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Wednesday, January 08, 2014

Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America by James Atlas | LibraryThing

Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America by James Atlas | LibraryThing:

James Atlas, an editor for The New York Times, no doubt wishing to cash in on the coattails of such as Allen Bloom and Eric D. Hirsch, summarizes what he considers to be the basic debate between the traditionalists (read Great Books and Dead-White- European-Males) and the radicals (read multiculturalists who would have us read gay and Hindu literature) who espouse cultural relativism. His Battle of the Books: The Curriculum Debate in America will not overload your shelves, physically or mentally.

Tradition, I suppose, is useful for building stability and creating a reference point from which to examine new ideas, but it seems to me that both sides of the issue miss the point; both sides want to operate in a world exclusive of the other, rather than take the best of both.

Allen Bloom, who started the whole thing, or at least brought the debate into the open, argues that democracy and its desire for equality, really is at fault; that the cultural relativism of the sixties removed us from the traditional values of the "Great Books", which, of course gave us slavery and colonialism. Atlas, who comes down on the side of the "canonists," (those arguing for a traditional canon of reading) -- along with William Bennett -- forget that the classics of today were the radical nonsense of yesterday. Surely a century that has seen genocide and the creation of weapons of universal destruction, can stop to examine the literature of the present in the context of the current century. And, surely, in a world in which all countries must rely on each other, it is useful to examine and understand the history, politics and social milieu of other peoples. After all, Hirsch argues that if we do not all have a common base of knowledge we will not be able to communicate with each other. Surely it becomes important to communicate with other than just ourselves.

Both sides are engaged in a political struggle: the Left wanting more attention paid to the disenfranchised, and the Right fearing the trend away from traditional values. Both sides suffer from an extreme naivete if they believe that excluding the literature of either side will carry the day for their own point of view.
Atlas wanders all over the place, blaming the univerities' "publish or perish" requirement for the decline of scholarship and the trend away from the classics. (How much more can be said about Shakespeare or Milton?) He is a fan of assimilation of other "cultures"; that it's important to maintain the superiority and power and righteousness of the United States of America. (Stand up and salute at this point.) The problem is, of course, that mainstream, white society has never permitted the assimilation of those who look or act differently from their own male WASP society; hence, perhaps, the trend toward valuing uniqueness and values other than those of the Dead White European Males.

Ultimately, I agree with Brumwich, who argues that the real purpose of education is not to transmit a point of view, -- although I see nothing wrong with that -- but to help students to think and make rational choices based on knowledge rather than opinion. Whether we've done that, of course, is a whole other debate.

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