Whittle's Little Books - With Ads - Tackle Big Issues

THE BOOK WARS: WHAT IT TAKES TO BE EDUCATED IN AMERICA By James Atlas Knoxville, Tenn.: Whittle Direct Books 90 pp., $11.95 THE Killer B's guard the DWEMs while the Fish Tank simmers. Football slang? CIA code? Diner argot for the Friday blue-plate special? Worse. This self-consciously cute academic lingo has emerged in recent years to describe the lugubrious debate over what text college students should study.

The Killer B's in this parlance are Allan Bloom, philosophy professor at the University of Chicago and author of the bestseller ``The Closing of the American Mind'' (1987), and William Bennett, secretary of education in the Reagan administration and current director of the Office of National Drug Control Policy. The DWEMs they so zealously protect are Dead White European Male authors, whose writings make up the so-called canon or standard reading list in the humanities. And the Fish Tank? That would be the English Department at Duke University; it is chaired by Stanley Fish, and many of its members have proposed radically different readings of the canon or jettisoning it altogether.

This argument, which has generated more heat and dust than light for over a decade, is the subject of the fourth volume of the Larger Agenda Series, the concept of Knoxville, Tenn., media entrepreneur Christopher Whittle. Mr. Whittle has been in the news lately because his company has been beaming free current-events programming, interlarded with commercials, to the public schools via ``Channel One.''

As were its predecessors in the series, ``The Book Wars'' is sponsored by Federal Express and has 18 full-page, poster-like color advertisements for the company. In addition, the book is liberally sprinkled with black-and-white photographs of book warriors like Bennett and Bloom.

The Larger Agenda books, each of which has been less than 100 pages, are designed to discuss national and global issues for busy readers. They are distributed free of charge to 150,000 leaders in government, business, academe, and the media. One can also purchase them directly from the company or through Waldenbooks. (The Waldenbooks editions are free of advertising.)

The inclusion of advertising in this series has raised charges of hucksterism and trivialization, as if the absence of advertising would guarantee high seriousness. Treating the presence of advertising in reading materials like the presence of saturated fat in foodstuffs has snob appeal, but it also diverts attention from the real possibilities and problems these books raise. Can little books successfully analyze big questions?

Judging by ``The Book Wars,'' the answer must be mixed. James Atlas is a participant and critic in the issues about which he writes. If he takes a few extra potshots at leftist proponents of canon-busting, at least he is not pretending to be a neutral observer.

Atlas's discussion is nuanced with shades of opinion. He understands that the canon is not fixed and immutable. Texts once outside it, like the novels of Henry James, were ``canonized'' by overt partisan efforts. That being true, who is to say, for instance, that the novels of African-American writer Zora Neale Huston are less deserving of attention?

On the other hand, Atlas promotes the cult of personality he critiques. Participants in the book wars become celebrities. The ideas they hold are presented as such intimate extensions of personal character that the ideas seem less interesting, even less valid, on their own.

More important, though, is the lack of inquiry into the symbolic battles the campus book wars represent. Atlas appears to believe that a uniform high culture is socially necessary because it has a civilizing effect. He ignores the chilling psychological phenomenon called doubling, the separation that persons of great cultural attainment can make between ideas and actions. We know that the officers at Buchenwald who gathered with their families at night to listen to Beethoven's Ninth Symphony on the Victrola were able to go back to their horrific work in the morning.

A series of books dedicated to the succinct examination of public issues could and should ask these tough questions, either by increasing the books' size, or, better yet, by cutting the celebrity mug shots.

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