Here is a book that is easier to praise and to agree with than to review and to criticize. Its main theme is simple, right, and rather mysteriously neglected on all sides: the “culture wars” have been an enormous diversion from the serious work of improving American education at all levels. All parties, says Jacoby, have been fiddling while Rome burns:
Conservatives, liberals, and radicals argue over which books should be taught in schools; meanwhile few books are read, and a liberal education shatters under the weight of commercialism. Faculty and students dispute which words violate the rights of which groups; meanwhile society turns increasingly violent. Psychologists preach the virtues of a healthy self-esteem; meanwhile the world of the self—education and jobs—collapses. Citizens wrangle over multiculturalism, arguing how, when, and if diverse cultures should be studied; meanwhile the irresistible power of advertising and television converts multiculturalism into a monoculture of clothes, music, and cars.
Readers of Jacoby’s highly regarded The Last Intellectuals will recall that he is none too happy that so much of the nation’s intellectual life has gone to roost in assorted ivory towers. Here, he is agreeably acerbic about an underreported consequence of this fact—the excessive attention paid to squabbles about the teaching of history and literature in expensive, elite schools, and a corresponding shying away from some grim realities about what goes on in the bottom half of the country’s 3,400 institutions of higher education....
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