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Judging 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 present-day College.

Olaf Mend, AB'56, AB'58
Chicago


James 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.

Prof. 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.

Mr. 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 and knowledge.

Alas, 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…on the 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


Professor 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.

As 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."

I 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?

Whatever 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? Certainly not.



 


  APRIL 2001

  > > Volume 93, Number 4


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