In Plato's Cave

In Plato's Cave

by Alvin Kernan, Alvin B. Kernan
     
 

In this candid and delightful memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost, and dean during turbulent decades of change in the hallowed halls of Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton. His vividly remembered account is a unique personal story and more--it is also a history of what has been won, and lost, in the culture wars of the… See more details below

Overview

In this candid and delightful memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost, and dean during turbulent decades of change in the hallowed halls of Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton. His vividly remembered account is a unique personal story and more--it is also a history of what has been won, and lost, in the culture wars of the second half of the twentieth century.

Editorial Reviews

James D. Bloom
Though Kernan concedes that his heart remains devoted to the passing "order in which I was trained," he refuses to call its obsolescence a catastrophe. —The New York Times Book Review
Publishers Weekly - Publisher's Weekly
In the process of giving readers an ebullient, sometimes mordant account of his distinguished four-decade career in academia, Kernan (The Death of Literature) also cracks wise--in both senses of the word--on the culture wars and their effects on U.S. higher education. Reflecting on a long career (literary critic, provost, dean and professor of English at Yale and Princeton), Kernan illuminates the contrast between the old style of meritocratic, elitist education and the much more democratized contemporary American college or university--accessible to everyone, consumer oriented, relativistic in its conception of knowledge and overtly politicized. In Kernan's opinion, curriculum changes made to satisfy minorities, women and other "special-interest pressure groups" on campus have contributed to lax educational requirements, polarized student bodies, more bureaucratic administrations and built-in grade inflation. He doesn't think much of computers, either, lamenting that, because of them, information has become prized over knowledge. His lively and witty close-ups of such figures as Harold Bloom, Lillian Hellman, William Buckley and Paul de Man are sprinkled with tart opinions on deconstruction ("a dogmatic theory, impervious to argument" that nevertheless hits on some truth about "the slipperiness of language"), academic specialization and rampant careerism. And yet Kernan is not wholly reactionary and in fact shows that he has achieved an impressive perspective on the changes in the culture and practice of higher education: "Though my heart is with the old academic order in which I was trained, my argument is not that this radical change is, as many of my contemporaries believe, an educational catastrophe.... But things will not be the same, ever again, as they once were, and this entails loss as well as gain." (Mar.)
Library Journal
Eminent literary critic Kernan (humanities, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) has spent a lifetime in colleges and universities. In this memoir, he relates his experiences and tells what he's learned--and what he's learned about learning. He begins with his own education at Williams College in Massachusetts, continuing on through his years at Oxford and Yale. He then turns to his years on the faculties at Yale and Princeton. From the relatively calm 1950s and early 1960s through the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s and on to today's technology explosion, Kernan describes how the academic world has fared during the social and scientific changes of the past 50 years. Women's rights, affirmative action, the questioning of authority, and the search for empowerment have all brought changes, leading to the creation of what Kernan labels the democratic university. His memoir is well written and entertaining, and although not essential for all libraries, it should be considered for purchase by most.--Terry A. Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS
John C. Hawley
In Plato's Cave is especially compelling for those in literary studies, who may know many of the principals who have the misfortune to draw Kernan's fire.
Cross Currents
Merle Rubin
[An] immensely engrossing memoir.... [This book] is chock-full of incidents and anecdotes that shed light on the people, events and social trends that transformed the very meaning of a higher education.
— Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal
Merle Rubin
[An] immensely engrossing memoir.... [This book] is chock-full of incidents and anecdotes that shed light on the people, events and social trends that transformed the very meaning of a higher education.
Wall Street Journal
Kirkus Reviews
This gentle, wise, yet tough-minded memoir will delight and inform anyone who'd like to understand the academic world of the last 50 years. While academic autobiographies are often insular and dreary works, occasionally they're witty as well as serious, self-critical as well as egotistical, and constructed around a theme larger than a single life. Kernan's (Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket's World War II Odyssey, 1994, etc.) bid for the genre is of this rarer kind. The book relates his experiences since the 1940s at some of the world's great universities, particularly Yale and Princeton, as he ascended from student to professor to administrator. His theme is the democratization of American universities, especially private ones, during these years. While Kernan does his best to convey the gains as well as the costs of a continuing process of change, his heart is with the way things used to be, especially at Yale, where his strongest affections seem to lie, and which he saw wracked by fermenting student culture, racial turmoil (notably, Bobby Seale's trial), and sundry errors of leadership. Kernan describes himself accurately as a conservative, but he's an unusual variety of the species: courtly, wry, measured, unideological-the kind, that is, who makes you think. And yet one wishes that, in addition to the situations he deftly relates, often with devastating wit, he'd shed his gentle courtesy now and then, and simply let fly-against plagiarism, for instance, which has made inroads into the classroom that he so well describes. Kernan believes that eventually the structural changes in American higher education will end and things will settle down. But as his own tale of the emergenceof what he calls the "demoversity" suggests, one cannot be sure. No diatribe at all, this work serves instead as an elegy for education as it once was. .

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Product Details

ISBN-13:
9780300075892
Publisher:
Yale University Press
Publication date:
02/28/1999
Pages:
330
Product dimensions:
6.46(w) x 9.57(h) x 1.23(d)

What People are saying about this

Gertrude Himmelfarb
I can think of no more agreeable way to be introduced to the culture wars of the past half century than through this witty memoir. This is not only a record of the aspirations, illusions, and follies of academia; it is a wise and eminently readable intellectual history of our time.

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