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The Politics of Liberal Education

The Politics of Liberal Education

by Barbara Herrnstein Smith, Darryl Gless, Stanley Fish, Fredric Jameson, Mary Louise Pratt

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Controversy over what role “the great books” should play in college curricula and questions about who defines “the literary canon” are at the forefront of debates in higher education. The Politics of Liberal Education enters this discussion with a sophisticated defense of educational reform in response to attacks by academic


Controversy over what role “the great books” should play in college curricula and questions about who defines “the literary canon” are at the forefront of debates in higher education. The Politics of Liberal Education enters this discussion with a sophisticated defense of educational reform in response to attacks by academic traditionalists. The authors here—themselves distinguished scholars and educators—share the belief that American schools, colleges, and universities can do a far better job of educating the nation’s increasingly diverse population and that the liberal arts must play a central role in providing students with the resources they need to meet the challenges of a rapidly changing world.
Within this area of consensus, however, the contributors display a wide range of approaches, illuminating the issues from the perspectives of their particular disciplines—classics, education, English, history, and philosophy, among others—and their individual experiences as teachers. Among the topics they discuss are canon-formation in the ancient world, the idea of a “common culture,” and the educational implications of such social movements as feminism, technological changes including computers and television, and intellectual developments such as “theory.” Readers interested in the controversies over American education will find this volume an informed alternative to sensationalized treatments of these issues.

Contributors. Stanley Fish, Phyllis Franklin, Henry Louis Gates Jr., Henry A. Giroux, Darryl J. Gless, Gerald Graff, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, George A. Kennedy, Bruce Kuklick, Richard A. Lanham, Elizabeth Kamarck Minnich, Alexander Nehamas, Mary Louise Pratt, Richard Rorty, Eve Kosofsky Sedgwick

Editorial Reviews

Responding to attacks on contemporary humanities teaching by government officials, journalists, and academic traditionalists, the authors, a distinguished group of scholars and teachers, argue that educational methods cannot remain the same while social, technological, and intellectual conditions change significantly. Annotation c. Book News, Inc., Portland, OR (booknews.com)

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Duke University Press
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Post-Contemporary Interventions
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The Politics of Liberal Education

By Darryl J. Gless, Barbara Herrnstein Smith

Duke University Press

Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-8223-8174-7


Mary Louise Pratt

Humanities for the Future: Reflections on the Western Culture Debate at Stanford

SWM, 38, 5' 10", N/S, Stanford scientist, average-looking, a bit eccentric, blindingly brilliant, phenomenally funny, amazingly humble, likes jogging, bicycling, all things done with racquet-like instruments, movies, literature and most aspects of western civilization, but most interested in a reasonably attractive and intelligent 25–45 PA female capable of being interested in me. Send photo & brief description of your life, liberty and pursuits of happiness. Box 65C.

This singles ad appeared late last summer in the personals column of a local weekly serving the communities of Palo Alto, California, and neighboring Stanford University. Apart from its intriguing characterization of the "Stanford scientist," I quote it here to suggest the extent to which Stanford's long and intense debate over its Western culture curriculum last year permeated local life. In the semiotics of representation and identity, "Western civilization" remains a constant and intensely meaningful point of reference.

The debate which took place at Stanford during the winter of 1988 and the resulting reform of the Western culture requirement received a great deal of national attention, largely due to the involvement of then Secretary of Education William Bennett, who chose to use the Stanford case as a platform to advocate his views, quite literally making a federal case out of it. Perhaps because of Bennett's own partisanship, the account of the Stanford debate in the national press had a shape somewhat different from the local experience. As other institutions face similar struggles, fuller accounts of the workings of change at Stanford may be helpful. At the same time, there is an urgent need to formulate the concerns that so unexpectedly made freshman book lists an object of wide public concern. What nerves had been touched?

Histories of Western culture curricula in the United States point to the Western civilization course instituted at Columbia University in 1919 as a main antecedent for such courses all over the country. One recent account, however, notes that the Columbia course had a direct antecedent of its own, a War Issues course instituted in 1918 at various universities, including Columbia. Its aim was "to educate recently conscripted American soldiers about to fight in France to introduce [them] to the European heritage in whose defense they were soon to risk their lives." A new tie to Europe was constituted in relation to a national imperative.

Current struggles over Western culture curricula—both challenges to them and reactionary attempts to reassert them—also emerge from urgently felt national imperatives. Among these is an imperative to reimagine cultural and civic identity in the United States in the wake of vast changes produced by the decline of its global hegemony, the rapid internationalization of capital and industry, the immigrant implosion of the "third world" onto the "first," and the democratization of American institutions and political processes that occurred in the two decades prior to 1980. The question can be posed in Pierre Bourdieu's sometimes helpful language: What is to count as "cultural capital" in a culturally plural nation and a globalized human world? How will that capital be constructed and deployed, how will people be asked to identify with it? How might the United States project itself into the future as a cultural and political entity? In the words (a few of which I've emphasized) of one speaker in the Stanford debate:

The character of U.S. society is changing. More and more North Americans insist on affirming the specificity of their class, ethnicity, gender, region, race, or sexual orientation, rather than melting into the homogenizing pot. They see such affirmations as intrinsic to their citizenship. Culture, literature, and the academy have been important sites for these affirmations: it will be neither productive nor comfortable to commit ourselves only to resisting these developments, rather than engaging with them.

Having acquiesced to change, by what visions will United Statesians be guided into a future where they and their society will be different from what they are now? What is the United States trying to become? What are the options?

The world is full of multicultural, multi-ethnic, multilingual nations, so there are plenty of models around. Indeed, Bloom, Bennett, Bellow, and the rest (known by now in some quarters as the Killer B's) are advocating one of them: to create a narrowly specific cultural capital that will be the normative referent for everyone, but will remain the property of a small and powerful caste that is linguistically and ethnically unified. It is this caste that is referred to by the "we" in Saul Bellow's astoundingly racist remark that "when the Zulus have a Tolstoy, we will read him." Few doubt that behind the Bennett-Bloom program is a desire to close not the American mind, but the American university, to all but a narrow and highly uniform elite with no commitment to either multiculturalism or educational democracy. Thus while the Killer B's (plus a C—Lynne Cheney, the Bennett mouthpiece now heading the National Endowment for the Humanities) depict themselves as returning to the orthodoxies of yesteryear, their project must not be reduced to nostalgia or conservatism. Neither of these explain the blanket contempt they express for the country's universities. They are fueled not by reverence for the past, but by an aggressive desire to lay hold of the present and future. The B's act as they do not because they are unaware of the cultural and demographic diversification underway in the country; they are utterly aware. That is what they are trying to shape; that is why they are seeking, and using, national offices and founding national foundations.

Many citizens are attracted to Bloom's and Bennett's pronouncements, on the other hand, out of fairly unreflected attachments to the past (including their own college experience), and simply have trouble seeing how good books could possibly do any harm. Many people are perfectly ready for change but remain deeply anxious about where it is all supposed to be heading. Other visions of the cultural and educational future in the United States, then, are likely to generate as much interest as the Killer B's', if they can be effectively introduced into the national discussion. The attention drawn by Bloom's intellectually deplorable Closing of the American Mind and Bennett's intellectually more deplorable "To Reclaim a Legacy" most directly reflects not levels of enthusiasm for their programs (though much enthusiasm does exist), but levels of anxiety that have developed around the issue of national cultural identity. Even among the many people ready for change, one seems to hear voices asking, "If I give up white supremacy, who am I? Am I still American? Am I still white? If I give up homophobia, who am I? Am I the same as gay? If I give up misogyny, am I still a man? a woman? an American? If I learn Spanish, does it make me Mexican? What ties me to these gays, these feminists, these Salvadorans, these Vietnamese, these Navaho, these white people?" And perhaps more acutely, "What ties them to me?" The sooner answers to these questions are attempted, the better. What, indeed, would it mean to adopt the "non-hierarchical, intercultural perspective on the study of culture and the West" called for by one Stanford humanist (a classicist, at that)? What can cultural citizenship and identity be in a radically plural society enmeshed in relentlessly globalizing relations? Can there be transnational national culture? Can it be good?

Alongside the understandable apprehensions such questions generate (especially late in a century), it should be possible to create some excitement and curiosity. After all, this could become, perhaps has become, a fabulously energetic and revealing cultural experiment. It has tremendous imaginative appeal. Does the United States not badly need to revitalize its image and understanding of itself? Is there not much to be learned about the fluid global cultureways that bring the music of Soweto into living rooms across the United States, and make The Cosby Show the most popular TV program in South Africa? Is there not much to be learned about the past by rereading it in the light of contemporary intercultural understanding?

Stanford adopted its first Western civilization course in 1935, and, like many other universities, abolished it around 1970. Efforts to restore a requirement began around 1975 on the part of a group of senior faculty in literature, classics, and history. By 1978 a two-year pilot program had been approved and in 1980 a new year-long required course began for all incoming students. It consisted of several tracks corresponding roughly to different departments and schools, and sharing a core reading list that became the focus of the controversy. It is interesting to note that the notorious reading list was not part of the original proposal for the requirement. The list evolved during the pilot program out of desire to guarantee a "common intellectual experience," a phrase that acquired great importance in the subsequent debate without acquiring any greater specificity of meaning. Here is the much-discussed list:



Hebrew Bible, Genesis

Plato, Republic, major portions of books 1–7

Homer, major selections from Iliad, Odyssey, or both

At least one Greek tragedy

New Testament, selections including a gospel

Strongly recommended:


Aristotle, Nicomachean Ethics,Politics


Virgil, Aeneid




Augustine, Confessions, 1–9

Dante, Inferno

More, Utopia Machiavelli, The Prince

Luther, Christian Liberty

Galileo, The Starry Messenger, The Assayer

Strongly recommended:

Boethius, Consolation of Philosophy

Aquinas, some selection which illustrates the structure of a Thomistic question

A Shakespearean tragedy

Cervantes, Don Quixote

Descartes, Discourse on Method,Meditations

Hobbes, Leviathan

Locke, Second Treatise of Civil




Voltaire, Candide

Marx and Engels, Communist Manifesto

Freud, Outline of Psychoanalysis, Civilization and Its Discontents

Darwin, Selections

Strongly recommended:

Rousseau, Social Contract, Confessions, Emile

Hume, Enquiries, Dialogues on Natural Religion

Goethe, Faust, Sorrows of Young Werther

Nineteenth-century novel

Mill, Essay on Liberty, The Subjection of Women

Nietzsche, Genealogy of Morals, Beyond Good and Evil

Participants in developing the course say that in its specifics the list was not intended to be written in stone. It represented a series of compromises rather painfully hammered out by a committee, inevitably through some of the crudest kind of horse-trading—Catholics for Protestants, poets for scientists, Italians for Germans. In the end, ironically, the difficulty of negotiating the list was one source of its permanence: the process had been so painful and so lacking in intellectual integrity that no one expressed the slightest desire to repeat it.

In any case, regardless of its specific content, the list did the job of shaping the requirement in, for many people, unnecessarily narrow ways. Indeed, its extreme narrowness clearly contributed to the breakdown of the program at Stanford. Most conspicuously, the list installed a specific historical paradigm: one quarter for ancient world, one for medieval-renaissance, and one for the past five hundred years. Implicit in the sequence was the canonical narrative of origins deriving the present from classical Greece via the Italian Renaissance and the Franco-German Enlightenment, a narrative that begins and ends with European lettered high culture. (Where is America?) Clearly, teachers of the course could question that implicit narrative, and some did. But to do so in a consistent or structured way involved teaching against the grain of the syllabus, an extremely difficult pedagogical task that often confused students more than it empowered them.

Second, the list not only lays down a Eurocentric paradigm, but also embodies a very restricted sense of Europe. France and even England are barely represented in the required readings; Iberia, Eastern Europe, and Scandinavia not at all. Only "high" culture is represented, an exclusion that has long been under challenge not just by the Black Students' Union, but by whole schools of mainstream literary and historical scholarship. One thinks of the scholars at Princeton's Center for European Studies, or the Berkeley-based new historicism, movements that are in no way radical or critical of the West, but which refuse to give "high" culture or belles lettres a monopoly on cultural understanding. Many Stanford scholars were troubled by the fact that the course organized itself around authors and orthodoxies rather than around problematics or issues, and that it therefore took as orthodoxies matters that were actually under serious debate in their fields. Translated into practice, this amounted to a structure of exclusion of faculty who took other perfectly legitimate approaches to culture and to the West, as well as of faculty who worked in non-European literatures and cultures. "For some scholars," said one colleague, "to see a book or an entire cultural tradition as if it were a self-contained whole is like listening to only one side of a phone conversation. For these scholars there is no place in the current program."

Third, the list implicitly suggests a monumentalist attitude to the texts as great works whose interest and value were sui generis. Again, teachers were of course not forbidden to adopt a critical attitude, but to do so required teaching from the negative position of a counter-discourse or a heresy. What you couldn't do was embark positively on a different project or way of thinking, even one that was equally celebratory and equally Eurocentric. An attempt was made to set up a critical track, a course titled "Conflict and Change in Western Culture." In many ways this course was extremely successful, but its founders were constantly hampered by the structure of center and periphery into which they were locked. To bring in other texts was always to bring in "Other" texts. In the end, this structure of otherness comprises, depending on your perspective, the main obstacle to or the main bulwark against relational approaches to culture. "The notion of a core list," argued one teacher in the history track,

is inherently flawed, regardless of what kinds of works it includes or excludes. It is flawed because such a list undermines the critical stance that we wish students to take toward the materials they read. A course with such readings creates two sets of books, those privileged by being on the list and those not worthy of inclusion. Regardless of the good intentions of those who create such lists, the students have not viewed and will not view these separate categories as equal.

The asymmetry can be exemplified by a remark made in support of retaining the core list. Referring to the autobiography of the West African Olaudah Equiano, published in England in the late eighteenth century, one English scholar argued that students "who have studied Genesis, Aquinas, and Rousseau have a good chance of understanding with some precision what the ex-slave Olaudah Equiano meant when he spoke of 'that first natural right of mankind independency.'" The remark, true enough in a way, easily invites some troubling inferences. Would one want to suggest that students who have not studied Genesis, Aquinas, and Rousseau have no chance of understanding Equiano? That Equiano himself would not have understood liberty without his European education? Neither inference is true in the slightest. There are plenty of readings that can serve to illuminate Equiano to American students, and these certainly include Rousseau, Aquinas, and Genesis. As for Equiano himself, no slave ever needed Rousseau or anybody else to know the difference between freedom and slavery, though a slave might find Rousseau helpful (as Equiano did) in attempting to argue matters with the enslavers. It is not from Europeans that enslaved peoples have learned how to construct cultures that conserve a sense of humanity, meaningful life, and an abiding vision of freedom in the face of the West's relentless imperial expansion. Indeed, it is essential to reverse the direction of inference and note that students who have read Equiano have a good chance of understanding what Rousseau meant in talking about human rights and equality. From there follows the question many find deeply but unnecessarily disturbing: To what extent was Rousseau influenced indirectly by the African slaves, whose fearsome rebellions and unquenchable demands for change echoed constantly back to Europe from the colonial frontier? From an intercultural perspective, the initial statement about Equiano taken by itself reproduces a monumentalist cultural hierarchy that is historically as well as morally distortive.


Excerpted from The Politics of Liberal Education by Darryl J. Gless, Barbara Herrnstein Smith. Copyright © 1992 Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission of Duke University Press.
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