A Chrysler in the hobo jungle

In Plato's Cave
April 21, 2000

The pleasures of reading Alvin Kernan's wry and unenchanted, rather than disenchanted, recollections of his years as a student, teacher and dean at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale and Princeton, are many and varied. The first 105 pages of this autobiography will be vastly enjoyed by admirers of the picaresque novel, as well as by everyone who wishes that Lucky Jim had been ten times longer.

Kernan got out of the US Navy at the end of the second world war and headed back to Saratoga, Wyoming. He thought the GI Bill's offer of free tuition and 65 bucks a month was too good to pass up. So, in a decrepit 1936 Chrysler, Kernan and a Californian friend who wanted to make his career as an actor in New York set out for the fabled East. Kernan describes himself as a sort of Candide, who had heard of Plato's Cave - the gloomy place where we are held as prisoners, chained so as to see only the wall in front of us, knowing of the world behind us only by the flickering shadows cast on that wall; but, in true Candide fashion, he thought that in the university, truth was already known, and that there students were freed from their incarceration in the world of illusion.

The idea of giving former troops incentives to attend college did not appeal to all educational pundits. Robert Hutchins, the president of the University of Chicago, thought the GI Bill would turn colleges into "educational hobo jungles", while James Conant, president of Harvard, was distressed by the GI Bill's failure to distinguish between "those who can profit most from advanced education and those who cannot".

Having reckoned on studying philosophy at Columbia, Kernan soon discovered he did not wholly like either philosophy or his roommate. The battered Chrysler came to life, and Kernan headed into New England to look for a college and, limping into Williamstown, he found it. His four years at Williams College were productive; quite soon, he was teaching students in the classes below him, and reading prodigiously.

But all was not Eng lit. Fans of Lucky Jim will find Kernan's account of the way the young ladies of Benenden used their sexual favours as weapons in the class war deeply enjoyable. Oxford readers, however, will wince at Kernan's account of his two years reading English with Neville Coghill, David Cecil and other great men whose talents did not extend to an ability to show American graduates how to do what they were required to do to thrive. England in 1949 was anyway not much fun for an American - to the rigours of fuel shortages, food-rationing and lousy plumbing, there were added the nastiness of the English class system and the discovery of the casual cruelty that has always passed for humour among undergraduates. Marrying, having a child, and spending as long as possible abroad, were compensations, but not calculated to promote academic success, and Kernan emerged with a third that embarrassed his tutors and depressed him. Happily, the class system in Oxford was as mysterious to Yale on the academic side as on the social, so Kernan was able to embark on a long and highly successful career, first learning, and then teaching, English in New Haven.

Kernan warms gently to the theme of his memoirs, which is not so much the study of literature, let alone the fate of one professor of English, so much as the pros and cons of the democratisation of higher education. Like many of us who benefited in our teens from the postwar opening up of higher education to bright boys - it really was overwhelmingly boys at that point - he is deeply ambivalent about what has happened. What we got was access to the old elite intellectual culture, whose standards may have been pretty odd, but whose adherents at least believed that what they were passing on was really and truly the best that is thought and said in the world. It was clear then, and is clear in retrospect, that an education founded on those assumptions did not suit everyone. Kernan's experience of the new world was not entirely happy. Even as a fairly junior Yale administrator, he was in the firing line when the Black Panthers offered to burn down Yale and much of New Haven when Bobby Seale was put on trial in 1968. Though he is, loosely speaking, a conservative in his outlook on universities, politics and literature, Kernan is not particularly unkind to the liberal and mildly left-wing academics who found that their good nature had unleashed a monster they could not control.

A short spell as dean of the graduate school at Princeton was enough to persuade him that he really did not wish to end his days as an administrator. A heart attack and dangerous surgery had been warning enough that he ought not wilfully expose himself to stress, but the greater problem was that between himself and the new generation of academics a gulf had opened up. His juniors seemed to him to mix a new censoriousness about the politics and personal conduct of their colleagues with a new unwillingness to set any sort of standard that graduate work in literary studies should be expected to reach. So, he quit being dean, taught a little longer, and quit doing that. He obviously feels it was something of a dying fall; readers of Crossing the Line (1997) - his memoirs of naval service during the second world war - and In Plato's Cave might feel otherwise, and be grateful that he was allowed the time and health to write two such engaging and thought-provoking memoirs in his retirement.

Alan Ryan is warden of New College, University of Oxford.

In Plato's Cave

Author - Alvin Kernan
ISBN - 0 300 07589 8
Publisher - Yale University Press
Price - £18.95
Pages - 309

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