From Joshua to Joe Louis

The Opening of the American Mind
April 25, 1997

This book is a forceful rebuttal of conservative critics who have dominated recent debate about higher education in the United States. Lawrence W. Levine, professor of history at George Mason University, emeritus professor at the University of California, Berkeley, and recipient of one of the prestigious MacArthur prize fellowships, argues persuasively that the American university is alive and well and that recent efforts to revise the curriculum and broaden the canon reflect positive changes in scholarship and in the self-awareness of American society itself. Levine seasons his incisive analysis of recent cultural and intellectual trends with the story of his own life - and the lives of his parents - as he applauds the effort to provide a fuller and richer sense of the American past than we have ever attempted before.

Levine lists the jeremiads against the university at the outset. He is intent on countering the attacks of such writers as Allan Bloom, author of The Closing of the American Mind: How Higher Education has Failed Democracy and Impoverished the Souls of Today's Students, Charles Sykes, author of Profscam: Professors and the Demise of Higher Education, Roger Kimball, author of Tenured Radicals: How Politics has Corrupted our Higher Education, and Dinesh D'Souza, author of Illiberal Education: The Politics of Race and Sex on Campus. He quotes columnist George Will, who charged several years ago that controversies over the curriculum were "related battles in a single war, a war of aggression against the western political tradition and the ideas that animate it." And then he proceeds to demolish the analyses of these critics.

At the centre of Levine's argument is the contention that critics have a "faulty sense" of the history of the American university. The canon, he notes wisely, is hardly a timeless collection of great books that has shaped the curriculum for decades or even centuries. Rather, the pattern has long been one of "constant and often controversial expansion and alteration of curricula and canons and incessant struggle over the nature of that expansion and alteration." Nor was the golden age of the mythic past as rosy as conservative critics would have us believe. Levine quotes noted intellectual Henry Adams reflecting on his education at Harvard from 1854 to 1858 and declaring: "It taught little, and that little illI Beyond two or three Greek plays, the student got nothing from the ancient languages."

Curricular change, Levine suggests, has always caused attacks. When Charles William Eliot, president of Harvard, argued in in 1869 in favour of opening up the classical canon to include such subjects as history and literature, Princeton president James McCosh countered by charging that Harvard would turn its students into "mental monstrosities".

The story of western civilisation courses, held in such high regard by critics of curricular change, is a good example of how the canon has changed in years past. Such courses, Levine observes, are relatively recent in origin. While some European history had been taught before, these courses became far more common after the first world war, as Americans wanted to learn more about the world they could not avoid. There was also a general sense that western civilisation courses could provide a unifying force in the face of the huge number of immigrants arriving in these years. As popular as western civilisation was for a time, its period of predominance lasted only 50 years. Pressures rooted in cultural change led to curricular shifts long before the most recent efforts to add to the list of what is taught.

Levine continues with a perceptive chapter tracing the shift "From the melting pot to the pluralist vision". Critics of contemporary work, he notes, "like to portray a holistic past in which immigrants came to the United States, acculturated promptly and without fuss, and posed no problems for a nation which was inexorably becoming one". In fact, the past was far more murky and muddy: "The United States harboured the kernels of division from the beginning and contained a multifarious population" which remained variegated for years to come.

A chapter on "Ethnic assimilation" is equally thoughtful. Here Levine draws on the experience of his own family as he challenges the assumptions of historian Oscar Handlin and others about the process of acculturation most immigrants went through. The child of a Lithuanian Jewish father and a Russian Jewish mother, Levine argues that his experience suggests that people could hold on to old customs even as they embraced new ones. He learned, he writes: "I could have both Moses and Lincoln for forefathers, both the Hebrew Torah and the United States Constitution for moral and legal touchstones, both Joshua and Joe Louis for warrior heroes, both the Jewish shul and the American public school for houses of learning."

Levine's overarching argument is that critics of educational change in the US have often failed to appreciate the impact of cultural change. Different groups came into conflict with each other, and the resulting collision, sometimes violent and prolonged, invariably produced a new integration in which all parties were changed. "This awareness of dynamism, of change, of interaction," he points out, "has dominated recent scholarship." And acknowledgement of this change is what has led to necessary calls for the expansion of the curriculum.

The Opening of the American Mind is an important corrective in the debate over the state of the American university. In lively prose, Levine shows how the changes that have occurred in American education in recent years are part of a long and continuing process. This book should be required reading for anyone interested in the culture wars.

Allan M. Winkler is professor of history, Miami University of Ohio, United States.

The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture and History

Author - Lawrence W. Levine
ISBN - 0 8070 3118 6
Publisher - Beacon
Price - $20.00
Pages - 224

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