Barber (Political Science/Rutgers Univ.; Liberating Feminism, 1974, etc.) tries to steer a middle course between radical democratic reformers of higher education and equally radical defenders of traditional pedagogy by linking the well-publicized crisis in higher education to a deeper crisis in American democracy. Describing his book as ""two-fifths analysis, two-fifths criticism, and one-tenth polemic,"" Barber saves his sharpest writing for reformers urging multiculturalism and a postmodern suspicion of institutions, on the one hand, and neoconservative defenders of traditional canons and their aristocratic values on the other. Leftist inheritors of Sixties radicalism extol democratic educational values at the cost of stigmatizing excellence; embattled elitists like Allan Bloom (for whom Barber reserves his most impassioned critique) follow Plato and Ortega y Gasset in prizing excellence above democracy and casting grave suspicion on equality of opportunity for the masses. But the choice between democracy and achievement, Barber argues, is a false dilemma to anyone who acknowledges that American democracy has always been historically multicultural and dedicated in principle to ideals of equality through elevation, not leveling down. Barber's specific proposals are highly variable. His belief that we should teach history as the primary pedagogical discipline is provocative; his defense of ""loose canons,"" an awareness that literary canons are always evolving, is already a platitude; his suggestion that colleges adopt Rutgers's experimental program to link liberal education more closely to community service promises more in theory than Rutgers's modest actual program seems to warrant. Though his writing is often so oracularly balanced and hedged with qualifications (""If the story of our past is too rigid, we are impaled on it; but if it is too pliant, it fails to define us"") that it seems impossible to use to tell the truth, Barber provides plenty of well-turned ammunition against extremists of every stripe--if less conviction that American democracy can afford them a common ground of action.