Have you ever finished reading a book and you’re lost in thought, so much so that you don’t know where to start talking about how it affected you or what it even said? That’s where I am right now with The Opening of the American Mind by Lawrence W. Levine. There was so much that made sense, so much that I didn’t realize, that I’m sitting here staring at my notes thinking, “Now what?”
I typically don’t summarize a book at all, so why am I trying to do it with this one? Maybe because there was so much in it that I want other people to know, and I know no one else is going to read it. THAT’S what’s bothering me. I’m trying to get all the details about this book through to you, just in case my posts are all you ever read of it. That’s not going to work.
In hindsight, the moment I realized how much I was highlighting and making notes in this book, I should have slowed down and written something about each hour I had read, instead of powering through and scarfing it all up. Smaller bites mean better digestion, right? But I was in a mood to just read over the weekend though, so here we are.
Sigh…this is what happens when you love a book’s contents too much. We live and learn.
I’ll just go through the book, start throwing down some quotes, and see where we end up. Ok?
The first part of the book established his confusion about people’s feelings about changes in university curriculum.
Part I: A Historian in Wonderland – Through the Looking Glass
“Finding evidence of radicalism in the very title of books whose substance is not examined has become standard practice.”
This was true in 1996 when the book was written, and true now, maybe more so since the invention and proliferation of social media. Now we ban the content of books by our assumptions based on the title, and we condemn an idea based on the headline of an article or the party affiliation of the person who wrote it.
“Should their education include the lives and culture of everyday people? A traditional liberal arts education, Roger Kimball has asserted, ‘is unquestionably elitist in the sense that it focuses on the pinnacle of human cultural and intellectual achievement,’”
The next chapter goes into this more, but I had no idea that curriculum had changed that much over the last 100 years. The books and histories that we use in our education systems were all based on the winners of our society, the wealthy and powerful. Before the 60’s, we didn’t study anyone else. Why? This book will tell you.
“The current emphasis on social and cultural history which so troubles contemporary critics is no more permanent than were past emphases on political, intellectual, economic, or diplomatic history. Neither is it any more – or less – politically motivated. It reflects, as earlier historiographies have reflected, the questions, problems, issues that touch our time and help us make sense of the world. It also reflects the fact that history today is written, as it has always been written, by human beings who are part of their own societies and cultures.”
Until the early 20th century, a Bachelor of Science was not popular, looked down on, and not every school allowed it. Study new ideas and thought? Why? All those ideas were based on the ancient texts. Study those. And there were nasty terrible debates and arguments about that then.
Here’s an idea I thought was fascinating: history isn’t written by the people living at the time. When I write about what’s happening around me right now, I’m not writing history. I’m writing memoir. It’s one point of view. Someone in the future may read my memoir, among other documents, and put them all together from their point of view and that would be called a history. A hundred years later, someone else would read those documents and write another history from their vantage point. History changes.
“To understand where the university is we have to understand where it has been and how its present state was constructed. There is no quicker or easier way to proceed; to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday. In the process we will learn not only about higher education, we will discover truths about our culture and, hopefully, about ourselves as well.”
I would like to create a billboard campaign with the words “to fathom today requires some awareness of yesterday” and place them along every freeway in the United States.
The next part goes into that history and I’ll tell you about it tomorrow.