IN PLATO'S CAVE by Alvin Kernan


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This gentle, wise, yet tough-minded memoir will delight and inform anyone who—d like to understand the academic world of the last 50 years. While academic autobiographies are often insular and dreary works, occasionally they—re witty as well as serious, self-critical as well as egotistical, and constructed around a theme larger than a single life. Kernan’s (Crossing the Line: A Bluejacket’s World War II Odyssey, 1994, etc.) bid for the genre is of this rarer kind. The book relates his experiences since the 1940s at some of the world’s great universities, particularly Yale and Princeton, as he ascended from student to professor to administrator. His theme is the democratization of American universities, especially private ones, during these years. While Kernan does his best to convey the gains as well as the costs of a continuing process of change, his heart is with the way things used to be, especially at Yale, where his strongest affections seem to lie, and which he saw wracked by fermenting student culture, racial turmoil (notably, Bobby Seale’s trial), and sundry errors of leadership. Kernan describes himself accurately as a conservative, but he’s an unusual variety of the species: courtly, wry, measured, unideological—the kind, that is, who makes you think. And yet one wishes that, in addition to the situations he deftly relates, often with devastating wit, he’d shed his gentle courtesy now and then, and simply let fly—against plagiarism, for instance, which has made inroads into the classroom that he so well describes. Kernan believes that eventually the structural changes in American higher education will end and things will settle down. But as his own tale of the emergence of what he calls the “demoversity” suggests, one cannot be sure. No diatribe at all, this work serves instead as an elegy for education as it once was.

Pub Date: March 1st, 1999
ISBN: 0-300-07589-8
Page count: 336pp
Publisher: Yale Univ.
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 1st, 1999


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