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Whose Politics? Media Distortions of Academic Controversies

ISSUE:  Winter 1992

The charge that academic radicals are politicizing higher education has recently kept the covers of national magazines busy with dramatic headlines and bright graphics. Within a half year of each other The Atlantic, The New Republic, and The New York Review of Books all featured articles deploring what they saw as politically motivated attacks on cherished Western traditions at our nation’s universities.

Ferment over what knowledge is most important to teach is not, of course, new. Three hundred years ago, Europe was divided by what Swift called “The Battle of the Books.” Today, we have “The Stanford Controversy,” or “The Canon Wars.” I will for the most part call the contemporary opposing camps the Ancients and the Moderns, the same names Swift used for his combatants. Since newspapers and national magazines have invariably presented the Ancients’ eye view, I will begin by giving you an alternative story, a Modern’s history of the present conflict.

In the early 80’s when Reagan took over the White House, he brought with him into power a new coalition of conservatives, including many intellectuals happy finally to have gained bully pulpits. Chief among these was William Bennett, who fired the first shot when, in 1984, as head of the National Endowment for the Humanities, he published a polemical blast at American education called To Reclaim a Legacy. In his own words, this is the gist of his argument: “that in many of our colleges the curricula have become diffuse and directionless; that many of our colleges have lost sight of their fundamental role in conveying our common culture; and that young Americans have become increasingly removed from the very taproots of their society.” Bennett went on to become Reagan’s Secretary of Education and Bush’s Drug Czar and was slated to become chairman of the Republican National Committee until he decided that it didn’t pay enough.

In the second half of the decade Allan Bloom followed Bennett’s lead and wrote The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students, which quickly became, as its paperback cover proudly proclaims, a #1 best seller. As philosopher Richard Rorty says, Bloom’s negativism is surprisingly counter to “The idea (widely held in Europe and Asia) that America’s universities are notably free and flourishing, that they are as splendid centers of learning and forums for Socratic discussion as the world has ever known.” Rorty goes on to show how Bloom’s arguments are built on the philosophy of his mentor, Leo Strauss. Many self-proclaimed “Straussians” were among Reagan’s intellectual vanguard. One of them, Harvey C. Mansfield, Jr., reveals the mentality and motives of this group when he defensively says that the reason so many Straussians came to Washington to work for Reagan was that they couldn’t find jobs in universities where their brand of ideology had become unfashionable.

The most recent best seller from the right is Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education by Roger Kimball. Most of this book was published in The New Criterion, an organ of the neoconservative movement, and if you look at Kimball’s acknowledgments, you’ll see, among other familiar new right organizations, the John M. Olin Foundation, which is currently chaired by William Simon, former Reagan secretary of the treasury and which is also one of the chief sponsors for Bloom’s work at Chicago. Dinesh d’Souza, the author of the Atlantic piece drawn from his new book, Illiberal Education: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, grew up, as it were, under the wing of the Olin Foundation. In college he edited The Dartmouth Review, the notorious right-wing student newspaper with more than $100,000 worth of external funding, much of it from Olin; he worked as a policy analyst for Reagan, joined the Heritage Foundation, spoke at my college as a substitute sent by William F. Buckley to oppose economic sanctions against South Africa, and is currently working for another conservative think-tank, the American Enterprise Institute.

What I’m trying to show here is not that these men are suspect because they are associated with Reagan or have conservative ideologies or are financed by wealthy political interest groups. All I mean to do is to highlight the curiosity of their outraged charge that others have politicized education. To a man, these Ancients follow an ideological agenda which associates liberal directions in American education with a general cultural decline stemming from various ‘60’s radical movements powered by Vietnam war campus protest. All find a golden age in the ‘50’s and early ‘60’s when students and professors were more docile, less critical of American values. Of students in the pre-protest ‘60’s when he first started teaching, Allan Bloom writes, “There was . . .a spiritual yearning, a powerful tension of the soul which made the university atmosphere electric”; after the students got involved in national politics, their souls became “exhausted and flaccid, capable of calculating, but not of passionate insight.” In the conservative narrative, the Reagan ‘80’s rescued most of America from its descent into wimpy, liberal flaccidity, but the nation’s campuses resisted and became sanctuaries for ideologies that Reaganism had supplanted everywhere else. In Tenured Radicals Roger Kimball argues that the reason for crisis in universities today is that the student radical leaders of the ‘60’s have now gained power as tenured professors. Presumably, therefore, he means to suggest that no matter how bright or successful these new folks are, their politics should have kept them from being accepted for tenure. His message, like those of all these conservative reformers, is that the universities must be snatched away from these liberal loonies and that the same conservative mobilizing and organizing of the media and the masses that swept Reagan and Bush to the presidency has the power to do it. Now, lest you think that I exaggerate the media reach of this conservative agenda, I offer a syndicated column by Gal Thomas which was printed by the Saint Paul Pioneer Press just before Christmas of 1990 and entitled, “Parents Should Avoid Colleges Gripped by Liberal Orthodoxy.” Here’s one of his paragraphs: “In many cases, orthodoxies long abandoned, or never accepted, by most Americans are defended as steadfastly as the Alamo in academic circles. Reality is what professors say it is, and the rest of us are, well, dumb and undeserving of a fair hearing.”

Now, why is this story—one of Reagan’s home guard massing to rout out the last vestiges of American liberalism holed up in the universities—so seldom told? If you don’t read scholarly books about it or look into university journals, you’d have the impression that the attacking forces are the Moderns, radicals determined to assault the bastion of Western Civilization as represented by our nation’s universities. In the Ancients’ version, the good, gray guardians of tradition and quality—of Plato, Shakespeare, and Tolstoy—find themselves under siege by political interest groups like feminists, African-Americanists, and Marxists. “The Stanford Controversy,” as it was reported in Newsweek under the headline, “Say Goodnight Socrates: Stanford University and the Decline of the West,” offers a case in point. This article, like all the others I can find in the national media, make it seem as though one finds only political agendas in the Moderns’ camp. The Newsweek headline makes it appear as though Moderns were attacking the university commitment to the advancement of learning, but don’t Cal Thomas and Roger Kimball in their ridicule of “professors” and unworldly intellectuals sound more like the spokesmen for the Athenian masses who rose up against Socrates, that dangerous subverter of traditional values and common sense? Wouldn’t it be more accurate to say that the offensive in this present crisis in education was launched by highly politicized conservatives with a reformist agenda aimed at reversing the well-ensconced intellectual trends of the last 30 to 40 years, trends that were fairly peacefully working their way into curricula until Bennett intervened? It was William Bennett and is now his avatar, Lynne V. Cheney (wife of Richard, the current Bush Secretary of Defense), who provided the NEH seed money to start a wave of curricular reform designed to invent new cores based solidly on Western culture and to marginalize new courses created out of the Moderns’ liberal interests.

Here, finally, is something that extremists on both sides can consent to—that there is a coherent Western tradition. Let’s first take the Ancients who see the tradition as inevitable movement toward good, an evolutionary story of the progress of democracy. Consider George Will, who says that core courses ought to “affirm this fact: America is predominently a product of the Western tradition and is predominantly good because that tradition is good.” Lynn Cheney in 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students outlines the story that should be at the heart of the core: “With roots in ancient Israel and Greece, the Western tradition grew to encompass a variety of views. . . . The engagement of ideas, a habit of debate on how people should live and what they should find worthy, assumed a central place. Principles emerged— respect for persons, rule of law, and the right to self government, among them—against which we judge ethical, legal, and political practices today.” William Bennett says, “The story of the West is the most hopeful story. For, as Allan Bloom has written . . .”America tells one story: the unbroken ineluctable progress of freedom and equality.”” Finally, we have William F. Buckley to reassure us that we need not trouble ourselves about any cultures outside the West because “from Homer to the nineteenth-century no great book has emerged from any non-European source.” This, then, is the belief at the heart of the Ancients’ cause—that we really have a common culture, and it is to be found in a group of crucial classical texts, a Western canon, upon which most educated people will agree. You don’t have to be very liberal to be made nervous by the rosy pronouncements about America’s goodness and assertions of a lily-white, mostly male European past, but I would add a couple more notes about why this story of the rise of Western virtue seems a mistaken project for college curricula.

This story also has a story behind it. Colleges in the 19th century located their missions not in stirring stories of the rise of civilization but in teaching the classical languages, Latin and Greek. Once that core was abandoned by the major reorganization of university education at the end of the century, any coherence which might provide that “common culture” for which Ancients pine was also lost. Counter-movement came from several directions: most powerful was World War I, which boosted a propagandistic surge among academics eager to justify this war as a good one. The War Department mandated creation of “War Issues” courses at all colleges with a Students Army Training Corps; the purpose of these courses was to “explain the origins and meaning of the European conflict” and give reasons for American involvement in it. Historian Gilbert Allardyce notes the jingoism of these intentions: “The war . . .vitalized an interpretation of history that gives the U.S. a common development with England and Western Europe and identifies this “civilization” with the advance of liberty and culture.” Columbia developed a model for a set of such Western Civ courses, and the idea spread rapidly, partly because many saw it as a hope for a new, coherent general education package to replace the classical languages. Justifications for this new core, then and now, retain the Eurocentric flavor of wartime chauvinism, even as the war shifts from one against the “Huns” (surely we called the Germans that to suggest that their barbaric tyranny must mean that they were Asian maurauders, not truly Europeans), to wars against various other evil empires that we always manage to designate non-Western. It’s a bit hard to see why Russian communism isn’t Western; how do we get to claim Tolstoy for our tradition and not Lenin? Nevertheless, we managed to think of it as Eastern and other for more than 50 years. Mesopotamia is Western when we’re talking about the cradles of civilization but not when it threatens our supply of oil.

Thus these stories of the West promoted by the Ancients are certainly not without political content, either in their origins or in their present manifestations. Many contemporary historians have noted that this narrative ahistorically subordinates the past to the present and strategically positions American culture as the evolutionary truth to which all other cultures are subordinate and should aspire. Herbert Lindenberger makes clear the politics of these narratives: “The institution of Western civilization courses in America in the wake of the First World War responded not only to the European sense of cultural crisis, but coming as it did precisely at the time that the United States felt itself to be a world power, served to portray this power as heir to that whole tradition we came to call “Western.”” Clearly, foundations like the Olin and Heritage and the conservative politicians who run governmental educational agencies also are responding to a threat; in this case, the threat comes from feminists and cultural groups who cannot find themselves in the stories told by these Westerns. They can account for the cowboys, but where are the Indians? Mightn’t there be some significance in the fact that the feminists and minorities who aren’t happy with the story of the West as told by William Bennett also represent a large, mostly non-Republican voting block? Isn’t there something hopelessly poignant in Cheney’s blanket assertion about “our” heritage when by the middle 21st century the majority of Americans will no longer be of European descent?


Actually, the other group most ready to see the West as a coherent civilization with a single story is, as I suggested earlier, extremist Moderns who find in it a tale of unrelieved oppression. Marxist critic Terry Eagleton represents this tendency when he equates the rise of English literary studies with the desire to control the working classes. He tells a good story, as do some of the Ancients, and I’m certainly not speaking against the tracing of various historical trajectories since I do a good bit of it myself. I simply want to point out that all these narratives have their rhetorical purposes, that it’s not a matter of truth vs. falsehood but of competing political intentions. I find myself seldom able to accept the totality of any of these grand narratives. Tales of unblemished heroism and of dark conspiracy alike leave me doubtful, whether they’re used to describe the Gulf War or Western literature.

For instance, either side seems to me overly eager to find connections to Nazism in the other. Modern Robert Scholes attacked William Bennett for posing as a leader claiming to save a legacy, “a potent image, ranging in Western cultural history from the Once and Future King drawing Excalibur from its stone scabbard to Adolf Hitler reviving the spirit of a fallen people by finding suitable scapegoats upon whom to blame their fall.” On the other side, Dinesh d’Souza ends his Atlantic piece with a section entitled “Where the Logic Leads,” and, you guessed it, he traces various radical skepticisms through Heidegger and right to Hitler’s doorstep: relativist theories, he argues, create an “opening . . .for totalitarian ideologies, . . . The rejection of authority can sometimes result, paradoxically, in an embrace of authoritarianism.” Funny, I’d never thought of Hitler as a relativist.

Because I think this portentous villification of the other side as evil incarnate is silly, I’d like to find a middle in which to locate myself. It is a bit strange, isn’t it, that the media are paying all this attention to academic quarrels when I assume that most people couldn’t care less what goes on in ivied towers. I’m reminded of Samuel Johnson who wondered at the vituperations in which textual critics often indulge and noted the critic has “indeed great temptations to supply by turbulence what he wants of dignity, to beat his little gold to a spacious surface, to work that to form which no art or diligence can exalt to spirit.” Ancients and Moderns would have us believe that the fate of civilization hangs on this quarrel. I doubt it. I don’t, however, doubt that the quarrel involves questions of competing ideologies, values, and politics, and that belief makes me, willy-nilly, a Modern.

John Searle’s recent long article in The New York Review of Books, “Storm Over the University,” explains how merely acknowledging the political dimensions on both sides of these conflicts counts as a Modernist attack. While finding Kimball’s Tenured Radicals too extreme, Searle reserves most of his contempt for cultural leftists who, he says, are out to attack Western culture as an instrument of oppression. He complains that “many members of the cultural left think that the primary function of teaching the humanities is political; they do not really believe that the humanities are valuable in their own right except as a means of “social transformation.”” Searle disputes this view by insisting that all a college education ought to do is “give students access to works of high quality,” which he insists, means that political criteria are not important. To support his arguments, he digresses from his book review and hastily devises a philosophical basis for a scholarly objectivity by which we can decide what books are the “best.” In other words, Searle denies the ideological content of traditional curricular choices by asserting that there just are objective—that is to say, nonideological, nonsubjective, nonpolitical—standards for, in a sentiment reminiscent of Matthew Arnold, choosing the best that has been thought and known.

I don’t know all that much about Searle’s politics, but he doesn’t seem to me to belong among the neoconservative ideologues who worked for Reagan. Certainly, Irving Howe, who wrote a defense of the canon for The New Republic, cannot be so grouped. Yet both men end up making common cause with those folks in order to defend the Ancients’ idea of what the humanities ought to teach. Neither of them seems particularly attached to triumphal narratives about Western civilization. But, just as Searle wants to find a basis for objective judgment, Howe insists on a “judgment, often based on historical experience, that some works are of supreme or abiding value, while others are of lesser value, and still others without value.” Just as Searle objects to the use of education as a means of social transformation, so does Howe insist that education involves the imposition of values only in an inconsequential and “rudimentary” sense. I’ve already shown that for committed conservatives as much as for committed radicals, the humanities most certainly do involve inculcating a clear set of values—the values found in those stirring stories of the rise of the West. According to an Atlantic article called “Harvard’s Hollow “Core,”” the trouble with the new liberal curriculum is that it repudiated the ‘40’s Redbook which hadn’t blushed “to ground the students in the Western tradition”; hence Harvard’s current attempt to offer multicultural alternatives meant that it had lost its nerve and “had become value-free.” With their insistence on objective judgments, Searle and Howe want to dissociate themselves from these cruder, jingoistic Ancients and mark off the middle, nonideological ground for which I confess I also yearn. I’m afraid that I can’t, however, join them, for their arguments about value seen evasive and unsatisfying to me.


Here I should admit that I’ve been using several words— politics, ideology, values, and ethics—interchangeably, and perhaps that’s confusing. I don’t think that they all have precisely the same meaning, but their usage in this quarrel tells something about the essentially rhetorical nature of those distinctions. For that Ancient writing about Harvard, the bad new curriculum has politics, whereas the old Redbook had values. Moderns like to use “politics” to talk about the dynamics of all these choices because they want to expose the group and personal interests at the heart of the “values” prized by the Ancients. Although I agree with the Moderns that choices are motivated and contingent on one’s circumstances, I’m not always comfortable claiming political motives because, for me, the word implies something considerably more conscious than I can believe. About all the words I’ve listed here, though, Searle and Howe are nervous. Their claim to an objective standard suggests curricular choices driven by no politics, no ideology, no ethics, and no values except ones internal to the work itself.

When Howe says that the ways education inculcates values is inconsequential and Searle that the humanities have a political dimension but it’s not important, I want to ask, not of consequence or importance to whom? The answer is, of course, to those who are happy with the tradition as it stands. There’s no counterterm to “feminist” for someone whose choice leads him to create a canon that is all European and male, yet I would argue that such a person is not, as Howe and Searle seem to want to believe, working from a universalist standard. Howe argues against the kind of politics of identity that would suggest that African-Americans should read black writers, but he does not see the politics of identity in his own insistence on a great European tradition “that, like it or not, is where we come from and that is where we are.” To quote Maya Angelou, “Who’s this “we,” white boy?” As much as Bennett or Cheney, he wants to speak of the preservation of a heritage without acknowledging the partiality of that heritage.

It’s at a moment like this that Howe would join Allan Bloom in telling me that by questioning the universality and truth of my culture, I am demonstrating my participation in Western values. Of Bloom’s claim that only the Western tradition shows any willingness to critique itself, Martha Nussbaum says, “I have rarely seen such a cogent, though inadvertent, argument for making the study of non-Western civilizations an important part of the university curriculum.” Citing “the critical and rationalistic tradition in classical Indian thought, the arguments of classical Chinese thinkers, and beyond this of countless examples of philosophical and nonphilosophical . . .self-criticism from many parts of the world,” she bemoans Bloom’s “startling ignorance.” This is the sort of ignorance that I see in Searle and Howe, an ignorance of their own contingencies and a corresponding inclination to stake out every hint of human intellectual achievement as their own, as the Western tradition. Ancients who try to disengage themselves from the New Right politics of Kimball and Bloom still, like Br’er Rabbit with the Tar Baby, get all gummed up in sticky conservative ideologies, like an insistence that there is a traditional Western canon and that it contains most of the best works of all humanity, period.

I haven’t fully sorted out the tangle of assumptions in Howe and Searle, though, without another approach to their claims for a standard of judgment that is objective, by which they mean able to transcend cultural bounds in order to arrive at some noncontingent truth. Homer and Shakespeare usually come up here and, I think, cloud the issues. Yes, of course, people from many different times and places have found much of value in reading them. We read them, however, not because they have greater inherent value than, say, the Bhagavad-Gita, but because it has become customary to use them as a test for cultural literacy. To argue that they have value because so many others have read them and refer to them is not, of course, to the point. That isn’t a claim for inherent value but rather for a culturally contingent value, for the politics of identity, Western-style. If I were a Chinese person concerned only with Eastern thought, I could presumably skip both writers. Besides, once you move away from those two names, the contingency—or even arbitrariness—of canonical choices becomes apparent. It wasn’t really until the late 18th century that Humboldt and Schiller in Germany and later the Arnolds in England instituted educational reform to place Greek culture at the center of liberal education. T.S. Eliot didn’t like Milton and didn’t include him in his famous sense of tradition. He did like Donne, a poet whom very few others in 200 years had judged worth saving, and his championing of Donne helped put him in anthologies of English poetry.

Still, some may object, charging that I’m evading the issue of whether there is a disinterested aesthetic value which transcends cultural limitation. That idea is itself fairly modern, most readily identified with Kant. With it comes an imperative to put aside external considerations of value when considering a work of art, and most of the very old books that we still read, even history and philosophy, we tend to consider in this aesthetic category. I am troubled by two problems with the aesthetic imperative. First, it either privileges the aesthetic over other kinds of judgment, most prominently, ethical ones, or, second, conflates the aesthetic with the ethical in order to insist that a great work of art simply cannot be immoral. I can’t accept either claim, although most of us would dearly like to believe that what is beautiful is also true.

Here, I can illustrate by using Irving Howe against himself. He had an essay in the issue of the New Republic just after the one about the curriculum. This one was about T.S. Eliot. How was it, he wonders, that Jews like himself were charmed into overlooking Eliot’s deep-seated anti-Semitism? He gives many answers but is blind to the most obvious one that he’D been lured by arguments like his own earlier one about “our” heritage, into suppressing his own Jewishness. If Western culture was best expressed by brilliant, anti-Semitic poets, then, in order to join the melting pot of the Western tradition, Howe had to abjure his Jewish feelings. At the end of this new essay, he regrounds himself in his racial identity and renounces criteria for greatness which elevate aesthetic judgment. Here’s his conclusion:

in my own experience during this century of blood and fanaticism, the division between the aesthetic and the ethical continues to loom large, and I have become resigned to the conclusion that we have to live with the tensions that division generates. I remain “free-thinking,” but I keep within me enough of a Jew to suppose that if aesthetic perceptions and ethical judgments seem at times to clash, there cannot be many situations in which the ethical should not be given priority, for the very idea of civilization, whether “ideal Christian” or just humane, implies a hierarchy of values.

Just as Howe retains enough of the Jew to question the placement of Eliot among poets, so others of us retain enough of the woman to feel the sting of sexism. What Howe represses in the interest of his earlier argument for a coherent canon of the aesthetic “best” returns here to haunt him in a piece he calls “a personal confession.”


I also find that I don’t believe any longer that there is pure aesthetic judgment, if by that is meant a judgment untainted by personal or cultural interests. I think that most of the ways that we are limited are unconscious and nonmalevolent, but they nevertheless ought to keep us from posing as objective spokespeople for universal standards. By a comparison of the choices in several poetry anthologies from the ‘30’s and ‘40’s, Betty Jean Craige exposes the limitations of what we’d now have to call the old New Criticism, the critical theory that swept the American academy in the ‘40’s and became the orthodoxy of English Departments for more than 30 years. New Criticism insisted on a highly focused kind of reading that ignored anything except the text itself. One of the aims of such close reading was to save literature from moralists and political censors by positing a disinterested critical method. As it happened, Brooks and Warren’s Understanding Poetry, a ‘40’s college textbook designed to teach New Criticism to the masses, contained only “8 poems by women out of 240 and none by blacks, Native Americans, or Spanish colonials.” Now, we might be tempted to say that such a choice was just inevitable, just the result of purely aesthetic judgment unhampered by the political imperatives that bedevil anthologies today. A look at the anthologies that Brooks and Warren supplanted refutes that theory. Louis Untermeyer’s earlier collection of American poetry had sections containing American Indian poetry, Spanish-colonial verse, and Negro spirituals and blues. Untermeyer wrote then that the “finest American folksongs of native origin” are not of the “Anglo-Saxon tradition” but are “ritualistic American Indian dance-invocations” and the “Negro spiritual” which was “undoubtably the most compelling.”

The other big ‘30’s college poetry anthology by Harriet Monroe and Alice Corbin Henderson had one-third women out of 162 poets. The discrimination inherent in Brooks and Warren’s aesthetic was, I’d guess, unconscious, but their focus on the text alone fetishized it and fostered a valuing of textual complexity that privileges certain kinds of poems— highly ironic ones, for example—and excludes poetry drawn from more oral and contextual sources.

Unintentional though it was, Brooks and Warren’s aesthetic thus “worked powerfully to exclude” women and nonwhites. Why? Perhaps because the poetry of these folks often comes from domestic and regional oral sources that depend on a sense of context. Dinesh d’Souza makes fun of African-American scholar Houston Baker for advocating the inclusion of more oral traditions in our text-bound curricula and insinuates that Baker just wants to degrade college study by letting in rap music. Actually, Baker and others are trying to correct the demonstrable inequities of myopic, text-bound aesthetics, like that of the New Critics, who cannot find beauty in “Swing Low, Sweet Chariot.” Another reason that women and nonwhites may have seemed more context-bound and less universal to Brooks and Warren is the blindness to the particularities of their own race, gender, and class that I’ve observed in Howe and Searle. In Andrew Marvell’s “To His Coy Mistress,” they could hear the voice of the universal human condition, but Soujourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” must have sounded to them like special pleading.

This story also illustrates my reasons for not being entirely comfortable excoriating Brooks and Warren’s “politics,” as a tougher Modern might do. While there’s some reason to draw relations between their Southern agrarian roots and an unconscious racism and sexism, I’m not inclined to suspect them of more than claiming universality for their particularist values. Virginia Woolf has written about the way in which either sex can serve the other by describing that spot at the back of the head that one can never quite see for oneself. Most often, I think, it’s that metaphoric spot that marks our choices as less nobly disinterested than we’d like to claim. But, if I’m not eager to attack Brooks and Warren for being part of a white, Western male conspiracy that begins with Plato, I do still find their claims to objective standards insupportable. Some of the most engaging scholarship of the last few decades traces many other stories revealing how canonical choices which now seem inevitable and therefore objective were, in fact, motivated by particular agendas. Among the most enthralling of these is the tale of how unpopular writers like Melville and Thoreau came to replace Longfellow and Riley as the major American authors of the 19th century.

To my mind, these narratives effectively destroy the viability of those who just tell us to read the “best.” R.R. Bolgar in The Classical Heritage and Its Beneficiaries follows the educational decisions of the Roman Empire and relates them to such imperial politics as the fostering of Latin language and literature as “useful bait for retaining the loyalty of the uncertain provincial.” The question we should ask about educational choices, says Bolgar, is “cui bono”? or, “who profits”? In Universities and the Myth of Cultural Decline Jerry Herron notes that in spite of the Ancients’ delight in quoting from Matthew Arnold’s Culture and Anarchy to support nonideological criteria for greatness, it’s well to remember that Arnold’s work was a political pamphlet written in response to the tearing down of Hyde Park railings during a demonstration on behalf of parliamentary reform. Arnold wanted to moderate radical movements by injecting culture studies into the liberal arts curriculum. The university could then serve as a taming and credentialing agency for the expanding middle classes who might otherwise ally themselves with the workers. By taking upon themselves the weight of a great cultural tradition, the nouveau riche could escape the ignominy of their actual lower-class heritage and become “gentlemen” for whom the alma mater took the place of actual paternal figures. Most liberal arts colleges today still represent themselves as offering something like this Arnoldian cultural credential. A Gallup poll from May 1985 shows a hefty 90 percent of parents with school-age children wanted at least their eldest to attend college. When asked what mattered most about college education, 52 percent said it would help get a better job; the next most frequent answer, at 18 percent, said college promised a higher income; at the bottom of the list, below the 8 percent who just didn’t know, came 6 percent who mentioned something like Arnoldian ideals. I’m not suggesting that we need to just give up any claims for the liberal arts beyond profit motives, but I do think that we should become more aware of the concealments of our real social purposes in inflated Arnoldian rhetoric about great traditions.

So I became a Modern when I renounced the claim to objective standards; but, by so doing, I bear the burden of knowing that my choices can’t be defended by reference to timeless ideals. That shouldn’t mean that I can comfortably settle down into a knee-jerk political correctness. Conscious change to more ethically justifiable choices should always be informed by the knowledge that the most powerful prejudices are often unconscious. There’s always that spot at the back of your head, and I’m not claiming that Moderns manage to avoid arrogance by hiding behind political correctness any more than Ancients do when they hide behind disinterested objectivity. Recently, for example, we’ve heard lots of praise of programs that bring basic literacy skills to American children; most of this self-panegyric also asserts an association between democracy and literacy. A recent MLA publication, The Right to Literacy, admits that it’s humbling but honest to meditate on the ways in which “literacy instruction is likely to be not purely” liberating but also serves less praiseworthy domesticating forces. Stalin instituted one of the grandest literacy programs ever, but for him, literacy was “like massive industrialization and forced collectivization, a tool in the creation of a centralized state.” By highlighting literacy skills for the underclasses, we liberate, and we acculturate a new generation of efficient workers. Bennett makes no bones about what ought ultimately to drive us to educational reform: those blasted Japanese and German kids are out-performing ours, so no wonder we’re losing our share of the world market.

E. D. Hirsch, Jr. , the author of Cultural Literacy: What Every American Needs to Know, served the Ancients’ cause well when he joined the teaching of literacy with the inculcation of certain cultural facts. At first he was funded by Bennett and embraced as a proper conservative ideologue because he also hearkened back to a simpler, mythical time before the ‘60’s when there was a common culture. He has recently taken pains to distance himself from the Bennett crowd. He recognizes their programs as elitist and reactionary; he claims that his is instead liberal and progressive. Hirsch came up with the idea of linking the literacy skills of reading and writing to knowledge of cultural content because he wanted to enable disadvantaged youngsters to read. His reforms are aimed at elementary schools where basic literacy is taught, and he invokes fears of economic decline if we cannot reach the minority students in those environments. Despite his avowed liberalism—and, it’s instructive to see how much more colored and female the list in his new encyclopedia is compared to the one in the first book—he remains linked to the Ancients’ camp because of his insistence that there exists, somewhere out there in an objective world, a list of cultural facts that all Americans should just memorize.

I myself have little objection to coming up with lists of various things that schoolchildren should learn; I just wouldn’t want to claim that such lists had nothing to do with advancing the values and ideologies of the group of people who produced them. Moreover, I’m also made uneasy by the recommended pedagogy which seems to encourage swallowing these choices whole. Educational sociologist Carol Camp Yeakey cites a colleague who calls the emphasis on having a common experience the “one-size-fits-all pantyhose pedagogy,” and she believes that the “shift toward cultural literacy and cultural reproduction . . .was reflected in the reform efforts’ intent to provide students with the language, knowledge, and values necessary to preserve and transmit the dominant traditions of Western civilization and culture.” Critic James Slevin asks, “Is the cry “back to basics” just. . . a silly translation of what [Wayne Booth] means by a classical education, or is it, rather, a powerful political movement seeking a technically trained, mentally efficient but uncritical citizenry”? Ancients do often worry about improper criticism of Western culture. The National Association of Scholars has been running an ad containing the following warning: “The banner of “cultural diversity” is apparently being raised by some whose paramount interest actually lies in attacking the West and its institutions.” I’ve already said that I think it’s only the extremists in these curricular controversies who believe that there’s anything coherent enough in the concept of the “West” to attack or defend. Yet Ancients often seem to find any attention to the various contingencies of a classic an attack, since they want to insist on transcendent standards for greatness. Surely we don’t want just to transmit a culture without equipping students with what some have called the “critical literacy” necessary to challenge the inequities and oppressions they find there. As Jonathan Culler once said, we don’t give our students a culture; they already have one. We teach a critical relation to culture. When a Modern such as myself teaches The Oresteia as a myth designed to justify the founding of a partriarchal Athenian society, I don’t intend to destroy Western civilization. I only want to push students to relinquish their tendency to “identify everything in terms of [themselves].” Gerald Bruns calls this relation to the past “allegorical” and sees it as “appropriative discourse with implicit claims to universality in the sense that there is, theoretically, nothing which it is required to reject as alien or just plain false.” When Allan Bloom reads Plato, he finds someone just like him, a philosopher with a Straussian disdain for the rulers and the masses alike. A more critical relation to books requires readers to acknowledge the strangenesses and differences of the past, both to question those traditional terms but also to reflect upon their own.


And, yes, I believe that some sort of critical literacy is what good teachers, Ancient and Modern, aim at. It just doesn’t sound as though the Ancients like criticism which they consider “politically motivated” or ideological. But, as we’ve seen, once you question claims for inherent value, you have to choose among conflicting external values; one person’s ethics becomes another’s politics. Irving Howe saw his decanonizing of Eliot on the basis of anti-Semitism as an ethical imperative; why is objecting to anti-Semitic racism “ethical” and objecting to anti-black racism “political”? Dinesh d’Souza wants to claim that Samuel Johnson agrees with him that “there is a collective literary judgment that works, over time, to confirm the greatness of particular works” and that such a test of time ought to contravene the petty judgments of the contemporary critic. I’d advise Mr. d’Souza to reread Johnson’s Preface to Shakespeare, which he thinks he’s summarizing. Here’s Johnson himself: “Antiquity, like every other quality that attracts the notice of mankind, has undoubtedly votaries that reverence it, not from reason, but from prejudice. Some seem to admire indiscriminately whatever has been long preserved, without considering that time has sometimes co-operated with chance . . .human judgment, though it be gradually gaining upon certainty, never becomes infallible, and approbation, though long continued, may yet be only the approbation of prejudice or fashion.” In the Preface Johnson was arguing against those earlier Ancients who, accepting Aristotle’s dramatic unities uncritically, rejected Shakespeare for violating them. Johnson knew that critics needed to create their own canons, and he never wanted even the most common readers to accept any judgments as unchallengeable.

Richard Rorty once gave a thumbnail sketch of the assumptions of the group (among which he included himself) he called “the cultural left”: “truth is a matter of useful tools rather than of accurate representation, the self is a nexus of relations rather than a substance, truth and power will always be inextricably interlocked, there is no point in trying for grand totalizing theories of history . . .there is no such thing as “rationality” other than that contextually defined by the practices of a group.” “Adoption of these theses,” he continues, “has led the cultural left to dismiss Platonist talk of “timeless truths” or “eternal values.” . . . This left is . . . changing the canon in various disciplines, not by reference to mythical “standards of excellence” but simply by reference to what it now seems especially important to tell students about.” The intellectual modesty implicit in these liberal assumptions rarely comes through in media reports about professors who think they know better than Socrates. As Rorty suggests, giving up standards based on “eternal values” doesn’t leave Moderns with chaos, only with the knowledge of our own contingency and of the particularity of the narratives with which we frame our courses and curricula. We can make up a curriculum that is both coherent and focused on whatever cultures—past and present—we judge important to tell students about at this moment. On these Moderns’ terms, however, we just can’t duck out of debates about what and how we teach by vague appeal to objective, timeless standards.

To offer an example of a Modern’s approach to curricular choice, I will describe a single course, one in 19th century British literature that I team-taught in 1991. Once I would have planned the course by collecting as many as possible of the writers usually canonized by the anthologizers. Then, I’d just have had students read them, assuming as Searle does, that my job was simply to expose them to these geniuses and interfere only to assist them in reading closely. When my partner and I got together to make the syllabus, we realized that we could no longer be so cavalier about our choices nor about our methods. Feminists, Marxists, and postcolonialists have convincingly revealed the political partialities in what and how we used to teach the literature of the century of British ascendency. The 19th-century landscape does not, however, now look desolate, covered with the corpses of racists and sexists. Instead, it is much more intriguingly various, much fuller of all sorts of quirky people, fiery political passions, and ideological confrontations than it looked to me when I thought that Wordsworth was universal and timeless. We finally organized the course around four cultural topics we judged to be important in the present study of literary expression in that time and place, and we chose writers appropriate to those areas. We also gave our students readings that would make sense of the literary texts by placing them in contexts. We ended up with many representatives from the old canon—Tennyson, Arnold, and Hardy, for instance—but we are teaching Dorothy as well as William Wordsworth, not so that she can reveal his male chauvenism (though he had his share) but because together they do a much better job of representing the domestic and rural myth of England which we want to discuss. We do consider “The Woman Question,” not because we’re dangerous subversives shattering the political quiescence of the past, but because the Victorians themselves thought it was one of the most important topics of their times. Other people teaching the course could choose an entirely different set of topics and authors and have a course as just and appropriate as ours, but I don’t any longer have much sympathy with people who tell me that they’re just teaching a group of books because they are the “best.”

We are quarrelling, then, not just about what to teach but about how to teach it. Personally, I find the quarrel itself enlightening and challenging. Historian Lawrence Veysey describes a classics professor at Brown who in 1902 cast a baleful eye on the inevitable approach of the elective system and insisted that “the future fate of his own field was “more than an academic question. It is,” he cried, “in the last analysis an issue of civilization!”” In theory, yes, and in theory, no: it did change professors and our students nearly a century ago when they turned away from a curriculum centered on Latin and Greek languages. It didn’t, however, snuff out all vestiges of civilization. Likewise, becoming more multicultural and less rooted in the culture of Europe, more suspicious of universality and less comfortable with objectivity—these shifts will change us, too. We are already in a painful transition. I’m not a meliorist, but I do think this is one of the times when change is the right thing, not because I know for sure where we’re going but because I accept the critique of where we’ve been.

In my judgment the most convincing theorists, the liveliest scholars, and the most persuasive critics are the ones supporting changes associated with the Modern agenda. As the national media have discovered, it’s easy to laugh at burgeoning intellectual trends because they often are harder to understand than more familiar rhetoric about upholding standards of greatness. Quoting the titles of talks at the Modern Language Association Convention has made good copy for journalists for decades, and, according to Gerald Bruns, it was in 1912 that an MLA president voiced the fear that modern education with its increasing specialization seemed more and more to limit the amount of common intellectual interest. We ought to question the current alarm about the common Western heritage that we seem to be losing once again, for the third or fourth time since the end of the last century. Yet the media will not help us think intelligently about the future of the liberal arts if, as seems to be the case, its agents collect only the anguished cries of Ancients who, like the Brown classicist, predict the end of civilization and expose political agendas in everyone but themselves.


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