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Beyond the Culture Wars: How Teaching
the Conflicts Can Revitalize American Education

by gerald graff
norton, 214 pages, $19.95

Although he does not mention James Davison Hunter’s book Culture Wars: The Struggle to Define America , Gerald Graff might be taking up the challenge of Hunter’s final chapter. Hunter calls for the revival of certain “civic practices” once taken for granted as prerequisites for American democracy, practices that make possible public discussion of the most divisive issues because they constitute agreement on how to conduct the conflict. Graff looks at the conflict within the academy and proposes a similar approach: agree to do your disagreeing civilly and in front of your students so that they can learn what it is all about.

The academy is a crucial arena for the culture wars, not least because, as Graff says, it is a microcosm of society. More important, the academy has the responsibility of defining the conflict and passing judgment on the conflicting parties because it is the institution entrusted with “culturing” the next generation. One of Hunter’s requirements for fruitful cultural conflict is that there be the possibility of carrying on a sustained conversation; the academy is one of the few places where that can be done. Furthermore, as 

Graff points out, we ask two contradictory things of academicians, that, on the one hand, they be the preservers of culture, and that, on the other hand, they be innovators. Conceivably it is this very contradiction that has given rise to, and is nowadays fueling, what we call the culture wars. All the more reason, then, to bring academic conflicts into the open. Graff proposes to do that by restructuring the curriculum. He argues that the traditional system of defining and allocating courses by discipline allows professors to avoid confronting each other and leaves students confused. Adding more “politically correct” courses does no good because the professors in these courses are still able to avoid confronting their opponents. In place of consistent indoctrination we get inconsistent indoctrination, but it is still indoctrination rather than real thought. Graff’s solution is to create interdisciplinary courses in which professors with different theories will have to address each other, and the students will be able to study not merely this or that professor’s theory, but the theoretical conflict itself. At first glance this seems a reasonable proposal. There are, however, certain difficulties with it.

The most obvious difficulty lies in Graff’s assumption that the relevant cultural differences can be equated with theoretical and methodological differences among disciplines. It is not difficult to imagine an interdisciplinary course taught exclusively by Marxists or by fundamentalist Christians. On the other hand, a course on whether Egypt was a black civilization, for instance”once suggested by Diane Ravitch as a culturally serious counter to the “multiculturalists” in the field of black studies and mentioned with approval by Graff”could accomplish what he wants regardless of the discipline of the professor or the number of professors teaching it. The disciplines in a certain sense do constitute “cultures,” but that is because they rest upon certain beliefs about reality and meaning. To the extent that these beliefs are shared by people outside the academy and to the extent that people look to them in making the important decisions in their lives, they are culturally relevant. This is not to say that the academy cannot “teach the conflicts,” only that it must first discern accurately what the real conflicts are, and to do that it must look outside itself.

The principle difficulty with Graff’s proposal, in other words, stems from his misunderstanding of culture and politics. This misunderstanding is most evident in his equation of culture with theory, his confusion of political with partisan, and his failure to distinguish between teaching students the theories and teaching them to theorize.

Culture is the expression of the identity of a community of people. It expresses their understanding of reality, of the truth about human life generally and themselves in particular. This expression is essentially political, that is, it takes the form ofcustoms or laws that epitomize the community’s judgment with respect to what is true and false about life and therefore what is right or wrong, good or evil. Custom governs the imagination and creativity of a community through the rules and limitations of its language, and thus language serves as an excellent analogy for understanding how culture works. That is why literature is such a good exemplar of culture. Before we became sophisticated (and lazy), everyone understood that if one wished to get to know an alien culture the first thing to do was to learn the language.

A “culture war,” properly speaking, is a conflict over truth, over reality and its meaning. But because culture is about how we live, what we do and not just what we think, a culture war is also a political war. Political stability depends upon agreement not about whether a particular action is right or wrong, but about how to judge it. Politics is always partisan, and there are always winners and losers. What distinguishes politics from war is whether or not both parties can live meaningful lives in the community regardless of whether they win or lose. There can be considerable disagreement within a culture, but so long as there is agreement about what is real, so long as there is a common language, the culture remains intact and partisan conflict can be carried on in speech. When the disagreement is about reality itself, however, language becomes a useless means of disputation and the only resolution is victory in combat. The issue for us today is whether we have reached that state. The recent murder of an abortion doctor may serve as an image for the seriousness of this issue; for if it is no longer possible to use speech to resolve or at least contain our different understandings of good and evil, then the only means left is violence.

This observation makes it all the more imperative for the academy to find a way to carry on a conversation, not about theories of good and evil, but about good and evil themselves. By proposing to “teach the conflict” through teaching of theories, Graff has already prejudged in favor of one side, the side that considers all claims to truth to be merely theoretical since truth either does not exist or is unknowable. There is not much to be hoped for from a conversation in which one side’s language has been rendered unintelligible”or worse”judged to be baby-talk.

The idea that cultural differences can be adequately dealt with by teaching students to compare theories is connected with Graff’s understanding of education in general. In a moment of autobiographical candor he describes how he came to value books. He could never really get interested in a book, he says, until he learned to approach it in terms of its cultural significance. Knowing where the book stood in the political contradictions of its time made it relevant to him and enabled him to relate it to real life. Such a double removal from reality bespeaks a serious kind of intellectual impoverishment.

Perhaps the most important motivation behind what might be called a natural relation to reading, in any case the reading of literature, is the desire to understand reality directly, especially oneself and one’s own life. This in turn requires reflection on experience, and books offer one the opportunity to experience in imagination more than one can experience directly. Indeed, a book offers two kinds of experience, the author’s experience mediated through the book, and the unmediated experience of reading the book itself. It also offers three kinds of reflection or thought: the author’s reflection on his own experience, the reader’s reflection upon the author’s reflection, and, ultimately, the reader’s reflection upon the experience of reading the book.

For example, in reading Heart of Darkness one can experience indirectly the impact of Africa on Joseph Conrad, and directly, the impact of his descriptions of black people on one’s own racial sensitivities. One can then think about what the experience of Africa meant to Conrad, the psychological and spiritual reflections it occasioned for him, about what those reflections mean in the context of history, and finally, about what reading his book means for the understanding of one’s own life.

Before one can experience a book one must be able to read. That includes understanding the language in which the book is written, both its actual language and its symbolic language. To experience the author’s experience and understand his reflection upon that experience, one must also be able to set aside one’s own perceptions of reality and live for a time in the author’s world. The job of the teacher is to teach the student the languages of books and to develop his imaginative capacity to enter other worlds.

In contrast, Graff would have the teacher treat the book as something that cannot be understood in itself, even with much effort, but only in terms of its role in the dialectic of culture. This deprives the student of the added experiential material the book could have given him, and it implicitly teaches him that the critics know more about reality than the author did. Secondly, Graff’s emphasis on theory as the key to reality actually removes the student from reality, for it teaches him to distinguish among theories but not to theorize for himself. Real philosophy is not something one studies about, it is something one does. 

Finally, the “natural” way to read described above is also the just way to study cultures. Rather than approaching a culture as if it were a theory, would it not be both more just and more interesting to seek simply to experience it as much as one can through learning its language and entering into its world as directly as possible?

Sarah Baumgartner Thurow, a new contributor to First Things , is Director of the Center for Christianity and the Common Good at the University of Dallas.