Wednesday, April 4, 2012

"In Plato's Cave"

I first read Alvin Kernan's academic memoir, In Plato's Cave, in a copy borrowed from a friend. The copy I purchased later I lent out, and have not seen since. A visit to The Strand last month yielded a copy, which I have been rereading. I knew that it was good, but had forgotten just how good. I suspect that anyone who studied the humanities (and enjoyed doing so) in an American university during the second half of the 20th Century would find it of interest.

Kernan was of the generation that went through college largely on the GI Bill. One of my better professors had been a radioman in the Navy, another had flown a B-17, so I knew something of that generation as teachers. Kernan offers a picture of his cohort as it moved from college through graduate school, and an academic career. His career was carried on at better universities--the ex-radioman was said to be resentful that a colleague in the department had had an offer from Harvard when he had not--yet something of the picture is recognizable even to one who went to school in the provinces.

As some professors do, he writes wonderfully, and it is a temptation to simply string together quotations. On why some of us became English majors, for example, and some of them went on to teach:
[His stepfather] wanted something more solid, and law school seemed a reasonable thing to try. It still seemed so when I began college, but as time passed, my courses in political science and economics seemed uninteresting and my efforts in them not particularly successful. I
somehow always got the facts right but never assembled or interpreted them with any flair. In literature courses, however, I did nothing except for reading the texts, and still I always seemed to get at once to the core.
On a hard school of instruction now past:
Sullen and unread students challenged to explain why Hamlet disliked his uncle, or just what Keats felt when he looked at the Grecian urn, were likely to reply, "I don't know ... sir." To which the appropriate answer, delivered with an ugly smirk, was thought to be "What d'ya mean, you don't know? Are you stupid, or something?" Later generations regard this instructional method as sadistic, and by the time I retired it would have had me up before the dean on harassment charges; but in universities still for the most part male and with no illusions about how difficult it is to get the attention of a human being long enough to let a new idea slip into his head, it was the normal tone of instruction.
On life as government regulations follow government funds:
Phrased in this way, it difficult to argue against these causes and values, and I will limit myself to pointing out that it is equally obvious that government regulation has been entirely a social, not an educational project. Nowhere along the way was there a single move toward actually stiffening educational requirements or improving teaching. That the the teaching terms should be longer, that foreign-language requirements should be imposed everywhere, that government fellowships or loans should depend on high academic standing, that a writing requirement be made universal, that tenure standards should be raised in departments getting government grants, these were not causes that interested the legislators and the bureaucrats in Washington and the state capitals, or the special-interest groups in the universities that were their constituencies.
On the upshot of the De Man affair:
If there is one basic axiom of deconstruction it is surely il n'y rien hors du texte--"everything is text", everything, that is, is made up and unreal--but far from there being nothing outside of the De Man text, everything was out there, waiting to be called back into reality by the awesome power of words to retain and control meaning.
And there are the lighter bits. On discoveries at the unfashionable Exeter College in Oxford, for example:
Ranking things is the social skill at which the British excel above all others. Americans on a desert island would immediately begin making and selling things; Englishmen would start establishing who was superior to whom and by what symbols status would be made known.
The attentive reader can find the real names to match up plausibly to some of the characters in James Hynes's academic novel The Lecturer's Tale: who was Timothy Coogan, who Penelope O, who Victor Pescacane. There are bits to smirk  at in the painful farces around tenure decisions.

The heart of the book, though, is in Kernan's reflections on the changes brought on three fronts: the effects of electronic media and digitization in bringing into question the notion of literature that had prevailed for nearly two centuries; the increasing democratization of the university; partly coordinate with them, the collapse of an academic consensus not limited to English Departments, where it was largely represented by the "New Criticism", but conspicuous there, under the pressures of what can conveniently be called postmodernism or deconstruction. His picture is largely convincing to me, to the extent that I can judge it. It is argued lucidly throughout.

Early on, Kernan write of his undergraduate days at Williams
I soon found that one encounters only few really great teachers--with luck, maybe a really great one--in the course of an education.
One suspects that he may have been that teacher for quite a few students.

I'll conclude with an inconsequent note: The Strand's copy was evidently a review copy, for inside the book I found the release, dated March 31, 1999. I hope the recipient bothered to review it before he sold it.

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