Beyond The Culture Wars: How Teaching The Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education

Gerald Graff
New York: W.W. Norton, 1992
214 pp., $19.95 hc

Henry Gonshak
[University of Montana-] Mont. Tech

Most people who have been following, with any degree of attention, the "culture wars" currently raging in academia know quite well by now, I imagine, the basic terms of the debate. From neoconservatives such as Roger Kimball, Hilton Kramer, and Dinesh D'Souza (and from some old-fashioned liberal humanists as well, including Arthur Schlesinger and the late Irving Howe) come charges that a cadre of "tenured radicals," frustrated old hippies who've transferred their countercultural revolution from the streets to the more hospitable groves of academe, have politicized English studies, using literary criticism as a pretext to preach their left-wing "P.C." gospel on issues of race, gender, class, and sexual orientation.

From those radicals themselves comes the heated rejoinder that the literary canon has been politicized all along, composed by phallocentric Dead White Males in order to bolster the hegemony of Western culture against subversive incursions by women, minorities, and the post-colonial world. Radical criticism, professors such as Stanley Fish, Houston Baker, and Elaine Showalter insist, has simply exposed this hidden agenda, while demanding that traditionally marginalized cultures be given the academic attention they deserve.

To the uninitiated, these arguments probably retain a certain fascination. But now that the controversy has been seething for several years, I suspect that many English professors are finding the debate increasingly tedious. Worse still, at this late date, as critics of the right and left rehash the same stale arguments, the conflict is starting to seem hopelessly trapped at an intellectual dead end.

Among the chief combatants in the culture wars, Gerald Graff is that admirable anomaly, an academic who is offering a potential solution to the impasse, which he sets forth in his provocative, lucidly argued new book, Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. The compromise which Graff proposes is encapsulated in a phrase from the book's subtitle: "teaching the conflicts." Graff laments the fact that while in conferences and academic journals professors debate these issues frenetically, rarely are the arguments presented to our students in any coherent fashion. An undergraduate may pass from one class where she learns that the Western literary tradition inculcates values that are "timeless" and "universal," to another where she's taught that "everything is political," that Shakespeare was an imperialist and Dante hated Muslims, and that Alice Walker's The Color Purple is the greatest book ever written. While Graff believes both courses may offer something of value, he insists that as long as neither instructor acknowledges the existence of a valid counterposition, the student can't possibly place what she is learning into any sort of larger, edifying context.

That context is what Graff's proposal seeks to provide. Why not incorporate the culture wars, Graff suggests, into the English curriculum itself? Why not let the student be systematically exposed to every possible perspective--to the "Great Books" as well as a multicultural canon, to old-fashioned humanistic criticism as well as feminist, Marxist, deconstructive, and New Historical approaches, to a syllabus containing Moby Dick and The Scarlet Letter as well as one including Kujo and Valley of the Dolls--and then let the student decide for herself which courses have the most to offer?

Graff's proposal is profoundly American, rooted as it is in the Jeffersonian notion (borrowed from Locke) of the "free marketplace of ideas," the democratic belief that if every position is given a fair hearing, the best ones will invariably win out. His book deserves, in my view, to be seriously discussed--at conferences, in department meetings, over coffee in faculty lounges. However, the implementation of his proposal poses certain practical problems which I suspect are insurmountable. Even more important, on close analysis, "teaching the conflicts" proves to be an idea which is simply not in the best interests of literary studies in the American university.

On a practical level, it seems that for Graff's proposal to work students would need to take twice as many English classes, since every course would have to be presented from both a radical and a traditional perspective. Anyone familiar with the current sorry state of the humanities knows how highly unfeasible that undoubtedly would be. Studies show that since the heyday of the liberal arts in the late sixties, our nation's intensely career-oriented students have been taking fewer and fewer humanities classes. Perhaps in some ideal academy administrators and department heads could double the course-load of English students without difficulty. In the grim reality of the contemporary American university, however, I strongly suspect that "teaching the conflicts" would mean in practice, that non-traditional courses would often become a substitute for, rather than a supplement to, more traditional ones.

A second practical consideration is just how receptive faculty of any ideological stripe would be to Graff's plan. My sense is that Graff is in the unfortunate position, common to many beleaguered conciliators throughout history, of having proposed a settlement which is equally unsatisfactory to both parties. Our culture wars, I suspect, are just too polarized for there to exist the sort of common ground needed for Graff's proposal to truly succeed. Can anyone seriously imagine, say, the neocon former Reagan education secretary, William Bennett, team-teaching a class with Duke's lesbian feminist scholar, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick? Can you even picture them agreeing to be in the same room together? Sad to say, Graff may be presupposing a basic civility and open-mindedness that has never been a conspicuous feature of American intellectual debate. Setting aside practical concerns, does Graff's proposal make sense pedagogically? How one answers this question depends, I imagine, on just how seriously one takes the current attack on the canon. If, in fact, the criticisms are being hurled by academic radicals are legitimately calling into question the very raison d'être of traditional literary studies, then surely it would be scandalous not to incorporate their texts and approaches into the standard English curriculum.

An opposite possibility, which would invalidate Graff's proposal, is raised by David Bromwich in his recent book, Politics By Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking (1992): "The doubts about 'teaching the conflicts' come from people who...say...that with such a curriculum, we would risk forgetting the separate worth of teaching; the worth, that is, of talking and thinking about books which...may relate to our published researches only indirectly" (190). In other words, Bromwich argues that, in practice, "teaching the conflicts" would drive the final nail into the coffin of general English studies. It would mean that rather than receiving a broad-based literary education, undergraduates would be force-fed their instructors' professional interests, which, however pressing to academics, are, at best, of tangential relevance to anyone seeking a sound introduction to the liberal arts.

Although I know many of my colleagues will furiously disagree, I think Bromwich is right. I'm all in favor of expanding the canon to include works by previously neglected women and minority writers, if (and this is a crucial qualification) such works possess aesthetic as well as ideological merit. And I believe that much of current critical theory can be effectively incorporated in the classroom. Nonetheless, when all is said and done, I still cling to the increasingly old-fashioned proposition that the primary responsibility of undergraduate literary studies is to provide students will a solid grounding in the Western literary tradition. If we turn out students who have, at best, a meager grasp of this tradition, no matter how good our intentions we will have ended up producing an entire generation which is deprived of the intellectual foundation provided by a substantive knowledge of one's own culture. The Western literary tradition is neither the bestial bastion of racism, sexism, and classism portrayed by radical academics, nor the staid monolith upholding "universal values" described by conservatives. It is, instead, a tradition which is alive with conflict, infinitely complex and ever-changing. If studied carefully, it helps us to lead, in Socrates' famous phrase, "the examined life."

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