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Invasion of the Mind Snatchers

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, one might well reflect on the disproportion between the fury of recent debates about the state of literary studies and the condition of American higher education generally. Francis Oakley’s Community of Learning is a wonderfully calm and lucid discussion of the origins, present conditions, and future prospects of liberal education in America, and not the least of its many virtues is its ability to place our anxieties in a rich statistical context.

Of the freshmen entering college in the fall of 1989, 24.5 percent proposed to major in Business or Management, 10.2 percent in Engineering, and 9.2 percent in Education. Arts and Humanities attracted 8.7 percent. The “crisis in the humanities” of which educators often speak—not an ideological crisis, but the fact that the proportion of students majoring or pursuing graduate study in the humanities has been dropping for three decades—is matched by a crisis in the basic sciences; only 3.7 percent intended to major in the Biological Sciences and 2.2 percent in the Physical Sciences (including Mathematics). Liberal education in general appears unpopular.

Broken down further, however, the numbers reveal that there has not been a collapse in the demand for traditional liberal education. At the more selective liberal arts colleges and research universities much the same proportion of students take the traditional arts and sciences program as ever. At Cornell, for instance, the percentage fell only from 49.3 to 47.1 between 1954 and 1986, while at Swarthmore it rose from 76.1 to 82.1 in the same years. As many students as ever take traditional liberal arts degrees, but in the higher education system as a whole they are swamped by the explosion of professional and prevocational training in community colleges and two-year colleges.

This has meant a great influx of part-time and mature students, especially older women and minority students, whose higher education needs are often more utilitarian than those of traditional students. Between 1960 and 1990, college enrollments rose from 3.6 million students to 12.8 million. Over 5 million were part-timers. By 1988 mature students accounted for over 40 percent of all enrolled students, and the proportion of minority students had risen to 18 percent. The proportion of women grew from 37 percent of the undergraduate population in 1960 to 54 percent in 1988. They were also significantly more likely to be part-time students than were the men.

The implications of these changes in the system for the ideological battles discussed by Professor Graff (of the University of Chicago) and Professor Bromwich (of Yale University) are varied and doubtless disputable. Two seem incontestable, however, If there is a crisis in liberal education, it lies in the weakness of liberal education in mass higher education, not in what Stanley Fish may or may not do at Duke University. The troubles of the City University of New York epitomize much of what is amiss elsewhere. The graduation rate has fallen precipitously—the average time it takes for a BA is nearly nine years rather than four—and everyone admits that too many students arrive from high school barely literate and numerate. In a year when African Americans got just five of the approximately 1,600 Ph.D.s awarded in the US in mathematics (and American citizens as a whole got only 42 percent of them), mass higher education’s two traditional roles of fostering individual social mobility and providing a sophisticated work force for the modern economy are both in danger.

The second implication is that the impact of the leading research universities and liberal arts colleges on the system as a whole must be quite limited. What goes on in the classrooms of the Ivy League will do less good and less harm to the educational experience of students taking evening classes in Business English at their local community college than the optimists hope and the pessimists fear. That leaves much still to say about the intellectual and moral value of the study of the humanities. The furious debate of the past decade certainly reflects our political discontents and the inadequacies of our higher education system, but we can think about it without having to offer remedies for them. This is just as well, for David Bromwich offers his readers some strenuous exercise.

His book, he says, “defends a liberal idea of tradition. At the same time, it tells of the collision of ideologies in higher education, starting in the Reagan years. The two subjects look distinct, and each is sufficiently intricate.” What holds them together is a metaphor he borrows from Clausewitz—that “war is the continuation of politics by other means”—and the thought that what makes for success in war, such as conformity, cohesion, and group solidarity, is just what makes for failure in thought. “Politics is not education…group thinking is not thinking.” The enemy for Bromwich is anyone who sees control of the syllabus as a strategic move in a cultural campaign, anyone who engages in war rather than conversation.

What the militants of left and right share, in his view, is the wish to manipulate students in particular and the citizenry in general. Their common failing, he argues, is the belief that the power of institutions over individual minds is irresistible, and the only interesting question is “how to give it the correct bias.” Bromwich’s discussion of the excesses of the right, as represented by William Bennett and George Will, and of the left, anonymous save for Barbara Herrnstein Smith, is therefore neatly balanced. Both sides commit the same sin, reducing an engagement with books and their authors to simple indoctrination. The difference is that the left wants to inculcate suspicion of the existing order and the right wants to affirm its virtues.

If Bromwich sometimes sounds angrier with the left, this is because the culture of departments of literature in universities and colleges is mostly a radical culture, and the damage comes closer to home. But Bromwich is certainly unimpressed by the self-ascribed radicalism of his colleagues. The wider national culture is, he agrees, conservative, pious, and not very thoughtful, but the automatic opposition of the literary theorists is hardly better.

Indeed, Bromwich wonders whether “radical” is quite the word for contemporary criticism. It has nothing in common with the individualist radicalism of Godwin, Shelley, or Mill. What it teaches is not how to develop an individual response but cultural suspicion. It is collectivist not individualist and rests on the view that writing expresses the culture from which it springs, while the task of the theorist is to uncover the oppressions and betrayals that a text embodies. It is in this respect, as in much else, a mirror image of the conservative view that we should teach high culture as “a lulling therapy for acceptance of things-as-they-are.” As Bromwich puts it,

Faced with a choice between the conservative belief that culture is sacred and the liberal belief that it is a common possession of some utility, the truly suspicious assert that it is always partial, always compromised. Or—to adopt the police-blotter slang that has helped make these discussions sensational—a work of art is complicit in crimes it does not confess; accordingly, it must not be interpreted but interrogated [italics in original].

Bromwich points out that this kind of “radicalism” can be spectacularly conservative in its assumptions about the proper limits of intellectual curiosity and intellectual ambition. It is taken for granted in radical circles that African Americans and only African Americans should teach African American literature, being as it were endowed by their racial identity with a capacity for understanding its cultural provenance that no European could possess. One especially nasty implication is that African American students of literature should confine themselves to the fields in which they are at home, and that an African American who conceived a passion for Jane Austen or Henry James would properly be an object of suspicion.

Nor are these idle anxieties: Margo Hendricks, who teaches Renaissance literature at the University of California, Santa Cruz, complained in a New Republic essay that she is “continually being asked, ‘How did you end up in Renaissance studies?’ ” and her white students “want to know why I wasn’t specializing in African American literature.” Conversely, a white student of African American literature would be in danger of accusations of “stealing the discourse of the Other,” or, to borrow an image from anthropology, misappropriating cultural property. And what goes for race goes for gender.

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