Teach the Culture Debate

WHILE much of the academic community is bemoaning a crisis of controversy at American universities and arguing about "political correctness," Gerald Graff sees an opportunity.

"Instead of pretending we can eliminate political conflict from teaching, we should start making use of it," he argues in "Beyond the Culture Wars."

Mr. Graff, who is a professor of English and education at the University of Chicago, finds a solution within the problem. If educators disagree about what should be taught in today's classrooms, professors should teach that debate.

This book is about how to accomplish such a mission. But its audience reaches beyond college professors to anyone who is interested in understanding the conflicts and tensions wrenching university communities today. Graff has written an engaging, hopeful, and persuasive book.

He views the conflicts now taking place in American higher education as an indication of the system's strength and vitality rather than its decline.

Perhaps most important, he exposes a well-kept secret by turning attention to "the struggling student," who is so often forgotten in heated academic controversies. "It is not the conflicts dividing the university that should worry us," Graff writes, "but the fact that students are not playing a more active role in them."

He goes on to point out that "it won't matter much whose list of books wins the canon debate if students remain disaffected from the life of books and intellectual discussion...."

Graff recognizes the risk of turning the curriculum into a "shouting match," but he argues that it's better to recognize conflict and discuss it than to allow professors to pursue their own agenda behind closed doors. "Opposing texts and theories need one another to become intelligible to students," Graff writes.

If different theories, philosophies, and arguments are clearly presented to students, they are more likely to understand the whole, Graff asserts. "Contrast is fundamental to understanding, for no subject, idea, or text is an island," he writes.

To illustrate the point, he draws on examples from three decades of college-level teaching. Graff is undeniably an academic insider, and he downplays some of the current criticism of academia. But he doesn't hesitate to come down hard on his colleagues when he feels it's justified.

In the final chapter, Graff offers a look at some "promising reforms ... quietly taking shape." Like much of the real reform in higher education today, the most significant curricular change is taking place at lesser-known institutions and is hardly noticed by prominent universities. As Graff writes: "Even when major institutions are serious about curricular reform - as most now are - they are often too proud to learn from less prominent ones."

Graff puts out the call for an "integrated curriculum," which is an old idea of connecting concepts and courses into a cohesive whole. It often takes the form of team teaching and interdisciplinary curricula. This last chapter offers practical applications of Graff's ideas and explores possible pitfalls.

But the most useful aspects of this book are its clear explanation of the history of conflict in higher education and the practical solution Graff proposes. It's a rare dose of reason in the midst of a fractious debate.

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