This is supposed to be the riposte to all those bestselling conservative books attacking political correctness at universities—the shelf that begins with Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which was published in 1987 and whose title Lawrence Levine has chosen to mirror.
Levine, an eminent American historian, is at his best when he’s debunking the debunkers of academe. He points out, first, that they paint with an extremely broad brush. The P.C. wars tend to pit lefty scholars against centrist-to-conservative popular intellectuals. Because the latter group, in pursuing its mission of upholding standards, doesn’t have to meet academic standards of evidence, sweeping, unsupported generalizations—part of what Levine calls “a culture of hyperbole”—are the order of the day.
When Charles (Proficam) Sykes pronounces “tens of thousands of books and hundreds of thousands of journal articles” to be “worthless,” Levine wants to know, legitimately, whether that’s a conclusion he reached after reading them. In book after book, Molefi Asante, the engaging, voluble, and intellectually unreliable father of Afrocentrism, is unfairly presented as fairly representing the entire multicultural movement. All of social history—the effort to understand the lives of ordinary people in the past, whose practitioners include Levine himself—is typically caricatured as “victimology.” African culture is discussed in shockingly dismissive terms, such as “the unrewarding gyrations of barbarous tribes in picturesque but irrelevant corners of the globe” (Hugh Trevor-Roper). Curriculum disputes are presented as historically unprecedented ideological assaults on what Levine calls “the Natural Order,” when they are actually a “long-standing tradition in the academe” that conservatives have always taken part in too.
Levine presents what would be called in a university a “counter-narrative” to that of the anti-P.C. forces. The university curriculum, he points out, consisted exclusively of works from the classical period until late in the 19th century. Not only that, the writings of Homer and Plato were taught not as sublime explorations of humanity and morality, but as the basis of grammar lessons. Bloody battles were required to get Shakespeare and Milton into the canon and to have great books understood as literature. The notion of a “Western culture,” whose main repository is a core of great books, dates only from the time of the First World War.
During the early Cold War period the curriculum changed in the direction of celebrating the distinctive greatness of American politics and culture. The problem with this particular new academic order was that it ignored those aspects of the American experience that involved conflict, injustice, or people outside the leadership ranks, and also virtually everything about the Third World. Dissenting views were not well tolerated. Fortunately, during the 1960s an academic Golden Age began, in which truly free inquiry was permitted to flower at the same time that the campus gates were opened to a much more diverse and representative population.
That is Levine’s version of the story. The problem is that it’s too pat: As is the case in debate tournaments and lawsuits but hot in real life, the other side is 100 percent wrong and has no legitimate concerns. It isn’t until page 162 of a 174-page book that Levine introduces the first note of acknowledgment that there may be complexities in the situation: “To be sure, all the contemporary scholars who have studied these areas are by no means unanimous in their assessment of the issues I have raised here.” He goes on to devote a short phrase to each of the leading smart, non-blunderbuss anti-P.C. arguments, and concludes, in a tinnily cheerful tone, “Such constructive and informed critiques create the basis for an exciting and fruitful debate that will sharpen our inquiry into the nature of American identity, diversity, and commonality.” This debate is already going on in academe, and it’s too bad Levine felt he had to keep it off stage in his book. Today the elite research universities are orthodoxly left-wing to a far lesser extent than 25 years ago, and the real bastions of the kind of political climate the conservatives are complaining about are schools two or three levels down the academic food chain. This indicates that the successor trend to political correctness has probably already begun and will be working its way through the system in the coming years. Part of what was driving P.C. all along was not ideology but careerism: Because the United States is overcommitted to the model of the research university, everybody who wants a career in higher education has to write a dissertation that claims to make a unique contribution to human knowledge. There are so many more aspiring professors than good thesis topics that it creates constant pressure to keep declaring more written material to be literature, and more past events to be history. Soon the well of women-and-minority literature and social history will begin to rim dry and another hidden reservoir of subject matter will have to be found—and it, in turn, will begin to generate papers for presentation at the Modern Language Association convention that have easy-to-make-fun-of titles and angrily denounce the previous generation of scholarly work.
It’s true that scholarly change is constant and shouldn’t be regarded as either preventable or threatening. However, Levine segues imperceptibly from there to the idea that because the general process is healthy, every particular must be healthy too; his implication is that anyone who objects to a specific change is really expressing hostility to change itself Levine would have been much more reassuring if he had convinced us that he could be toughminded toward the main academic trend of the past 30 years, or had bothered to answer the serious objections to it, even as he was making it sound salutary overall.
Specifically, if you remove all the hysteria, ahistoricism, inaccuracy, exaggeration, and ideological tendentiousness from the anti-P.C. side’s argument (and Levine is right, doing that is a big job), two valid concerns remain, both arising from academics’ desire to recast the past into a more inspirational form. One is with truth-telling and the other with relativism.
Once scholars declare a previously unexamined subject area to be fruitful and begin to explore it, they ought to do so with ruthless intellectual honesty. But there is a clear strain in social history of celebration of the forgotten folk of the past. For example, slave society in the South is a great subject for historical research, but some of the resulting writing has a propagandizing tone, a tendency to define itself as a search for “strengths” rather than “weaknesses.” The best-known such volume, Herbert Gutman’s The Black Family in Slavery and Freedom, openly announced this as its mission. People who explore the primary records of the past ought to be able to be relied upon to report inconvenient findings as well as heartening ones.
The problem with relativism is that it can extend to the position that all past figures and events are of equal importance, and all literary and artistic works are equally deserving of detailed examination. Much of the thrill of learning comes from the sense of being connected to the main, and heretofore obscure, patterns in civilization. Levine is good at pointing out the flaws of excessive absolutism about historical importance and literary quality, but if he also thinks there is a danger in excessive relativism, he doesn’t say so. His view seems to be that American culture, at least, is best understood as a series of subcultures with no real main culture. Therefore, he makes the study of presidencies, wars, national crises, and diplomacy look like a completely played-out vein, which it isn’t.
Dinesh D’Souza, in Illiberal Education, made the cynical but damaging point that there is a fit between curriculum and research disputes in universities, and admissions and hiring policies. Challenging the concepts of importance and excellence as they are applied to the past in scholarship has a second, indirect purpose: It helps to undermine the use of the same concepts in the filling of slots in the contemporary university, and thus to justify hiring on the basis of race and gender rather than pure merit. Levine is so determined to put a happy, unthreatening face on the diversification of faculties, student bodies, and curricula that he doesn’t bring up D’Souza’s charge at all—which means he also doesn’t refute it. It’s as if he is worried that if he doesn’t make his case appear extremely simple, he won’t be able to win converts.
At one point in The Opening of the American Mind, Levine appears to call for an updated version of that old and much derided historical chestnut, the frontier thesis: “[C]ontemporary explanations help clarify those very American characteristics that so excited Frederick Jackson Turner: the sense of eternal rebirth, the ever vital process of becoming, the insistence on being free from the confines of the past, the receptivity to change and newness…. Perhaps the true American frontier has not been land and space, but the people: those who were already here when the first Europeans and Africans came to these shores and who have come continuously ever since.”
Because Levine’s book is dedicated to Richard Hoftstadter, this passage brought to mind Hofstadter’s demolition of Frederick Jackson Turner in The Age of Reform: Hofstadter used agricultural records to prove that the frontier hadn’t ended when Turner said it had. It’s a.n inspiring section in Hofstadter’s book, because it represents the defeat of Turner’s commencement-address, character-building approach to history by real historical research and a commitment to telling the truth about the past. No doubt Levine’s goal is the same as Hofstadter’s (hence the dedication), but The Opening of the American Mind does not stand as incontrovertible proof of that.