a book by its cover
Toward the end of James Chandler's disquisition
on "The Battle of THE Books" (February/01), he provides
an example of current "common core" teaching: "We
teach Browning and Wyatt alongside Cindy Sherman and Chuck Close."
Why "teach" Cindy Sherman at all? A photographer of
minimal craft (by her own admission), nonexistent art, and trite
"ideas"? Students will be able to discover the wonders
of Sherman and Close on their own time. This example of what "we
teach" throws doubt on the quality of Chandler's argument
and, indeed, on the quality of undergraduate education in the
Mend, AB'56, AB'58
Chandler's "The Battle of THE Books" unwittingly gives
striking evidence of the extent to which the University has suffered
the inroads of bureaucratization and political correctness. Over
40 years ago, I came to the Midway from Harvard, where I'd studied
"great books" with John Findley and I. A. Richards before
working with Joseph Palamountain (later president of Wesleyan)
as well as Carl Kaysen and Henry Kissinger (before their days
in Washington). Despite my experience with these extraordinary
minds, I was unprepared for the quality of Chicago's political
science department. And though I'd come to work with David Easton,
my life was transformed by Leo Strauss.
Chandler doesn't mention Mr. Strauss, though he was a magical
teacher whose writings place him among the leading philosophers
of the 20th century. Of course, there's much ado about his student
Allan Bloom, but nary a word about the principles Strauss taught
us in a valiant effort to keep alive the art of serious reading.
Strauss showed his students that reading and teaching serious
books was a great responsibility. Much ado is made of the concept
of "esoteric writing," which seems always linked with
"Straussian." More important was his advice: "Always
teach as if there is a silent student in class who knows more
than you do." Socratic ignorance was the foundation of Western
science and philosophy as we know it. In seeking to remind us
of the centrality of this precept, Mr. Strauss's teaching was
inherently elitist: most citizens (and an increasing number of
professors) are certain of many things without questioning in
the light of the distinction (made central by Plato) between opinion
Professor Chandler's article represents the pervasive rebellion
of contemporary opinion against the principles I learned as a
graduate student. Name dropping and debating which books to assign
are trivial. The real issue is whether teacher and students read
a great book-i.e., a text that has been read and admired for at
least a century by serious readers-as if it is TRUE. Esoteric?
Nonsense. Trained by Mr. Strauss, I now study how toxic chemicals
influence behaviors including crime and hyperactivity. Principal
discovery (working with a chemical engineer): unknown to the responsible
government agencies and health professionals, 140 million Americans
receive drinking water treated with two chemicals (fluosilicic
acid and sodium silicofluoride) which inhibit crucial brain enzymes
and increase lead uptake, with especially harmful effects on minority
children. And this spring, I teach Machiavelli again
assumption that The Prince and Discourses on Titus Livy are TRUE
(if we can only discover what Niccolò meant to teach us).
Roger D. Masters, AM'58, PhD'61
Hanover, New Hampshire
Chandler replies: How very strange of Professor Masters
to begin a letter by invoking John Findley, I. A. Richards, Joseph
Palamountain, Carl Kaysen, Henry Kissinger, David Easton, and
Leo Strauss, and then make a charge of name dropping. I don't
think it could have been aimed at me since I didn't indulge in
that sort of thing (though I did cite Swift's witty remark about
name dropping in Tale of a Tub). But it is still strange.
for "debating which books to assign," I can only say
that, if undertaken seriously, such an activity seems the very
essence of responsible curricular planning at an institution like
ours. I am amazed to hear it called "trivial."
never met Leo Strauss, though in graduate school I did sit in
on a course in Hobbes from Joseph Cropsey and enjoyed it. Whether
Strauss ranks among the greatest of the 20th-century philosophers
is not a matter that I'll comment on. I will say that by Professor
Masters' own reckoning he ought not to be in a position to pass
such a judgment, given the "at least a century" rule
he proposes as the test of "greatness"-indeed of "TRUTH."
What does it say about his criterion that he is so quick to violate
it with a figure he cares about?
Strauss's charismatic talents as a teacher, and I understand that
they were considerable, his doctrine and methods are open to serious
debate, even on Professor Masters' own account. The idea that
some books cross a threshold into the status of being "TRUE"
because they have been read for an arbitrary period of time by
readers Strauss or Masters might identify as "serious"
is not one that carries much internal authority. Do I think some
books are truer than others? Certainly. Do I think that even great
books float entirely free of their historical circumstances-let
alone in a way that can be "tested" by arbitrary measures?