Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking
Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education
Community of Learning: The American College and the Liberal Arts Tradition
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.
Against those—I am one of them—who think such follies are (perhaps only after a painfully long haul) self-correcting, and that the chaos of American higher education is no more alarming now than in the past, Professor Bromwich offers the darker possibility that different group-minded thinkers will parcel out the campus.
I can imagine a different outcome: a negotiated economy of ritual intolerances, in which the active and energetic groups work in concert, and together shape the curriculum of higher education…. This picture may be far-fetched; I hope that it is. We suppose such an outcome is unlikely because we are used to regarding the academy as the freest part of a society remarkable for its freedom. Nothing, however, in the nature of an academy makes it so.
Colleges and universities elsewhere in the world have lent themselves to the work of policing their members’ thoughts, and could easily enough do it here.
Professor Bromwich is not always angrier with the radicals than with the conservatives. Or, rather, it is radical theory he dislikes, and the radical infatuation with “theory” as a subject matter. Even when angry he is fastidious, pointing out, for instance, that it is only very recently that anyone has tried to put a “left-wing” gloss on the thought of Paul de Man or Jacques Derrida, and wholly rejecting the myth that blames deconstruction for the attempt to turn departments of literature into bastions of the oppositional culture. This lends the discussion a certain distance from personalities, and almost the only named target of criticism is Professor Barbara Herrnstein Smith.
Professor Herrnstein Smith is an apt target. The book Bromwich attacks, Contingencies of Value, argues the case the title suggests: Smith is impressed by the fact that books, poems, and almost any cultural artifact look different to different critics, look different to ourselves on different occasions; she concludes, plausibly enough, that there is no transcendental perspective from which we might somehow validate one local view as right-for-everyone. Bromwich does not object to that. What he complains of is the next move, the thought that in the absence of one universal standard of aesthetic judgment, the only explanation of the value we attach to works of art is that they satisfy the interests of some “establishment” or other, and that the theorist has no business saying anything of the form “X is better than Y.”
As a good disciple of David Hume, Bromwich is quick to observe that we can have common standards without a foundation beyond the common features of human life, and that from the fact “that every work and every judgment—the reader’s and the writer’s alike—emerge from certain interests, it does not follow that a given work or judgment must serve the same interests. That Ur-canonical text, the Sermon on the Mount, emerged from the lives of the early Christians. It can now serve the utterly opposite interests of Cardinal O’Connor and the Liberation Theologians” [italics in original]. Here as always, what Bromwich condemns is the theorist’s desire to collapse interpretation and evaluation into sociology and epistemology. One might add for good measure that it does not help that it is such bad sociology and epistemology.
In discussing the radicals, Bromwich is fierce but courteous. When it comes to the self-appointed defenders of the American public culture, courtesy is not prominent. The very label of his discussion of the views of self-proclaimed cultural conservatives—“Moral Education in the Age of Reagan”—suggests the vein of sarcasm Professor Bromwich proceeds to mine. He is particularly hard on George Will. Carrying cruelty perhaps even beyond the call of duty, he has exhumed Will’s doctoral dissertation from the bowels of Princeton’s Fire-stone Library to see whether the conservative theorist of the 1980s was a one-time liberal radicalized in the conservative direction by the “thuggishness”—Bromwich’s word—of late 1960s radicalism. Will’s career has been built on attacking toleration. He blames the tolerance of 1960s liberalism not only for the social and moral disarray of our society but even for the general lawlessness exemplified by Watergate. These sound like the thoughts of a disillusioned man, perhaps a disillusioned liberal.
Not so, says David Bromwich. Beyond the Reach of Majorities: Closed Questions in an Open Society turns out to be “a massive concatenation of notes, written in a lively middle-journalistic style, and, in its leading doctrines, indistinguishable from the mature writings of George Will.” The George Will who was twenty-six in 1968 “was already fully formed as the opinion-maker that he would become.” This is not to praise the young George Will for a wisdom beyond his years. He was just unimaginative. “Bagehot said of Macaulay that he had ‘an inexperiencing nature,’ and I think it would be plain to many of Will’s readers in what sense these words apply to him.” Less obliquely, “he waited for his moment, and with Ronald Reagan’s election, his moment came.” Will tried to raise the moral tone of Reaganism, offering to persuade the public that the instinctive illiberalism of Reagan’s rich friends was a high-toned conservatism. The attack on toleration contained in the dissertation could be parlayed into a public philosophy—piously and pretentiously named “soulcraft.”
What is the nature of Will’s offense? The charge sheet is long, but fraudulent misuse of the good name of Edmund Burke heads the indictment, and explains the detail. Bromwich says, “I want to detach modern American conservatives from their claim to a precursor as morally impressive as he is. They do not deserve him.” They do not deserve him because Burke spent years bringing Warren Hastings to trial for misgovernment in India, while George Will never asked whether Edwin Meese or Michael Deaver was fit to hold office.
They do not deserve him because Burke’s sense of honor was so acute that he denied himself the pleasure of seeing his old friend Charles James Fox before he died, while George Will first coached his friend Ronald Reagan before his debate with Jimmy Carter and then went on television to declare that his pupil had won. Above all, they do not deserve him because they are so shallow. Burke understood how money corrupts politics—one reason to pursue Warren Hastings with such passion; George Will supposes that it makes sense to inveigh against “modernity” while ignoring the fact that the capitalist economy is the greatest modernizing force in the world.
Stripped of its rhetorical covering, the conservative view is that teachers of literary subjects should purify our commercial society by “transmitting” the traditional values that “our” culture embodies. David Bromwich resents the notion of transmission and the suggestion that there is one set of values to be “transmitted.” The passivity that “transmission” implies in the receivers is at odds with any educational ideal; it is equally at odds with a proper understanding of tradition. A live tradition demands an individual response, a grappling by individuals with what they encounter. A tradition is not group thinking; what George Will advocates is.
The final count in Bromwich’s indictment of the Reaganite conception of moral education is that its assimilation of all cultural attachments to religious ones is both illiberal and historically inept. This is one of several claims that makes David Bromwich interestingly hard to situate in the intellectual landscape. Unlike many liberals, he is friendly to the idea of tradition; he has a very strong sense not so much of the authority of the past as of the importance of its availability as a moral and intellectual resource for critical thinkers in the present. His heroes are Burke and Hume as well as Wollstonecraft and Mill. But he lacks the conservatives’ anxiety about the ability of a society to hang together, along with their tenderness toward superstition.
The mistake of such writers is that they underrate the inertia—or to put it more eulogistically, the interest in order, and the attachment to a common routine—which may be inseparable from human life under every form of government except the most extreme tyrannies. It follows that our moral obligations to one another may not require the aid of natural law theories, any more than the making of fire required the aid of the phlogiston theory. If this is so, what Will takes to be the core of a tradition of conduct, and therefore the foundation of the free polities of the West, is in fact as dispensable as the Gothic convention of flying buttresses [italics in original].
Bromwich therefore pursues an original and awkward course. He defends the idea of tradition, but he does so for nonconservative reasons, and attacks the obsession with “theory” on theoretically highly sophisticated grounds.
One puzzle to which he offers an interesting though not wholly persuasive answer is why teachers of literature have become obsessed with “theory.” On the face of it, it is a curious thing for teachers of literature to turn themselves into amateur sociologists and amateur philosophers. Bromwich explains it as part of the corruption of literary studies by “professionalization.” The logic of the process is plausible enough. Most middle-class occupations are associated with the idea that their practitioners are professionals, possessed of an expertise that they have and the laity do not. To claim professional standing is in fact to claim to know things that laymen do not. Helping students to read books does not fit that picture.
It therefore raises the question what it is that the interpreters of a literary tradition know—what is their expertise. That question is asked by people who know that “for people doing intellectual work, the way to social acceptance in America has always been through imitation of the sciences.” The social sciences long ago went down that track. Now literary theorists are following the social scientists. Not surprisingly, a decidedly sociological tone creeps into the subject.
A concise professionalist thesis in literature departments now runs as follows: “We need to teach not the texts themselves but how we situate ourselves in reference to those texts.” It is pointless to object that nobody ever taught “the texts themselves,” whatever that may mean; rather, teachers conducted a class on a book for the sake of showing a way of thinking and talking about books. The point of the statement above is less to argue or persuade than to announce that the subject has been changed. Correctly translated, it means: “We need to teach not interpretation but the sociology of knowledge.”
Once it is agreed that we no longer read books to understand them, but rather in order to “situate” them in a cultural context, oddities of the contemporary scene become intelligible, such as the advocacy of a curriculum in which the productions of popular culture will be accorded the same respect as high culture, alongside the production of academic accounts of the subject which are unintelligible to most undergraduates let alone the lay public.
Whether this is the effect of “professionalism” is unclear. Bromwich suggests that all the humanities are in the same plight, but that is not my impression. Historians, anthropologists, philologists, and the like can always busy themselves with raw data; the ability to use an archive, do field work, or analyze phonetic shifts are all skills that the newcomer can learn from the old hand. They may feel intimidated by the scientist’s claim to know the general laws of his subject matter, and perhaps by the mathematical exactness of some of his results, but they have no reason to think that what they know isn’t knowledge. Literary interpretation is more exposed; non-professional readers with a good memory may recall Emma or Jane Eyre more fluently than their teachers—and what besides the books themselves ought their teachers to know? It is not all that surprising that fashions in literary theory and interpretative practice change often and rather painfully.
Whether or not his analysis of the causes of the present discontents is entirely cogent, David Bromwich has some bracing opinions on how to do better. The alternative is neither “teach-the-conflicts,” a proposal he dismisses as merely narcissistic, nor the conservatism previously demolished. It is to take the liberal Enlightenment tradition seriously. At this point, we may wonder whether Professor Bromwich has been entirely just to Gerald Graff, who is not obviously hostile to Enlightenment liberalism. Professor Graff’s book is, one has to admit, less a book than an essay built on one good thought: that contentiousness is built into the literary profession and always has been. The supposedly timeless canon was largely invented around the time of the contentious First World War, and “Western Civilization” did not reflect a consensus about the books that every educated person should at least pretend to have read, but the Americanization effort that the Great War sparked off. Such battles had begun after the Civil War when classics were pushed off their pedestal by the campaign to validate the literary achievements of an expanding United States.
David Bromwich does not oppose Gerald Graff because he believes in the canon. He defends “old books” rather than “great books,” and for liberal rather than conservative reasons: books that stand the test of time disconcert their readers as well as pleasing them. The reader must want to be challenged by what she or he reads, and must be ready to stand up to that challenge. That, however, suggests that knowing how a particular author has struck other readers would be a valuable part of the reader’s equipment. Gerald Graff offers his own reading of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as an example; formerly he read it, you might say, naively. Now that he has read Chinua Achebe’s essay on what Achebe believes to be the racism of Conrad’s vision of Africa he sees the book differently. Graff teaches Heart of Darkness alongside Achebe’s novel Things Fall Apart and finds that he and his students learn much they never found out before.
Graff’s account leaves one in two minds; there is much to be said for starting with the classroom experience of students who, as he says, find it hard to read serious books. If they get more out of Conrad by reading Achebe that must, one feels, be a good thing. But the benefits are so sparsely described that it is hard to be sure. “The ‘Western’ aspect of Conrad,” says Graff, “suddenly became a less mystifying quality now that students had something to contrast it with. And this led in turn to the question whether ‘Western’ and ‘non-Western’ are really mutually exclusive.” Unfortunately, it is quite unclear what they were mystified by in the first place, so the improvement is hard to assess.
One might for all that think that this is one place where Professors Graff and Bromwich should come together. Professor Bromwich defends the liberal tradition precisely because it embodies the hope that readers who of course must start somewhere, can, with the necessary imaginative effort, explore and understand writers who start somewhere entirely different. Graff’s account of “teaching the conflicts” suggests that by raising questions about the differences between conflicting understandings of the books his students read he aims to give them access to just that cosmopolitan and inclusive culture that Bromwich defends.
Proposals for “teaching the conflicts” can be slack-minded and feebly good-natured; they can leave out the books themselves in favor of gossip about each other’s prejudices, and Professor Graff’s ingratiating manner might make one fear the worst. The worst is indeed just what Bromwich does fear. But is this a proper response? In explaining the content of the liberal tradition, Bromwich relies heavily on Mill’s essay On Liberty. That essay is in its entirety an argument for keeping up controversy for the sake of intellectual vigor, boldness, and vividness. “Antagonism of opinion” was Mill’s recipe for a lively democratic culture, and one that Bromwich seems to admire. If we accept Mill’s injunction to read and experience the conflicts, why not teach them?