such partisan and misleading critiques continue to influence assessments of Babbitt today.

The one hundredth anniversary of Rousseau and Romanticism, arguably the author’s quintessential monograph, provides an excellent opportunity to revisit assumptions about Babbitt’s ideas. This article will make the case that some scholars of American higher education have proved especially egregious distorters of Babbitt’s thought. Although in his first book, Literature and the American College, Babbitt presented the…

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