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The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience

reviewed by Francis Oakley - 1995

coverTitle: The Battleground of the Curriculum: Liberal Education and American Experience
Author(s): W. B. Cornochan
Publisher: Stanford University Press, Stanford, CA
ISBN: 0804723648, Pages: , Year: 1994
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Now that the recent battle of the books about American higher education appears at last to be reaching its term, some of its most striking features stand out in bold relief: namely, its dyspeptic presentism, its lack of interest in the historical record, and its related substitution for empirical data of a rather lazy and disheveled species of anecdotalism. Commenting in this eminently sane and worthwhile book on the degree to which "political actors in these struggles are . . . ignorant of the university's past" (p. 4), Carnochan sets out to remedy at least some part of that historical deficit.

Taking as his point of departure the long presidency at Harvard (1869- 1909) of Charles Eliot, the curricular revolution he engineered by the installation of the free-elective system, and his great debate in the 1880s with Princeton's James McCosh (not only anticipating the curricular wrangles of subsequent years but also reenacting those of the past), Carnochan in subsequent chapters reaches back first to the early- nineteenth century phase of the battle of the books, which pitted the Scottish "moderns" of the Edinburgh Review against the "ancients" of Oxford, products of the Scottish Enlightenment and proponents of the lecture mode of instruction against advocates of the old liberal education in the classics and defenders of the tutorial system long since entrenched in the Oxbridge colleges. Via analysis of the "two strains of humanism" reflected later in John Henry Newman's Idea of a University and Matthew Arnold's Culture and Anarchy (both leaving their mark on twentieth-century American educational discourse), Carnochan then leads us through the counter-revolution mounted at Harvard against the free-elective system; the dissemination of the "new humanism" of Irving Babbitt, Norman Foerster, and others; the emergence between the wars of the "great books" and "Western Civilization" approaches to general education promoted at Columbia by John Erskine, at Chicago by Robert M. Hutchins and by Erskine's former student Mortimer Adler, and at Stanford (in "more transparent" civic guise) by Edward Eugene Robinson; the appearance of the Harvard Redbook in 1945; and the curricular thinking prevalent at Harvard and Stanford in the 1960s. He ends with Stanford's much excoriated decision in the late 1980s to replace the older "Western Culture" freshman requirement with one entitled "Cultures, Ideas, and Values."

In his fine study of the "objectivity question" among American historians, Peter Novick has stressed the degree to which the cultural upheavals of the late-1960s appeared to some in the guise of "an undifferentiated and monstrous Other which had to be combated if liberal rationalism was to survive."[1] And, for conservative critics like William Bennett and Allan Bloom, the 1960s certainly loomed large as a watershed in our education history, the noxious source of so much that has gone wrong over the past thirty years, the regretted point of departure for the progressive disintegration of the tried-and-true modalities of general education prevailing in those earlier and happier times now depicted as a golden age of intellectual integrity, curricular stability, and educational harmony. But no one even remotely acquainted with the stretch of history Carnochan covers will be at all surprised to learn that the educational discontents of our own era are no post-1960s novelty, and that the positions staked out by the opposing factions of recent years relay to us the pale harmonics of notes struck long ago in a far more distant educational past, and in Europe as well as North America.

It is well to be reminded, nonetheless, that the Stanford "Western Culture" requirement, whose demise was greeted with such apocalyptic foreboding, was itself a post-1960s revival, a patched-up version of the earlier "Western Civilization" course. It is well to be reminded, too, that the Western Civilization and Great Books approaches, far from reflecting some ancient and timeless norm, represented in fact a twentieth-century novelty and an American novelty at that. And it is well to be reminded, further, that while the Arnoldian version of humanism with its optimistic promotion of a "religion of culture" has been prominent in twentieth-century American educational circles, it does not exhaust the humanistic possibilities and remains in tension with Newman's religiously informed "skepticism about the claims of literature and human learning to transcendent value" (p. 46).

Ricky contextual in its approach, Carnochan's book makes, then, a welcome contribution to our understanding of the present educational discontents. With its specific focus on the history of the American educational scene, it nicely complements Bruce Kimball's Orators and Philosophers, which ranges back into a much more distant European past.[2]


1 Peter Novick, That Noble Dream: The Objectivity Question and the American Historical Profession (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1988).

2 Bruce Kimball, Orators and Philosophers: A History of the Ideas of Liberal Education (New York: Teachers College Press, 1986).

Cite This Article as: Teachers College Record Volume 96 Number 3, 1995, p. 582-584
https://www.tcrecord.org ID Number: 58, Date Accessed: 5/22/2022 11:09:09 PM

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