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Monday, May 1, 2000

In Plato’s Cave

Half a Century of Insights into Higher Education

In Plato’s Cave is a memoir—perhaps “reflection” is more in keeping with the title—of an Ivy Leaguer who has seen the elite of American universities in better times, and who has the skill to reveal this truth in the fullness of its tragic and its comedic phases.

Kernan, now retired from the university duties of an English professor and administrator at both Yale and Princeton, infuses a half-century of insights into higher education with wry and wise critique. He has avoided the bitterness that has become the false refuge of veterans of the culture wars even as he reveals the depths of lunacy of the postmodernist patter that has invaded the campus-present.

In one particularly insightful chapter Kernan manages with acidic humor to mock the deconstructivist diatribes of Paul de Man, Jacques Derrida, and Michel Foucault while acknowledging the mischief they have wrought within academe. Writes Kernan:

Using language to do its daily business, the larger world thought it [deconstruction] all seemed obvious nonsense. Words point to things. But inside the academy, deconstruction’s challenge of language—emphasizing its difficulties rather than its successes, its artificiality rather than its referentiality, its undecidability rather than its precision, its emptiness rather than its fullness, its falsity rather than its truth—had extraordinary effects . . . . Words, because they were empty, grounded in no reality other than themselves and other words, were said to be the means by which the wealthy and the powerful imposed their “hegemony” on others and made their self-serving ideology, their metaphysics, their world-picture, into “reality.”

It is this nihilistic direction that has led, as Kernan avers, to the attack on classic core curricula by Marxists, “ethnics” of one stripe or another, and militant feminists who damn the “phallocratic” nature of the great works of Western thought because these are the product of a “hegemonic male culture.” Moreover, “gay and lesbian rights groups saw in the traditional literature the suppression of sexual freedom and the concealment of homoerotic energies.” Really. And all these years I thought it important just to let Plato be Plato!

This book is full of regrets about the capture of much of university discourse by the deconstructivist crowd. Kernan’s perspective is particularly vivid because his self-described social realm is primarily in the humanities rather than the sciences, where such cant is consigned to cartoon files or is posted on bulletin boards. The predominant field of discourse at universities is probably not American Standard Post-Modern/PC/Deconstructivist gibberish, but the university culture is so averse to interpersonal criticism that much prattle at faculty lunch tables goes unchallenged. In a world where the bottom line is coherent action these paralogical utterances would be regarded as silly pretension and sure evidence of “the leisure of the theory class.”

Kernan’s work is also a valuable chronicle of the demise of authentic evaluation of student performance at all levels by faculty; the rise of plagiarism to ever-more sophisticated levels by students (and some faculty); the corruption of academic decision processes by interest-group pressure for special treatment in hiring, promotions, and tenure; and the squandering of institutional “reputational capital” by administrators who in better times might have been academic leaders. These ills may come as a surprise to alums who harbor an idyllic vision of college days gone by, but the importance of the critique will have been missed if it stirs none to inquire of dear old Alma Mater.

To whom should this book be recommended? Frankly, I think it is good reading even if it is littered with the names of the brilliant and famous who crossed the author’s path. Such is the stuff of memoirs, and it is fun to find an old friend or two in the author’s crosshairs. It is also a humorous insight into the private lives of academics, replete with Volkswagens, Volvos, false protestation of poverty (so as to be aligned with the “workers”), and overdrawn visions of self-importance. But the measure of the book is in its demonstration of a craftsman at the quill. Alvin Keman is a splendid writer, and his subject will appeal to those who are interested in the university, past and present. The book may have some predictive value as well; it is a well-known phenomenon that what occurs at Yale, Princeton, and Harvard generally trickles down the academic pecking order. This, of course, may be well or ill.

Jack Sommer is Knight Distinguished Professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte.