Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
by David Bromwich
Yale University Press, 257 pp., $30.00
Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education
by Gerald Graff
Norton, 214 pp., $19.95
Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition
by Francis Oakley
Oxford University Press, 230 pp., $24.00
Peace of a sort may have broken out in the humanities. Rejoicing would be premature, and there are plenty of unhappy departments of literature around the country, but then there are many unhappy departments of politics and biochemistry, too. The dietary preferences of Socks, the presidential cat, have lately attracted more notice than the Dartmouth Review. Some stars have left the stage. Stanley Fish and Dinesh d’Souza have stopped touring the halls with their “illiberal education pro and con” show, and William Bennett is silent. The pugnacious Mrs. Cheney has thought better of staying to fight her conservative corner at the National Endowment of the Humanities until her term ends in two years: she leaves as President Clinton arrives after all.
She does not leave on a high note. The battles of the past ten years have created no consensus on the teaching of the humanities—what to teach, how to teach it, to whom to teach it, or the purpose of a liberal education in the first place. Yet if the culture wars have done little positive good, it is not clear how much harm they have done. David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means is not sanguine; indeed, it is a decidedly bruised book. Professor Bromwich thinks the humanities have done poorly in the face of political demands from both the right and the left.
Literary studies, he argues, are exploratory and interpretative, best conducted in an environment of respect for the achievements of the past and a desire to pass on our own understanding of those achievements to the future. They are not a political therapy, and they need distance from the practical urgencies of life to prosper. According to David Bromwich’s view of things, our public life has been corrupted by rampant individualism and our intellectual life by rampant communitarianism.
Gerald Graff, on the other hand, inclines to cheerfulness. Beyond the Culture Wars offers a recipe for survival. The subtitle of this brisk little book encapsulates it—”How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education.” Graff has been preaching the same message for a couple of years now, in essays in The Chronicle of Higher Education and in lectures elsewhere. He thinks it is not a bad thing but a positive good that there has been controversy over the canon, the virtues and vices of dead white males, the differences between high and low culture, and the ability of the members of one ethnic group to teach and learn from the culture of another. The conflicts have stirred us to think about the purpose of literary education, to think about how we read as well as what we read, about whom we teach as well as how we teach. Professor Bromwich, it is not too much to say, regards Gerald Graff’s pedagogical proposals with contempt: whether he is fair to them is an intriguing question.
Before digging into what separates Professors Graff and Bromwich and whether anything should be done to reconcile them …