Culture wars

Monday Book Reviews

January 11, 1993|By Christopher Lehmann-Haupt

BEYOND THE CULTURE WARS: How Teaching the Conflict Can Revitalize American Education. By Gerald Graff. W.W. Norton & Co. 214 pages. $19.95.

AS the battle of the books rages on, and conservatives and innovators threaten to pound each other into a paper pulp, Gerald Graff, a professor of English and education at the University of Chicago, proposes an intriguing solution in his new book, "Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education."

Instead of trying to suppress the debate between, say, the multi-culturalists and those who would uphold the mainstream, why not bring the conflict out into the open where students can see it? Instead of continuing to argue over whether, say, Matthew Arnold's poem "Dover Beach" casts women in an inferior role, why not teach the conflict itself?

Why not hold symposiums that would put on display not only teachers, but even entire departments contending with one another, as has already been tried in several experimental curriculums? Have the students write papers on what happened. Maybe even test them on who said what. Why not even let teachers expose their research to public debate? In the old days, when such research was narrow and specialized, it might have had "little to contribute to general education or even to the undergraduate major." But this is no longer the case. "The humanities would hardly be the cultural and political battleground they have become today if pedantic specialization were still the first order in its research."

After all, he points out, although Americans try to hide their obsession with class conflict, this country loves a good contest. Students are no different. And under the present system, with its refusal to acknowledge conflict, students are being hurt. They must learn to think one way for some teachers and the opposite way for others. Moreover, Mr. Graff concludes, the culture wars are deep and real. They are not going to be resolved.

To those who argue that the demand for diversification of the traditional canon is a new departure in American education, Mr. Graff responds by saying, Nonsense! The introduction of multi-cultural texts is simply another in a series of steps that saw Greek and Latin classics give way to English literature, which in turn was pushed aside by American literature, which in turn was overthrown by modern literature, which is now being usurped by pop literature. The point was always to engage a new class of students.

Moreover, he argues, such increasingly accessible material has not diminished the challenge of learning. It is not the text itself that makes for complexity. It is the questions you ask about the text, whether you are teaching Ovid, Oedipus or Olive Oyl.

Finally, to the traditionalists who claim to deplore politicizing the curriculum, he replies that to avoid the politics of art is also political.

Christopher Lehmann-Haupt is a New York Times reviewer.

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