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Nonfiction in Brief

October 09, 1988|ALEX RAKSIN

HIGHBROW AND LOWBROW The Emergence of Cultural Hierarchy in America by Lawrence W. Levine (Harvard: $25) With today's 30- and 40-something parents growing into practical life styles and today's kids seemingly born with a pragmatic bent, the generation gap that rocked society in the 1960s has all but vanished. Except, that is, on university campuses, where a chasm has come to divide many 1960s-educated professors (those pioneering hybrid fields such as African Thought and Women's Studies) from professors who have been trained to focus on a specific culture--Greece--and on a select group of writers, from Plato and Shakespeare to Tolstoy and Proust.

The latter group, led by Allan Bloom, Saul Bellow and former Secretary of Education William Bennett, among others, sees itself as an elite "high culture" protecting "the great revelations, epics and philosophies," not only from the apathy of younger generations, but from professors such as UC Berkeley's Lawrence Levine, who, they believe, have lost sight of history's most noble and significant values and ideas. In "Highbrow and Lowbrow," Levine has composed an intellectually forceful defense of the liberal view and a bold counterattack on the conservatives' world of "adjectival boxes, of such crude labels as 'highbrow,' 'middle brow,' 'lowbrow,' of continual defensiveness and endless emendations."

Levine is swimming directly against the popular current, of course. Disillusionment with the lack of focus in American culture undoubtedly helped make Bloom's warning about open minds the No. 2 nonfiction best seller of 1987. It is unlikely that Levine will reach as formidable an audience. This book, for one, is hampered by its "high culture" writing style (150-word sentences are not uncommon) and by a conclusion, which, while intellectually sound, will be too noncommittal to satisfy those who believe our culture needs a clearer focus: "Categories and classifications are not simply inevitable," Levine writes, "but also useful as long as they sharpen our vision and free us to rethink and redefine them." Still, Levine's elucidation of the dangers in denigrating other cultures without truly understanding them is sharp and unrefutable, while his overview of cultural hierarchies since the 19th Century is spirited and entertaining.

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