While I recognize that Paul Gottfried and I clearly have philosophical differences on the nature and goals of education, I feel compelled to address one point in his review of my book in your May issue. Professor Gottfried correctly notes that I hold up the figure of Mark Van Doren of Columbia University as a personification of the humanistic scholarship and inspired teaching that is now found so rarely in the American academy. Gottfried animadverts that I fail to note that Van Doren “was a notorious apologist for Stalin.”

Since the rise of “political correctness” to the forefront of the public’s consciousness I have often noted that two groups tend to misunderstand either its nature or what is at stake in the struggle against its hegemony in the university: liberals and conservatives. The tragedy of higher education, which I discuss at length in The Hollow Men and which Gottfried chooses not to mention, is less the ideology of the faculty than the loss of a tradition of academic ethics and integrity; the substitution of propaganda for the Socratic method, and dogma for the search for truth. Consider this description of Mark Van Doren in the 1930’s by no less a critic than Thomas Merton, who first took a class in English from Van Doren in 1935: “It was a class in English literature, and it had no special bias of any kind. It was simply about what it was supposed to be about: the English literature of the eighteenth century . . . It was because of this virtual scholasticism of Mark’s that he would never permit himself to fall into the naive errors of those who try to read some favorite private doctrine into every poet they like of every nation and age.”

If anything at all comes through Merton’s account it is that “political correctness” is not new in the American university—and that Mark Van Doren was its living antithesis. Even then. Van Doren was a rarity. Today he would be unlikely to win tenure in any major department of English.

It is true that Van Doren occasionally indulged in ludicrous politics, including what Jeffrey Hart (a student and admirer of Van Doren) calls his “popular front phase.” It was a phase that eventually passed and one that Van Doren later regretted. But the most important point to be made is that whatever Van Doren’s politics may have been, they never entered the classroom, nor did they affect the quality of the intellectual atmosphere he created through his teaching.

The enemies of the university are those who subordinate their academic mission to ideology and prostitute their integrity to advancing a dogmatic political line. Although we can take issue with some of his political utterings. Van Doren never did this. Gottfried’s smearing dismissal of Van Doren as ideologically unsound ignores this, and in doing so creates a standard that sounds depressingly like a political correctness of the right.

Gottfried does, however, make one thing quite clear. Although our campuses are imperiled by a New McCarthyism of the left, the old McCarthyism is alive and well, at least in the imagination of Paul Gottfried.

        —Charles J. Sykes
Milwaukee, WI

Mr. Gottfried Replies:

Were it not for Charles Sykes’ extended tribute to the greatness of Mark Van Doren, as illustrated by the willingness to have students read critics of liberal capitalism, I would never have noted Van Doren’s infatuation with Stalin. In fact this quirk matters less for me than it should for Mr. Sykes, who speaks in his book repeatedly of instilling “democratic values.” Not being of the same crusading mind-set, I favor educational diversity based on truly private institutions of higher learning. There Mark Van Doren, Allan Bloom, and Michael Levin might all find their places.

In my comments on Sykes’ book, I underlined the magnitude of our educational problems by pointing to those ideological uses to which “public-spirited” educators have put the Western civilization curriculum. Already at the beginning of the century Irving Babbitt was railing against the vulgarizers of humanistic studies, and he had in mind the advocates of the very curricular reforms that Sykes applauds. Western civilization courses, as typified by their insertion at Columbia in the context of a crusade for democracy, have always been both political and time bound. Sykes disregards this fact either out of ignorance or because of sympathy for the political doctrines associated with the curriculum he defends.

My observations dealt with historical trends and had nothing to do with trying to discredit Mark Van Doren as an English teacher. Nor should they be interpreted as support for Joe McCarthy or his brand of apocalyptic anticommunism. The older I get, the more I appreciate Frank Chodorov’s thoughts on a misguided politician. McCarthy might have done better to help pare down the welfare state instead of complaining about those who worked for it.