Books: Readings

December 02, 1992 5 min read

Gore Vidal’s newly published memoir of his early life draws on two sources of power and imagination from those years: the political gossip that filled his Washington home (his grandfather was a U.S. senator) and motion pictures. His exploration of the impact of film leads him to the following suggestion that educators rely more on the visual--that they literally (to use the title phrase from his book) “screen’’ history:

I would make history the spine of the mandatory 12 years of state-imposed indoctrination. Although, ideally, “reading skills '' should be improved, this is not going to happen for the third generation of TV-watchers, as well as computer-masters. Therefore, let us be bold. Let us screen history.

In the 1st grade, I would begin with all the theories--scientific, mythical, religious--of the origins of the cosmos and of man. This always fascinates the very young, with innumerable big bangs and flashes of lightning on the screen. I would then proceed for 12 years to teach--that is, screen--in chronological order, the entire history of the human race, east and west as well as north and south. Along the way mathematics and the sciences would naturally enter the curriculum as they entered our common racial history. The delicate issue of sex would be included as part of man’s growing knowledge of biology and of the development of medicine.

I have always found it curious that the two things a human being must cope with all his life, his body and his money, are never explained to him at school. Few adults ever know where their liver is until too late, and few ever know where their money is--until the savings-and-loan system collapses.

By the last year of high school, the young adult would know pretty much where the human race (as well as his tribe) had been in time and space; and where it now is. So much general knowledge might even inspire him to show interest in where we are going or could go.

During the 12 years, those of a scientific bent would be encouraged and various additional courses made available to them. Those interested in the arts would be sternly discouraged from pursuing any of the arts. This will save many people from lifelong disappointment while limiting production, in the most Darwinian way, to the born artist who cannot be discouraged. As for the universities, I would promptly fire any teacher who went to work for the National Security State. I would also encourage them to teach the young.

Since future classrooms are bound to show more and more history on film, I think it a good idea to make sure that the greatest art is employed in screening not only Lincoln but Confucius and the Buddha. Yes, I would encourage reading and writing for those so disposed, but the generality will get their worldview on screen as they now get everything else. Let us face the shift from linear type to audiovisual the way that our 5th-century B.C. ancestors were obliged to do in China, India, Persia, Greece, as each culture, simultaneously shifted from the oral tradition to the written text. Where do I stand in all this? Well, I am a creature of the written word, and I only go to the movies for fun.

Screening History, by Gore Vidal. Copyright 1992 by Gore Vidal. Reprinted by permission of Harvard University Press. All rights reserved.

The University of Chicago professor of English Gerald Graff takes on the “political correctness’’ debate in Beyond the Culture Wars. His main thesis, encapsulated in the excerpt below, is that the inclusion of multicultural perspectives in the curriculum need not be in neat, isolated chunks; teaching the conflicts of our culture is the best route to understanding all aspects of it--and to revitalizing education at all levels:

[I]t is a mistake to institutionalize “cultural diversity’’ as a set of separate course requirements, as numerous campuses today are attempting to do. If the very idea of cultural diversity implies dialogue and debate rather than isolation and marginalization, then non-Western culture needs to be put into dialogue with Western culture, if only to see how much meaning these terms have. Simply asking students to cover a certain number of units of each is an evasion of such dialogue. While in one way it constitutes an innovation, in a deeper way it replicates one of the most deadening aspects of educational tradition.

Conservatives are right, then, to argue that today’s curriculum is the result of political bargaining and trade-offs rather than a commonly shared educational philosophy. But what conservatives deplore has been the state of the curriculum for almost a century now. The curriculum was not free from politics until the 60’s, only then to be suddenly overtaken by them. Rather, as the curriculum has been democratized, its political rivalries have become more dramatic and openly political.

Instead of blaming the incoherence of the curriculum on politics--as if this were not itself a political tactic--we would behave more productively if we were to try to exploit the conflicts of principle that underlie our political conflicts and tap their unused educational potential. For contrary to the assumption that has dominated the recent debate, politics need not be a corrupting intrusion into the purity of principled educational thought. Political conflict at its best is fought out as a battle of ideas, arguments, and principles.

It is when the principles underlying institutional politics are buried from public view that those politics tend to become unedifying, since differences then express themselves in rancor, calumny, and insult rather than in principled argument.

Instead of endlessly lamenting the instrusion of politics into the curriculum, we would do better to bring into the curriculum itself whatever may be instructive in the clashes of political and philosophical principles that have shaped it. The lament itself bespeaks a poverty of imagination, unable as it is to imagine how conflict, disagreement, and difference might themselves become a source of educational and cultural coherence--indeed, the appropriate source of coherence for a democratic society.

Beyond the Culture Wars, by Gerald Graff. Copyright 1992 by Gerald Graff. Reprinted by permission of W.W. Norton & Company Inc. All rights reserved.

A version of this article appeared in the December 02, 1992 edition of Education Week as Books: Readings


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