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The Mind's Eye

THE BOOK WARS What It Takes to Be Educated in America by James Atlas (Whittle Direct Books: $11.95; 87 pp.)

July 22, 1990|ALEX RAKSIN

Don't believe James Atlas when he professes neutrality: These wars are chronicled from the unmistakable perspective of Allan Bloom, the man who started them with "The Closing of the American Mind," an assault on '60s liberals who stormed the Ivory Tower in the '70s and '80s, concocting "socially relevant" courses that are said to distract students from the classics and other traditionally "civilizing" humanities curricula. Atlas mentions Bloom again and again. His 87-page hardcover pamphlet is little more than Bloom simplified.

"The Book Wars" has a second hidden agenda: to promote Federal Express. A separate edition of this book, one that carried advertisements for the company, was distributed free to 50,000 of its potential clients. Whittle Direct Books has distributed four other titles similarly, and while the company insists that Federal Express has no editorial involvement, this seems to establish a disturbing precedent wherein target readership dictates subject matter and approach.

Bloom wrote that we must regain touch with the "great thinkers" who define American culture if we are ever to recover from the pluralism, irreverence and relativism that plague it. But as Arthur Schlesinger Jr. has pointed out, America's most characteristic thinkers, such as Emerson and William James, stand for precisely those "virulent" qualities.

Atlas acknowledges that criticism but gives little scrutiny to Bloom's other central points. Bloom counts himself among the "few" who belong to "the real community of man, the community of those who seek the truth," for instance; yet he has campaigned vigorously against general-education courses that spend any time covering non-Western civilizations, as if his own culture has a monopoly on "the truth."

Despite its flimsy reasoning, Bloom's book has stayed sufficiently in vogue to inspire spin-offs such as "The Book Wars" because we continue to agree that American students need to focus more sharply on some common core of knowledge, just as we continue to disagree on the nature of this core. Atlas, an editor at the New York Times, only superficially reports efforts to shape that core, but he offers piquant quotes that underscore the need for one (George Santayana: It doesn't matter which books young people read, "as long as they read the same ones").

In his last chapter, Atlas concedes that he does not remember "a great deal" of his traditional humanities courses, courses that eschewed social relevance, as Bloom recommends, requiring students, for example, to point out the allusions to Ovid in Eliot's "The Waste Land." "What I remember best is the books themselves, the physical objects, austere pocket-sized volumes in navy blue. . . ."

It's a confession that inadvertently lends support to those opponents of Bloom who argue that classics are only likely to have a lasting impact if students can see how they are "relevant": how they illumine life off-campus, how they raise questions about such enduring themes as injustice and the quest for happiness.

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