Book Reviews -- beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education by Gerald Graff

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GERALD GRAFF. Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. New York: Norton, 1992. 214 pages. $19.95.

A few years ago, Gerald Graff formulated in a concise slogan his prescription for greater coherence in our college and university curricula: Teach the Conflicts! Since then, he has offered his idea in places where professors of English usually publish their work--scholarly journals and the organs of professional societies--and, decidedly, in places where such subjects usually do not appear, such as "The Oprah Winfrey Show." Now Graff's slogan stands at the center of a fully developed argument in Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education. It is one of the best books on the by now very crowded shelf marked "Rx for the University (Recent)."

In the first instance, the exhortation to "teach the conflicts" was directed to teachers of literature, who know something about the subject of conflict and whose guild history is shrewdly traced in Graff's previous work, Professing Literature. As the earlier book makes plain, that history has been dominated for some time by the proliferation of critical theories, new and relatively systematic, committed, and coherent vocabularies for the discussion of literary texts and no less for the choice of texts to discuss. For undergraduate students, this multiplication of competing texts and systems has seldom meant an enriched intellectual experience, however. Instead, Graff argues, as many others have done, it has too often meant serial incoherence. Put more vividly, it has meant semiotics at 9 o'clock, Great Books at 10, followed by feminism at 11 and, let us say, deconstruction at high noon. The brightest students learned to mimic the vocabulary of the hour or the semester, but even they, Graff argues, are impoverished not by their teachers' disagreements but by a curriculum that keeps those disagreements unfocused, in the background, out of the curriculum.

What is to be done? On this question the books about higher education divide as spectacularly as the literary theorists themselves. Each new book brings a different answer, but there are three basic approaches. One very large group, represented by Charles Sykes's Prof Scam, Roger Kimball's Tenured Radicals, or Dinesh D'Souza's Illiberal-Education, calls essentially for reform of the professors and political resistance to the tendencies of that class. Another group, including Allen Bloom's famous Closing of the American Mind and once representing the "official" position of the National Endowment for the Humanities, calls for a return to "just reading" the books we used to call the classics, seeking, in the phrase of Secretary William J. Bennett's phrase, "to reclaim a legacy. …