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Comment: What Counts as Culture?

Why do modest educational reforms cause such apoplexy on the New Right? What's the connection between the neoconservatives' beloved "core curriculum" and the Reagan-era dash for cash?

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When student protests in 1988 led the faculty at Stanford University to include books by women and non-Europeans in the school's required first-year curriculum, Secretary of Education William Bennett denounced the changes as "regressive," and the Wall Street Journal chided Stanford for continuing to "revere" the "dreams of the 1960s."

Controversies are nothing new in academic life, but recent years have seen a rise in antagonisms of many kinds. Widely publicized incidents of violence, intolerance, and racial confrontation on campuses from the Ivy League to the deep south have shown that the university is not immune to broader social tensions; for faculty, these tensions have been manifested in battles over declining resources and changing priorities. Some of the most acrimonious (and important) conflicts have been over questions of curriculum. What should college students study? What do educated people need to know? Who determines what gets included in the curriculum, and--perhaps more important--who determines what is excluded? What counts as "culture"?

Judging from the invective leveled at these new curricula, you might expect them to be radical assaults on civilization. They're actually mild reforms--minor revisions in the status quo. Stanford students now read Harriet Beecher Stowe's Uncle Tom's Cabin along with Tocqueville's Democracy in America; they still read Saint Augustine's Confessions, but they also explore Nigerian novelist Chinua Achebe's Things Fall Apart. Prior to the reforms at Stanford, the mandatory readings in the introductory sequence included only works by European male authors; now they include writings by women and by Africans, Asians, and Latin Americans.

At the University of Minnesota, where I've taught most recently, the changes have been equally modest, though they've provoked a similarly bitter controversy. The humanities department continues to include introductory classes on the European heritage and on ancient Greece and Rome. The research specialties of the humanities department faculty remain focused on post-Renaissance Europe. But the new curriculum does call for critical study of the European tradition and not just uncritical validation.

Why do modest reforms like these cause such apoplexy in the Wall Street Journal and among some professors and Reagan and Bush appointees? The intellectual fault line that divides proponents and opponents is the sanctity of post-Renaissance European culture. The opponents of the new courses generally echo the sentiments of Matthew Arnold, the Victorian poet who viewed culture as "the best that is known and thought in the world." Curiously enough, that "best" almost always seems to revolve around the standards of post-Renaissance Europe--perspective in painting, tonal harmonies in music, and narrative intricacy in literature. Other cultures--from ancient Greece and Rome to present-day Asia and Africa--are then evaluated according to those standards; most are found wanting.

The proponents of the new courses see post-Renaissance European culture as the product of a specific place and time. They resist the notion that Europe's definition of culture is--or should be--the definition for all humanity. They're arguing not only for new objects of study but for new approaches. In the new scholarship, literary critics explore the relationship of popular story telling and theatrical traditions to the work of "validated" authors like Shakespeare and Dostoyevski.

Art historians ask why the age of capitalism and political liberalism in Europe spawned a change in perspective: looking at objects from one point of view, and not from the multiple perspectives of previous European and non-European traditions. The new scholarship and teaching, rather than celebrate the individual genius of works presumed to have "transcendent" and "universal" artistic value, now see the creation of culture as social and historical; the question is why different standards emerge at different times. To the old school, the new scholarship seems either sacrilege or trivia.

But these curriculum wars aren't purely an intellectual or academic matter. Though professional organizations, scholarly journals, and faculty committees nationwide have endorsed the notion of broader curricula, such bastions of humanistic inquiry as the Wall Street Journal and the Washington offices of Reagan and Bush appointees have opposed it.

The very administrations that have done the most to narrow access to higher education by cutting direct federal expenditures and by slashing student aid have displayed an uncharacteristic concern with the "quality" of education when it comes to changes in the curriculum. Ronald Reagan's Department of Education funded the study What Do Our Seventeen-Year-Olds Know? by Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn, which alleged a decline in high school students' knowledge of essential humanities information. The study blamed the alleged decline on new critical methods in the humanities, like deconstruction. As director of the National Endowment for the Humanities, Lynne Cheney (who did her own doctoral dissertation on Matthew Arnold) has condemned school textbooks "recognizing the interdependence among people" and instead calls for students to read books "filled with stories--the magic of myths, fables, and tales of heroes."

Like recent attacks on economic regulation and affirmative action, the arguments against the new curricula have been financed by the New Right. Reagan and Bush appointees invariably invoke scholars whose work has been funded by grants from large corporations and neoconservative think tanks. The Exxon Foundation subsidized E.D. Hirsch's Cultural Literacy, and the Olin Foundation helped finance Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind and Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Higher Education.

Bloom makes clear the political intentions of such projects, arguing that "the problem of getting along with outsiders is secondary to, and sometimes in conflict with, having an inside, a people, a culture, a way of life. A very great narrowness is not incompatible with the health of an individual or a people, whereas with great openness it is hard to avoid decomposition." Culture is defined as a process of excluding outsiders; "narrowness" is a virtue. Here Bloom encapsulates the real agenda of the neoconservative cultural politics subsidized so lavishly by the Right.

The record shows the kind of "nonpolitical" academic work favored by neoconservatives. While waging relentless attacks on federal and state spending for higher education, they have granted lavish subsidies to scholars willing to support the ideology of big business. According to Jon Wiener, writing in the Nation, January 1, 1990, the John M. Olin Foundation allocated $1.4 million to establish the Olin Institute for Strategic Studies at Harvard University under the directorship of political scientist Samuel Huntington, best known for his theory that the United States suffers from too much democracy.

Bloom received $3.6 million from Olin to set up the University of Chicago's John M. Olin Center for Inquiry into the Theory and Practice of Democracy, while neoconservative ideologue Irving Kristol received $376,000 to serve as John M. Olin Distinguished Professor at the New York University School of Business Administration, and as a John M. Olin Fellow at the American Enterprise Institute. Other grants included $200,000 for a conference run by David Horowitz and Peter Collier to publicize the views in their Olin Foundation-supported book Destructive Generation, which blames nearly all of America's social problems not on 20 years of neoconservative rule but on the excesses of the New Left in the 1960s. This extraordinary political mobilization by neoconservatives sheds an interesting light on the complaint that new humanities curricula sacrifice quality in order to "politicize" the university.

But even though the neoconservative agenda has been backed by the most powerful political and economic interests in our society, it has fared badly. Too many people see through its "golden age" mythology, about how wonderful the universities were before women and minorities appeared in significant numbers. Too many people hunger for knowledge about the voices they do not hear, and the realities they do not see reflected in the commercial mass media or in the speeches of politicians.

The chaos wrought in the American industrial economy by the dismantling of equal-opportunity programs and the systematic redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich (and a shifting of the tax burden from the rich to the middle class) has had profoundly destabilizing effects. Dramatic developments--including economic deregulation and new fiber-optic, satellite, and computer-chip technologies--have combined to produce an era of economic and cultural instability. At such a moment, the myth of a powerful unified and unifying culture takes on special allure. It offers the illusion of a center to people reeling from rapid change.

Ronald Reagan rose to popularity precisely because he conjured that illusion, and neoconservatism continues to thrive by presenting its programs as a stabilizing force. A "core curriculum" affirming connection to hallowed traditions seems to salve the wounds and ease the anxieties provoked by the mad scramble for cash that defined American life in the 1980s.

Neoconservative attacks on new scholarly methods in the humanities are part of a coordinated campaign to undercut the institutions that might oppose neoconservatism throughout society. Public-housing tenants, labor unions, and teachers have all suffered from neoconservative programs because their interests run contrary to private-profit imperatives. Within universities, the politics of scarcity have led to ominous measures. Business schemes that require universities to pay the indirect costs of research and development for private corporations drain educational resources from undergraduate instruction and increase the burdens on taxpayers and students paying tuition.

Neoconservative complaints about declining standards--and "contamination" of the curriculum with female and nonwhite perspectives--reflect a growing nervousness about aggrieved populations. There's a lot of political capital to be reaped by exploiting that nervousness. In a November 1989 essay in the Village Voice Literary Supplement, Marshall Berman points out that Margaret Thatcher's "new enterprise" policies succeeded not so much because she "brainwashed" people to vote against their own interests as because she "brain-scanned them, and transformed their latent envy, rancor, and avarice into policy." And so it has gone with the American neoconservative movement: "By the end of the 1970s, there were lots of people out there who were ready, or almost ready, to say that they were sick of worrying about the blacks and the poor, who wanted to be congratulated for their own avarice instead of feeling guilty and having to hide it."

Berman's analysis helps make sense of a recent New York Times guest editorial by Samuel Lipman, publisher of the neoconservative art journal New Criterion. Protesting a court ruling that the First Amendment right of free speech allowed homeless people to beg for money in the New York subways, Lipman claimed that "What Judge Sand is urging upon us is the use of constant public irritation, provocation, and threats, not for the ostensible purpose of alleviating suffering, but to cast radical doubt on the entire structure of society." Lipman would prefer that the courts deny free speech to beggars so he can be spared the unpleasantness of having to face the consequences of neoconservatism's vicious assaults on the poor. Letting them speak might cast "radical doubt on the entire structure of society." It's a Reaganesque formulation: cries for peace and justice take a backseat to cries for peace and quiet.

The assault on broader humanities curricula feeds off the neoconservative search for absolution for avarice. When university faculties and students offer an alternative vision of who gets to be heard in American society, they inevitably bring down upon themselves the wrath of the likes of the Olin Foundation and the Reagan and Bush administrations.

For me, this is more than an abstract question. For most of the past decade I have been teaching humanities courses at American colleges and universities. I have taught Balzac and Beethoven to inmates enrolled in a special college program at a Texas maximum-security prison, and lectured on rock and roll and rap at a prestigious private liberal-arts college in Massachusetts. I believe, as Amiri Baraka quips, that "you can learn God knows what from God knows who." As a matter of historical accuracy and political necessity, I think it's imperative for students to understand the art and culture of post-Renaissance Europe. I also think it's essential, as a matter of honesty in the present and hope of justice for the future, that students encounter the perspectives of those who have suffered from the triumphs of the West, as well as of those so far removed from European values that they have fashioned other, and perhaps better, cultural systems.

The literary critic Terry Eagleton compares scholarly work to looking at an imposing tapestry. Some people want us to be content with what the tapestry shows on its face--its designs and images, the aesthetic power of its colors and textures. But some of us need to turn the tapestry around and see how it was put together, even if that means examining an unglamorous tangle of threads. The tapestry is neither solely the front nor the back. To understand it, you have to look at both sides, even if what you see is not pretty, and even if the people who own it don't want you to see what they have hidden from view.

Struggles over cultural meaning are also struggles over resources, struggles that help determine what is permitted and what is forbidden, who is included and who is excluded, who speaks and who gets silenced. A curriculum that goes unexamined and unchanged is no help to critical thinking; a university that has no arguments about its curriculum does no service to its students or to society. These questions are inescapably political, and they are asked every day inside and outside the university. The question is not whether the curriculum becomes politicized, but rather toward what ends.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): illustration/John Figler.

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