From the first paragraph in the acknowledgements to the last paragraph of the last chapter, Lawrence Levine takes the reader on a journey through the nation and academia, which with every generation resists new ideas and change.
Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind: Canons, Culture, and History (Beacon Press, Boston1996)
From the first paragraph in the acknowledgements to the last paragraph of the last chapter, Lawrence Levine takes the reader on a journey through the nation and academia, which with every generation resists new ideas and change. The reader immediately becomes aware of his thesis with the description of the Vietnam Veterans Memorial and how newspapers and even Congress decried its vision, calling it “Orwellian glop”(xi) and a “black gash of shame and sorrow, hacked into the national visage.” (xii) Levine then points out that the Vietnam Veterans Memorial is one of the premiere sites to visit while in Washington D.C. Levine then shows this is not a unique attitude to those in academia. Through the years academia has resisted changes in curriculum from the inception of Universities to the present, Levine shows us that change has always been met with dire predictions of doom.
Levine separates his book in three phases; the first introduces the reader to criticisms of present day ethnic studies in both history and as a subject itself. The second phase gives the reader a look into the debates over curriculum over the past two hundred years. The third and final phase of this book shows how the melting pot theory is defunct in today’s society and how Americans view themselves. Each of these sections builds on the one before with many quotes of scholars as well as important personage of that period. Like most well crafted books, he takes the reader logically through the maze to come to their own conclusion.
In the first section of phase of the book, Levine shows us glimpses of how academia decries the additions of ethnic studies and the liberalization of present day scholars. Levine gives us statements of present day scholars bemoaning the various classes in ethnic study and ethnic history and then compares them in section two with scholars from the 1700’s bemoaning the same thing when it was suggested that writings of Shakespeare and other “present” day writers also be taught. You find within the first section quotes from Roger Kimball that this reader found interesting. Kimball talks about the new subjects and approaches such as “women’s studies, black studies, gay studies, … deconstruction, poststructuralism, new historicism are ‘politically motivated’ and contain a ‘blueprint for a radical social and political life, from the independent place we grant high culture within society to the way we relate to one another as men and women.’”(11) You can compare this quote with quotes from the second section where Levine includes a quote from Lyman Beecher warned the new western colleges that “should they allow ‘the spirit of innovation’ to influence them ‘the day of our downfall [sic] will soon be at the door, and nothing remain to us but to wade back through seas of blood, from anarchy to despotism.”(39) These examples tie together the struggles to bring independent thought and ideas into academia itself. Section two lays the groundwork for section three and shows how slowly change comes in academia. In the first one hundred years of college life, western history and literature was largely ignored in favor of European studies.
Skipping ahead in time we find literature and western history finally a part of liberal arts studies. By now the country has fought the first of two great wars and colleges and universities are starting to realize that America is not a melting pot as theorized nor is the exclusive study of European history and literature fostering a sense of unity in Americans. Levine shows the reader how slowly things tend to go and the conflict in scholastic circles to this new course of study that includes minorities, women, and alternate lifestyles. Levine includes quotes by people like Francis X. Femminella who describe the United States as acquiring an “immigrant culture,” (139) as a key to our developing country. “Femminella refers to what he calls ‘emergent culture’ to describe this American immigrant culture whose most salient characteristic is change itself: ‘Ethnic groups in this culture are not to be thought of as merely unassimilated holdouts left over from the earlier immigrations which will disappear in time. Rather they have become a fundamental part of the United-Staesian social structure’”(139)
Throughout this book, Levine uses a myriad of voices to prove his point. His use of primary resources to enrich his prose is marvelous. He proves his thesis with ease using these voices. In his epilogue, we read in the last paragraph, “we are no less in need of his (Abraham Lincoln) advice to ‘disenthrall ourselves’ from ‘the dogmas of the quiet past.’(174) To achieve this we need not a new history but a more profound and indeed more complex understanding of our old history. This need presses down upon us relentlessly, and we will ultimately be judged by how well we meet, by how able we are to keep our understanding of the American past—and present—open, dynamic, and responsive, free of the weight of fixed symbols and rigid canons.”(174)
Levine uses many writings and diaries for his primary resources as well as magazines and books in his research. He keeps the reader’s attention throughout the pages and gently brings them around to his conclusion, that in order to be a well rounded scholar, academia must change constantly and accept new voices, new ideals, and new thoughts on history and literature so that new voices and strong voices can be heard by all. It is this reviewer’s contention that Levine has done a commendable job in this book.