While political battles rage over why Johnny cannot read, the teachers of Johnny’s teachers enjoy virtual immunity from public scrutiny. Their intellectual profile remains invisible to the public eye. In a sense, this is understandable. They were educated in the rarefied atmosphere of this country’s great universities where the life of the mind is protected by the rules of academic freedom and by the abstractness of ideas advanced in research journals. In the eyes of the public, what goes on at such universities is a matter for specialists to discuss. A concerned parent merely talks of the desirability of more English and history courses. He cannot tell the difference between courses which question foundational epistemology and postulate incommensurability of hermeneutics, and those which question dialectical epistemology and proclaim the identity principle. Nor is he interested in such distinctions. He will see nothing wrong in teaching “high philosophy” or “critical thinking” (which is what he assumes both kinds of courses teach) to his son or daughter. Parents have battled over high school textbooks but not over the books used at universities. The fact of life is that for an average parent (and for an average university trustee), Friedrich Nietzsche looks just as good as John Locke, and Richard Rorty seems as impressive as Aristotle.
However, conservatives are converging toward a consensus that the teachers of Johnny’s teachers should get more than a cursory glance and should be offered more substantial criticism than one dealing with “too many education courses.” An awareness is emerging that subject courses in the humanities do not always teach what the parents think they teach. The many years of abetting the use of American university campuses as incubators for radical leftist ideas have borne fruit.
In “The Question of Educational Work” (1921), Georg Lukacs called for “penetration of all fields of knowledge by the spirit of revolutionary Marxism.” It seems that in the 1980’s, the American academy still responds generously to this call. Times have changed and the Stalinist version of Marxist orthodoxy is not proffered anymore, but much of what is being proffered would have warmed Lukacs’s Stalinist heart.
In accordance with Lukacs’s recommendation, many humanities courses today reflect the point of view of academies whom Lukacs called the new intellectuals: those who perceive the traditional philosophical and literary canons as riddled with hidden prejudices and blind spots, who proclaim that humanistic history is one of social and political struggle, and who posit as the principal thesis of their teaching and research that humanistic knowledge ultimately derives from social and political assumptions. Not all of these new intellectuals subscribe to orthodox Marxism but their methodology is heavily influenced by Marxist thought. These academics announce to students that their epistemological heritage has collapsed and that Heidegger, Nietzsche, Marx, Derrida, and Rorty have arrived to replace it. Such propositions are presented to undergraduate students who have not yet reflected seriously on the concepts of substance and objectivity which were historically the first to manifest themselves to the human mind and on which our civilization rests. What filters down from the arguments of these philosophers to the untutored undergraduate mind is not a certain dynamism and center lessness of their original vision (arguably useful to contemplate as part of the total human vision of the world), but rather a vulgarized version of their thought: that man is deprived of an essential nature, that he is malleable and must be perceived as part of a social network rather than as an entity in himself. This theoretical framework is then imposed upon the literary and historical texts of our civilization. Methodology comes first and the reading of the basic Western texts, second.
Lukacs put “method itself at the center of our educational work.” A report (released on October 1, 1984) of the Workshop on Interpreting the Humanities sponsored by the Woodrow Wilson National Fellowship Foundation at Princeton appears to echo Lukacs in its total concentration on methodology as opposed to subject matter. Not a word is said about which works of our rich heritage should be studied. Instead, the report concentrates on the epistemological ideas of recent philosophers which have barely congealed in the research journals. The organizers make no bones about what they wanted to achieve: instead of trying to “reclaim the humanistic legacy,” as did the recent NEH report, they set out to interpret. To interpret what? Presumably what they call “the traditional canons … riddled with hidden prejudices and blind spots.” They had learned the conclusions of their interpretations in advance. The participants were 28 college teachers representing a variety of institutions, and they read works by Richard Rorty, Clifford Geertz, Thomas Kuhn, Stanley Fish, and other recent interpreters of humanities and social sciences.
The conclusion offers a consensus that: There is a need to broaden … the humanities by integrating class, gender, race, and non-Western culture into the curriculum … . Strategies … need to be pursued … to teach [students] to be not consumers but creators of knowledge.
According to the report, the participants were deeply concerned about “the danger of moral indoctrination “at colleges and universities. They sympathetically considered Richard Rorty’s nonfoundationalist view of knowledge and the possibility that “knowledge [may be] a social artifact determined by the ethos of a given community.”
What was the goal of the workshop? According to the report, it was “to empower participants as agents of change on their own campuses. “The workshop has generated” a network of dedicated teachers who can share information about courses and methods with each other. The report concludes with a suggestion that the networking might be extended to include “teachers at the secondary and junior college level as well.”
While this workshop was sufficiently academic to steer clear of political engagement, Reading Lists in Radical Social Sciences (The Union for Radical Political Economies, I982) plunges directly into political controversy. It consists of 180 pages of mostly Marxist works recommended for courses ranging from history and education to medicine and health. The books are arranged into syllabi that have already been used at Harvard, the University of Massachusetts, Brown University, Rutgers University, Smith College, the New School for Social Research, and at many other places. For instance, Transition to Socialism I: Revolution ary Movements, offered in the Spring of 1980 at the State University of New York-Binghamton in the department of sociology, begins with “the classical Marxist writings on national and social revolutions,” then moves on to the case studies and ends with “the relationship of classes to political organization [as] a central ingredient to the process of change which is envisioned as occurring within a world historic framework. “I wonder whether the taxpayers in the state of New York are really interested in having this revolutionary lore propagandized at their expense.
My 20 years’ teaching experience at American universities indicates that many university professors feel that there is something wrong with this kind of emphasis in undergraduate education and that the vision of the world advanced by the new intellectuals does not correspond to theirs. They are, however, intimidated and unsure of themselves. They are afraid of being lumped together, with the know-nothings who blithely ignore the life of the mind of the last hundred years. Temperamentally, they are often unsuited for political fights. They used to think that there existed a gentlemen’s agreement about what should be taught to undergraduates and what should be left for discussion in research journals. Now they find out that the highly debatable ideas which made their way into the consciousness of the new intellectuals are to be passed onto undergraduate students (and even to high school students) as tried and true.
Objections to the takeover of undergraduate teaching in the humanities and social sciences by the new intellectuals often shipwreck on those parts of the “new intellectualism” which sound perfectly logical and unobjectionable when presented out of context. For instance, among the conclusions of the Workshop on Interpretation are such hoary truths as “learning is an active, not a passive exercise … moral reasoning [is] an integral part of humanities … assumptions shape definitions of truth.” Is there anyone who would deny any of these propositions? To take on the third proposition, one’s conception of truth obviously depends on one’s a priori views. What the workshop overlooked, however, was the fact that throughout the millennia of Western history we have shared certain very fundamental assumptions about reality, and that the teaching of them should come first, and the questioning of them, second. From the fact that these assumptions have been abandoned by some recent philosophers, it does not follow that Western history and culture should be taught “from the outside,” as if its assumptions had long been proven false or as if they were no better than, say, the assumptions underlying the culture of the Mongols or that of the Ottoman Empire. The time to introduce Richard Rorty to students (not to speak of Karl Marx and Friedrich Nietzsche) is not in introductory humanities courses.
But the report, the readings, and many programs which belong to the same network do not concern themselves with the tradition. They propose first to introduce to students those philosophers who are skeptical of the Western tradition, and then, when the students’ mental habits have been established, perhaps to return to the “traditional canons.”
Common sense and long practice have taught us that one should first teach chronological history, mainstream philosophy, and the masterpieces of native literature before branching out to other points of view. This unwritten agreement is being resolutely attacked by those who promote the new intellectualism. The general public often does not see it, because academic takeovers are camouflaged by the abstruse vocabulary of ivory-tower discussions. Yet at many universities, students taking humanities courses are corralled into a pen marked by the works of Karl Marx, Martin Heidegger, and Friedrich Nietzsche, as well as by the more recent and less distinguished subjectivists: Michel Foucault, Richard Rorty, Stanley Fish. Prestigious foundations sponsor the development of programs which teach students how to distrust the civilization to which they owe both their material well-being and their intellectual sustenance. These are the same charitable foundations whose top officials publicly express concern over the decline of educational standards. At lower levels, however, grants are dispensed to sustain ideas which have negative value for undergraduate education. While such authorities condone and support, can parents fail to follow suit? Of course, they simply demand more humanities courses without asking what kind of vision is being promoted in them. They assume that there still exists a gentlemen’s agreement about what kind of acculturation such courses provide. But if the leaders of the Workshop on Interpreting the Humanities have their way, Humanities 101 might be designed to alienate students from their culture rather than to deepen their participation in it.
According to the Report of the National Endowment for the Humanities released on November 26, 1984, one can graduate from 72 percent of American colleges without having studied American literature or history. The outcry for more humanities courses is likely to grow louder as an awareness of these and other figures grows in society. The hundreds of “new intellectuals” with tenure at American universities stand ready to promote “the new literacy.” Parents and trustees are cowed by the distinguished names and titles in the syllabus and remain largely unaware that the most popular prof may be the one who teaches students contempt for their own culture.
The building of an awareness of such problems is difficult because the general educated public is remarkably nonideological. Inquiries into how the humanities are taught are likely to be confused with a call for better teaching, for a more dazzling presentation, or more “relating” to students; in other words, with a comment on the technicalities of teaching. But technicalities are the least urgent problem of the day.
The teachers of our teachers being thus taught, they teach the future teachers likewise. The future teachers in turn become disoriented philosophically and ready to be skeptical of the structuring of human experience that constitutes a foundation on which Western societies have built their unprecedented successful and comfortable present. The networking of the radical philosophy goes on while university presidents engage in fund-raising and their administrative assistants settle arguments about the place of football in academia and debate complaints about parking tickets.