BATTLE OF THE BOOKS: The Curriculum Debate in America by James Atlas

BATTLE OF THE BOOKS: The Curriculum Debate in America

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From Atlas (Delmore Schwartz, 1977; The Great Pretender, 1986)--a slim, plain, and mainly sensible little guide to the crisis in the university. From Allan Bloom, W.D. Hirsch, Roger Kimball, and Hilton Kramer on the ""conservative"" side, to the ""canon bashers,"" multiculturalists, deconstructionists, and radical academic leftists on the other, Arias shows that he's done his homework and that he can ""[weigh] the evidence on both sides and [arrive] at my own conclusions."" If you want a readable and personal-toned synopsis of the arguments of Bloom and Hirsch, followed by balanced instead of absolutist rhetoric (""Okay, so there are flaws in Hirsch's argument: his definition of a 'literate national culture' is vague; his list of 'What Every American Needs to Know' is biased. But his basic indictment--that we're in the midst of a crisis with long-ranges social consequences--seems to me beyond dispute""), Atlas can provide it. Drawing on his own memories as an undergraduate at Harvard (he was a freshman in 1967), Atlas compares the standard literature courses of then with the transparently politicized ones of now, considered the merits of each, ad makes it clear where he think the greater virtue lies--and why. Hardly likely to win any debating poets in the eyes of his radical opponents inside the university, he goes ahead and makes his claim nevertheless, not for a fossilized canon, but for what he does still dare to call ""Great Books,"" concluding that ""only a nation schooled in its own past can grasp the negotiation between personal freedom and collective serf-interest that is the essence of our American democracy."" An amiable handbook to the great debate: intelligent, personable, and informed, if not managing to become unusually cutting or deep.

Pub Date: Oct. 19th, 1992
Page count: 160pp
Publisher: Norton