The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History

The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History

by Lawrence W. Levine

Publicly greeted as the definitive answer to recent attacks on the university, Lawrence W. Levine's book is a brilliantly argued positive vision of American education and culture.

  • Language: English
  • Category: History
  • Rating: 3.72
  • Pages: 212
  • Publish Date: August 14th 1997 by Beacon Press
  • Isbn10: 0807031186
  • Isbn13: 9780807031186

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Levine contends that in fact the "canon" of subjects and texts taught in the university has continued to change throughout the history of universities. We cannot understand the truth of our nation's history and cultural makeup without listening to the full spectrum of those who contribute to "this American life." So as the makeup of our country continues to change, so must the curriculum and intellectual life of the university, as it always has. If anything, with pressures to control costs and graduate students in four years and increasing specialization of undergraduate education, there is in fact less time for such studies. 2. The years since Levine wrote have resulted in an increasing polarization and Balkanization of American culture around cultural as well as political identities. Levine, who sadly is no longer with us, seems to be a notable exception who translates well his own studies of African American cultural history and its contribution to America's cultural heritage.

While I agree more with what liberal Levine has to say than conservative Bloom, I am somewhat disappointed that the task of the defense of multiculturalism (as opposed to Bloom's defense of the Canon of Great Books which, in his opinion, comprised the greatness and superiority of Western Civilization) was not given to someone with more deftness of rhetoric and sharpness of tongue. While Bloom made outrageous claims and often said things in his book with which I wholeheartedly disagreed, I could not help but be impressed by the sheer confidence he displayed in his arguments. That said, I found Levine's book to be a useful resource on the continuing, albeit quite silly, debate about the Canon and Multiculturalism. To those who are unfamiliar with this debate (which is nearly everyone in the world, with the exception of the small pockets of literary geeks like myself), it essentially has to do with the completely arbitrary selection of Great Literary Works in history (called the Canon) written by the best of the best in Western Thought and Letters (Plato, Homer, Shakespeare, Dickens, Poe, etc.), also known as the Dead White Guys.

While it does exist, Levine shows by weighing the actual evidence that PC modifications to the "traditional" canon of higher education are guided more by honest and inclusive scholarship than by an effort to corrupt all that was holy in some halcyon age now past.

Revealing Levine sounds reasoned until the reader asks questions. Levines book is a response to Alan Blooms critique of modern American university education in The Closing Of The American Mind. Levine paints Bloom as anti-multiculturalist. However, as Bloom notes, Herodotus was a multiculturalist too, as all should be, but with a different intent than now practiced in America: to learn what was unknown about the human condition, not to return from his travels to dismantle his homeland by removing Greek (Western) thinking as a bias suppressive of others, which is Levines position repeated throughout the book, generally between the lines. Levine characterizes criticism of our university system and its politics as conservative because, in Derridian form, he focuses on who said it, not what they say or if it might be true.

Lawrence William Levine was a celebrated American historian. During the Free Speech upheaval at Berkeley, he came to the defense of students protesting a ban on political activity on campus in support of the civil rights movement. He received numerous awards and accolades over the course of his career, most of which was spent in the History Department at the University of California, Berkeley. Levine Award, which is given annually by the OAH to the author of the best book in American cultural history.