'The Opening of the American Mind' -- can this be the academy's ultimate defense?

September 15, 1996|By MICHAEL PAKENHAM

A new book is being lauded as the American academic mainstream's definitive response to criticisms of "political correctness," "multiculturalism" and other arguments within contemporary education. Whether you find the debate engaging simply recognize that the future of American intellectual well-being is being directed by the forces in the controversy, I commend to your keen attention the battle - if not the book.

That book is "The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History" by Lawrence W. Levine. (Beacon Press. 212 pages. $20). Levine is now a professor of history at George Mason University, before which he did the same at the University California, Berkeley, for 32 years.

The pre-publication promotion is extraordinary. A New York Times news article -not a review - published on Aug. 21 quoted Stanley N. Katz, president of the American Council of Learned Societies, as declaring, "This is the book we've been waiting for. It should put an end to the 'culture war' talk."

Not bloody likely.

Here is how Levine puts his main case, on Page 17:

"The American academic world is doing a more thorough and cosmopolitan job of educating a greater diversity of students in a broader and sounder array of courses covering the past and present of the worlds they inhabit than ever before in its history, ,, [but] I walk through the Looking Glass and find myself surrounded by those who see our enterprise as unhealthy and unreliable, built not on the solid foundations of serious inquiry and innovative approaches but on the sands of fashion and politics and coercion."

Confirms the criticism

I find myself on that other side of the Looking Glass, if I must be bound by his Lewis Carroll metaphor. What I see here -dimly - is Lawrence in Wonderland. A careful reading shows Levine's argument to be misty illusion, self-congratulatory wishful thinking, but precious little persuasion.

Fads, political agendas and the arrogant, take-no-prisoners coercion to capitulate to both are precisely what is distressing and disrupting the American academy. Implicitly, Levine's book confirms that, rather than rebutting it.

To set up his argument, Levine goes deep into the 19th century to recall contemporaneous complaints about progress in universities. He cites the defeats of efforts to make substantial progress toward more open examinations of culture. "These campaigns to change the pattern of higher education were met with furious counterassaults. It was out of these considerable battles that the modern curriculum was forged."

Of course, that could be said of any human endeavor. To contort the principle of institutional evolution into a defense of change in and of itself - sweeping in radical changes and faculty fads that have few or no cited parallels in the 19th century - is not only tenuous: It is ridiculous.

A third of the way through his book, Levine writes: "The Western Civ curriculum ... was a 20th Century phenomenon which had its origins in a wartime government initiative and its heyday lasted for scarcely fifty years. Its decline as the dominant feature of the humanities curriculum was brought about by alterations in the spirit and temper of the times, not by the infusion of handfuls of 1960s radicals into the faculties of the 1970s and the 1980s, as critics of the contemporary university assert ad nauseam."

Wrong! In spite of all those efforts, just that curriculum is alive and vibrantly well on many (though still far too few) campuses - at Columbia College, to take the original example. That is eloquently testified to by David Denby's "Great Books: My Adventures with Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World," (Simon and Schuster. 493 pages. $30), a far more intelligent, fair-minded and informative book than Levine's.

The spirit of a time does not change on its own, by some mystic volition. Nor do time's tempers, without intervention from outside heat or annealing force. It was not, of course, handfuls of 1960s radicals who went and did that - it was regiments of them.

False victory

Levine declares victory, again and again, throughout his book. He fails to seize the other half of Sen. George Aiken's famous solution to the war in Vietnam: Declare victory and get out. Levine clings on, garrulously celebrating his victory:

"All of these developments created an atmosphere less supportive to ideas of a unified core curriculum devoted to promulgating the dominance of a single cultural stream that would explain the United States to its people, whether that curriculum was dominated by classics or by Western Civ. The appealingly simple syllogistic universe and solutions of Robert Hutchins and his colleagues appeared less and less credible."

It will be recalled that Levine teaches history, not English.

In dismissing the complaints about multiculturalism and PC tyrannies by such figures as former Librarian of Congress Daniel Boorstin, Arthur Schlesinger Jr., C. Vann Woodward of Yale, and Gertrude Himmelfarb, Levine sneeringly trivializes the doubts and the debate itself: "Too much interest in the people and their culture, it seemed, was like that fatal first glass of beer the prohibitionists used to warn about: it made it impossible for one to experience and appreciate the higher things in life."

Levine's smugness is excelled only by the boorishness of his prose.

The book's title is lifted whole, of course, from "The Closing of the American Mind," by Allan Bloom (Simon and Schuster, 393 pages, $10.95) which has sold more than 1 million copies since 1987.

Read it, if you haven't. Then read Levine, if you must, and compare. No contest.

Pub Date: 9/15/96

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