The culture wars aren't over yet


In his previous book, "Forbidden Knowledge: From Prometheus to Pornography," the distinguished scholar and critic Roger Shattuck raised a question considered almost heretical by many of his academic colleagues: Was it really a good idea to encourage students to read the writings of the Marquis de Sade? The problem, as he saw it, was not simply that students were allowed to read such writings, but that insidious changes in critical taste had elevated works like this to the status of "classics."

In his latest book, "Candor and Perversion," a collection of essays, Shattuck warns: "We act as if we do not fear the poison of vice and evil, as if we can use it to inoculate ourselves against it."

Whether you're interested in literature, the visual arts, higher or lower education, or the state of culture in general, you're likely to find something of value in this collection. The author even provides some interesting suggestions about books that would best serve the developing minds of children and adolescents.

Shattuck concedes that in "a suitable environment and in proper proportion, reading does not corrupt. It immunizes us to the dangerous temptations of life about us." But he also believes there is reason for concern that our institutions of education are no longer providing such a properly balanced environment. Shattuck argues that there are books everyone should read, and that academia should steer clear of special interests and narrow pursuits in educating students.

Although the book does not provide an extended discussion of either candor or perversion, Shattuck seems to suggest that candor includes all that is honest, life-affirming, humane, and reasonable, whereas perversion is twisted, dishonest, irrational, and destructive.

Oddly, the publisher has issued the author's lists of the "Top Ten Notably Candid" and the "Top Ten Notably Perverse Books," although neither list appears in the actual volume. Tolstoy, Proust, Camus, Toqueville, and Mary Lee Settle are included among the candid, while Marx, Nietzsche, Foucault, and Francine du Plessix Gray's recent biography of the Marquis de Sade are among the perverse. The book also contains a devastating essay on Foucault and his baneful effect on university literature departments.

But "Candor and Perversion" is not an extended argument in the mode of Allan Bloom's "The Closing of the American Mind." Indeed, although Shattuck notes the impact of Bloom's 1987 jeremiad, he feels that its fame overshadowed the more useful work of E.D. Hirsch, whose "Cultural Literacy" came out that same year.

"The resentful response among academics to Bloom's ... conservatism rubbed off on Hirsch," notes Shattuck. "But anyone who has read Hirsch and followed his subsequent movements knows that he is driven by an urge to help 'children from poor and illiterate homes' achieve the education they need in order to reach their full capacities." Like Hirsch, Shattuck "accepts the irony that conservative educational practices will work best to achieve that goal."

By "conservative educational practices," Shattuck does not mean the pet projects of certain right-wing interest groups interested in school vouchers or the teaching of "creationism." The goal of a humanist education, he argues, is twofold: "to present the historic basis of our complex culture" and "to offer students the intellectual basis for an evaluation of that culture, its ideals, and its realities."

Over decades of experience, Shattuck has come to believe that of the two, the transmission of cultural heritage is an even more important: "We are overloading education when we ask it to reform society, to redesign culture, and to incorporate the avant-garde and bohemia into its precincts. In a free society, original and disaffected minds will always find a platform." This platform, he feels, need not, indeed probably should not, be the university.

*Merle Rubin reviews books regularly.

(c) Copyright 2000. The Christian Science Publishing Society

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