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BOOK REVIEW / NONFICTION : Who Wins When Academicians Vie for the Limelight? : DOGMATIC WISDOM: How the Culture Wars Divert Education and Distract America by Russell Jacoby ; Doubleday $22.95; 235 pages

June 20, 1994|CHRIS GOODRICH | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

It's going to be interesting, a few decades from now, to see what's become of the cultural controversies roiling college campuses in recent years. Multiculturalism, race and gender studies, deconstruction, relativism and contingency, sexual censorship, political correctness; most of these debate topics will fade away, but at the moment it's impossible to say which.

All are plausible, and to pervert P.G. Wodehouse, it's impossible to throw a brick into a university crowd without hitting a wide-eyed adherent of at least one of these fighting faiths.

Russell Jacoby, a visiting professor of history at UCLA and author of "The Last Intellectuals," takes on most of the above-mentioned controversies in "Dogmatic Wisdom," and he finds more to condemn than to praise. In large measure he's out to answer, belatedly, "The Closing of the American Mind," "Tenured Radicals" and "Illiberal Education"--what Jacoby calls "the three major critiques of American higher education," authored by Allan Bloom, Roger Kimball and Dinesh D'Souza, respectively--but he exhibits as much distaste for the left as for the right.

Jacoby's major point is that the current "culture wars" concentrate on secondary issues, and if he doesn't give a considered argument on behalf of what he contends are the primary issues, at least he names them. One, and surely the most significant, is the fact that the academic world has come to embrace the marketplace--often consciously, sometimes unconsciously, and occasionally even self-consciously.

Take Stanley Fish. An iconoclastic professor of English at Duke University, Fish has argued that blind submission of academic articles should be eliminated because the author's fame, or lack of it, is virtually inseparable from the paper in question. "The fact that my name is attached to an article," Fish wrote in 1988, "greatly increases its chance of being accepted."

Jacoby castigates Fish for demonstrating such "rank careerism," and rightly so--but neglects to add that Fish's argument is also a half-sly, half-cynical acknowledgment of the bias inherent in any selection process. It's no secret that editors, academic and otherwise, tend to tolerate only those ideas with which they are sympathetic, regardless of the merit of dissenting views--a predicament well-known authors can break, if they are willing to trade their fame for the chance to publish unorthodox ideas (as Fish does routinely).

Disagreeable as it is to be told that market forces play a significant role in academics, at least Fish recognizes their existence (or "foregrounds" the market, as one would say in modern scholarly parlance). Other academics deny being influenced by market issues--even as they gravitate toward certain sets of ideas more conspicuous for their marketability than their innate value or durability.

Jacoby lambastes cultural critic Fredric Jameson for his defense of fashionably obscurantist prose, but it's easy to see the attraction: specialized language breeds fiefdoms, acolytes and power that's difficult to challenge, allows academics to be elitist and self-centered while appearing left-wing and ground-breaking . . . all without having to justify your work to more than a handful of other people.

The rise of gender and race studies can also be seen as a product of market forces, although here Jacoby treads more lightly. He suggests that Balkanization in academics is bad for cultural life because it emphasizes differences rather than similarities and separates disciplines even further by encouraging ever-narrower specialization.

Education's familiarity with the marketplace isn't entirely new, of course. Two of the more interesting sections of "Dogmatic Wisdom" involve the commercial ventures of Harvard President Charles W. Eliot, who after retirement sponsored the "five-foot shelf" of Harvard Classics, and Mortimer Adler's "Great Books" series, put out with the blessings of the University of Chicago.

But neither Eliot nor Adler can compare with some of today's academics, who have become celebrities in their own right. Fish and Jameson, Catherine MacKinnon and Henry Louis Gates Jr., Jacques Derrida and Edward Said communicate serious ideas, but at times they and their ilk seem more like salespeople than teachers, professional professors rather than lovers of knowledge.

Our education system exists to serve society, but it's hard to finish this book without concluding that some academics, at least, believe society exists to serve educators.

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