The New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991
To the Editors:
In his reference to an essay of mine in the article "The Storm Over the University" [NYR, December 6, 1990] John Searle says I seem to have "no answer to the question, 'What is to be done with those constituencies which do not happen to agree...that social transformation is the primary goal of education.' " This is a strange misrepresentation of my essay, whose whole purpose is to suggest an "answer" to the question "what is to be done" in the present conflicts over culture: namely, make the conflicts themselves part of our object of study.
These conflicts have an interesting history that would be instructive to students, they could provide a context that students now often lack for reading books, and they could be used to give the curriculum some of the coherence that many on all sides (including Searle) complain that it needs. Some campuses are already doing something along these lines. A case in point would seem to be the Stanford course called "Europe and the Americas" that Searle praises, where, he says, "Aristotle and Tocqueville are taught along with Frantz Fanon."
Searle accuses me of countenancing the "immoral" practice of "using the classroom to impose a specific ideology on students" and of "politicizing the whole curriculum." I of course did not mean to imply approval of teachers who force students to conform to their political views. But a large part of what the present debate is about is when and in what sense literature and the teaching of it are "political," though one would never guess from Searle's remarks that the issue is debatable.
Searle misrepresents the views of radical scholars in the controversy, few of whom argue, as he puts it, that the traditional canon "should be abandoned." What these scholars do argue is that the traditional canon should be taught with far more candor about the political factors that have shaped it, as well as with far more attention to other cultural traditions which have been excluded. Searle's misrepresentations help to make worse the poisonous atmosphere surrounding this debate, since they divert attention to the excesses of radical academics and away from the more reasonable questions these academics are raising about the extent to which questions of power may enter into even the most seemingly apolitical scholarly concerns.
John C. Shaffer Professor of
Humanities and English