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.

David Bromwich wants to beat a narrow, highly individualistic path between what he describes as the self-satisfied, left-wing culture of the academy and the mindlessly rightwing culture that dominated American politics between 1980 and 1992 (at least). He begins, however, like all the neo-traditionalists, with an attack on ‘the new fundamentalists’ of the Left, those ‘bureaucrats of sexual, racial, ethnic and religious purity’ who enforce authoritarian ‘group thinking’ on the rest of us in defence of the cultural identity of oppressed minorities. He then tries to balance this with an attack on the political culture of Reaganism, whose ethic of greed and political cynicism has, he claims, discouraged serious thinking on all sides, whether by absorbing its own adherents in the rush to make money or by inducing a knee-jerk reaction on the Left. Reaganism’s defence of tradition may have appealed to the members of the President’s kitchen cabinet but it had no real foundation beyond a spurious link between morality and religious faith. Bromwich’s quite nasty attacks on Reagan – whose great work was ‘the education of a whole society down to his level’ – mask many confusions in his analysis of the Right: why, for example, should a defence of tradition be associated with an ethic of greed and cynicism? Does the fact that Reagan’s ‘every unprompted utterance was a testimony to the amiability of thoughtlessness’ have any necessary cultural consequences?

Bromwich bases most of his analysis of the Right on the writings of George Will and William Bennett, leaders of the ‘reactionary priesthood’ but not exactly intellectual giants. He argues that both clutched so-called traditional values obsessively to their breasts because they believed that only a traditional culture could provide a reliable bulwark against social change, secularism and moral decay. They propounded a traditional culture wrapped in a religious mantle and closed off from all criticism. It is the religious aspect that particularly bothers Bromwich, for he turns out to be a ‘real’ conservative himself. His aim is to rehabilitate Burkean conservatism (the likes of Will and Bennett ‘do not deserve’ Burke as a precursor) as the basis for ‘a liberal idea of tradition’, which for some might sound oxymoronic rather than centrist. They will find the distinction between Bromwich and Will – on all matters except religion – less than clear-cut.

Bromwich makes a good case for his position in the one chapter in which he drops his litany of complaints about others and defends his own version of tradition. He casts Hume, Burke and Samuel Butler as progenitors of a particularly malleable and therefore valuable idea of a secular tradition. This is tradition as a form of cultural self-knowledge that must be continually rethought and reformed but also revered. Thus Bromwich rejects both the neo-traditionalism that argues for an uncritical devotion to a few unchanging texts and ideas, and the ever suspicious leftish iconoclasm that sees these same texts and ideas merely as ideo logical window-dressing for Western racism, sexism, heterosexism and imperialism. When he attempts to link Right and Left Bromwich is on much less firm ground. He claims, for instance, that contemporary theorists of literature are Reagan’s ‘most faithful disciples’, given that the President ‘had at his command not a fact of history more than two weeks old’. In other words, the theorists and the President shared an obsession with the present and an unwillingness to learn from the past. In a twist on Tocqueville’s argument about Ancien Régime France, Bromwich insists that literature departments have become the site of political controversy only because the US has no real politics to offer its citizens. Literary critics have taken up the slack, with consequences nearly as disastrous as those that befell the French Revolution in 1793.

What is perhaps most striking about Bromwich’s often provocative account is the peevishness of its tone. Behind his rejection of both right and left-wing enthusiasms is an undisguised fury at what has happened to his profession. Often the sheer blindness of his rage makes the argument difficult to follow. Two words which recur again and again may offer some clues as to its direction: ‘professionalism’ and – less expected – ‘culture’. ‘Professional’ is a compliment Bromwich now refuses because, according to him, ‘a professional is someone who is proud of belonging to an opinion-community,’ and ‘professionalism is a deliberate refinement of the attitudes which make for mutual subjection within that community.’ The emphasis is on subjection – the loss of individuality within a supposed community or culture. With their concern for ‘relevance’ and their insistent rejection of tradition, ‘the prolessionalists’ (largely leftists, it seems) in the academy have erased the notions of good, beauty and truth that made intellectual life a joy in the past, and have left only the concept of culture, the very idea of which Bromwich denounces as ‘close to a lie’.

Most of us probably think of culture as a relatively innocuous term, more a loose fitting coat than a smothering blanket. Not Bromwich. For him ‘culture’ always conveys something oppressive, authoritarian and muzzling: ‘Anyone who has ever taught a book that mattered to himself or herself ... cannot have felt that an idea of culture was at stake. It hardly comes into the matter. One’s relation to a book is personal.’ Bromwich doesn’t doubt that culture exists – in museums, libraries or group rituals: but this is not what concerns the interpreter of a book. He hates the idea of treating authors ‘as a lump sum’ and readers ‘in the mass’. Literature for him is the breaking-up of group images, the dismantling of culture’s effect, not its instantiation.

Bromwich’s spleen against the professionalised culture-mongers takes him far afield. He denounces the new old boys who sport leather jackets and the new old girls who don Post-Modern black on black. He hates his generation’s bullying of their elders, their self-pity, and especially their ‘salaried demagogues, habitués of the think tank, and artists of the perpetual leave’ (this from the director of a well-known research centre). Presumably, if this generation had not succeeded so well within the institution, he would have been less scornful of ‘institutionism’. He concludes that it would be better not to teach literature at all than to teach it in the new demystifying modes. Bromwich, it turns out, is not a centrist asking us all to try and get on with each other.

It is with some relief, then, that one turns to Graff, who feels altogether more sanguine about recent developments and isn’t much bothered by what his colleagues wear to class. Graff sees the culture wars as a sign of vitality, of possible rejuvenation. He agrees that something is wrong, but he attributes the sickness to a ‘communicative disorder’ in a society shell-shocked by cultural fragmentation and conflict. The problem is conflict avoidance, not the conflict itself. If we faced up to the sources of our disagreement, he argues, we would feel less distressed. Graff’s proposed therapy is to teach the conflict in the classroom.

He, too, tries to be even-handed, but where Bromwich’s centrism gravitates toward the right, his is pulled to the left. He shows that the Right has exaggerated the changes in the literary canon. Shakespeare has not been expelled from the curriculum in favour of minority authors; for every student in his department who reads Alice Walker’s The Color Purple, 83 read Shakespeare. He also defends the current trends toward professionalisation and politicisation. Professionalisation has gone hand in hand with the opening up of American universities, and since the early 20th century (not just since the Sixties, he insists) has lived in continuing tension with the old humanist ideal, but the tension can be fruitful. Politicisation has become the bugbear of the Right but the Right, Graff argues, has its politics too. George Will and Lynne Cheney had their own Reaganite agenda when they attacked the so-called politicisation of the humanities (by which they meant the rising influence of the Left). In any case, Graff maintains, the solution is to turn conflict into community by debating the issues openly in the classroom. They won’t go away by themselves.

Graff already has his critics, for his argument has been adumbrated in earlier publications. Bromwich rejects the Graffian mode of compromise as simply a gimmick to smuggle unwanted, hyper-professionalised debates into the classroom for the benefit of teachers who know nothing else or have lost all sense of what it means to read with care. It looks reasonable as a programme, Bromwich concedes, but hides shallowness and solipsism. Today’s debates will soon evaporate, and the study of them won’t have given students any useful ways of thinking for the future.

Bromwich has a point here, though he fails to develop it. It is the dialogue itself that Graff cherishes. He likes combat. He insists that teaching the conflict has nothing to do with moral relativism or denying the existence of truth, but offers no clues to his own values or his understanding of the truth and no intellectual defence of his position beyond expediency (and more justifiably, but only implicitly, civility). He simply believes that the truth will emerge through the process of debate.

Graff seems to deny even the desirability of consensus. What he wants instead is a common ground of discussion and a common curriculum experience that incorporates ‘the dynamism and dissonance’ of the 20th century: ‘We need to distinguish between a shared body of national beliefs, which democracies can do nicely without, and a common national debate about our many differences, which we now need more than ever,’ he concludes. But debate assumes that we can agree on many things: the need for courses in English literature, for instance; on what should – more or less – be taught in them; and even on the relevant questions for debate. Doesn’t the mere fact of admitting a proposition into debate legitimise it in some fashion? Should those who dispute the existence of the Holocaust now have equal time in every classroom?

Graff makes the conflict in the university seem unthreatening. He sees a much greater chasm between intellectuals and non-intellectuals (counting himself among the latter until quite recently) than between intellectuals of the Left and Right. The good side of this is that Graff empathises with the legions of students struggling to make sense of the books they are assigned. The less appealing side is the facile assumption that problems would disappear if only every school tried out the curricular reform that he proposes in his final chapter.

In the end, these two books are more symptoms than cures. But what are they symptoms of? Bromwich denies that the recent disputes are the necessary fall-out from the dramatic opening up of the American university. Graff puts more emphasis on this, but seems to find it relatively unproblematic. A few facts – absent from both books – make the dimensions of the challenge clear. Since 1950, enrolment in US colleges and universities has grown from under three million to over fourteen million, and the number of institutions of higher education has increased from two thousand to three and a half thousand. Public universities now enrol 80 per cent of students as opposed to 50 per cent alter World War Two. Women now make up 51 per cent of students (up from 37 per cent around 1950), ethnic minorities 17 per cent (up from 10 per cent). Perhaps even more significant, faculty numbers have expanded from around two hundred thousand to around eight hundred thousand. Higher education is very big business. The economic downturn and tight budgets in universities have masked the underlying reality of an enormous expansion of educational opportunities.

These figures do not by themselves explain the storm. The inevitable conflict between an increasingly secular and cosmopolitan intellectual culture inside the university and an increasingly hostile, evangelical religious culture outside it has added fuel to the fires already set smouldering by the difficulty Americans have had in adjusting to economic decline and a changing demographic mix. The growing gap between rich and poor has been exacerbated by an equally striking difference in the fortunes of the educated and the relatively uneducated. Much of the recent controversy has been generated either by or about those six hundred thousand extra professors and instructors, and their millions of new students. Is it surprising that they have wanted new books and new subjects? Is it surprising that we fight among ourselves, especially when resources begin to decline? After all, the intellectual Right was a product of the same period of expansion as Bromwich and Graff.

There is no instant cure for the ills of the American university. In fact, it might be argued that the disease itself has been salutary. The Left had become complacent and even arrogant (it has, however, never been anywhere near dominant); the Right has now had a chance to show its true colours in response. The issues have become clearer, not because they have entered the classroom, but because they have entered public discussion. Continuing debate on the subjects of professionalisation, cultural identity and the grounds of debate themselves won’t magically lessen tension or produce a greater truth, but any democratic society needs to keep its values and goals under constant review. In this sense both Bromwich and Graff are right: in order to determine where we might go from here, we need to know what we have at our disposal (Bromwich’s liberal tradition), and we need to think it through for ourselves, individually and collectively, by a process of debate. But societies only endure if their members have enough shared values to make that possible. Otherwise they end up like Carol and John.