Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America. By Russsell Jacoby. Doubleday, 235 pp., $22.95

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The debate about contemporary American education has been a little lopsided. There have been presidential pronouncements, federal reports, foundation reports, best-selling jeremiads from Allan Bloom (“The Closing of the American Mind”) and William Bennett (“The Devaluing of America”), hard-hitting conservative critiques from Dinesh D’Souza (“Illiberal Education”) and Roger Kimball (“Tenured Radicals”), and anguished or peevish liberal laments from Arthur Schlesinger (“The Disuniting of America”), and Robert Hughes (“The Culture of Complaint”). But not much from the left, which has mostly run for cover. Russell Jacoby, author of “The Last Intellectuals” and a half-dozen other books, is by no means an orthodox leftist; he’s a free-lance intellectual Terminator, programmed to snuff out cant of every ideological variety. But since the right has so far dominated the education debate, its ox is gored — butchered — in “Dogmatic Wisdom.”

The conservative indictment is familiar. Radical teachers’ skepticism about traditional values has led to passive, confused relativism among students. Drastic curriculum revisions for the sake of “cultural diversity” have diluted and degraded liberal education. Affirmative action has promoted mediocrity over excellence, to everyone’s disadvantage. And anyone who tries to point all this out is silenced by “politically correct” campus commissars.

Though plausible, these complaints are misleading — they amount, Jacoby writes, to “litigating property lines while the house is on fire.” Liberal education is threatened far less by theoretical fads or a new tribalism than by the blandishments of mass culture, the exigencies of the labor market and the encroachments of austerity. Universities, high schools and elementary schools by the thousands are laying off teachers and cutting back programs. Colleges are forced to compete for applicants, often lowering standards in the process. They must also rely heavily on federal, foundation and corporate grants; since these go primarily to the natural and social sciences, the humanities are neglected. And since grant money is awarded for research, teaching is deemphasized, fobbed off on graduate students or even undergraduates.

“Multiculturalism,” the object of so much polemical passion, is, Jacoby argues, an epiphenomenon. Driven by advertising and conglomeration, American culture grows ever more homogeneous. Hollywood and television disseminate illiteracy across class lines. “Cultural homogeneity co-exists with economic stratification and doesn’t lessen it… Both rich and poor wear Levi’s but live in different neighborhoods and attend different colleges.” A tiny minority of colleges — mainly elite, highly visible ones — are roiled by controversies over speech codes and curricular innovations; below the tip of the iceberg, in the vast domain of state and community colleges, the news is different: the triumph of commercialized, preprofessional education.

This, Jacoby charges, is contemporary conservatism’s dirty little secret:

“Earlier conservatives targeted a grubby commercialism for under mining education; they protested a utilitarianism rooted in an industrial age. ... In the course of seventy years the situation has worsened and the [new conservatives] rise to the occasion by boldly attacking — what? English professors. Rock ‘n roll. Feminist studies. Relativism…They sputter about tenured radicals and stay mute about an instrumental society. [Earlier conservatives] sputtered also, but they realized that an exclusively commercial and instrumental vision degraded education; and they called for the universities to resist, not pander to this spirit…

“Of the million-odd bachelor’s degrees awarded in 1991, some 250,000 were conferred in business compared with 7,300 in philosophy and 12,000 in foreign languages: These numbers speak volumes about liberal education today, but no-no conservatives are oblivious. Instead, they cry foul when an English professor assigns Hollywood movies and popular novels.”

That the ethos of capitalism, the logic of the “free” market, is to the ideals of liberal education and humane culture was clear enough to Matthew Arnold and John Stuart Mill. Today’s conservatives devoutly invoke Arnold and Mill, yet cannot bring themselves to utter a critical word about capitalism.

I don’t mean to leave the impression that the left escapes unscathed in “Dogmatic Wisdom.” Jacoby is witheringly funny about the turgid prose and tumid self-importance of academic radicals. Rather than (as in conservative mythology) fanatically assaulting the foundations of Western civilization, leftist professors are, by and large, conformist and careerist, unable to write for the public and largely uninterested in doing so.

What is to be done? First and last, Jacoby replies, cease ignoring the obvious. “A thousand studies and ten thousand reports and what is necessary is nothing fancy: decent classrooms, good libraries, devoted teachers, small classes, committed students, low tuition. If these were in place, hostilities over schooling, curriculum, affirmative action, racism, and free speech would shrink; pools of acrimony would drain away.” This “low-tech” solution would nonetheless be costly. Radical and conservative ideologues would have to forgo their accustomed posturing-- a painful sacrifice. Powerful groups currently wasting substantial public resources — agribusiness, real estate developers and the defense industry, among many others-- would have to be weaned. And the rest of us would have to shake off our intellectual and political lethargy.

“Dogmatic Wisdom” can hardly be overpraised. Its wit, discrimination, evenhandedness and erudition set it apart. There is more undogmatic wisdom about contemporary American education and culture in this little book than in the entire shelf of its none-too-distinguished predecessors.


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George Scialabba