Books: Curriculum and Culture

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The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take.

The pejorative phrase "political correctness" entered the lexicon during the 1980s by way of the college campus. It was attached to a range of beliefs, from feminism to multiculturalism, whose rigid application had become to some an oppressive intellectual catechism. No one expressed the rage of traditionalists toward the "politically correct" mantra better than the late Allan Bloom, whose 1987 bestseller The Closing of the American Mind argued forcefully for a return to the academic tenets that nurtured Western civilization.

Now, in a book with the deliberately evocative title The Opening of the American Mind, Lawrence W. Levine, a leading historian and scholar, has attempted to balance this ideological debate by recounting the two-centuries-long struggle over curriculum that preceded "political correctness":

"The debate over the canon is now, and has always been, a debate over the culture and over the course that culture should take. This insight may not help us determine which side in the debate to take, but it should enable us to fathom that it is not a debate between History and Expediency, the Sacred and the Profane, Permanence and Instability, the High and the Low, Culture and Vulgarity, the Really Correct and the Merely Politcally Correct.

"Nor is this debate an aberrant product of a debased society; it is the current chapter of a much older and continuing discussion about values, meanings, perspectives, and ways of comprehending ourselves and those around us. What we inside and outside the academe need to do is worry less about what any specific canon contains and more about the nature of canons themselves: how they are constituted, what they represent, and how and why they change. If we understood the canonical process and dynamic better than we do, if we had a truer comprehension of the canon's relationship to the larger culture, we would more clearly understand the process of change within the university--and within our society as well.

"The debate over the nature of the curriculum and the canon was paralleled by a debate that raged throughout the whole of American history over the nature of America itself and of American identity. In an immigrant country how did one become American and what in fact did that term mean in the first place? This debate has been integral to the debate over the curriculum and the canon. Who we are, where our culture derives from, and what it is composed of, all help determine our educational needs and goals. Multiculturalism may be a relatively new term, but the debate over multiculturalism is an old one that has occupied us from early in our existence as a people."

Beacon Press, 25 Beacon St., Boston, Mass. 02108; $20 hardcover, 224 pages.

I was not surprised that I loved the Western classics, but I was surprised by what they are.

David Denby, the film critic of New York magazine and a contributing editor of The New Yorker, went back to school at the age of 48 to savor for himself the masterpieces of the Western tradition and to discover, in the process of rereading them, his own stance in the campus "culture wars." In Great Books: My Adventures With Homer, Rousseau, Woolf, and Other Indestructible Writers of the Western World, he gives a lively guide to the towering works and authors of the Western tradition and asks himself why so many people are so contentious about these masters' continued dominance of course curricula. Part of his self-revelation is contained in the excerpt below:

"Reading again, I was not surprised that I loved the Western classics, but I was surprised by what they are. The books are less a conquering army than a kingdom of untamed beasts, at war with one another and with readers. Reading the books, the students receive an ethically strenuous education, a set of bracing intellectual habits, among them skepticism and self-criticism. They may be impelled to advocacy and belief as well, but they will not be impelled to any doctrine in particular--except perhaps the notion that a Western education, opening many doors at once, is an extraordinarily useful experience. ...

"These books--or any such representative selection--speak most powerfully about what a human being can be. They dramatize the utmost any of us is capable of in love, suffering, and knowledge. They offer the most direct representation of the possibilities of civil existence and the disasters of its dissolution. ... The core-curriculum courses jar so many student habits, violate so many contemporary pieties, and challenge so many forms of laziness that so far from serving a reactionary function, they are actually the most radical courses in the undergraduate curriculum."

Simon & Schuster, 1230 Avenue of the Americas, New York, N.Y. 10020; $30 hardcover, 493 pages.

Vol. 16, Issue 10

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