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Thursday, October 4, 2007

What an educated person should know

Books on the Canon Wars By RACHEL DONADIO
NYT: September 16, 2007 Related Essay: Revisiting the Canon Wars
Shelves of books on the state of American higher education have appeared over the years, ranging from the historical to the analytical to the downright polemical. The following list presents some highlights from the last half-century of debate over what an educated person should know. - Rachel Donadio
"ANTI-INTELLECTUALISM IN AMERICAN LIFE" by Richard Hofstadter (1962) In his classic study, Hofstadter argues that intellectuality has always been unpopular in America, where revivalist religiosity and the industriousness of the self-made man have often been valued over book learning. Hoftstadter also offers a critique of the early 20th-century education reformer John Dewey, whose belief that teachers should respond to the natural impulses of their pupils Hofstadter thought had a "devastating" effect on the design of curriculum because it led to a disdain for authority and the institutionalization of "anti-institutional methods." Review (PDF format)
"ON THE TEACHING OF MODERN LITERATURE" by Lionel Trilling (1965) In this essay, collected in "Beyond Culture," Trilling discusses how Columbia came to offer a course in modern literature and charts the challenges of teaching recent books that carried for him an "extravagant personal force." No matter how difficult it might be, Trilling argues, teachers of modern literature should honor Thomas Mann's mandate to teach books whose "chief intention" could be seen as an effort to free readers from the middle class, even if the prescribed "means of freedom" — "losing oneself up to the point of self-destruction, of surrendering oneself to experience without regard to self-interest or conventional morality, of escaping wholly from the societal bonds" — end up promoting "not merely freedom from the middle class but freedom from society itself."
"THE CLOSING OF THE AMERICAN MIND: How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished The Souls of Today's Students" (1987) The book that kicked off the recent canon wars — and spent more than a year on the bestseller list. Bloom taught political philosophy at the University of Chicago, and his book is filled with dense readings of thinkers from the ancient Greeks to Hobbes, Tocqueville, Rousseau and Kant. He excoriates some intellectual heirs of Nietzsche, whose relativistic ideas took hold in bastardized form on the political and cultural left, with disastrous results. Bloom also inveighs against feminism, rock music and the campus upheavals of the 1960s, which he compared to the student riots in Nazi Germany. "In both places," he writes, "…commitment was understood to be profounder than science, passion than reason, history than nature, the young than the old."
Review
"CULTURAL LITERACY: What Every American Needs to Know" by E.D. Hirsch, Jr. (1987) In this book, which spent six months on the Times bestseller list, along with Bloom's polemic, Hirsch argued against the idea, prevalent at all levels of the educational system, that it was more important to teach modes of thinking than names, facts and specific bodies of knowledge. Hirsch listed some of that crucial information — from 1066 (the year of the Norman Conquest of England) on through amortization, Edmund Burke, cerebellum, immaculate conception, nuclear fission, Saigon, Warren Court, Young Turk and Zurich — in an appendix. The list was expanded in Hirsch's best-selling "Dictionary of Cultural Literacy," which is now in its third revised updated edition.
Review
"TENURED RADICALS" By Roger Kimball (1990) In this scathing polemic, Kimball, an editor at The New Criterion, a conservative monthly, aimed "to expose these recent developments in the academic study of the humanities for what they are: ideologically motivated assaults on the intellectual and moral substance of our culture." Kimball takes aim at feminists, multiculturalists, deconstructionists, and other theory-addled professors who would teach Star Trek and Bruce Springsteen alongside Victorian novels. He also chronicled the posthumous fall from grace of Paul de Man, the highly influential Yale literary theorist who in 1987 was discovered to have published anti-Semitic articles in a pro-Nazi Belgian newspaper in 1941. (The poet and journalist David Lehman offered a more complete discussion of the affair in "Signs of the Times: Deconstruction and the Fall of Paul de Man" (1991).)
Review
"ILLIBERAL EDUCATION: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus" by Dinesh D'Souza. (1991) In this forceful book of reportage, D'Souza — then fresh out of Dartmouth, where he had been a founder of the upstart conservative journal Dartmouth Review — chronicled what he saw as the dangerous advance of political correctness at colleges nationwide. D'Souza produced a vigorous critique of race-based admissions, the fetishization of victim status, and the "more vehement application of preferential treatment, teach-ins, reeducation seminars, and censorship," which in his view legitimized "a regime of double standards that divides and balkanizes the campus."
Review
"BEYOND THE CULTURE WARS: How Teaching the Conflicts can Revitalize American Education" by Gerald Graff. (1992) Graff, author of "Professing Literature," a definitive history of the teaching of literature in America, argued that his colleagues should incorporate debates about the curriculum into the curriculum itself. "The best way to prevent students from being bullied by their teachers' political views," he wrote, "is to bring them into the debates between those views."
"DEBATING P.C.: The Controversy over Political Correctness on College Campuses" edited by Paul Berman. (1992) "Only in medicine are crises a sign of impending death," Berman writes in this anthology of key texts from writers on the right and the left. "In intellectual matters, crises are signs of life." In Berman's view, the roots of political correctness lie in the radicalism of the 1960s, though the larger media frenzy began in the fall of 1990, with a "small, innocuous-seeming article" by Richard Bernstein in the Times. The anthology includes contributions from Michael Bérubé, Barbara Ehrenreich, Stanley Fish, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., Katha Pollitt, Diane Ravitch, Edward Said, John Searle, and Catharine Stimpson.
"DICTATORSHIP OF VIRTUE: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America's Future" by Richard Bernstein (1994). In this book, Bernstein expands on his reporting for the Times on campus debates over political correctness and the canon. He writes about the rise of the diversity-training industry on campus and in corporate America and challenges the multiculturalists' simplistic denunciations of "dead white males," who have become "synonymous with the hunger for power, with imperialism, with ruthless capitalist exploitation, while all others belong to the camp of the meek and the beautiful." In addition to documenting various curriculum debates, Bernstein describes the growing popularity of figures like Rush Limbaugh, who present themselves as regular guys victimized by the "liberal elites."
Review
"CULTIVATING HUMANITY: A Classical Defense of Reform in Liberal Education" by Martha Nussbaum. (1997) A professor of law and ethics at the University of Chicago, Nussbaum challenges the view, promoted by Bloom and other conservative critics, of a higher education system devastated by radicals and multiculturalists. "Sensationalistic descriptions of horrors may sometimes be more fun to read than nuanced accounts of responsible decision-making," she writes, "but the latter…represent the far more common reality." The study of non-Western peoples, as well as African-American Studies, Women's Studies, and the study of human sexuality, Nussbaum argues, helps us see ourselves "as human beings bound to all other human beings by ties of recognition and concern."
Review
"RAVELSTEIN" by Saul Bellow (2000). Bellow's final novel is a dazzling double portrait of two dying men: himself and his friend Allan Bloom, here cast as Abe Ravelstein, a man of earthy appetites and abstruse philosophical preoccupations, a homosexual in a conservative intellectual milieu, a Jew who rose up through the then-Waspy ranks of academia. We meet Bloom/Ravelstein after "The Closing of the American Mind" has made him rich enough to indulge in expensive clothes, furnishings and trips to Paris, and before his death of AIDS in 1992. Bellow captures his friend's passionate and idiosyncratic approach to the life of the mind. "Without its longings your soul was a used inner tube many good for one summer at the beach, nothing more," he writes. "Spirited men and women, the young above all, were devoted to the pursuit of love. By contrast the bourgeois was dominated by fears of violent death. There, in the briefest form possible, you have a sketch of Ravelstein's most important preoccupations."
Review
BEYOND THEORY by Terry Eagleton. (2003) Eagleton's "Literary Theory" (1983) was a handbook for a generation of students and scholars. "After Theory" is his witty, ironic reconsideration of the impact of the various interpretive movements that had swept through literature departments in the past few decades. Though nostalgic for the promise of the 60s and the possibilities of radical Marxist transformation, Eagleton is clear-eyed about some of theory's unintended consequences. "Today," he observes, "students once wrote uncritical, reverential essays on Flaubert, but nowadays they write uncritical, reverential essays on 'Friends.'"
"QUICK STUDIES: The Best of Lingua Franca" edited by Alexander Star. (2002) An anthology of articles from Lingua Franca, a journal of ideas published from 1990, the heyday of the academic culture wars, to 2001, when theory was on the wane and behavioral psychology, evolutionary biology and other approaches were pushing debates on ethics and morality in new, more scientific directions. It includes the magazine's most famous article, published in 1996, in which Alan Sokal, a physicist at New York University, recounts how he got the cultural studies journal Social Text to publish a fake paper purporting to outline a "transformative hermeneutics of quantum gravity," written in fluent post-modernese and riddled with scientific absurdities. Other articles include "A Most Dangerous Method," Margaret Talbot's account of a sexual harassment case against the maverick feminist theorist Jane Gallop, and Frank Lentricchia's "Last Will and Testament of an Ex-Literary Critic," in which the Duke English professor charts his disenchantment with the dogmatism and reductive politics that have crept into English classrooms.
"WHAT'S LIBERAL ABOUT THE LIBERAL ARTS? Classroom Politics and 'Bias' in Higher Education" by Michael Bérubé. (2006) In this personal account, Bérubé, an English professor at Pennsylvania State University, strikes back against the rise of the anti-academic right, fueled by activists like David Horowitz, Fox News and other outlets. While acknowledging that most professors are left-leaning, Bérubé argues that the real threat to American education isn't professors preaching against racism, sexism and homophobia but conservatives who distort the complexities of genuine inquiry to further their own political agendas. Bérubé brings more abstract debates down to earth by reporting live from his own spirited classroom discussions of books like Willa Cather's "My Antonia" and "The Autobiography of an Ex-Colored Man" by James Weldon Johnson, in which he describes the challenges of respecting students' varying views rather than encouraging them to parrot his own.
Review
"THE TROUBLE WITH DIVERSITY: How We Learned to Love Identity and Ignore Inequality" by Walter Benn Michaels. (2006) An English professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Michaels argues that an emphasis on racial identity on campus and beyond has detracted attention from a more important problem: the divide between rich and poor. "From their affirmative-action admissions procedures to their multicultural graduation requirements," he writes, "American universities are propaganda machines that might as well have been designed to ensure that the class structure of American society remains unchallenged." If racism is "extinct" in academia, Michaels asks, why is so much attention paid to it? Because, he answers, "we prefer fighting racism to fighting poverty."
"INDOCTRINATION U: The Left's War Against Academic Freedom" by David Horowitz. (2007) A Marxist turned conservative and the author of "The Professors: The 101 Most Dangerous Academics in America" (2006), Horowitz started a campaign in 2003 to promote intellectual diversity on college campuses, which he sees as bastions of leftwing anti-Americanism. Here Horowitz describes campus visits to promote his campaign for an "Academic Bill of Rights" aimed at protecting students and faculty against discrimination as a result of their political views. The measure was debated in several state legislatures but has come under fire from academics wary of the intrusion of external political actors in internal campus debates.

1 comment:

  1. Anyone who promotes Dinesh Dsouza and David Horror-witless as "cultural" authorities hasnt even begun to understand diddly squat about anything.

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