Dictatorship of Virtue: Multiculturalism and the Battle for America’s Future. By Richard Bernstein Knopf $25.00.; Dogmatic Wisdom: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America. By Russell Jacoby. Doubleday $22.95.
December 15, 1994        

For a generation or more, schoolchildren in West Africa and Southeast Asia learned French from a reader that began: “Our ancestors, the Gauls “ Actually, this seems no more incongruous to me than my memory of first grade in East Boston in the 1950s: fifty little Italian- American savages bawling the Pledge of Allegiance. Two paradigmatic instances of cultural imperialism, I suppose. And yet, what lodged deepest — with me and, I suspect, with the Africans and Asians — was not the patriotic sentiment but the verbal music: “Nos ancêtres, les Gaulois. . .”; “. . . with liberty and justice for all.”

On the evidence of Richard Bernstein’s “Dictatorship of Virtue”, not much of either — patriotism or eloquence — survives in the contemporary American curriculum. Bernstein, formerly the national cultural correspondent of “The New York Times”, spent a couple of years following up several of the cultural controversies that flared briefly or chronically in the last decade: curricular innovation in the schools and colleges; speech and harassment codes; Afrocentrism; canon revision and critical theory; workplace diversity. It’s a dreary tale. Whatever may once have been fresh and vital about multiculturalism is now evidently stale. The new courses and programs Bernstein describes, from Austin to Minneapolis to Brookline to New York, sound vapid and tendentious. Campus wrangles over discrimination or harassment seem motivated as often as not by opportunism or mere contentiousness. The current chairman of the National Endowment for the Humanities, a recent president of the Modern Language Association, and quite a few college presidents, professors, schoolteachers, and principals (including several from Greater Boston) are plausibly depicted, largely in their own words, as horses’ asses. And in the lowest circle of hell swarms

“a growing multicultural bureaucracy, a heavy rank of assistant deans and assistant provosts, of diversity programmers and social equity directors and affirmative action officers, of educational consultants who give full-day seminars on ‘understanding differences,’ of people with master’s degrees in psychology and social work whose vocabulary is chock- full of expressions like ‘internalized oppression’ and ‘psychological captivity;’ of specialists in multicultural education, people who use words like ‘problematize’ and use ‘impact’ as a verb…

Bernstein is as unhappy about all this as Allan Bloom and William Bennett, but his complaint is not theirs. His objections are not metaphysical and a priori but practical and ad hoc. A liberal and a pluralist, he was (he claims) inclined to give multiculturalism the benefit of the doubt. But instead of the livelier, more imaginative pedagogy; more frank and frequent communication between the races and genders, and a steady growth of fairness, tolerance, and informed sympathy, he encountered a plague of mediocrity, conformism, and rancor, of “mandatory sanctimony” and “stale, simpleminded Manichaean[ism].” Emasculated text books, the frantic pursuit of an artificial inclusiveness, neglect or even suspicion of intellectual mastery, subtle or unsubtle disparagement of classical ideals and achievements, reflexive accusations of racism, sexism, and elitism — it sounds a little like an earlier Cultural Revolution; though this time, fortunately, the promised hundred flowers have turned out to be not poisonous but only plastic.

Actually, that analogy holds in another respect as well. Like Leninism, militant multiculturalism is primarily attributable — pace neoconservative apocalyptics — not to anything so pro found as the “Utopian temptation,” the dark side of the Enlightenment, or the Puritan strain in the American character, but to simple (or, if you prefer, complicated) careerism. The opportunism Bernstein describes — both among the diversity consultants and affirmative-action advocates and their clients — is dismaying. “My experience,” he concludes, “leads me to believe that insofar as culture is involved in multiculturalism, it is not so much for me to be required to learn about other cultures as for me to celebrate myself and for you to celebrate me, and, along the way, to support my demand for more respect, more jobs, more foundation support, more money, more programs, more books, more prizes, more people like me in high places.” It’s not, in other words, genuine pluralism — any more than Leninism was genuine socialism — but rather, at bottom, business as usual: product innovation and marketing.

What children need, Bernstein contends — at any rate, poor and minority children, who, unlike their wealthier and whiter fellows, are stuck with the public schools — is not this newfangled pedagogy; but more and better old-fashioned pedagogy (1). Self-esteem is indeed a worthy educational goal, but “a strong self-conception does not come from being in formed that other people of your race have done well as much as it comes from seeing that you can accomplish things.” Real educational equality consists in everyone’s being held — and, if necessary, helped — to the same high standards.

Which standards? Bernstein makes a modest and pragmatic case — which is therefore much more persuasive than the neoconservatives’ strident and dogmatic case — for Americanism and Eurocentrism. One main premise of multiculturalism is that assimilation has not worked. The proof is the allegedly pervasive and intensifying racism, sexism, and homophobia of contemporary America. Bernstein glances skeptically at the evidence for this charge, which indeed seems rather flimsy: several widely-cited recent studies are convicted of hyperbole and selectivity, and a good deal of evidence of steady, and sometimes dramatic, progress by women and minorities is cited. Even more effective is his extended portrait of a community remarkable for its ethnic diversity over several generations, whose Asian, African-American, Caribbean, and Southern and Eastern European denizens seem notably unalienated from the American dream. As it happens, this echt-multicultural community — Queens — came to national attention a few years ago as a focus of opposition to the New York State “Rainbow Curriculum,” a circumstance that lends extra poignancy to Bernstein’s account.

Demystifying this country’s main stream political tradition is one thing, and (as I wish Bernstein had affirmed a bit more emphatically) a very good thing— certainly Howard Zinn’s “A People’s History of the United States”, for example, ought to be required reading for every American child and adult. But impugning and abandoning that tradition, in the manner of doctrinaire multiculturalists, rather than insisting on the fulfillment of its promises, seems to me, as it does to Bernstein, foolhardy. Though, I admit, I may have been brainwashed by thou \sands of repetitions of “. . . with liberty and justice for all.”

Bernstein is a superb reporter (albeit a “New York Times” reporter, and therefore an incorrigible centrist). Russell Jacoby is a radical social critic in the line of Bourne, Macdonald, and Mills: an intellectual generalist of the sort whose obsolescence he chronicled in his previous book, “The Last Intellectuals”. He, too, is unhappy about multiculturalism, not because it’s a menace but because it’s a distraction. The conflicts Bernstein surveys amount, Jacoby believes, to “litigating property lines while the house is on fire.” “Dogmatic Wisdom” argues that education in America is endangered less by leftist zealotry or rightist bigotry than by the fraying, even crumbling, of the social fabric.

“The ‘culture wars’ are diversionary… Conservatives, liberals, and radicals argue over which books should be taught in schools; meanwhile few books are read, and a liberal education shatters under the weight of commercialism. Faculty and students dispute which words violate the rights of which groups; meanwhile society turns increasingly violent. Psychologists preach the virtues of a healthy self-esteem; meanwhile the world of the self — education and jobs — collapses. Citizens wrangle over multiculturalism, arguing how, when, and if diverse cultures should be studied; meanwhile the irresistible power of advertising and television converts multiculturalism into a monoculture of clothes, music, and cars.”

On the one hand, Jacoby claims, the spread of multiculturalism in the elementary and secondary schools will be limited by the fact of local control, exercised by elected school boards. (Bernstein’s account of the protracted struggle between parents and the school system in Brookline casts some doubt on this plausible-sounding notion.) On the other hand, American higher education is sharply divided between a thin layer of elite schools, where ideological conflicts swirl, and a mass of state, community, and small private colleges with other preoccupations. He quotes the author of a large scale study: “The curriculum of students at elite colleges” — Stanford, Penn, Michigan, Berkeley, Duke, etc. — “is so different from that followed by the other 97% that it is irrelevant to discussions.” For that matter, something similar may be true of the primary and secondary schools, judging from Jonathan Kozol’s “Savage Inequalities” (1991)— a book that should be read, or re-read, in connection with Jacoby’s and Bernstein’s — which documents the vast disparity in resources typically available to suburban and inner-city school districts.

The sabotage of public finances by Reaganism; the de-industrialization of the American economy; the effect on students of 30 hours of television plus (for a distressingly high percentage of them) ten or 15 hours of unskilled, low-wage work each week — compared with these, multiculturalism, even on the most alarmist view of it, is barely a blip on the screen. More than half of all undergraduates major in vocational or occupational fields. Twenty-five percent of all bachelor’s degrees are in business; roughly one-half of one percent are in philosophy. Even before multiculturalism arrived on the scene, only one student in 20 took any course at all in modern European history; only 22% of four-year colleges (and even fewer two-year colleges) had a Western Civilization requirement. Reports of the death of liberal education America have not been exaggerated, but the cause of death has been misidentified. This is not surprising: the right has dominated the education debate, outside the academy at least, so naturally the depredations of the free market and the blandishments of consumerism have largely escaped blame. Unlike their morally and intellectually more serious predecessors, contemporary conservatives, Jacoby notes, “worship the market and bemoan the education it engenders. They blast BMW radicals, not a BMW society.”

As for the left, there may not be much that multiculturalist kindergarten teachers or cutting-edge literary theorists can do about the political economy, but they can at least stop deceiving themselves. Richard Rorty has shrewdly observed that “one of the contributions of the newer [i.e. the radical-academic] left has been to enable professors, whose mild guilt about the comfort and security of their own lives led them into extra-academic political activity to say, ‘Sorry, I gave at the office’” (2). The traditional modes of democratic activity — organization, information, legislation (and donation!) — may seem tedious and unpromising. They may offer little scope for the enthusiasms and expertise of cultural radicals. But they are indispensable, in a way that curricular innovation and diversity-enhancement programs are not. None of the poor children or parents Jonathan Kozol talked to seemed to feel that recovering their racial or ethnic heritage was their most pressing educational need. Instead, “they ask for…fairly obvious improvements: larger library collections, a reduction in the size of classes, or a better ratio of children to school counselors.” No doubt, once such things can be taken for granted, the poor will soon come to appreciate advances in critical theory and multiculturalist pedagogy. But first things first.

George Bernard Shaw, at once the leading socialist and the leading music critic of his time, was asked (mutatis mutandis) whether in the interest of cultural diversity and popular empowerment, some thing ought not to be done about the elitist and Eurocentric bias of the contemporary music scene. What about music for the people? Shaw’s reply is still to the point:

“What we want is not music for the people, but bread for the people, rest for the people, immunity from robbery and scorn for the people, hope for them, enjoyment, equal respect and consideration, life and aspiration, instead of drudgery and despair. When we get that I imagine the people will make tolerable music for themselves.”

1. Emphasis on “better.” As Katha Pollitt has pointed out, if all students ever read is what they read in school — which is usually the case now — then it doesn’t much matter what they read in school. (“Canon to the Right of Me…”, “Nation”, 23 September 1991).

2. “Intellectuals in Politics,” “Dissent”, Spring 1992