I cannot recall a time when American education was not in a “crisis.” We have lived through Sputnik (when we were “falling behind the Russians”), through the era of “Johnny can’t read,” and through the upheavals of the Sixties. Now a good many books are telling us that the university is going to hell in several different directions at once. I believe that, at least in part, the crisis rhetoric has a structural explanation: since we do not have a national consensus on what success in higher education would consist of, no matter what happens, some sizable part of the population is going to regard the situation as a disaster. As with taxation and relations between the sexes, higher education is essentially and continuously contested territory. Given the history of that crisis rhetoric, one’s natural response to the current cries of desperation might reasonably be one of boredom.

A few years ago the literature of educational crises was changed by a previously little-known professor of philosophy at the University of Chicago in a book implausibly entitled The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students. To me, the amazing thing about Allan Bloom’s book was not just its prodigious commercial success—more than half a year at the top of The New York Times’s best-seller list—but the depth of the hostility and even hatred that it inspired among a large number of professors. Most of Bloom’s book is not about higher education as such, but consists of an idiosyncratic, often original, and even sometimes profound—as well as quirky and cranky—analysis of contemporary American intellectual culture, with an emphasis on the unacknowledged and largely unconscious influence of certain German thinkers, especially Weber and Nietzsche.

Why did Bloom’s book arouse such passion? I will suggest an explanation later in this article, but it is worth noting that Bloom demonstrated to publishers and potential authors one thesis beyond doubt: it is possible to write an alarmist book about the state of higher education with a long-winded title and make a great deal of money. This consequence appears to provide at least part of the inspiration for a number of other books, equally alarmist and with almost equally heavy-duty titles, for example The Moral Collapse of the University, Professionalism, Purity and Alienation, by Bruce Wilshire; Killing the Spirit, Higher Education in America, by Page Smith; Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, by Roger Kimball; and The Moral and Spiritual Crisis in Education: A Curriculum for Justice and Compassion in Education, by David E. Purpel.

One difficulty with the more alarmist of these books is that though they agree that the universities are in a desperate state, they do not agree on what is wrong or what to do about it. When there is no agreement not only on the cure but on the diagnosis itself, it is very hard to treat the patient. Another weakness of such books is their sometimes hysterical tone. There are, indeed, many problems in the universities, but for the most part, they tend to produce silliness rather than catastrophe. The spread of “poststructuralist” literary theory is perhaps the best known example of a silly but noncatastrophic phenomenon. Several of these books try to describe current threats to intellectual values. How serious are these threats? Right now we can’t tell with any certainty because we can’t yet know to what extent we are dealing with temporary fads and fashions or with long-term assaults on the integrity of the intellectual enterprise.

I think the best way to enter this discussion is by examining at least briefly the current debate about the status of what is called the “canon” of the best works in our civilization, and what part the canon should play in the education of undergraduates. I have selected two books from the current flood, because they take such strong and opposing stands on just this issue. On the side of tradition is Roger Kimball’s Tenured Radicals, and opposed are most of the articles included in The Politics of Liberal Education, a collection of essays originally given at a conference sponsored by Duke and the University of North Carolina on the subject “Liberal Arts Education in the Late Twentieth Century: Emerging Conditions, Responsive Practices.”

Consider what would have been taken to be a platitude a couple of decades ago, and is now regarded in many places as a wildly reactionary view. Here it is: there is a certain Western intellectual tradition that goes from, say, Socrates to Wittgenstein in philosophy, and from Homer to James Joyce in literature, and it is essential to the liberal education of young men and women in the United States that they should receive some exposure to at least some of the great works in this intellectual tradition; they should, in Matthew Arnold’s overquoted words, “know the best that is known and thought in the world.” The arguments given for this view—on the rare occasions when it was felt that arguments were even needed—were that knowledge of the tradition was essential to the self-understanding of educated Americans since the country, in an important sense, is the product of that tradition; that many of these works are historically important because of their influence; and that most of them, for example several works by Plato and Shakespeare, are of very high intellectual and artistic quality, to the point of being of universal human interest.


Until recently such views were not controversial. What exactly is the debate about? The question is more complex than one might think because of the variety of different objections to the tradition and the lack of any succinct statement of these objections. For example, many African Americans and Hispanic Americans feel left out of the “canon,” and want to be included. Just as a few years ago they were demanding the creation of ethnic studies departments, so now they are demanding some representation of their experiences and their point of view as part of the general education of all undergraduates. This looks like a standard political demand for “representation” of the sort we are familiar with in higher education. If the objection to the “canon” is that it consists almost entirely of works by white males, specifically white males of European (including North American) origin, then there would appear to be an easy and common-sense solution to the problem: simply open the doors to admit the work of talented writers who are not white, or not male, or not European. If, for example, the contribution of women in literature has been neglected, there are plenty of writers of similar stature to Jane Austen, George Eliot, and Virginia Woolf who can be added.

Some of the opponents of the tradition will accept this reform, but most of the authors of The Politics of Liberal Education would not, and you will have misunderstood the nature of the dispute if you think that it can be resolved so simply. The central objections to the tradition are deeper and more radical, and they go far beyond the mere demand for increased representation. What are these objections?

To approach this question, I have selected the proceedings of the North Carolina conference not because they contain any notable or original ideas—such conferences seldom do—but because they express a mode of literary and political sensibility that has become fairly widespread in some university departments in the humanities and is characterized approvingly by some of the participants at the conference as “the cultural left.” I doubt that “the cultural left” is a well-defined notion because it includes so many altogether different points of view. It includes 1960s-style radicals, feminists, deconstructionists, Marxists, people active in “gay studies” and “ethnic studies,” and people of left-wing political persuasion who happen to teach in universities. But on certain basic issues of education these groups tend to agree. In describing the North Carolina conference in his concluding statement Richard Rorty writes:

Our conference has been in large part a rally of this cultural left. The audience responded readily and favorably to notions like “subversive readings,” “hegemonic discourse,” “the breaking down of traditional logocentric hierarchies,” and so on. It chortled derisively at mentions of William Bennett, Allan Bloom, and E.D. Hirsch, Jr., and nodded respectfully at the names of Nietzsche, Derrida, Gramsci, or Foucault.

Whether or not Rorty is justified in using the label, the views expressed show a remarkable consensus in their opposition to the educational tradition and in their hostility to those who, like Bloom, have supported a version of the tradition. Here are some typical passages:

Mary Louise Pratt, a professor of comparative literature at Stanford, writes,

Bloom, Bennett, Bellow, and the rest (known by now in some quarters as the Killer B’s) are advocating [the creation of] a narrowly specific cultural capital that will be the normative referent for everyone, but will remain the property of a small and powerful caste that is linguistically and ethnically unified. It is this caste that is referred to by the “we” in Saul Bellow’s astoundingly racist remark that “when the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him.” Few doubt that behind the Bennett-Bloom program is a desire to close not the American mind, but the American university, to all but a narrow and highly uniform elite with no commitment to either multiculturalism or educational democracy. Thus while the Killer B’s (plus a C—Lynne Cheney, the Bennett mouthpiece now heading the National Endowment for the Humanities) depict themselves as returning to the orthodoxies of yesteryear, their project must not be reduced to nostalgia or conservatism. Neither of these explain the blanket contempt they express for the country’s universities. They are fueled not by reverence for the past, but by an aggressive desire to lay hold of the present and future. The B’s act as they do not because they are unaware of the cultural and demographic diversification underway in the country; they are utterly aware. That is what they are trying to shape; that is why they are seeking, and using, national offices and founding national foundations.

Pratt laments “the West’s relentless imperial expansion” and the “monumentalist cultural hierarchy that is historically as well as morally distortive” and goes on to characterize Bloom’s book as “intellectually deplorable” and Bennett’s To Reclaim a Legacy as “intellectually more deplorable.” In the same vein, Henry A. Giroux, a professor of education at Miami University of Ohio, writes:


In the most general sense, Bloom and Hirsch represent the latest cultural offensive by the new elitists to rewrite the past and construct the present from the perspective of the privileged and the powerful. They disdain the democratic implications of pluralism and argue for a form of cultural uniformity in which difference is consigned to the margins of history or to the museum of the disadvantaged.

And according to Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a professor of English at Duke:

The teaching of literature [has become] the teaching of an aesthetic and political order, in which no women and people of color were ever able to discover the reflection or representation of their images, or hear the resonance of their cultural voices. The return of “the” canon, the high canon of Western masterpieces, represents the return of an order in which my people were the subjugated, the voiceless, the invisible, the unrepresented, and the unrepresentable. Who would return us to that medieval never-never land?

Anybody who has been to such a conference will recognize the atmosphere. It is only within such a setting that Bloom and Hirsch (one a professor of philosophy in Chicago, the other a professor of English in Virginia) can seem (to people who are themselves professors somewhere) to exemplify “the privileged and the powerful.”

One of the conferees, Gerald Graff of Northwestern, writes:

Speaking as a leftist, I too find it tempting to try to turn the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation.

He goes on to resist the temptation with the following (italics mine):

But I doubt whether the curriculum (as opposed to my particular courses) can or should become an extension of the politics of the left.

It turns out that he objects to politicizing the entire curriculum not because there might be something immoral about using the classroom to impose a specific ideology on students, but because of the unfortunate fact that universities also contain professors who are not “leftists” and who do not want their courses to become “an extension of the politics of the left”; and there seems to be no answer to the question, “What is to be done with those constituencies which do not happen to agree…that social transformation is the primary goal of education.” What indeed?

I said earlier that it was difficult to find a succinct statement of the objections to the educational tradition made by the so-called cultural left, but this is largely because the objections are taken for granted. If you read enough material of the sort I have quoted, and, more importantly, if you attend enough of these conferences, it is easy to extract the central objection. It runs something like this: the history of “Western Civilization” is in large part a history of oppression. Internally, Western civilization oppressed women, various slave and serf populations, and ethnic and cultural minorities generally. In foreign affairs, the history of Western civilization is one of imperialism and colonialism. The so-called canon of Western civilization consists in the official publications of this system of oppression, and it is no accident that the authors in the “canon” are almost exclusively Western white males, because the civilization itself is ruled by a caste consisting almost entirely of Western white males. So you cannot reform education by admitting new members to the club, by opening up the canon; the whole idea of “the canon” has to be abolished. It has to be abolished in favor of something that is “multicultural” and “nonhierarchical.”

The word “nonhierarchical” in the last sentence is important and I will come back to it. In the meantime I hope I have given enough of the arguments from those who oppose the traditional conceptions of liberal education to make it clear why the dispute cannot be resolved just by opening up the club to new members, and why it seems so intractable. Even if the canon is opened up, even if membership in the club is thrown open to all comers, even after you have admitted every first-rate woman writer from Sappho to Elizabeth Bishop, the various groups that feel that they have been excluded are still going to feel excluded, or marginalized. At present there are still going to be too many Western white males.

The actual arguments given often speak of improving education, but the central presuppositions of each side are seldom explicitly stated. With few exceptions, those who defend the traditional conception of a liberal education with a core curriculum think that Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular, have on the whole been the source of valuable institutions that should be preserved and of traditions that should be transmitted, emphatically including the intellectual tradition of skeptical critical analysis. Those who think that the traditional canon should be abandoned believe that Western civilization in general, and the United States in particular, are in large part oppressive, imperialist, patriarchal, hegemonic, and in need of replacement, or at least of transformation. So the passionate objections that are made by the critics to Allan Bloom often have rather little to do with a theory of higher education as such. (This is unfortunate, because there is plenty to object to in Bloom’s book on purely educational grounds—for example, its failure to give sufficient attention or value to the study of history and its blindess to the achievements of contemporary analytic philosophy.) Their objection to the educational tradition is intended to make a political point about the nature of American society.

There is a certain irony in this in that earlier student generations, my own for example, found the critical tradition that runs from Socrates through the Federalist Papers, through the writings of Mill and Marx, down to the twentieth century, to be liberating from the stuffy conventions of traditional American politics and pieties. Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude, the “canon” served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. Ironically, the same tradition is now regarded as oppressive. The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.

More puzzling than the hatred of Bloom is the hostility shown to E.D. Hirsch, Jr. After all, Hirsch’s central idea is that it would be desirable for American schoolchildren to be taught a common body of knowledge, a set of elementary facts and concepts that Hirsch calls “cultural literacy.” (Among the texts and ideas he believes should be “explained in depth” are, for example, the Bill of Rights, Don Quixote, and ecology.) It is hard to imagine how anybody could object to such an innocuous proposal for improving education in the grade schools and high schools. However, even this is greeted with rage; indeed, only Bloom and Bennett arouse more anger than Hirsch in these polemics. In a savage attack, Barbara Herrnstein Smith quotes Hirsch as saying that his project of cultural literacy will result in

breaking the cycle of illiteracy for deprived children; raising the living standards of families who have been illiterate; making our country more competitive in international markets; achieving greater social justice; enabling all citizens to participate in the political process; bringing us that much closer to the Ciceronian ideal of universal public discourse—in short, achieving the fundamental goals of the Founders at the birth of the republic.

To this project, she responds:

Wild applause; fireworks; music—America the Beautiful; all together, now: Calvin Coolidge, Gunga Din, Peter Pan, spontaneous combustion. Hurrah for America and the national culture! Hurrah!

Why the hysterical tone of opposition? Herrnstein Smith reveals her own preoccupations when she says that Hirsch is “promoting a deeply conservative view of American society and culture through a rousing populist rhetoric” (my italics). But of course there is no reason at all why students who become familiar with the range of facts and ideas compiled by Hirsch should not arrive at “radical” or “liberal” or other positions.

But what about the question of intellectual excellence? The very ideal of excellence implied in the canon is itself perceived as a threat. It is considered “elitist” and “hierarchical” to suppose that “intellectual excellence” should take precedence over such considerations as fairness, representativeness, the expression of the experiences of previously underrepresented minorities, etc. Indeed, in the recent debate at Stanford about the course in Western civilization, one of the arguments against the traditional curriculum (quoted with approval by Pratt) went as follows:

A course with such readings creates two sets of books, those privileged by being on the list and those not worthy of inclusion. Regardless of the good intentions of those who create such lists, the students have not viewed and will not view these separate categories as equal.

I find this an amazing argument. One obvious difficulty with it is that if it were valid, it would argue against any set of required readings whatever; indeed, any list you care to make about anything automatically creates two categories, those that are on the list and those that are not.

One curious feature of the entire debate about what is “hegemonic,” “patriarchal,” or “exclusionary” is that it is largely about the study of literature. No one seems to complain that the great ideas in physics, mathematics, chemistry, and biology, for example, also come in large part from dead white European males. Historians of science have been showing how talented women were discouraged throughout modern history from pursuing scientific careers. But I have not heard any complaints from physics departments that the ideas of Newton, Einstein, Rutherford, Bohr; Schrödinger, etc., were deficient because of the scientists’ origins or gender. Even in history of philosophy courses—as opposed to general education courses—there is little or no objection to the fact that the great philosophers taught in these courses are mostly white Western males, from Socrates, Plato and Aristotle through Frege, Russell, and Wittgenstein.

No doubt literature articulates the variety of human experience in ways that are unlike those of the sciences, but that is not enough by itself to explain the selective attitude that causes the humanities to be treated so differently from the sciences. To understand this difference you have to understand a second fundamental, but usually unstated, feature of the debate: in addition to having political objections to the United States and Europe, 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 achieving “social transformation.” They (apparently) accept that in subjects like physics and mathematics there may be objective and socially independent criteria of excellence (though they do not say much about the sciences at all), but where the humanities are concerned they think that the criteria that matter are essentially political.1 The argument goes: since any policy in the humanities will inevitably have a political dimension, courses in the humanities might as well be explicitly and beneficially political, instead of being disguised vehicles of oppression. These points are often stated in a kind of code. (In the code, to be “monumentalist” is to treat some works as if they were monuments, and to be ‘hierarchical” is to think that some works are better than others; I think “critical” used to mean vaguely Marxist as in some versions of “critical legal studies” but now it appears just to mean politically radical, as “critical pedagogy.”)

For example, after having told us that “the most important questions facing both the liberal arts and higher education in general are moral and political” and that the university “is a place that is deeply political” Henry Giroux tells us the following about how we should teach “the canon”:

How we read or define a “canonical” work may not be as important as challenging the overall function and social uses the notion of the canon has served. Within this type of discourse, the canon can be analyzed as part of a wider set of relations that connect the academic disciplines, teaching, and power to considerations defined through broader, intersecting political and cultural concerns such as race, class, gender, ethnicity, and nationalism. What is in question here is not merely a defense of a particular canon, but the issue of struggle and empowerment. In other words, the liberal arts should be defended in the interest of creating critical rather than “good” citizens. The notion of the liberal arts has to be reconsitituted around a knowledge-power relationship in which the question of curriculum is seen as a form of cultural and political production grounded in a radical conception of citizenship and public wisdom.

He concludes that this transformation of our attitudes toward the tradition will link the liberal arts to “the imperatives of a critical democracy.”

Notwithstanding its opaque prose, Giroux’s message should be clear: the aim of a liberal education is to create political radicals, and the main point of reading the “canon” is to demythologize it by showing how it is used as a tool by the existing system of oppression. The traditional argument that the humanities are the core of a liberal education because of the intrinsic intellectual and aesthetic merits and importance of the works of Plato, Shakespeare, or Dante is regarded with scorn. Giroux again:

The liberal arts cannot be defended either as a self-contained discourse legitimating the humanistic goal of broadly improving the so-called “life of the mind” or as a rigorous science that can lead students to indubitable truths.

So the frustrating feature of the recent debate is that the underlying issues seldom come out into the open. Unless you accept two assumptions, that the Western tradition is oppressive, and that the main purpose of teaching the humanities is political transformation, the explicit arguments given against the canon will seem weak: that the canon is unrepresentative, inherently elitist, and, in a disguised form, political. Indeed if these arguments were strong ones, you could apply them against physics, chemistry, or mathematics.

From the point of view of the tradition, the answers to each argument are fairly obvious. First, it is not the aim of education to provide a representation or sample of everything that has been thought and written, but to give students access to works of high quality. Second, for that very reason, education is by its very nature “elitist” and “hierarchical” because it is designed to enable and encourage the student to discriminate between what is good and what is bad, what is intelligent and what is stupid, what is true and what is false. Third, the “tradition” is by no means a unified phenomenon, and properly taught, it should impart a critical attitude to the student, precisely because of the variety and intellectual independence of the works being taught, and the disagreements among them. Fourth, of course the humanities have a political dimension at least in the sense that they have political consequences; so does everything else. But it does not follow from the fact that there is a political dimension to the humanities—as there is to music, art, gastronomy, and sex, as well as mathematics, philosophy, and physics—that the only, or even the principal, criteria for assessing these efforts should be political ones.


Of the books I have read on the current “crisis” in education, the one I found the most fun to read is Kimball’s Tenured Radicals. Kimball’s announced aim is “to expose these recent developments in the academic study of humanities for what they are: ideologically motivated assaults on the intellectual and moral substance of our culture.” One may doubt that he is right to characterize the current problems in the vocabulary of “crisis” and “corruption,” but from my own experience it seems to me that he is right to say that “the situation is far worse than they [his readers, mostly outside of universities] are ever likely to have imagined.” Mr. Kimball has attended a number of what would appear to be rather tedious academic conferences, and read a large number of books and articles in which many strange claims are made. He describes these patiently and often hilariously. He was not at the conference in North Carolina, but it seems unlikely that anything that happened there would have surprised him, because he recounts what happened at several other, similar conferences.

Kimball’s method is to quote and paraphrase some of the more extreme views he encountered. For example, reporting a speech by Professor Barbara Johnson, he writes:

Blending a deconstructionist’s obsession with language and a feminist’s obsession with male dominance, she summed up Professor Riffaterre’s paper as a “masterful demonstration” of “the fact” that “gynophobia [i.e., the fear of women] is structured like a language” and, conversely, that “language is structured like gynophobia.”

…Women themselves conspire in perpetuating this unhappy situation, she told us, for “the collective linguistic psyche exists in symbiotic relation to the fallen woman.” We also learned, by a similarly elusive logic, that the “literary canon is a defense against its own femininity,” a defense “against the woman within.” What any of this could possibly mean was never revealed, but no one seemed to mind: it all sounded so exquisitely chic.

Such a method will seem unfair if readers get the impression that in quoting extreme passages, Kimball is quoting only unusual or eccentric views. To judge by my own experience he is not being unfair; the sorts of things that he finds objectionable are, in fact, quite common. In fact, as Kimball knows, the audience at such a session will recognize Johnson’s theses, at least in the sense that they know what ideas and authors she is invoking. The phrase about “structured like a language” is borrowed from Lacan; the reference to defending against the “woman within” derives from psychoanalysis, etc.

Kimball summarizes some of his general conclusions as follows:

It is one of the clearest symptoms of the decadence besetting the academy that the ideals that once informed the humanities have been corrupted, willfully misunderstood, or simply ignored by the new sophistries that have triumphed on our campuses. We know something is gravely amiss when teachers of the humanities confess—or, as is more often the case, when they boast—that they are no longer able to distinguish between truth and falsity. We know something is wrong when scholars assure us—and their pupils—that there is no essential difference between the disinterested pursuit of knowledge and partisan proselytizing, or when academic literary critics abandon the effort to identify and elucidate works of lasting achievement as a reactionary enterprise unworthy of their calling. And indeed, the most troubling development of all is that such contentions are no longer the exceptional pronouncements of a radical elite, but have increasingly become the conventional wisdom in humanities departments of our major colleges and universities.

Kimball is himself a journalist, an editor of The New Criterion, and his book is intended as polemical journalism, not scholarship. Nonetheless, it seems to me, even judged as such it has certain weaknesses. First, Kimball offers no coherent alternative vision of what higher education in the humanities should consist in. He simply takes it for granted that there is a single, unified, coherent tradition, just as his opponents do, and he differs from them in supposing that all we need to do to rescue higher education is to return to the standards of that tradition. But the situation is not that simple. In my experience there never was, in fact, a fixed “canon”; there was rather a certain set of tentative judgments about what had importance and quality. Such judgments are always subject to revision, and in fact they were constantly being revised.

Furthermore both the composition of our student bodies and the relation of the United States to the rest of the world have undergone some enormous changes in the past generation. For example, in my own university more than 50 percent of the freshman class are nonwhites. And we are all aware that countries like Japan, China, and those of Latin America play a much larger part in our relations to the rest of the world than they did in the 1950s. It is an interesting question what influence these facts should have on our conception of the education of undergraduates. Perhaps in the end we will say they should have no effect, but it is not obvious.

Worse yet, the debate over college curriculum mainly concerns only a tiny fraction of undergraduate education, usually a single required freshman course in the humanities, together with other courses in literature which the scholars who describe themselves as the “cultural left” may seek to control, and which may (or may not) therefore be vehicles for promoting ideologies of “social transformation.” Most undergraduate education—as well as our lack of any coherent theory of what we are trying to achieve in undergraduate education—is largely untouched by this discussion. Neither side has much to say about what actually happens in most college classrooms.

However, the debate about the freshman “core” course remains at the center of attention; the debate tends to be shallow because it is presented as a conflict between the cultural left, on the one hand, and the somewhat oversimplified views held by Bloom and Kimball, on the other. Why should one accept these as the only choices?

A second difficulty with Kimball’s analysis is the thinness of his diagnosis. He argues that the radicals of the Sixties have now become tenured professors, and are carrying on, within the university, the same ideology that they espoused as student radicals a quarter of a century ago. This analysis seems superficial. One difficulty with it is that many of the people he cites most prominently, such as Paul de Man and Jacques Derrida, were not active as student radicals in the Sixties. Indeed, most of the heroes of the cultural left had little to do with the sit-ins and the demonstrations against the Vietnam War or with any of the causes that concerned radicals in the 1960s.

Furthermore, the diagnosis still leaves too many questions unanswered. Why do the radical critics attack mostly the humanities? After all, tenured faculty in the humanities comes from the same generation as the current faculty in the natural sciences, in philosophy, and in the social sciences, but—leaving out such newly created departments as “Ethnic Studies”—the “cultural left” is not heavily influential outside the departments of French, English, and comparative literature and a few history departments and law schools. More pressingly, why should literature have become the academic home of radical left-wing politics? It ought to astonish us that the current university centers of activist radical political views are not in sociology, political science, or economics but in English, French, and comparative literature. We can all learn much about the nature of politics, culture, and history from Shakespeare, Balzac, and Conrad; but the study of poetry, plays, and novels is hardly the ideal basis for understanding modern structures of power or the mechanisms of revolutionary change.

Kimball has nothing to tell us about these questions. I think the issues are complex, but several factors help to explain the migration of radical politics from the social sciences to the humanities. First, as empirical theories of society or blueprints for social change, Marxism and other such theories have been discredited by recent events. The collapse of the Soviet empire only marks officially something that most intellectuals have known quietly for a long time. The standard versions of radical leftist ideology in the form of theories of society and social change, such as Marxism, Leninism, Stalinism, Maoism, and Castroism, are all in disrepute. The most congenial home left for Marxism, now that it has been largely discredited as a theory of economics and politics, is in departments of literary criticism.

Secondly, for reasons I do not fully understand, many professors of literature no longer care about literature in the ways that seemed satisfactory to earlier generations. It seems pointless to many of them to teach literature as it was understood by such very different critics as Edmund Wilson, John Crowe Ransom, or I.A. Richards; so they teach it as a means of achieving left-wing political goals or as an occasion for exercises in deconstruction, etc. The absence of an accepted educational mission in many literary studies has created a vacuum waiting to be filled. Perhaps the original mistake was in supposing that there is a well-defined academic discipline of “literary criticism”—as opposed to literary scholarship—capable of accommodating Ph.D. programs, research projects, and careers for the ambitious. When such a discipline fails to be “scientific” or rigorous, or even well defined, the field is left wide open for various fashions, such as deconstruction, or for the current political enthusiasms.

Still, there is a fair amount of truth to Kimball’s diagnosis. It is not simply that some of the people he quotes have a history of student radicalism, for many others do as well, but rather that often the sensibility they express is much in accord with some of the simplistic rhetoric of twenty-five years ago. As Gates puts it:

Ours was the generation that took over buildings in the late sixties and demanded the creation of black and women’s studies programs, and now, like the return of the repressed, has come back to challenge the traditional curriculum.

Suppose that one is dissatisfied with the low intellectual level of the “cultural left,” but that one feels at the same time that much undergraduate education should be improved. This question was faced in an acute form in the debate at Stanford, concerning the reform of the curriculum in Western culture. Both the debate and its results are instructive. Stanford had a required one-year course in Western culture that had to be taken by all incoming students. This course was given in eight different “tracks,” corresponding roughly to different departments and schools. Among the tracks, for example, were history, literature and the arts, philosophy, and Western thought and technology. But all shared a required reading list, containing the Bible, Plato’s Republic, Homer, several medieval and Renaissance readings, including Augustine, Dante, Thomas More, Machiavelli, Luther, and Galileo, and of the moderns, Voltaire, Marx, Freud, and Darwin. In addition, a list of writers ranging from Thucydides to Nietzsche was “strongly recommended.”

Many of the objections made to this course were predictable, reflecting the views of the cultural left I have mentioned, as were the defenses. What emerged appears to have been a kind of compromise arrived at after many months of debate. Unfortunately, the controversy became so fogged by political polemics and by partial and inaccurate reports in the press that the central issues, and what actually occurred, were not made clear to the general public.

The title of the course was changed to “Culture, Ideas, Values,” (“CIV” for short, with “Western” left out). The readings required for all tracks now include the Bible, “a Classical Greek philosopher, an early Christian thinker, a Renaissance dramatist, an Enlightenment thinker,” and readings from Marx and Freud. At least one non-European work must be studied and at some point in each academic quarter “substantial attention” must be given to “the issues of race, gender, and class.”

What was the upshot of these reforms in educational practice? It is too early to tell what the long-term results will be, but at present, of the eight tracks, seven are quite similar to the originals. To the required readings have been added such texts as Confucius, and the Koran, but I would guess that about 80 percent of the readings are by writers who are the same as, or comparable to, those in the previous program, though the texts used are not exactly the same. If anything, these seven tracks look to me like a slight improvement on the original course in Western culture, because they retain enough of the core readings so that the educational purpose of the original is not lost, and at the same time they enrich course work with readings from outside the European tradition.

The new plan also offered members of the faculty the possibility of formulating a completely revised course and some teachers have done so, with the result that the eighth track is a course called “Europe and the Americas.” In this course, the required elements of the European canon remain, but they are read along with works of Spanish-American, American-Indian, and African-American authors. This eighth track presents a genuinely radical change from the earlier program, and it arouses the most objections from Kimball and other commentators.

However, it seems to me one can make a fairly strong case for the new course on purely educational grounds. Of eight tracks, it is not necessarily a bad thing to have one optional track where European civilization is taught as simply one civilization among others, and it does not seem to me at all worrying that Aristotle and Tocqueville are taught along with Frantz Fanon. Of course, as with all courses it all depends on how the course is taught. Yet even if we assume that the organizers have political goals, as I suppose they do, one of the most liberating effects of “liberal education” is in coming to see one’s own culture as one possible form of life and sensibility among others; and the reading lists for the new course suggest that such an outcome is likely. Also, it is important to keep reminding ourselves that students are not just passive receptacles. In my experience, students are good at arguing back at professors, and indeed that is in large part what professors are for: to argue with. So my general impression from observing events at Stanford is that reports of the demise of “culture,” Western or otherwise, in the required freshman course at Stanford are grossly exaggerated. If I were a freshman at Stanford, I might well be tempted to take “Europe and the Americas.”


One of the most ominous charges made in Kimball’s book is that the cultural left in the humanities today has lost its traditional commitment to the search for truth. Indeed, according to Kimball, many no longer believe in the enterprise of an objective and disinterested search for truth, because they do not believe that such a thing is even possible. The claim is not that it is difficult and perhaps impossible to attain complete disinterest and objectivity, but rather that the very enterprise of trying to attain such things is misconceived from the beginning, because there is no objective reality for our objectivist methodology to attain. In short, many academics who make up the cultural left, according to Kimball, reject the “correspondence theory of truth”; they reject the idea that true statements are ever made true by virtue of the fact that there is an independently existing set of objects and features of the world to which such statements correspond.

Kimball’s favorite target is a pamphlet produced by the American Council of Learned Societies, called Speaking for the Humanities. It is the product of a committee of six professors, five professors of English, and one professor of French and comparative literature. The pamphlet was explicitly designed to answer such critics as Bloom and Bennett, and it is written in a bland, academic prose. Its central sections, starting with “Ideology and Objectivity,” begin somewhat condescendingly with the following: “Perhaps the most difficult aspect of modern thought, even for many humanities professors and certainly for society at large, is its challenge to the positivist ideal of objectivity and disinterest.” But we learn after several pages that in fact this “positivist ideal” has been decisively replaced by something they call “theory,” and that there are an overwhelming number of—unidentified—authorities who agree about this:

Over the past two decades, traditional assumptions about ways of studying the humanities have been contested, in large measure because a number of related disciplines—cultural anthropology, linguistics, psychoanalysis, the philosophy of language—were undergoing major changes that inevitably forced humanists to ask basic questions about their methods and the very definition of their fields.


The challenge to claims of intellectual authority alluded to in the introduction of this report issues from almost all areas of modern thought—science, psychology, feminism, linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology [my italics].

And again,

As the most powerful modern philosophies and theories have been demonstrating, claims of disinterest, objectivity, and universality are not to be trusted and themselves tend to reflect local historical conditions [my italics]..

As someone who takes more than a passing interest in “the most powerful modern philosophies,” I know none of which it could be said that it “demonstrates” that such claims are “not to be trusted.” Unfortunately the authors do not tell us exactly what results in these disciplines they have in mind. They also confidently quote “relativity and quantum mechanics” as supporting their new conception of the humanities. One wishes they had told us in some detail how the study of, say, inertial frames in relativity theory or the collapse of the wave function in quantum mechanics support their peculiar conception of the study of literature.

On first reading Kimball, it may appear that he is too hard on this pamphlet, but a close reading of the pamphlet makes it clear that he is not nearly hard enough. I do not here have the space to convey the smugness of its tone, the feebleness of its argument, or the weakness of its constant appeals to authority. Typical passages claim support from, “the most distinguished philosophers of science of our time,” or tell us that, “the consensus of most of the dominant theories is….”

One recurring fallacy deserves special mention. There is throughout the pamphlet a persistent confusion between epistemology and ontology; between how we know and what it is that we know when we know. It is an obvious fact that our epistemological efforts are undertaken by historically situated people, subject to all the usual imperfections, not merely of prejudice but of intellect. All investigations are relative to investigators. But it does not follow, nor is it indeed true, that all the matters investigated are relative to investigators. Real human investigators have to discover, e.g., that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen, but the fact that water is made of hydrogen and oxygen is not relative to any investigators.

Kimball sees that something very important is at stake in the debate concerning Speaking for the Humanities. He quotes Tzvetan Todorov’s review of the pamphlet in the New Republic,2 pointing out that its claim that most of the “dominant theories” reject the idea of disinterest and objectivity is “awkwardly reminiscent” of O’Brien’s speech to Winston Smith in Orwell’s 1984:

You believe that reality is something objective, external, existing in its own right…. But I tell you, Winston, that reality is not external. Reality exists in the human mind and nowhere else.

Kimball is mostly concerned with the political implications of this denial of an independently existing reality, but I would like to stress its purely intellectual implications. If you think there is no reality that words could possibly correspond to, then obviously it will be a waste of time to engage in an “objective and disinterested search for truth,” because there is no such thing as truth. There are just various forms of discourse engaged in by various groups of people. Philosophers have a name for the view that there exists a reality independent of our representations of it. It is called “realism” or sometimes “metaphysical realism” or “scientific realism.” An immediate difficulty with denials of metaphysical realism is that they remove the rational constraints that are supposed to shape discourse, when that discourse aims at something beyond itself. To paraphrase Dostoevsky, without metaphysical realism, anything is permissible.

Many arguments have been made against metaphysical realism, all of them in my view inadequate. This is not the place to go through each argument, but one can at least cite some of the texts. As a matter of the sociology of contemporary studies in the humanities, the two most influential attacks on metaphysical realism are supposed to have come from Thomas Kuhn’s The Structure of Scientific Revolutions and Richard Rorty’s Philosophy and the Mirror of Nature. Kuhn is supposed to have shown that science does not consist in the detached search for the truth, but that scientists instead are an irrational community, who grasp hold of one “paradigm” until they find it dissatisfying; then they have another “scientific revolution” and rush to another paradigm.

I do not for a moment believe that this is the correct interpretation of Kuhn’s book, although he could have been clearer about whether he was referring to the sociology of scientific communities or the epistemology of scientific discovery. But whatever Kuhn’s intentions, the effect has been to demythologize science in the eyes of people in literary studies, many of whom think that the claim of science to represent any independently existing reality has been discredited. When the authors of Speaking for the Humanities refer to “the most distinguished philosophers of science of our time,” they clearly have Kuhn in mind.

What Kuhn did for science, Rorty did for philosophy. Rorty is supposed to have shown that philosophical claims do not correspond to an independently existing reality either. Both Kuhn and Rorty are supposed, oddly enough, to be supported by the deconstructive works of Jacques Derrida, who is alleged to have shown that the very idea of truth can be deconstructed, that the opposition between truth and falsity, between fact and fiction, is an illusory one, and that it is a “logocentric” prejudice to suppose that there is an independent reality that exists beyond texts. In fact, according to the literary theorists influenced by Derrida, there is nothing beyond or outside texts. So O’Brien is supposed to have triumphed over Winston after all.

Are there convincing arguments for metaphysical realism? The demand for a proof of the existence of a reality that is independent of our representations of reality is a puzzling one, because it looks like making the demand itself already presupposes what is demanded to be proved. The situation is a bit like those challenges one used to hear in the 1960s, when students would ask for a proof of rationality, “What is your argument for rationality?” But any demand for an “argument” or “proof” already presupposes standards of rationality, the applicability of which is constitutive of something’s being an argument or proof. You cannot in the same breath appeal to argument and proof and deny rationality.

A similar point applies, but even more radically, to metaphysical realism. The person who denies metaphysical realism presupposes the existence of a public language, a language in which he or she communicates with other people. But what are the conditions of possibility of communication in a public language? What do I have to assume when I ask a question or make a claim that is supposed to be understood by others? At least this much: if we are using words to talk about something, in a way that we expect to be understood by others, then there must be at least the possibility of something those words can be used to talk about. Consider any claim, from particular statements such as “my dog has fleas,” to theoretical claims such as “water is made of hydrogen and oxygen,” to grand theories such as evolution or relativity, and you will see that they presuppose for their intelligibility that we are taking metaphysical realism for granted.

I am not claiming that one can prove metaphysical realism to be true from some standpoint that exists apart from our human linguistic practices. What I am arguing, rather, is that those practices themselves presuppose metaphysical realism. So one cannot within those practices intelligibly deny metaphysical realism, because the meaningfulness of our public utterances already presupposes an independently existing reality to which expressions in those utterances can refer. Metaphysical realism is thus not a thesis or a theory; it is rather the condition of having theses or theories or even of denying theses or theories. This is not an epistemic point about how we come to know truth as opposed to falsehood, rather it is a point about the conditions of possibility of communicating intelligibly. Falsehood stands as much in need of the real world as does truth.


I said earlier that we lack a coherent theory of undergraduate education. Is such a theory in The Voice of Liberal Learning, by the English philosopher Michael Oakeshott? In his book we are in an altogether different intellectual atmosphere from the debate about the “canon.” The book is a collection of elegantly written essays, usually lectures delivered for a particular occasion or other. Both the elegance of the prose and the occasional nature of the articles sometimes get in the way of the presentation of a coherent, overall philosophy of education. Also Oakeshott uses certain words in special ways. He apparently thinks it is important that he does not say much about “education,” “tradition,” or “subjects,” but talks instead of “learning,” “inheritance,” “voices,” and “conversation.” However, it is possible to extract from these essays something of Oakeshott’s conception of the relationships between human beings and culture, and the consequences these have for what he likes to call “learning.” Oakeshott is usually characterized as a “conservative,” but if that is true, it is more in the sense in which Hume and Burke are conservatives, rather than in the sense of contemporary American or British politics.

Human beings, Oakeshott argues, are what they understand themselves to be; and the world that human beings inhabit is not a world of things, but of meanings. The understandings of these meanings requires an understanding of that understanding itself. It is a consequence of the relation between human beings and understanding that their inherited culture is not an addition to human beings, but is essentially what makes human beings human. “A man is his culture,” and “What he is, he has had to learn to become.”

A culture for Oakeshott is not a set of beliefs or perceptions or attitudes—and certainly not a body of knowledge or a “canon”—but a variety of distinct “languages” of understanding, including self-understanding. It is important for Oakeshott that culture does not consist in a set of “Great Books,” but rather, as one learns and reads, in conversations that one continues to have with one’s inheritance. In a “culture” there are a number of different “voices,” and in “learning” one acquires access to these voices. There is a language of politics, of economics, of art, literature, philosophy; and learning consists in acquiring the ability to join these conversations. Liberal learning, especially at the university level, is therefore an introduction to this conversation, or rather to these series of conversations.

In learning, the teacher initiates the pupil into the inheritance of human achievements, but this inheritance consists of a variety of abilities. Each of these abilities combines “information” and “judgment.” There are thus two components to knowledge, information and judgment, but judgment does not consist in a set of statements. It cannot be summarized in a set of explicit propositions, and it can only be acquired in conjunction with “information.” Information can be “instructed,” but judgment can only be imparted.

“Judgement,” then, is that which, when united with information, generates knowledge or ‘ability’ to do, to make, or to understand and explain. It is being able to think—not to think in no manner in particular, but to think with an appreciation of the considerations which belong to different modes of thought.

It is at this point that Oakeshott departs dramatically from the debate about the canon that we considered earlier. In that debate, both sides tend to think of education as a matter of acquiring a certain body of knowledge, together with the appropriate attitudes. This is emphatically not Oakeshott’s view. He thinks that what he calls “judgment” is more a kind of intellectual know-how than it is a set of beliefs or attitudes.

Universities should not be thought of as “artifacts” with a “purpose,” but rather as a “manner” of human activity. The university is a place in which the various conversations go on, and it imparts the manners of the conversations. Such places of education have three essential characteristics: they are serious; they are places of study; and they are detached, apart from the rest of the society. It follows, according to Oakeshott, that concern with contemporary political and social issues is the very opposite of education.

Does all this amount to a coherent vision of education? The best way to approach this question is to see if we can extract from Oakeshott’s overall vision a description of what he would regard as a well-educated person. The abstractness of Oakeshott’s account leads to a certain vagueness in the conception of how we might carry it out in an actual program in a real university; however, we can at least discern the outlines of Oakeshott’s person of learning. He or she is likely to be a person profoundly respectful of the “intellectual inheritance.” He or she will have good intellectual “manners,” and will have what Oakeshott calls “judgment.” Such a person will also have a great deal of information, most of it about the past of human culture and achievements. In short, Oakeshott’s educated person looks a lot like the ideal of a First Class Honours BA in Classics or History from my undergraduate days in the Fifties at Oxford. It is an attractive picture, but there are certain real weaknesses in it. First, Oakeshott does not have much to say about the critical purpose of education. His educated person does not look as if he would produce any intellectual revolutions, or even upset very many intellectual apple carts. What Oakeshott implies is not exactly conformity, but a kind of acceptance of the rules of the various discourses.

But perhaps the biggest single weakness of his conception of education is in the peripheral status it assigns to the natural sciences. The natural sciences do not fit his model, because, for the most part, the world of the natural sciences is not a world of meanings. It is a world of things; it is a world of entities, such as molecules or quarks, and forces, such as gravitational attraction or electromagnetic radiation. All of which are meaningless by Oakeshott’s criterion. But, like it or not, the natural sciences are perhaps our greatest single intellectual achievement as human beings, and any education that neglects this fact is to that extent defective.

Because Oakeshott fails to allow for the ontology of the natural sciences as part of the world of our experience, he also cannot account for one of the great tensions in contemporary intellectual life, namely that between the modes of explanation that we have come to accept in the natural sciences, and the modes of explanation that are appropriate to mentalistic phenomena, such as those found in history, sociology, economics, and large parts of psychology. He correctly sees that it is bogus of the so-called “social sciences” to try to ape the explanatory apparatus of the natural sciences, but he fails to appreciate the power or even the nature of the model they are trying to ape.

The strength of his account is in perceiving that one of the great contributions of education lies not in what is explicitly said, but in the kind of sensibility that is imparted. What is said, by way of conveying information, is no more important than what is left unsaid. But the unsaid, as Oakeshott points out, can be imparted only by way of actually saying something.

Oakeshott overstates his pessimism about the possibilities of educating the new sorts of people who are entering the universities who would not have been admitted a century ago. In a chilling passage originally written in 1950, he says,

In the past a rising class was aware of something valuable and enjoyed by others which it wished to share; but this is not so today. The leaders of the rising class are consumed with a contempt for everything which does not spring from their own desires, they are convinced in advance that they have nothing to learn and everything to teach, and consequently their aim is loot—to appropriate to themselves the organization, the shell of the institution, and convert it to their own purposes. The problem of the universities today is how to avoid destruction at the hands of men who have no use for their characteristic virtues, men who are convinced only that “knowledge is power.”

Kimball or Bloom might have written something very like this passage today. The characterization was true of some members of the new class of students who were entering the British universities after 1945, but it was not true of most of them. In the United States of 1990, it accurately characterizes a small number of academics who are attacking the traditional standards of rationality, intelligence, truth, and excellence in order to advance a political ideology. But for the most part, the new groups of people coming into the universities, many of them from poor families, are sadly unformed. It is not their aim to “loot”; they are often too bewildered to have well-formed aspirations. On Oakeshott’s own account of culture, they are waiting for people like himself to impart to them enough “learning” so that they can form aspirations.

Our lack of a satisfactory theory of what a general liberal education for undergraduates should consist of would not be reprehensible if in fact our practice was so good that no theory was required. To do a good job of teaching, you do not necessarily need a theory. However, I think we are not doing a good job in general education. Faced with the well-known cafeteria of courses, and obliged to fill very few requirements, a student is more likely to be well educated as the result of chance, or of his or her determination, than as a consequence of planning by the university authorities. Why do we lack the confidence to require that each undergraduate acquire the rudiments of a good general education? After all, we were not always so lacking in self-confidence. When my grandfather graduated from Oberlin after the Civil War, he set out on his horse for what was then Indian territory, carrying Milton’s Paradise Lost and the Bible in his saddle-bags. After the Second World War, when I began my education, it was no longer a matter of educating “Christian gentlemen,” but we were quite confident of our theory of a liberal education. One was supposed to acquire a solid grounding in the humanities, the social sciences, and the natural sciences, usually in the first two years; and this grounding in turn provided a base for the selection of a “major.” Furthermore, one was expected to be fairly proficient in English and in a foreign language.

In our current educational practice, we often do well at educating graduate students in Ph.D. programs. In fact, our better Ph.D. programs are the envy of the world and many students come from the best European and British universities to do graduate work in America. Professors feel that they know what they are doing when they prepare someone for a doctorate in history, philosophy, or physics. It is characteristic of American education that each stage is primarily designed to prepare the student for the next stage, so the best high schools prepare the student for college, and the best colleges prepare the student for graduate school. Since the professors think they know what they are doing in graduate education, it is not surprising that they also feel confident at designing undergraduate majors. The programs are designed to prepare the student for graduate work. In general education the failure of nerve derives from the fact that we do not know what we are preparing the student for.

Nonetheless, our lack of a well-defined objective is not a good enough reason to avoid stating some features of a general theory of education. In fact, it does not seem to me very difficult to describe some of the necessary conditions for being a well-educated person.

First, the student should have enough knowledge of his or her cultural tradition to know how it got to be the way it is. This involves both political and social history, on the one hand, as well as the mastery of some of the great philosophical and literary texts of the culture on the other. It involves reading not only texts that are of great value, like those of Plato, but many less valuable that have been influential, such as the works of Marx. For the United States, the dominant tradition is, and for the foreseeable future, will remain the European tradition. The United States is, after all, a product of the European Enlightenment. However, you do not understand your own tradition if you do not see it in relation to others. Works from other cultural traditions need to be studied as well.

If these two streams, both the political-social and the philosophical-literary, are well organized and well taught, the claims of the various minorities should have their place. Intelligently taught social and political histories of Europe and the United States, for example, should recognize the history of all of the major components of European and American society, including those that have been treated unjustly. It is important, however, to get rid of the ridiculous notion that there is something embarrassing or lamentable about the fact that most of the prominent political and intellectual leaders of our culture over the past two thousand years or so have been white males. This is just a historical fact whose causes should be explored and understood. To deny it or attempt to suppress the works of such thinkers is not simply racism, it is unintelligent.

Second, you need to know enough of the natural sciences so that you are not a stranger in the world. This means, at a minimum, that you need to know enough about physics and chemistry to understand how the physical world is constructed. This would also include at least a smattering of knowledge of the general and special theories of relativity, and an understanding of why quantum mechanics is so philosophically challenging. Furthermore, at a minimum, you must have enough biology to understand the Darwinian revolution, and to understand recent developments in genetics and microbiology.

Third, you need to know enough about how society works so that you understand what a trade cycle is, or how interest rates will affect the value of the currency, for example. In short, you need to have some knowledge of the subject matter that used to be called political economy.

Fourth, you need to know at least one foreign language well enough so that you can read the best literature that that language has produced in the original, and so you carry on a reasonable conversation and have dreams in that language. There are several reasons why this is crucial, but the most important is perhaps this: you can never understand one language until you understand at least two.

Fifth, you need to know enough philosophy so that the methods of logical analysis are available to you to be used as a tool. One of the most depressing things about educated people today is that so few of them, even among professional intellectuals, are able to follow the steps of a simple logical argument.

Finally, and perhaps most importantly, you need to acquire the skills of writing and speaking that make for candor, rigor, and clarity. You cannot think clearly if you cannot speak and write clearly.

Just acquiring this amount of “education” will not, by itself, make you an educated person, even less will it give you what Oakeshott calls “judgment.” But if the manner of instruction is adequate, the student should be able to acquire this much knowledge in a way that combines intellectual openness, critical scrutiny, and logical clarity. If so, learning will not stop when the student leaves the university. None of the books I have been reading about higher education makes even these elementary points.

This Issue

December 6, 1990