David Markowitz
Al Filreis
English 285
December 4, 1995

Position paper on Graff's Beyond the Culture Wars

Gerald Graff's suggestion that colleges make issues of academic controversy part of the classroom dialogue, is for obvious reasons, attractive. However, his vision of a campus where political and academic confict is subsumed by-or at least symbiotic with-classroom learning assumes that the culture war is being fought in good faith. I think believing that this is a good faith dispute ignores what are the most contentious fronts in the culture war, within as well as outside the colleges.

Of course, these issues are race, gender, and sexuality. Both sides in the culture war have proven themselves unable to contain themselves and argue objectively. They have attempted, in some cases, to obfuscate the issue by creating code words to euphemize the issue, but ultimately feel a passion that is too raw, too visceral for the classroom to contain.

On the right, it is not simply a matter of the decay of the canon. Graff points out that several popular accounts mention the inclusion of marginal literature in syllabi, but I believe he doesn't realize the significance of who their targets are. While broadly, they claim to be standing against "barbarism" and "relativism," they're particular targets seem the same as a McCarthyite's rogues gallery: feminists, blacks and other minorities, homosexuals--challengers to a canon, but also, as might be expected, the enemies of the reactionaries calling themselves "conservatives." It should be no surprise that popular spokesmen for the right embrace this, sometimes going to anti-intellectual extremes or plain lying. These conflicts when played out in colleges are genteel when compared with how they play out in a larger national discourse about affirmative action and equal opportunity, civil rights, personal liberties, and religious freedom.

Graff rightly points out that the radical multi-culturalists have become the opposite side of the same absolutist, exclusivist coin. But Leonard Jefferies isn't as alone as Graff would have us believe. For instance, the popularity of Nation of Islam speakers among black college students indicates that Jefferies has a good deal of company. The stifling of "hate speech" is a more generalized indication that colleges are justifiably terrified of letting students at each other to resolve ideological disputes. Incidents like the Cornell students who distributed misogynist jokes or the Penn water buffalo case, should dramatize the fact that both sides of the culture war feel there is too much at stake in the culture war to permit opposing perspectives. Judith Rodin, in a letter to parents and alumni, discussed the Red & Blue's racist article about Haiti as a success for rational student discourse, but conveniently forgot to mention the devisiveness it caused.

Graff's argument often boils down to schematizing how to represent conflicts, but I believe it ignores the larger, more rancorous, culture wars that revolve around the same issues. In this regard, even though I feel his solution is elegant but unrealistic. It relies on passing absolute positions off as relative, and thus ignores how deeply felt those absolute ideologies are. Since this flaw is in the very foundational assumptions on which his idea rests, I think he is naive in suggesting that these arguments be contained and defused in a classroom.