Just after receiving an invitation from the editor of Chronicles to write about the college humanities curriculum, I received a letter from a friend and ally in education reform. It expressed alarm that “I had gone over to the other side”—an opinion that started, according to his letter, when I declined to label myself a conservative in a Williams College symposium on the humanities. My reluctance was reported as craven apostasy by Roger Kimball in the New Criterion, and reprinted in his book Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education. My friend’s comment about the “other side” indicates succinctly the embattled mind-set in which the great curriculum wars over the preservation of our culture are now being fought. In this wartime atmosphere, declining to be labeled a conservative and “going over to the other side” are synonymous acts.

Within the space of a few weeks I was attacked from both sides of the battle lines with equal vigor, by Barbara Herrnstein Smith (a full-fledged “tenured radical” at Duke University) and by Roger Kimball (the bane of tenured radicals). The former scorned me as a conservative, the latter as an apostate and coward—possibly morally worse than the tenured radicals themselves. A special place in hell is reserved for trimmers.

In the current debate over the humanities curriculum, what is at stake may not be salvation but complexity. I freely grant that there comes a moment in political and intellectual affairs when complex and hesitant middle positions are unacceptable, and one has to choose sides in a shooting war. But it is a grave mistake to believe we have reached that point in the cultural debates in this country. Moreover, from the standpoint of education reform, which is my main concern, this polarization of positions, if persisted in, could deny the conservative point of view any substantive influence over the course that reform will take, as I shall momentarily explain.

But first I wish to deal with the connection between political polarization and apostasy. The subtext of my friend’s letter was: “He who is not with me is against me, and he who was with me (as I thought), but denies it, is a kind of Judas.” In this either/or atmosphere, the first casualties are subtlety and complexity. For example, take Mr. Kimball’s description of my apostasy in the ideologically uncharged sphere of interpretation theory. It was my supposed “recantation” at Williams, as reported by Kimball, that has made my friend and others believe that the “pressure” has gotten to me, and I have gone over to the “other” side.

Kimball’s account ran this way. I used to be an honorable defender of rationality and objectivity in literary scholarship. But now, to avoid unpopularity and the C-word, and to curry favor with the tenured radicals, I have abandoned my earlier positions and claim to hold views about interpretation that are scarcely to be distinguished from those of the tenured radicals themselves. Thus Kimball (in his book):

For someone as desperate as Professor Hirsch to disencumber himself from the label conservative, it must have been galling to be reminded of his former sins—especially by Derrida, an enormously celebrated writer whose entire oeuvre stands in the most glaring contradiction to Professor Hirsch’s own earlier ideas. Poor Professor Hirsch declared that people had once again been wrong to see him as a conservative, and then favored us with a little self-exposition according to which the argument of Validity in Interpretation was scarcely to be distinguished from the kind of relativism espoused by Stanley Fish.

Note first in this account, the tell-tale polarity of the either/or positions: Hirsch’s earlier ideas promoted objectivity and respect for the author’s meaning, and all right-thinking persons should agree with him. These earlier Hirschian ideas are set against the currently fashionable relativism of Fish and Derrida, from whom the recanting apostate Hirsch can now scarcely be distinguished. Ignoring the fact that I have continued to attack Derrida and Fish, Kimball does not pause to consider the details of what I said at Williams, any more than he considers the argument I made in Validity in Interpretation, to which I still adhere. To him, it was enough for me to say that my views on interpretation are not “conservative.” Bam! But, as I painstakingly explained to the audience in which Mr. Kimball sat, to call my views about interpretation “conservative” is not inherently objectionable to me; my objection was that to do so is simpleminded and untrue. As I wrote in Validity in Interpretation (which was at the time, in 1967, a much-attacked, antiestablishment book):

There is nothing in the nature of the text itself which requires the reader to set up the author’s meaning as his normative ideal. Any normative concept in interpretation implies a choice that is represented not by the nature of written texts but rather by the goal the interpreter sets himself It is a weakness in many descriptions of the interpretive process that this act of choice is disregarded and the process described as though the object of interpretation were somehow determined by the ontological status of texts themselves [the view Kimball ascribes to the early Hirsch] . . . The defense of recognitive interpretation often assumes that something in the nature of the text requires the meaning to be the stable and determinate meaning of an author. But the object of interpretation is precisely that which cannot be defined by the ontological status of a text, since the distinguishing characteristic of a text is that from it not just one but many disparate complexes of meaning can be construed.

As I pointed out to Mr. Kimball and others at Williams, that argument is neither conservative nor liberal, but is compelled by empirical facts about language over which no ideology has control. I further pointed out that language could be otherwise, and indeed some artificial languages are. But natural languages, as a matter of empirical fact, are semantically indeterminate. Therefore no metaphysical or divine imperative can guide the principles of interpretation. All that was no doubt too complex to convey in the heady atmosphere of ideological warfare at Williams. Nonetheless, what I said was true, and it was certainly no recantation. The Williams event is paradigmatic. Truths are getting shot down when they find themselves between the trenches—particularly when they are complex or ideologically nonpartisan.

Let me pursue this train of thought into the college curriculum debates. When Thomas Fleming asked me to write for Chronicles he may have had in mind such topics as whether the fall of John Locke and the rise of Frantz Fanon in the core curriculum at Stanford heralds a domino effect, or whether it is perhaps an act of symbolic defiance on a par with the 60’s male fashion of wearing long hair. By no means do I wish to evade that debate. Of course I believe it is absurd that students in one of the core strands at Stanford should be compelled to read Fanon instead of being compelled to read Locke. But that absurdity exists within a larger one, caused by miseducation in our schools: that adults should be compelled to study anything outside their areas of intellectual or professional interest.

I concede that even in different circumstances a case could be made for preserving distribution requirements for seventeen- and eighteen-year-olds, but I have also heard good arguments against this American tradition. It is a commonplace that European high-school graduates have already acquired the equivalent of our freshman and sophomore distribution requirements. In some nations that have good primary and secondary systems of education, university students aren’t required to study anything they do not wish to study. These students, when they graduate from college, are not noticeably less broadly educated than American college graduates. In a proper educational system for adults, the act of offering or taking a college course should ideally be a contractual arrangement in a free market—with the teacher stating accurately in advance both what will be taught and what demanded.

By the time they matriculate, college students in the United States should already know that Locke influenced the thinking of Madison, Jefferson, and other founders of our political arrangements. They needn’t know anything about Fanon. After a really good high-school education such as can be found in other countries, chemistry majors should not be compelled to pursue a deeper study of either Locke or Fanon unless they happen to have an interest in political theory. They should be encouraged, of course, to have broad interests and be given an opportunity to pursue them, but as Blake succinctly put it, “One law for lion and ox is oppression.”

It is, of course, an evasion of my assignment simply to describe what colleges ought to be like. I am aware that American colleges and universities have had to become remedial institutions, and we must make the most of the situation. Our colleges, having been required to become finishing schools, should try to perform their remedial functions as well as they can. This is where a scheme like Lynne Cheney’s 50 Hours: A Core Curriculum for College Students is a useful guide. I have a great deal to say about what the college humanities curriculum should be under these current conditions, which I hope will be temporary, and much of what I have to say might appeal to conservative readers. But I do not want to preach to the converted on this subject, particularly as there is an issue of greater consequence to the humanities in higher education than the humanities curriculum itself—namely the humanities in lower education.

Consider simply in quantitative terms the educational importance of the Stanford core curriculum. If every Stanford student had to study the same core texts, which is not the case, the common core would occupy only about 8 percent of the student’s college curriculum. Consider by contrast the humanities portion of the curriculum in lower education. The topics and ideas to be studied are almost all compulsory. In grades 1-6, the humanities component occupies about 70 percent of the curriculum. In grades 7 and 8, the percentage declines to about 60, and in high school to about 50 percent. In purely quantitative terms, early education in the humanities, contrasted with college, dominates by a ratio of 24 to 1. In qualitative terms the domination of early education is still greater with respect to determining values, habits, and principles. The die has been cast for many students before they come to college. For many others, who have been deprived of substance in high school, college humanities courses may be life-changing experiences. Yet the humanities in the colleges may exercise their greatest influence on the larger society through their influence on the humanities in lower education.

In this connection, conservatives’ justifiable worry regarding the college humanities curriculum is that left-wing anti-Americanism, hiding under the banner of “multiculturalism,” will corrupt the teachers of the future, and thus, in time, the whole of American culture. I share this concern to a degree, though I also have faith in the oedipal resilience of the young, who are always mounting their own oppositions to current dogma. How else explain young Mr. Kimball? These mavericks should be given every encouragement. The tendency of the “tenured radicals” to decrease intellectual diversity (even while advocating it) should be strongly resisted. Moreover, I have been concerned about the way the separatist rhetoric of multiculturalism has begun to filter into the schools, and I have written about the dangers of tribalism and the corresponding virtues of true cosmopolitanism. Subsequently I found that Diane Ravitch had devised still better phrasing for the same distinction: particularism vs. pluralism. I believe it is the duty of both liberals and conservatives to make pluralism and cosmopolitanism prevail over tribalism and particularism.

But this is a subtle distinction, and subtlety in these matters is in serious if not critical danger. Let me provide another example. I am currently trying to gain broad-based agreement about the specific contents of a core curriculum in grades 1-6—a core that would constitute about half of the whole curriculum and that might be accepted in all regions of the country. The aims of this project are multiple. Some are technical ones, intent on improving the quality of teaching and learning. Others are cultural, and are aimed at, among other things, preserving and restoring American literate culture. My colleagues and I have been working for four years on this project, consulting widely with teachers and scholars. Last March we held a conference of elementary teachers, principals, and superintendents from every region of the country, and reached agreement about the specifics of the core.

I then applied to a foundation to support the piloting of this core in Dade County, which has a large, diverse, and well-run school district. I received word from the foundation that one liberal reviewer of the proposed curriculum worried that it was not multicultural enough. A conservative reviewer had the opposite worry—that I had sold out to the multiculturalists, and had “gone over to the other side.” This person bridled particularly at an item labeled “forced removal” in first-grade social studies. The term meant that first graders were to be told that European settlers made the Indians leave their regular hunting grounds and go elsewhere. To include that item was to the conservative reviewer a symbol of the apostasy that Kimball had detected. Once again an embattled mentality had induced polarization, and a certain lack of subtlety.

But subtlety is a commodity that is badly needed by conservatives who are interested in education reform. Consider the following political facts. There are over two million teachers in the National Education Association. There are over half a million teachers in the American Federation of Teachers. There are over a hundred and thirty thousand members of the Association for Supervision and Curriculum Development (ASCD). There are several thousand education professors in some eleven hundred colleges of education. These are the people who will ultimately find ways to make or break any proposed educational reform. It will be difficult to make a teacher not teach first graders that Europeans sent the Indians away from their hunting grounds, if that is what these teachers want to teach. I am told that over 80 percent of schoolteachers are politically liberal. By and large, these teachers are not raving particularists or tribalists, but they have decided that some degree of multiculturalism is a good thing, and perhaps a political necessity. Anyone who wishes to gain the necessary cooperation of these teachers in developing a core curriculum for the schools will have to introduce multicultural elements into the core curriculum.

Consider, by contrast, the consequences of bravely holding the line, and excluding “forced removal” along with elements of Hispanic, Indian, and Afro-American culture from the core curriculum. Your courage would only be appreciated by those few in education who think exactly as you do. More importantly, your core would not be accepted. You would have avoided “apostasy,” but you would have exerted no influence on what children are taught. By default, the curriculum would go back to the professionals of the ASCD, who have already fragmented the early curriculum and given it a decidedly liberal-left slant under the banner of “critical thinking.”

Is there, then, no room for subtlety and complexity in the curriculum debates? I suggest that a wartime mentality regarding the humanities curriculum is self-defeating. The only way cultural conservatives, of which I count myself one, can influence the humanities curriculum in the schools is to support the right kind of multiculturalism themselves. For it is only in the rarified corridors of higher education that embattled conservatives and embattled tenured radicals can afford to choose sides and fight to the death. In the groves of academe, it sometimes seems that the two parties need each other; whom else would they have as objects of scorn and indignation? But outside the academy, and in the schools, most people wear the uniform of neither army. They are in mufti or in motley, and the bullets are flying far off, in another part of the forest.