The New York Review of Books, February 14, 1991

John Searle

The letters of Gerald Graff, Barbara Herrnstein Smith, and George Levine share a common feature. All three authors seem to be trying to distance themselves from the more unattractive implications of what they originally wrote. Graff and Herrnstein Smith originally presented their lectures in the cozy and somewhat self-congratulatory atmosphere of a conference that one of the principals described as a "rally of the cultural left." In such an atmosphere their views must have seemed quite acceptable, even popular. But seen in the cold print of The New York Review their utterances look less appealing. They both charge me with misrepresenting their views, so let me remind them of exactly what they wrote.

First Professor Graff:

Speaking as a leftist, I too find it tempting to try to turn the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation. But I doubt whether the curriculum (as opposed to my particular courses) can or should become an extension of the politics of the left. The question not addressed by proponents of "the pedagogy of the oppressed" such as Paulo Freire and Henry Giroux is what is to be done with those constituencies which do not happen to agree with them that social transformation is the primary goal of education. (p. 64)
There is no way to read this passage except as implying, among other things:

1. Graff thinks it quite acceptable, indeed desirable, to turn his "particular courses" into instruments of "leftist" social transformation, an extension of the politics of the left.

2. The main objection to trying to turn the entire curriculum into an instrument of leftist social transformation is that there are constituencies that "do not happen to agree" with this project. If it were not for the existence of these constituencies the conversion of the entire curriculum to purposes of leftist social transformation would be not only acceptable but desirable.

Is it necessary to explain why both 1 and 2 are morally unacceptable? Perhaps it is. The idea that the curriculum should be converted to any partisan political purposes is a perversion of the ideal of the university. The objective of converting the curriculum into an instrument of social transformation (leftist, rightist, centrist, or whatever) is the very opposite of higher education. It is characteristic of the major totalitarian regimes of the twentieth century—leftist and rightist—that they try to make precisely such a conversion and the result is invariably the end of higher education as such, and its replacement by a mixture of political indoctrination and technical training.

Furthermore, for an individual professor to think that his own "particular courses" should become leftist "instruments" of social transformation is a violation of his obligations both to his students and to the institution, because the terms of his agreement with both are intellectual rather than political.

The only argument that Graff even suggests in his defense is a bad argument. Since the argument is pervasive among those who describe themselves as belonging to "the cultural left," I should say again exactly what the argument is and why it is bad. Its premise is that universities are already instruments of social transformation because the university has all sorts of political effects, some of them conservative, some even reactionary. The conclusion that is drawn from this premise is that it is therefore acceptable and desirable that we should try to make the university into an instrument of social transformation for desirable rather than undesirable ends; and as leftists we should make sure that it promotes left-wing purposes.

The premise is correct but the conclusion does not follow. The university, like all human institutions and activities has all sorts of political effects and consequences. It shares with music, sex, art, religion, physics, gastronomy, and everything else a political dimension in the sense that it can have political consequences. In each field people with different views will gain or lose followers, influence, and power and have effects on the behavior of others. But it does not follow from this, indeed it is a fallacy to conclude, that the only or primary criteria for assessment of its activities are political or that its objective should be political. Universities at their best often achieve social transformations because knowledge can transform people and institutions. But the aim should always be knowledge, not transformation.

Graff complains that I do not discuss his proposed solution to our difficulties. His proposal is as follows: instead of teaching Plato and Shakespeare Graff thinks we should teach the debate about whether Plato and Shakespeare should be taught. We do not need to choose between "Rambo and Rimbaud" (one of his examples), rather we should teach the controversy about which should be taught.

He is right that I do not discuss this proposal, but the reason is that I find it difficult to take it seriously. I have no objection to adding some materials about these passing contemporary disputes to a serious university curriculum. But the idea that the center of humanistic education might be contemporary controversies about its content seems to me not a serious proposal. Why? Here are several more or less obvious reasons among the many that could be stated:

1. The content of the debate, as he poses it, is for the most part second order. It is teaching about teaching rather than teaching about first-order subject matter.

2. The issue has been made into something political in the wrong sense of "political." That is, for the most part the issues are not about deep and permanent problems in political philosophy but about the immediate political demands of certain special interest groups that are influential in some humanities departments.

3. The issues raised are likely to be ephemeral. The works of Rimbaud are likely to be of interest for generations to come; the choice between "Rambo and Rimbaud" is not.

4. The student is deprived of something precious if he or she does not study first-rate works for their own interest.

I believe the inadequacies of Graff's account probably derive from the first four words I quoted, "Speaking as a leftist." Categories like "left" and "right" have a useful place in politics and journalism and even a marginal place in scholarship. But where serious intellectual work is concerned they tend to be the enemies of thought. If one begins an argument with the idea that one is "speaking as a leftist" (or "rightist" or "liberal" etc.) one is unlikely to produce anything that rises above the mediocre intellectual level of the categories themselves.

Professor Herrnstein Smith also apparently would like to distance herself from some of the remarks she made in the article I quoted. The issue concerns E.D. Hirsch's proposal that all American school children would benefit from a knowledge of what he calls "cultural literacy." There are many things one might object to in Hirsch's views—his account of the weaknesses of American education or his optimistic hopes for the effects of cultural literacy, for example. But the fundamental issue is quite simple and is independent of these peripheral concerns: Is he right in supposing that American schoolchildren would be better off if they were, in his sense, culturally literate, that is, familiar with facts and ideas comparable to although not necessarily identical with the ones that Hirsch has listed? I cannot see that Herrnstein Smith, with all her rage against Hirsch's book, has presented any serious argument against the idea that, other things being equal, American school children would be better off if they were culturally literate.

Her essay is mostly devoted to casting doubt on the idea that there is such a thing as "the national culture" in the United States, or even a "national language," to pointing out the ambiguities in the concept of "cultural literacy," to casting doubts on the methodology of Hirsch's compilation of his list, and to finding various weaknesses in his presentation. Suppose we concede all these points for the sake of argument. The question remains: What exactly is her argument against cultural literacy? Does she think that cultural illiteracy is preferable to cultural literacy?

The only objections I could find on the central issue are that the attempts to carry out Hirsch's project would lead to a "deferral" and "obscuring" of other educational needs that she finds more pressing, and that it would be impossible to carry out all of Hirsch's proposals. She summarizes these points in her letter by saying that Hirsch's proposals are "irrelevant and unworkable" (Irrelevant to what? Certainly not to cultural literacy.)

She gives no argument for either of these points, either in her letter or on her article. They are simply asserted.

Here is the conclusion of her discussion of Hirsch's views, which she gives after quoting Hirsch's hopes for cultural literacy.

Wild applause; fireworks; music—America the Beautiful; all together, now: Calvin Coolidge, Gunga Din, Peter Pan, spontaneous combustion. Hurrah for America and the national culture! Hurrah!
I believe that the intemperate tone of this passage, together with others in her article, is not conducive to serious intellectual discussion, and I sought an explanation for this level of rhetoric. She gives precisely such an explanation of this passage in a footnote to her original article, where she says that she wrote it in part because she finds Hirsch's views "profoundly conservative." There is no question that one of her stated motivations, for this passage at least, is political.

She objects to my describing her attack on Hirsch as "savage." Here are some of the expressions she uses in discussing Hirsch's book: "meaningless," "barbaric," "patently absurd," "a conceptual shambles," "rabble rousing," "verbal showmanship," "like the old Ivory Soap ads, 99 and 44/100 percent pure—it floats," "wildness," and "irresponsibility." His conception of cultural literacy she describes as "having one's head furnished with the particular assortment of bric-a-brac that furnishes the heads of people like the Kenan Professor of English at the University of Virginia and his various friends, relatives, and associates." To put my objection simply: this style of argument seems to me unacceptable because of the level of hostility it exhibits. The worst feature of her prose is her sarcasm for it does not allow further discussion to take place.

Professor Levine also feels he has been misrepresented. The aim of the pamphlet he and his colleagues wrote was, he now says, to argue that the humanities are a "vital, critical, and creative presence in the university" because they are carrying on the "critical" tradition of humanistic study. But let me remind him of some of the things he and his associates actually wrote:

Perhaps the most difficult aspect of modern thought, even for many humanities professors and certainly for society at large, is its challenge to the positivist ideal of objectivity and disinterest.

As the most powerful modern philosophies and theories have been demonstrating, claims of disinterest, objectivity, and universality are not to be trusted and themselves tend to reflect local historical conditions.

The challenge to claims of intellectual authority alluded to in the introduction of this report issues from almost all areas of modern thought—science, psychology, feminism, linguistics, semiotics, and anthropology.

These passages imply, at least:

1. There is some important connection between the ideal of objectivity and positivism.

2. This ideal had been definitely discredited. It has been demonstrated that claims to objectivity are not to be trusted.

3. There is general agreement on this among just about everybody who really matters; for example both "science" and "feminism" agree on this.

I believe that all three of these contentions are simply false. There is no essential connection between an objective conception of knowledge and positivism; Levine and his colleagues offer no arguments to show that the ideal of objectivity is not to be trusted; and far from there being general agreement, there is much debate. If anything, the view they proclaim as the established truth is a minority opinion.

There are at least two other disquieting features of this presentation. Levine and his colleagues make constant appeals to (usually unnamed) authorities without any actual presentation of arguments, and their prose is evasive and lacking in candor. His letter exhibits the same traits. His letter cites four philosophers in support of his views. None of these was named in the pamphlet of which he is one of the authors. Why not? And which arguments of these philosophers does he find convincing? Why is he reluctant to tell us? What exactly is the objection to objectivity and disinterest? Is it that some people pretend to these qualities while not having them? That is hardly an objection to objectivity and disinterest. And why does he not give us some examples? The most evasive sentence in his letter is one where discussing my argument for realism he writes:

I put aside here the question of the smugness of this argument, which has its own strenuous and unacknowledged history in Searle's career.
This, I take it, is supposed to suggest that something ominous is at stake, but what on earth is he talking about? I have never before presented the argument about realism that I made in my review, so it could hardly have any "history," "strenuous" or otherwise, in my career. "Unacknowledged," it certainly is for the simple reason that it only occurred to me in this form while I was writing this review and it is previously unpublished. (As a matter of fact I have never previously published anything on the topic of realism except for one paragraph, a precursor of the present argument, in Intentionality, pp. 158-159.)

Since, interestingly, all three critics object to my discussion of realism let me say a few words about it. We all know that the real world exists independently of our thought or talk about it, and that attempts to deny this proposition are rather silly. However if asked to demonstrate the existence of the real world we are a little embarrassed. Shall we hold up our two hands like the British philosopher G.E. Moore and claim that since our hands exist the real world exists? That seems, as they say, to "beg the question." I proposed, all too briefly, both a diagnosis of our embarrassment and a related argument. The diagnosis is that the "hypothesis" of realism is not a hypothesis like the hypothesis that tigers exist in India, but rather a condition of intelligibility on such ordinary hypotheses. The argument is that if you communicate with other people in making such claims, you are already committed to metaphysical realism. It is a "transcendental" argument, in one of Kant's many senses of that notion, since it proceeds by assuming something—namely that we do succeed in communicating with each other in a public language—and then inquiring into the conditions of possibility of that assumption. I readily concede that the argument was only sketched and not demonstrated. A review of three books on higher education was not the ideal occasion for a full scale transcendental deduction of metaphysical realism; however I hope to develop this argument in more detail elsewhere.

I would like to conclude this reply on a more personal note. I expected my review would arouse a good many hostile reactions since I stated a position which is different from both the so-called "cultural left" and the traditionalist critics of the current situation. I did in fact get hostile reactions—the letters of Graff, Herrnstein Smith, and Levine are typical examples. But I was also surprised that my article received an enormous outpouring of support from people who hold traditional conceptions of rationality, intelligence, and intellectual excellence without being locked into an ideology that thinks of higher education as rigid and unchanging. Perhaps the tide is turning.