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Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education Hardcover – November, 1992
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From Publishers Weekly
Decrying conservatives who claim higher education offers a choice between culture and barbarism, University of Chicago English professor Graff argues eloquently for a curriculum that includes political debates and multicultural texts. Though he brushes away charges of left-wing McCarthyism too easily, he skewers critic Dinesh D'Souza's claim that dead white males are being expelled firom required courses. Graff suggests that conservatives' only strategy to deal with conflicting views is to deny their legitimacy, and he wisely notes that the term common culture is always evolving. Using evidence from his own teaching, Graff shows how incorporating literary criticism written by the African novelist Chinua Achebe helped revise his teaching of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. He suggests that the ideological conflicts that accompany the curricular problem are getting students to grapple with ideas. Observing that students often have teachers with conflicting beliefs and assumptions in different classes, Graff concludes by surveying current innovative attempts at curriculum integration; oddly, he doesn't mention his own university's Great Books program.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
From Library Journal
Graff (English, Univ. of Chicago) here addresses Allan Bloom ( The Closing of the American Mind , LJ 5/1/87), Dinesh D'Souza ( Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus , LJ 3/15/91), and other conservative critics of multiculturalism and political correctness in the schools. He believes that teaching about cultural conflicts is a sign of vitality and hope and that it contributes to the development of a common culture. He debunks what he considers to be the myth of the vanishing classics and argues that the "course fetish" and "cult of the teacher" exacerbate conflict. Graff instead touts his program for incorporating conflicting and variant ideas into the curriculum as the best insurance for a democratic society. This provocative and controversial book is an essential acquisition for balanced subject collections.
- Shirley L. Hopkinson, SLIS, San Jose State Univ., Cal.
Copyright 1992 Reed Business Information, Inc.
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Top customer reviews
The flaw in Graff's basic assumption is one that he makes, in one form or another throughout his book, is to posit two extremes, one of which is the problem and the other the solution. What gets left out is the vast range of potential approaches that might work if he would admit of their existence. His starting premise is that education needs the jump start of the teaching of conflict to re-ignite what he sees as a moribund relevancy. His solution is to turn conflict into community by the team teaching of integrated disciplines such that the buried conflict within can then be exposed to scrutiny. The problem that I have with that is that there is more than one cause of educational stagnation. The lack of aggressive conflict in the classroom is but one of several potential candidates. Further, Graff assumes that the "Great Books" approach to literature, which admittedly seeks to extol and transfer universal standards of humanitarian thought and accepted wisdom is lacking any such conflict. For those who are familiar with HAMLET or PRIDE AND PREJUDICE, such readers are well aware that these and other works of the Western canon are not only replete with universal standards of wit, charm, and character but also with conflict sufficient to guarantee several centuries of ongoing reader involvement. When Graff admits to being bored with simply reading these greats, one must wonder why he seeks the conflict which the rest of us know is there in aplenty. I suspect that Graff is caught up in the general hoopla that is associated with an ideology that can be summed up thusly: "Hey hey ho ho Western Civ has got to go." Western civilization is not going anywhere as there is sufficient conflict in it to guarantee the continual involvement of the next generation of students--even if Gerald Graff is not one of them.
Graff dismantles the myth that America's colleges and universities once were pleasant havens of humanistic agreement. Bitter divides have been the order of the day since at least the 1860s, he says, and the conflicts that tear apart the academic canon today are only echoes of more than a century of debate over what constitutes knowledge. If we are to bridge that gap now, we must abandon the belief that things used to be simple and free of politics or conflict.
Instead of pining for a muddled vision of an apolitical past, or browbeating each other into a utopian future, we should make the differences in our views the centerpiece of the discussion, Graff says. Students will care a lot more, and learn a lot faster, if they can see the debates that surround their subjects. Teachers will learn more, and produce more relevant research, if they understand the intellectual climate of their topics outside their narrow fields.
Graff spends a lot of time addressing the dispute over teaching the canon in the late Twentieth Century. He may get tarred with the epithet "liberal" for his heavy focus on conservative critics. He points out William Bennett and Lynne Cheney by name, repeatedly, but doesn't hammer leftists with the same vigor. But in fact he's very conservative in his belief in the liberating mobility education ought to provide for college and university students.
Graff's list of suggestions leaves something to be desired. He is so intensely focused on urban universities that, in naming successful intercurricular programs, he leaves off smaller flourishing schools. St. John's College of Annapolis and Santa Fe has had a cross-disciplinary program since the 1930s, and Thomas Aquinas College of Santa Paula, California, has had one since the 1970s, but neither merit mention in this book's suggested programs.
But despite this large glaring omission, most of this book is valuable because it takes a debate that remains in force nearly two decades later and changes its frame. It's difficult to go back to the old whining argument when Graff has shifted our focus. If more teachers, and more program heads, were to read this book, we might not only end a useless culture war, we might well find a generation of students who are ready to learn.