“Culturism” on Campus
While studying in New York University’s Bobst Library, I came across this frightening sticker on one of the desks on the sixth floor.
Horrified, I decided to explore the link. I received further shock when I visited the author’s website. Here’s some full disclosure: John Press, a former high school teacher was a fellow NYU graduate student, studying for his doctorate in history of education. Apparently he got his doctorate, having written a “culturist dissertation.” We’ve taken two classes together, a 20th Century US History Literature of the Field colloquium, and a seminar on American Jews and Race. I occasionally saw him around campus. Our interactions were pleasant if a bit awkward, though I had no idea about his “culturist” movement. My most distinct memory of John from the Lit of the Field course was his defense of Japanese internment. I don’t think anybody from the class will ever forget it.
John claims he’s not a racist. That may be true. But his “culturism” is equally bigoted, ill-informed and misguided. His blog is downright scary. Of course, he’s the one that comes off as scared: of Muslims, Mexicans, and immigrants more generally. Through it all, he uses “history,” presumably some of which he learned at NYU, to advance his claims. I don’t feel the need to combat this ignorance here, though I will say this: what scares me the most is that John just received his PhD from the same academic institution I attend. Though his arguments are easily crushed, the PhD grants them some form of legitimacy, and/or calls my own future academic credentials into question.
I’m a big believer in academic freedom, and the university tolerating a multitude of views. If John Press’ doctoral work stands the test of academic scrutiny, he deserves his PhD. But he sullies that PhD, and all of NYU, with the bigoted “culturist” movement he is trying to spread, especially if he uses NYU to add some purported intellectual heft to his unsubstantiated ideas. John was clearly very influenced by Frances Kellor, the subject of his dissertation. In his book, he celebrates Kellor as a “culturalist,” along with Francis Scott Key, Noah Webster, and Martin Luther King Jr. Somehow, I don’t think MLK would have bought into John’s culturalist garbage. So once again, we have the misuse of history for political purposes. And the value of my NYU degree takes another hit.