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O Tempora! O Mores! and All That

ISSUE:  Spring 1998
The Opening of the American Mind. By Lawrence W. Levine. Beacon Press. 82000

O the times! The customs!” the Roman orator Cicero famously pronounced in his scathing denouncement of Cataline, patrician conspirator against the state. Many have long ago forgotten (if indeed they ever knew) the specifics of what so agitated Cicero—along with the Latin in which he expressed it. Only those pretentious enough to insist that the name be pronounced KICK-ero regard themselves as defenders of the true cultural flame, but then again, these are the same people who say pat-TAUGHT-toe while you and I say “pot-TATE-toe. In the words of the old song, perhaps it is time to “call the whole thing off.” Cicero (however one pronounces the name) has been relegated cither to a Jeopardy question (“What is “O the times! The customs,” Alex?”) or his ringing denunciation has been put into the service by those firmly convinced that civilization is going to hell in a hand basket.

Lawrence W. Levine’s The Opening of the American Mind is an extended reply to the latter group—namely, those who give what often passes for multiculturalism the fish eye. Among the more prominent of these nay-sayers is Allan Bloom whose angry wake-up call about American higher education. The Closing of the American Mind (1987), sold more than a million copies and was quickly followed by other books that took up the drum beat: Charles Sykes’s Profscam, Peter Shaw’s The War Against the Intellect, Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and Dinesh D’Souza’s Illiberal Education. By turning Bloom’s title on its head, Levine means to demonstrate two things: one, that the squabbles about what American students need to know are hardly new and, two, that multiculturalism has gotten an unfair rap by those who greet any efforts to “open up” the curriculum with suspicion, fear, and finally the words “O the times! The customs!”

Curiously enough, the same Levine who chastises Bloom and Co. for painting an unfair picture of higher education spends precious little time giving a fair, much less a serious, account of Bloom’s arguments. Rather, his title is self-consciously—and rather cynically—designed to ride Bloom’s coattails. If The Closing of the American Mind worries about the pervasive relativism on our campuses that, for him, can only produce dire intellectual and moral consequences (hence Bloom’s claim that his book is a “meditation on the state of our souls,” one not dependent “on what students think they want . . .nor imposed by the demands of a particular society or the vagaries of the market”), Levine grounds his counter-attack in precisely the factors Bloom resists: a changing student demographic, an evolving American society, and the demands of a late 20th-century marketplace. Put more simply, Levine simply asserts that Bloom, like the others in his pinch-faced camp, is simply wrong; and taken together, what their hysteria adds up to is “a small growth industry, this jeremiad against the universities and the professoriate, this series of claims [unsubstantiated, in his view] that something suddenly turned sour in the academe. . . . The charges go on and on, and the tone, as these book titles suggest, is relentlessly apocalyptic.”

For Levine, the times couldn’t, in fact, be peachier. Not only is multiculturalism inevitable, it also makes for a better education—that is, if one “chills out,” as my students like to say, and brings an open mind to the veritable symphony of voices that have only recently been allowed to sing. So, what’s the rub? Well, one of the things that Levine asks us to cheerfully abandon is the notion that some things—be they novels or poems, paintings or symphonies—are better than others. To go down that long cultural path, Levine warns, is to end in a cul-de-sac where elitist standards have a nasty habit of boosting Western civilization at the expense of equally worthy versions. Levine apparently has never met an egalitarian expression that he did not love. The result is to strike the word “best” from Matthew Arnold’s formula of culture as the “best that has been thought and said.” What we need to do now is recognize just how self-serving and culturally imperialist this business of standards has become. “Whose standards? Whose truth?” he keeps implying as if figures such as Homer, Socrates, Plato, Aristotle, Vergil, Pericles, and, yes, Cicero made their way into the canon solely by way of cultural politics.

Lighten up! Levine insists, and one need only gaze at his photograph on the book jacket to realize that he is a man who has spent the last decades doing precisely that: his shaggy locks and meticulously disheveled look (with-it tie, duly untied; vest, oversized aviator glasses; and a face that drips “attitude”) tell us all we probably need to know about the former Berkeley professor (he now teaches at George Mason University) who sets himself as multiculturalism’s champion: “. . .to understand the nature and complexity of American culture, it is crucial to study and comprehend the widest possible array of its contributing cultures.” Fair enough. I suppose, but once one gets beyond the level of upbeat generalization, what does this mean? Does it suggest, for example, that college students ought to spend more time than they do mastering a foreign language as a way of taking another culture seriously? Here. Levine just might have allies (including many of the people whose books he so glibly dismisses), but there is not a whiff of this in Levine’s book. True enough, he reminds us that a classical education was once upon a time defined as tedious work in the parsing of Latin and Creek paragraphs and that, thank Cod, we have moved beyond that. Does anybody—including Allen Bloom—really want to return to the days when the entire four-year undergraduate curriculum occupied only one page of the 1829—1830 Yale College catalogue?

Even more instructive, perhaps, is Levine’s chapter on the great debates in the 1880’s that pitted Harvard’s president, Charles William Eliot (he favored elective courses) against Princeton’s president, James McCosh, who bitterly opposed them. Eliot took the position that a university “must try to teach every subject. . .for which there is any demand,” while McCosh continued to champion what he called “a classical taste. . . fostered by living and breathing in the atmosphere of ancient Greece and Rome.” At one point McCosh imagined a scenario in which an exasperated father says the following to President Eliot:

“I sent my son to you believing that man is made in the image of
God, you taught him that he is an upper brute, and he has certainly
become so. I sent him to you pure, and last night he was carried to
my door drunk. Curse ye this college; “curse ye bitterly.”“

Whatever sympathies we might have for this concocted father or for the McCosh who concocted him, the inescapable fact is that elective courses carried the day (Great Books programs at schools such as St. Johns or the University of Chicago are notable exceptions); and about all this Levine’s point seems to be that the heavens did not fall and that higher education in America went on quite nicely, thank you very much. Granted, Bloom is hardly alone in wishing a return to core requirements—indeed, a good many colleges and universities are currently experimenting with modified versions of core curricula—but Levine is convinced that the realities of a multicultural society beyond the academy’s gates reduce such efforts to exercises in nostalgia. Higher education in America has always (and this is the crux of his historical overview) proven itself to be flexible, able to adapt to changing circumstances and ever-changing needs. Contemporary, multicultural America is simply the latest challenge to those who number themselves in the Party of the Past (Emerson’s term) as opposed to the Party of the Future.

Among the things that so infuriated readers of The Closing of the American Mind, was a perception that Bloom was not only elitist, but also anti-democratic. This is, however, a complicated issue and one that Levine (who hammers his antagonists for their superficiality) simply ducks. Thus, we learn that Charles Sykes, for example, makes sweeping generalizations about the current state of academic writing (he calls much of it “worthless pabulum”) without any confidence whatsoever that “he himself has performed the heroic task of carefully examining the tens of thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of articles.” By the same token, however, Levine’s book contains nary a mention of Leo Strauss who surely has had a hand in formative influence on Bloom. What we get instead are Levine’s assurances that he is on the side of the democratic angels and that his brief books is a “plea on behalf of the steadfastness needed to keep our minds open, the courage required to live with the complexities of a deeper understanding of our culture and ourselves, and the honesty vital to an encounter with, rather than an escape from, history.”

Again, one finds oneself asking: “What, precisely, do these high-sounding words mean, and how might they he translated into a meaningful undergraduate education?” On this point, Levine gives us the following model from Stanford University’s newly designed CIV (“Culture, Ideas, Values”) course:

Its reading list included canonical European texts, as well as American Caribbean, Latin American, and Native American texts. For example, Shakespeare’s The Tempest was examined alongside Aimé Césaire’s A Tempest, Jose Enrique Rodó’s Ariel, and Roberto Fernandez Retamar’s Caliban. This method of juxtaposing European and New World texts was introduced by Stanford anthropologist Renato Rosaldo who testified that when he assigned Augustine’s Confessions along with Old Man Hat, the life history of a Navajo man, “both texts got better.”

My hunch, however, is that both texts came out of the wash looking very much the same—and this because among all the possibilities of Levine’s multicultural openness, one of them is not that Shakespeare, Augustine, or indeed any other dead, white, man European writer could end up as clearly superior.

In short, Levine’s brand of multicultural excitement is longer on political agendas than it is on sober disinterested judgment. Levine makes much of the fact that his education—at CCNY and later at Berkeley—did not adequately prepare him for the world he met after graduation: “I learned nothing about Africa or Asia after the ancient period, nothing about South America and the Caribbean after the Age of Discovery, nothing about the indigenous cultures that once inhabited the very territory I was now living in. . . .” What he learned, instead, was what great minds, great writers thought about justice or freedom, the noble and the base, and perhaps most of all, how should a good person live. However disillusioned Levine might be about his education, the fact of the matter is that he got a reasonably good one—something that his own students just might miss in the trendy array of texts chosen more for “political correctness” than intrinsic merit.

For all the advance hoopla (Stanley N. Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, claims that The Opening of the American Mind is “the book we’ve been waiting for,” one that “should put an end to the “culture war” talk”), my hunch is that the beat about what “voices” matter and which should be heard will go on. I say this not only because the entire matter has become almost hopelessly politicized, but also because additions to the canon can only be achieved at the expense of subtractions—and given that academic hours are 50 minutes and most academic semesters merely 14 weeks, the hard business of choice is at least as much a fact of life as is the changing American landscape. Levine is, of course, quite right to suggest that new books have always been added to what the academy feels worthy of close study (nobody, for example, was inclined to let an extraordinary novel such as Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man [1952] languish for lack of critical attention), but we will need more—much more—than Levine’s cheerleading for multiculturalism to make determinations in the future.


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