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How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America
By Russell Jacoby
Doubleday, 1994, 234 pages

Russell Jacoby made a name for himself some years ago with The Last Intellectuals which has become one of those books that routinely crops up in conversations about American political and social life as a form of shorthand for our deteriorating cultural debate. Like Allan Bloom's The Closing of the American Mind (which few people I know actually read all the way through, let alone understood, yet which everybody had an opinion about), The Last Intellectuals was a book everyone in cultural and academic circles was expected to have read.

Now Jacoby has reappeared with another book, Dogmatic Wisdom. It has been well-reviewed, on the whole, but hasn't created the stir of his earlier book. Not as timely, perhaps. Still, I would recommend it for anyone who, like me, feels that the so-called culture wars are out of hand, and for those seeking a more sober perspective the controversies surrounding multiculturalism, the political correctness thing, and the future of America's schools.

Jacoby believes that the ongoing debate is misleading and has diverted public attention from the real problems facing education and society. The "culture wars" over political correctness, speech codes, multiculturalism, relativism, the Western canon, and campus racism are "mainly beside the point," he says. Too many critics are "scoring points" rather than looking at the situation as a whole. Their contributions "remain blinkered and insular — not wrong, but narrow, confounding surface and substance." Both sides of the ideological divide "suffer from nearsightedness." The conservative charge that cultural relativism and leftist views have taken over America's universities is as far off the mark as the liberal dogma of cultural pluralism which, he says, too often masks a prickly and hostile parochialism.

According to Jacoby, the most pressing problems facing American education are soaring tuition, rising violence, the increasingly "insular academicism" of university faculties, and a growing emphasis on business success and preprofessional training at the expense of the humanities and genuine multiculturalism. "The invasion of the liberal arts by vocational and preprofessional studies," he remarks, "constitutes the real illiberal education."

Jacoby explores in some detail the political correctness movement and the calls for more cultural diversity. He maintains that the conservatives' comparisons of political correctness with the "new McCarthyism" are absurd — they not only focus attention on the symptoms rather than the causes of the problem, but they also blow the phenomenon way out of proportion. On the other hand, the notion that oppressed groups should have free speech but oppressor groups should not is equally misguided, for to enforce such a standard we would have to "enter the world, not of law, not even of sociology and history, but of mystical comparative therapy." Political correctness is merely the latest chapter of America's "love affair with euphemisms," Jacoby says. While the efforts of America's language reformers to introduce more humane and inclusive speech is a worthy endeavor, many aspects of it are misguided and unwittingly "strip language of shadows" and "promote the language of bureaucracy as the language of liberation."

On the subject of multiculturalism, Jacoby argues that a genuine diversity is necessary, particularly in the texts used by primary and secondary schools. In America's universities, however, the debate has centered on the core curriculum which, at most schools, is largely irrelevant because there is no basic curriculum. Jacoby believes that the increasingly strident affirmations of cultural identity on campuses are reflective of a deeper problem in American education and society — the perceived threat of cultural homogenization. Amid all the talk about cultural diversity, he says, few realize that society has actually become more uniform, not diverse. Ethnic pride grows strongest when diversity is on the decline, since "inexorable loss calls forth proud declarations of identity."

According to Jacoby, the crisis of American education is that there is no crisis. What is required is not sweeping reform or fundamental restructuring, but rather a "low-tech" approach: functional classrooms, good libraries, dedicated teachers, small classes, and affordable tuition. "If these were in place," he concludes, "hostilities over schooling, curriculum, affirmative action, racism, and free-speech would shrink; pools of acrimony would drain away."

Copyright 1996 by Scott London. All rights reserved.