Pearls before swine

Alvin Kernan's "In Plato's Cave" chronicles the democratization of the university.

Published April 23, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

Alvin Kernan, author of the new academic memoir "In Plato's Cave," had a harrowing experience while serving as a dean at Princeton University in the 1980s. He happened upon a doctoral dissertation whose purpose, in the words of the author, was to "provide astrological identification indicating how Romeo's and Juliet's stars are crossed, as well as which stars delineate a complete astrological chart that Shakespeare uses as a structural framework for the play." This was not typical of Princeton scholarship, says Kernan, "but it was an indication of what could get through in the '80s with the ascendancy of the view that one reading is as good as any other."

Someone forced to read such blather in the twilight of a long, illustrious academic career deserves to have a voice in the culture wars. And unlike most of the wars' combatants, Kernan speaks from 50 years of experience as a student, professor and university administrator. During the course of his career, Kernan has had the Forrest Gump-like knack for witnessing some of the most important changes in the modern American university. He was a beneficiary of the GI Bill, participated in the birth of New Criticism, lived through the introduction of coeducation, observed from close range the New Haven Black Panther trial and worked at Yale's English department during the Paul De Man Nazi scandal. He is a cultural conservative, and for this reason his book will be sure to draw vitriol. But he makes a very convincing, surprisingly cool-headed analysis of the recent trends toward democratizing the American university. And he is actually capable of nuance, something we haven't seen much of recently. He is leery of deconstruction, but does not dismiss all modern theory as pudwhackery. For example, he welcomes existentialism because "It was good for literature ... The majority of literary characters are, like Hamlet and Emma Bovary, existential heroes."

Kernan's arguments are so well-balanced, in fact, that it is just that much more disappointing when he reveals his alarming biases. One of these is his unhealthy disrespect for all undergraduates from the beginning of time to the present, whom he collectively refers to as "Smithers." Furthermore, his astonishingly dated description of Jews makes one question just how aware Kernan could have been of the changes around him: "They seemed wise beyond their years in their Talmudic understanding that there are many ways of getting at texts, and they had the great advantage of seldom drinking alcohol." Whoa. Where's he been the last 50 years, golfing with Joe Kennedy Sr.? Perhaps he should keep his compliments to himself. At least he didn't say that some of his best friends are Jews.

Despite these considerable rough edges, "In Plato's Cave" is one of the few middle-ground critiques that have emerged on the culture wars. Perhaps his reserve arises from the fact that he doesn't want to bite the hand that fed him; he himself benefited from the largesse of the GI Bill, without which he would not have been able to afford college. The bill drew all manner of criticism. Kernan cites a report called "The Threat to American Education," written by Robert Hutchins, then University of Chicago president. Hutchins predicted that, as a result of the GI Bill, "Universities will find themselves converted into educational hobo jungles." Fortunately for all of us, his opinion didn't matter. Two million servicemen went to college on the government's dime. As a result, the number of colleges doubled over the next few decades. And though some would refuse to admit it, this influx of new students raised academic standards. At Yale, for example, a course called Daily Themes was introduced in the late 1940s. Its opponents argued that Yale students would never enter a course in which they were required to do work every day. Largely owing to the knowledge-hungry ex-GIs, the course flourished and continues to be oversubscribed every year.

Kernan takes the Hegel-lite view that historical events arise out of necessity and in response to other forces. He reminds us that every dubious turn taken by American universities was an attempt to avoid a fate that could have been far worse.

The system of publish or perish, for example, is not the remnant of stodgy university tradition that many of us imagine it to be. It is, in fact, a relatively recent innovation created in response to chaos. When Kernan was an undergraduate at Williams College in the 1940s, college teaching was reserved for the gentry. "Scholarship did not flourish in this atmosphere," he writes. "The science labs were usually locked up, no test tubes bubbled away inside." The professors were competent but unimaginative, and more or less content to be so. If universities had not created rigorous external evaluations of professors' writings, we might have ended up being taught by the likes of George, the effete, bored, alcoholic professor from "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf."

This was also in the days before literary theory, which Kernan is not deluded enough to be nostalgic about, unlike some of his right-wing comrades-in-arms. He recalls that academic books of the era typically were fluffy musings like Nelson Bushnell's "A Walk After Keats," which, as the title suggests, was about the tree-loving, rhapsodic thoughts the author had during a walk he took after reading Keats.

According to Kernan, it was an aversion to this sort of navel-gazing that made New Criticism a welcome breath of fresh air. Also referred to as the "lemon-squeezer school" of literature, it eschewed impressions of a poem in favor of close reading and attention to the formal properties of the words themselves -- "squeezing out" the full meaning rather than traipsing through it. Kernan was at the time a Ph.D. candidate at in the Yale English department, studying under Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, whom he calls "the Castor and Pollux of the New Criticism." Under their tutelage he became a devoted convert to the theory.

Later, when Kernan became a professor at the same department, history would repeat itself yet again. Nature abhors a smug academic. Even though he made his academic career on New Criticism, Kernan admits that humanities scholarship started to get sloppy in the 1960s. "Terms like 'symbol' and 'image' were used interchangeably," he says. Kernan took an informal poll that revealed that most of his colleagues were unable to clearly define such terms as "comedy," "novel," "symbol" and so forth. When structuralism came on the scene, he did not embrace it with open arms, but he did see that it could add a much-needed scientific structure to the humanities.

But then, according to Kernan, things started to fall apart. He describes the culture wars as being "like the Cold War [in that] it went on and on in a less intense but in many ways a more wearing manner than a hot war." Instead of the cataclysmic events that had occurred in the earlier part of the century, the university after the 1960s was instead prone to smaller, embarrassing demonstrations of excess.

Case in point: Yale in the 1970s was the epicenter of deconstruction. This is where the otherwise affable Kernan starts to get really upset. And who can blame him? He worked alongside Paul de Man, who a decade later was discovered to have been an active pro-Hitler journalist. Kernan puts his foot down here, and bravo for him: "There are many histories, but can we accept one in which the Holocaust is a fiction?"

Deconstruction was not confined to the classroom, but also fundamentally changed the principles that held the university together. Kernan describes a disciplinary hearing in which several students were being charged with plagiarism. Several professors attended the hearing to argue "in deconstructive terms that the students could not be guilty of plagiarism since there was in the first place no such thing as verbal originality."

But Kernan's hands were tied. Once changes begin, they can't be taken back.

For example, most college students do not understand grade inflation within its historical context; they simply demand that the professor change their B plus pluses into A minus minus minuses. The practice originated with the Vietnam War, when professors gave recklessly high grades as an act of mercy because students who flunked out of school risked being drafted. In the late 1960s Brown University began to erase grades below a C. In 1970 Stanford did the same. In theory, universities could have resumed their normal grading scales after the last helicopter left Vietnam in 1975, but this didn't happen. Grade inflation continues to this day, according to Kernan, for two reasons: deconstruction (again), and money. "When the certainty in truth goes," he writes, "it becomes impossible to fail anyone." Furthermore, college tuition today resembles the American median family annual income. Thus, "students could only feel that they were dealing with a marketplace situation. Paying so much, they inevitably demanded economic value in return: entertainment, high grades, relevance, job preparation."

Kernan is onto something here. Most undergraduates remain brattily oblivious to the historical forces that created the modern university, while fighting for the right to turn it upside down. When the grown-ups try to clean up the mess, they discover all too often that these changes have gone far beyond their intended purpose. "Democratization of universities is irreversible," observes Kernan, for better or for worse.

I wish someone had warned Kernan before his book came out that "In Plato's Cave" is a pretty obnoxious title. One is left to assume that the author fancies himself as the enlightened guy trying to drag everyone else out of the nether regions of the ivory cave. The only thing he has in common with Plato is his deliberate but glaring omission of the natural sciences, which, incidentally, have flourished in the democratized university that Kernan so regrets. Finally, it's a shame that Kernan doesn't subscribe to Plato's optimistic view that the truth has an inexorable draw, and that for this reason all people fundamentally desire to be enlightened. If the new theories are merely the chaff he claims them to be, perhaps believers will inevitably see the light and allow those theories to die a natural death.

By Euny Hong Koral

Euny Hong Koral is a writer living in New York.

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