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Conference Report: Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America

October 2, 2006

The University of Wisconsin and Wisconsin Historical Society jointly house the Center for the History of Print Culture in Modern America. This past weekend, they hosted their bi-annual conference, titled this year: “Education and the Culture of Print in Modern America.” With a title like that, there is perhaps no more appropriate place for me to reflect on the conference than here.

To begin, I had a fantastic time. Having only been in Madison once before, I thoroughly enjoyed the atmosphere, discovering new places and sights. On top of this, however, the conference itself was quite rewarding intellectually. Having been overly preoccupied with relatively new job, I hadn’t had time review the program before attendance.

I attended five panels (including my own), and listened to talks by Carl Kaestle, Robert Orsi, and Adam Nelson. Nelson and Orsi opened the conference. Nelson related some selective passages from Sinclair Lewis’ Babbitt to class views of education and print. Orsi followed. Having more than a passing interest in the history of American Catholicism, I listened to his address with great interest. He spoke on print devotional materials – of every imaginable sort – for Catholic youth in twentieth century America. Over lunch the first day, Kaestle summarized a new book he is editing with Janice Radway called The History of the Book in America. The list of authors contributing to the book is quite impressive.

I liked almost all the panels a great deal. A number addressed, both explicitly and implicitly, the notion of textbooks. Papers came at this topic from every imaginable angle: debates about evolution/creationism, literature anthologies, edited editions of great books, film as textbooks, etc. My panel addressed the relationship between the canon – or “final answers” – and textbooks, and my paper was titled: “Mortimer J. Adler’s How to Read a Book: Intentions and Usage in Adult and Higher Education, 1940s and 1970s.” I hadn’t honestly thought of How to Read a Book as a textbook, or at least a pseudo-textbook, until the conference. Other panels that impressed me a great deal covered children’s literature and working-class print literature.

In sum, anyone interested in book history, print culture, intellectual history, and cultural history in general would find something of interest at this conference. Plus, who can turn down an opportunity to visit wonderful Madison?! – TL

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