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

de Lawrence W. Levine

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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.

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In The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History, Lawrence W. Levine argues, “Throughout the nineteenth and twentieth centuries American colleges and universities have been engaged in attempts to open themselves to new areas of learning, to new ways of structuring education, and to new constituencies of students among the middle and working classes, women, immigrants, and minorities. These attempts have led to intense struggles within universities over the depth and breadth of their curricula and the nature of their mission” (pg. xiv). The title paraphrases Allan Bloom’s The Closing of the American Mind, which Levine argues paradoxically suggests that a broadened focus of study curtails traditional education, itself a paradoxical term. Levine continues, “Fears of an eroding hierarchy and the encroachment of a democratic society into the academe, as reflected in both the curriculum and the student body, are at the heart of many of the critiques of contemporary education” (pg. 11-12). Levine counters, “The American university no longer is and never again will be homogeneous, and much of what we have seen recently in terms of speech codes and the like are a stumbling attempt to adapt to this new heterogeneity. The major consequence of the new heterogeneity on campuses, however, has not been repression but the very opposite – a flowering of ideas and scholarly innovation unmatched in our history” (pg. 28).

Discussing the development of higher education, Levine writes, “The passions that burned in the administrators and faculty of American colleges had more to do with preservation and nurturing than discovery and advancement” (pg. 39). To this end, “Academic history in the United States… has not been a long happy voyage in a stable vessel characterized by blissful consensus about which subjects should form the indisputable curriculum; it has been marked by prolonged and often acrimonious struggle and debate, not very different from that which characterizes the academe in our own day” (pg. 43). The modern canon of literary works and the structure of western civilization courses developed during the Progressive Era and World War I as a way to Americanize students and create a homogenous culture. In turn, academe had already begun moving away from these systems by the end of World War II. Of the change, Levine writes, “Western Europe was indisputably the point of origin of some of our most influential national values, attitudes, practices, and institutions. But as anyone who studies culture seriously should know, the point of origin is only part of the story; it has to be balanced by a comprehension of what happened to the values, practices, and institutions after they arrived” (pg. 159). Detractors of a broadened curriculum “don’t mount a scholarly campaign against this work; they don’t attempt to disprove it with their own scholarship; they simply denounce it as ‘politically correct’ and ‘injurious’ to the national tradition, as ‘trivial’ distractions from the essential political and diplomatic work of historians” (pg. 165). Levine concludes, “A people’s culture is safe only insofar as it continues to ceaselessly examine and understand itself” (pg. 169). ( )
  DarthDeverell | Jan 3, 2019 |
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