MacArthur Awardwinning historian Levine (Univ. of Calif., Berkeley; Black Culture and Black Consciousness, 1977, etc.) takes on the New Right in the culture wars.
The principle problem with conservative attack on the academy, Levine argues in his new book, is that it is ahistorical, indeed, downright ignorant of the history of higher education in the US. "The best response to critics of the modern American university is the history of the university itself," he says, and he proceeds to trace that history. Curriculum changes came not in response to a leftist cabal, he argues, but in response to larger social pressures. In fact, he notes, 19th-century colleges offered virtually nothing in the way of science, modern language, or history courses, focusing almost exclusively on "classics" courses that generally consisted more of grammar than content analysis. The current curriculum fights are merely extensions of debates on opening the curriculum that occurred at the end of the last century; Levine highlights the battle between Harvard's Charles Eliot and Princeton's James McCosh as the most prominent example. He demonstrates the ways in which the two world wars affected the rise and decline of Western Civ core curricula, and how the original literary canon offered in America's great universities excluded not only multicultural literatures but American literature itself. Indeed, as late as the 1920s, specializing in American literature was "professional suicide" for academicians. Levine is similarly effective in tracing the place of immigrants in American society and the changing understanding of how their cultures interact with the larger American one. Ultimately, he argues convincingly, the real fear of the neoconservatives is not that the university is too closed, but that it is too open.
An intelligently argued volume that would be more effective if it were longer and more detailed. Still, an excellent starting point for debunking some of the new catechisms of the anti- intellectual intellectuals.