The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History

Lawrence W. Levine
Boston: Beacon Press, 1996
201 pp., $20.00 hc

Bill Janus
Western Montana College-UM

Levine's text has one objective, legitimizing historiography that emphasizes the multicultural roots of U.S. social and cultural history, and he attempts to accomplish this by using both professional and political arguments. Levine's professional arguments are extremely sound, but it is his political assertions which cause some to be uncomfortable with his entire thesis.

Levine passionately claims that the study of multicultural history in universities is relevant, and he argues that it is rigorous and scholarly. Most importantly however, Levine demonstrates in a professional manner that the current importance afforded multicultural history by higher education is a traditional and expected outcome, because it reflects the continuing evolution of American society and its relation to its universities.

"The current emphasis on [multicultural] social and cultural history which so troubles contemporary critics is no more permanent than were past emphases on political, intellectual, economic, or diplomatic history.... It reflects, as earlier historiographies have reflected, the questions, problems, issues that touch our time and help us make sense of the world. It also reflects the fact that history today is written, as it has always been written, by human beings who are part of their own societies and cultures." (26)
Levine refutes the arguments of currently influential conservative critics of multicultural studies such as Allan Bloom (The Closing of the American Mind), Dinesh D'Souza (Illiberal Education), and Roger Kimball (Tenured Radicals). Levine is ardent in his rebuttals, and he can be accused of overstating, personalizing and politicizing these arguments. But Levine makes no attempt to conceal his partisanship, and he makes it clear that in his opinion, his opponents are guilty of biased hyperbole, views that in light of their current seeming popularity and influence, he believes need to be debunked in a forceful and persuasive manner. It seems that Levine's open partisanship is meant to assure readers that he is aware of his own political biases, and that he thus is able to take these biases into consideration and still present an objective professional thesis. This is a very problematic strategy, but on the whole, I think he has succeeded in his endeavors. Many in academe however see Levine as failing, and in fact see his professional thesis hopelessly biased and unobjective because of his open interjection of political arguments. In essence, Levine is guilty of the same errors (open politicization of history) that his opponents are culpable of.

Levine argues that critics of multicultural history are guilty of scholarly sloppiness in making their points, and he illustrates their errors with relish. For example, Levine explains that the elimination or de-emphasis of "Western Civilization" courses and a "canon of the Great Books" in universities, does not break with long-cherished American academic traditions as critics of multiculturalism contend (13, 14). It merely is the end of "only a brief ascendancy: they [Western Civilization, Great Books] emerged largely after World War I and declined in the decades after World War Il" (15). Prior to World War 1, university students were largely familiar with only Greek and Latin classics, texts they read in the original and "not as works of literature, but as examples of grammar" (16). Prior to the war, Europe also was seen by Americans, as historian Daniel Boorstin stated, as "a handy mirror in which to see what we were not" (54). Thus, generations of American students did not read Shakespeare, or learn to appreciate Chopin, or study the history of the Glorious Revolution and the Renaissance. What caused this change in the curriculum? Levine demonstrates that the Wilson administration, in an effort to explain to the American public that the United States was entering the war in order to defend the "Enlightenment"from "Barbarism," successfully urged universities to establish courses that would define the underlying causes of the war and celebrate the principles, practices, and achievements of Western Civilization (55). Nevertheless, this entire debate itself may be rendered insignificant. Levine shows that no multicultural critic has yet to produce evidence of any kind to establish that in fact today's students do not study or appreciate Great Books and Western Civilization (23-24). Levine sarcastically summarizes this point by stating that the "research" upon which the claims of Bloom rest are "primarily internal, conducted largely in the archives of his mind&' (23). "[C]ritics jump from rhetoric to assumption, from assumption to assertion, from assertion to fact.... One searches in vain for evidence, for citations, for documentation.... The unproven assertion becomes 'documented' through the sheer force of repetition" (24).

Critics of multicultural history also lament the fact that students who reject such history are denied the freedom to express their opinions to professors because of "political correctness" (26). Levine simply retorts wryly by pointing out, "when was it not risky for a socialist student to confront her economics professor who was teaching about the wonders of the free market, for an atheist student to confront his professor of religion who was teaching about the wonders of monotheism, or for African American students to confront their professor of history who was teaching about the wonders of the Founding Fathers, many of whom were slaveholders.... Students have always had to learn to accommodate to the whims and prejudices of professors, to the attitudes and sensitivities of fellow students"(27). This argument is too cavalier. It is true that in the past, a student who was a socialist probably could not exercise intellectual freedom, but that fact does not justify the infringement of intellectual freedom today in any way.

A common charge of critics is that the study of the U.S.'s multicultural foundations is trivial, and that it lacks rigor (13). But Levine illustrates that the recognition of our multicultural origins may be more, instead of less rigorous. For example, Stanford's curriculum emphasizes multiculturalism, and it requires students to read an eclectic and challenging list of texts that includes Aristotle, the Old and New Testaments, the Koran, Dante, Aztec accounts of the conquest of Mexico, Shakespeare, Richard Wright, and Old Man Hat, the life history of a Navajo man. In fact, Levine turns this argument of multicultural critics on its head, and he implies that it is they who can be accused of being professional slackers. "Of course the very expansiveness of the canon is disturbing to those who crave a universal literary or historical canon good always and everywhere, accessible to and accepted by everyone capable of understanding it. The admission that literature, history, and canons are more complex and more variable than that entails a loss of control" (99).

Levine also legitimizes multicultural studies in an affirmative manner by placing multicultural studies in historical perspective. Levine follows the evolution of American university curricula through time. He shows that curricula never were static, that they always reflected American society, and that consensus on their form never existed. Hence, in the early 1900s universities were home to "culture wars" too. Conservative academics warned that the U.S. was about to implode because universities no longer strove to a "cultivation of the intellect" through the study of Greek and Latin grammar. Professors were accused of being lax, and that they bent to a popular will to prepare "men and women for their life work[.]" Critics believed professors should be "unhampered by utility or pressure for results[,]'" and deplored that Americans "love money and think that education is a way of getting it" (48). Those critics obviously lost this battle. Another example of the "culture wars" determining university curricula came immediately after WWI. University administrations made the decision at that time to retain Wilson's Western Civilization mandate. Why? To preserve "Anglo-conformity," and to assimilate the recent large waves of Southern and Eastern European immigrants (58, 59). Some may say that the immigrants lost this battle.

Levine concludes with an examination of the current"culture war" over multicultural studies. Critics argue that multicultural studies simply are a manifestation of the political agenda of frustrated leftist radicals who have hijacked universities in order to spread revolution (11). Levine's disagreement with this analysis rests upon the paradigm that the U.S. is a multicultural society, and that finally academe merely has acknowledged as much, and that it has begun to try and understand this fact. He argues that the U.S. never was a "melting pot"where blacks, and each succeeding immigrant wave totally sublimated their ancestral identities and cultures, and completely accepted "Anglo-conformity" (I 10, 111). Instead, Levine sees American society marked by "cultural pluralism." Under this model, America contains distinct and unique cultures and identities that collectively contribute to, and define an American culture which continually "emerges" as each new group adds its contribution to the collective (139, 140). One unique U.S. group that Levine practically ignores in all his arguments however is the under represented contributions of women. Nevertheless, Levine echoes the sentiments of a multicultural proponent who argued that "we cannot think of culture [a single American one] unless we think of many cultures [all unique and distinct] at the same time" (143). And who will win this latest "culture war"? The jury is still out, but Levine argues that we should not shoot the messengers (academe) who simply examine, and reflect American culture (173).

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