Savitri Era of those who adore, Om Sri Aurobindo and The Mother.

Thursday, October 04, 2007

There’s widespread concern that the humanities are losing ground

Revisiting the Canon Wars By RACHEL DONADIO NYT: September 16, 2007
Twenty years ago, when Reagan and Gorbachev were negotiating the end of the cold war and college cost far less than it does today, a book arrived like a shot across the bow of academia: “The Closing of the American Mind,” by Allan Bloom, a larger-than-life political philosophy professor at the University of Chicago. Subtitled “How Higher Education Has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today’s Students,” it spent more than a year on the best-seller list, and today there are more than 1.2 million copies in print. Saul Bellow, who had urged his brilliant and highly idiosyncratic friend to write the book in the first place, wrote the introduction. (Bellow later cast Bloom as the main character in “Ravelstein.”)
Bloom’s book was full of bold claims: that abandoning the Western canon had dumbed down universities, while the “relativism” that had replaced it had “extinguished the real motive of education, the search for a good life”; that rock music “ruins the imagination of young people”; that America had produced no significant contributions to intellectual life since the 1950s; and that many earlier contributions were just watered-down versions of Heidegger, Nietzsche, Weber, Freud and other Continental thinkers. For Bloom, things had gone wrong in the ’60s, when universities took on “the imperative to promote equality, stamp out racism, sexism and elitism (the peculiar crimes of our democratic society), as well as war,” he wrote, because they thought such attempts at social change “possessed a moral truth superior to any the university could provide.”
“The Closing of the American Mind” hit the scene at a time when universities were embroiled in the so-called canon wars, in which traditionalists in favor of centering the curriculum on classic works of literature faced off against multiculturalists who wanted to include more works by women and members of minorities. In early 1988, students at Stanford held a rally with Jesse Jackson, where they shouted, “Hey hey, ho ho, Western culture’s got to go,” to protest a required Western civilization course. (The faculty quickly voted to replace it with a requirement including more works by women and minorities.) Bloom’s book shared space at the top of the best-seller list with E. D. Hirsch’s “Cultural Literacy” (1987), which argued that progressive education had left Americans without a grasp of basic knowledge. It also inspired further conservative attacks against the university, including Roger Kimball’s “Tenured Radicals” (1990) and Dinesh D’Souza’s “Illiberal Education” (1991).
Although it had great popular appeal, “The Closing of the American Mind” did not go over well among academics. Bloom’s detractors criticized everything from his interpretation of the Greeks to his views on youth culture and feminism, which he saw as corrosive influences. “The amazing thing about Allan Bloom’s book was not just its prodigious commercial success ... but the depth of the hostility and even hatred that it inspired among a large number of professors,” John Searle, the Berkeley philosophy professor and former proponent of the ’60s radical Free Speech Movement wrote in The New York Review of Books in 1990. Searle also noted a “certain irony” that the Western canon, from Socrates to Marx, which had once been seen as “liberating,” was now seen as “oppressive.” “Precisely by inculcating a critical attitude,” Searle wrote, “the ‘canon’ served to demythologize the conventional pieties of the American bourgeoisie and provided the student with a perspective from which to critically analyze American culture and institutions. ... The texts once served an unmasking function; now we are told that it is the texts which must be unmasked.”
Today it’s generally agreed that the multiculturalists won the canon wars. Reading lists were broadened to include more works by women and minority writers, and most scholars consider that a positive development. Yet 20 years later, there’s a more complicated sense of the costs and benefits of those transformations. Here, the lines aren’t drawn between right and left in the traditional political sense, but between those who defend the idea of a distinct body of knowledge and texts that students should master and those who focus more on modes of inquiry and interpretation. However polarizing Bloom may have been, many of the issues he raised still resonate — especially when it comes to the place of the humanities on campus and in the culture.
Debates over what an educated person should know go back to the 19th century in America, when teaching any literature beyond the Greek and Roman classics was still controversial. But today, there’s widespread concern that the humanities are losing ground — as well as intellectual cachet, students and financing — to the hard sciences on the one hand and business on the other. A 2006 report [PDF] on higher education commissioned by Secretary of Education Margaret Spellings, which raised hackles with its proposal to introduce No Child Left Behind-style standards testing in universities, hardly mentioned the humanities. At the same time, several state legislatures have debated an “academic bill of rights” that would provide a grievance procedure against “political discrimination” on campus — a measure proposed by David Horowitz, a Marxist-turned-conservative critical of what he sees as academia’s left-wing bias.
All this reflects what the philosopher Martha Nussbaum today describes as a “loss of respect for the humanities as essential ingredients of democracy.” Nussbaum, who panned Bloom’s book in The New York Review in 1987, teaches at the University of Chicago, which like Columbia has retained a Western-based core curriculum requirement for undergraduates. But on some campuses, “the main area of conflict is trying to make sure that the humanities get adequate funding from the central administration,” Nussbaum wrote in an e-mail message, adding, “Our nation, like most nations of the world, is devaluing the humanities vis-à-vis science and technology, so constant vigilance is required lest these disciplines be cut.” Louis Menand, a Harvard English professor and New Yorker staff writer who serves on Harvard’s curriculum reform committee, concurs: “The big question for humanists is, How do we explain why what we do is important for people who aren’t humanists? That’s been tough, really tough.” ... 1 2 3 Rachel Donadio is a writer and editor at the Book Review. Related Reading List: Books on the Canon Wars (September 16, 2007) Review: 'The Closing of the American Mind,' by Allan Bloom (April 5, 1987)

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