The centre fights back

Lynn Hunt

  • Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking by David Bromwich
    Yale, 296 pp, £20.00, October 1992, ISBN 0 300 05702 4
  • Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts can Revitalise American Education by Gerald Graff
    Norton, 224 pp, £13.95, March 1993, ISBN 0 393 03424 0

Thanks to David Mamet’s new play Oleanna, the distracted, bumbling and self-regarding male professor has now become the archetypal victim of political correctness. Mamet’s John is victimised by Carol, the ultimate female intellectual mediocrity who gets her revenge on his patronising didacticism by turning him in to the university tenure committee on grounds of sexual impropriety. Professors beware: the stupid, the lazy and the obtuse among the young now have shadowy but powerful ‘groups’ helping them to get back at their supercilious, ironic and knowing elders. The stakes in the perennial tug-of-war between students and professors have risen to dizzying new heights.

Enter Professor Bromwich stage right and Professor Graff stage left. Confronted with the political morality play of John and Carol, Bromwich would hardly be surprised: he abhors everything that has to do with the ‘group thinking’ of his subtitle. He and Mamet seem to be on the same wavelength, except that Bromwich’s has no sexual charge. Graff would be perplexed by the drama but in the end reassured that his own diagnosis is correct: we need more honest discussion of our differences. Graff sounds very much like John, who, in his losing battle to save his skin, insists to Carol: ‘I don’t know that I can teach you about education. But I know that I can tell you what I think about education, and then you decide.’ Unfortunately for John – and perhaps by implication for Graff – this ploy doesn’t work.

Bromwich and Graff wrote their books to preclude the kind of travesty of justice and judgment that Mamet highlights. They want to shift the ground of the political correctness debate away from the now predictable jousting between right-wing traditionalist complainers, on the one hand, and left-wing multiculturalist thought-police (as the extremists describe each other), on the other. Those who know the Mamet play, whatever their opinion of it, or those who followed that other great moral setpiece of American politics, the Thomas-Hill hearings, will be disappointed to find no gender echoes in these books. In their endeavour to recast the American culture wars the two English professors keep their distance from die issues of sexual and racial power and focus instead on the safer terrain of books and interpretative perspectives.

This stance is not without its rewards. Those who have followed the bewildering, seemingly unending conflicts about the role of the university in transmitting or repudiating Western culture might well welcome the new breed of centrists, if only out of confusion, boredom or exhaustion. The danger is that this resurgence of the political and pedagogical centre will mark a turning-point that fails to turn. Politically, the centre has a hard time holding itself together when its identity is defined largely negatively. And the issues of power – not the professor in front of his class but the professor with his female student in his office – are not about to go away.

English departments have been at the centre of much recent controversy – over the question of canons, over ‘theory’ and over the effort to incorporate minority cultures – African-American, Hispanic, women and gays – into the curriculum. As Bromwich reminds us, only literature departments are asked to teach a canon of classics from one generation to another, and so find themselves central to debates about what in a culture is enduring. In history and philosophy, the great names of the past often slumber in oblivion or in unpopular courses on the history of the discipline – Michelet, for instance, is read more often in literature courses than in history. Bromwich and Graff agree that something is desperately wrong in the university and in American culture at large, but disagree about the source of the problem and the solution to it.

The full text of this book review is only available to subscribers of the London Review of Books.

You are not logged in