Stephen R. Graubard

Highbrow: An Endangered Species?

VTR Date: October 24, 1987

Guest: Graubard, Stephen R.


Host: Richard D. Heffner
Guests: Professor Stephen Graubard
Title: “Highbrow: An Endangered Species?”
VTR: 8/25/87

I’m Richard Heffner, your host on THE OPEN MIND. There is by now a fairly extensive literature – making it almost a growth industry these days – that expresses concern about what contemporary American students don’t know, and dedicated to the proposition that what they don’t know will hurt both them and our nation. Allan Bloom’s alarm0-sounding “The Closing of the American Mind” has been a runaway best seller for a half year now. Indeed, Professor Bloom was even here on The Open3Mind to decry the decline and fall of American literacy. And E. D. Hirsch remains high on the best seller list, telling us what cultural literacy really is: what we really need to know not to be illiterate. So that one would have expected my guest today, Stephen Graubard, professor of History at Brown University and the Editor of Daedalus, the distinguished journal of the American Academy of Arts and Sciences (that Assistant Producer Andrea Levin describes as “a hefty highbrow journal in the grand tradition”), that he would fit right in with the view-with-alarm crowd. Yet until recently Professor Graubard felt somewhat differently and he did, recently, take his pun in hand for a critical New York Times op-ed piece mischievously titled “Alarmist Critics Who Cry Beowulf”. Commenting on Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn’s new study: “What do our 17 year olds know”? – and on their conclusion that American adolescents indeed know mighty little, our guest suggests that we not be too wrapped up in reactions that simply reflect what he called “a nostalgia for a past learning that cannot be recaptured and that would, if reinvented, render most Americans unfit for the world they are required to live”. So, Professor Graubard, I’m delighted to have you here, but need to start of immediately by asking whether that response really meets the challenges that Bloom and Ravitch and Finn and the others offer, their concerns about the state of our pre-college population today.

Graubard: Well, obviously, I hope that it does. I can’t be certain. But I start with a very simple proposition, that there are a number of books, and you’ve mentioned some of the leading ones, but may I say, it’s part of a much larger literature. And these books are all saying the same thing, “There once was a glorious age…”. Generally when they’re older people, they think it was when they were young. When they’re not so old, they still imagine it occurred sometime, perhaps in the nineteenth century, perhaps at the beginning of the twentieth, but then children were really educated, children really knew who John Donne was and they didn’t only know it, they really read Shakespeare. And they grew up to be the kinds of people who won World War II and went on to make the Marshall Plan and do all those other wonderful things that happened in those great days when we made no errors, when we were, in fact, a perfect nation. And I have the greatest dubiety about all of it. My doubts arise from the fact that it isn’t that I read history differently, but I just know, by reading history, that you learn something very different. And it isn’t like that and it wasn’t like that, at all.

Heffner: Well, there’s never been a period, we’ll both admit, when there was the Garden of Eden and then the serpent, turned everything around. But would you not concede that there was a population, twenty, thirty, forty, fifty years ago, that was better informed about the kinds of things that Allan Bloom and Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn and others are concerned with?

Graubard: No I wouldn’t admit that. I would say, if you go to the better universities and colleges of this country today, and may I say there are many that are better today than they were twenty and thirty and fifty years ago, if you go to those better colleges and universities, you still find an extraordinary knowledge. May I say it may not be about John Donne, it may not be about Beowulf, it may have to do with black holes or SDI or something that is quite esoteric for some of these people, but that is very real for those who are young.

Heffner: So you’re saying there’s a different kind of informational level, but as high an informational level?

Graubard: I have been teaching in universities for a great many years. I do not have memories of a university population in the early fifties in the kinds of universities I’ve been teaching in, the universities that would go by the name “Ivy League”. I don’t have memory of an extraordinary group of young people who knew an enormous amount, with today’s young people being ignorant. It just isn’t true. In fact, I’d go further. When, on occasion, I would go, as I often did, to universities that were less renowned, to give a guest lecture or whatever it was, I don’t have a picture then of young people knowing an enormous amount and today, knowing almost nothing.

Heffner: Then why does Graubard say this and Ravitch and Finn and Bloom and that whole industry that we’ve talked about, say something very different?

Graubard: Because I believe that many of them are part of, if you will a…I use this word not in its truest sense…but they are part of a conservative reaction. A reaction that I think has been paramount in many spheres in recent times. And they really do believe that there has been a falling off. They don’t, in my view, know what is happening at the best levels and they look, and quite properly, at the lowest levels, where there are enormous problems. Because if you remember my whole point, Dick, was that there are very serious educational problems. In fact, I would argue there are educational problems in our schools, public and private, at the elementary level, at the secondary level and there may be very serious problems even at the university level, as Allan Bloom suggests. But what I say, and what I believe sincerely is that these people exaggerate what once existed and exaggerate the hazards that now exist and have no real solution for those hazards.

Heffner: Well let’s…let’s set aside the question of solution for a minute…

Graubard: Right.

Heffner: …you’re not going to pin that on them, are you?

Graubard: Well, in a very real sense, there is a solution implied in Allan Bloom’s work, what he’s really arguing against is what he calls “the relativism” of our time. There was once a time when children were brought up to know what was true and that truth came in certain forms and he, in some sense or other, wishes us to return to those forms. He does not like the kind of discussion that he finds in certain universities today. Hirsch, on a very different level, is arguing in effect, once people really did know their literature and they knew a great deal else. And they really understood it and they could, when asked who Chaucer was, tell you. And he says, “I now find as I look at university students…” or at other students, for after all Diane Ravitch and Chester Finn are talking about 17 year olds. They just don’t know anything, they don’t know when the Civil War took place, they don’t know who Alexander Hamilton was, they’re just ignorant. And I say that I can remember a wonderful time, when I first started teaching history, when most of the people who came and, this may I say, is the post war period, this is my own generation, these are the ex-GIs, they were very able. But I can assure you, as they came up to what, even then, pretended to be the best university in the country, Harvard…I can assure you that their ignorance about many of these things was abysmal.

Heffner: And you feel that there has been not any shift downwards?

Graubard: I see no shift downwards at the better institutions. I see a shift upwards in many of those institutions that were not very good in the thirties, forties, fifties and sixties. And what I do see, and this is my great problem with them, I see an enormous question that they are not addressing about what we, in fact, do with those tens of millions who are in our primary schools and secondary schools, who would not have gone for as many years or been so visible in an earlier period as they are today. Those people are very…are being either badly educated or learning very little, but they certainly are not bringing to their education, or not being given an opportunity to bring to themselves the things that they might.

Heffner: It’s interesting your experience and my experience and I suspect we began to teach at the same time, after the Second World War, those experiences are different because I find today something that is borne out in the statistics and the testing that Ravitch and Finn do and something, a great deal, in what Bloom is saying. But you know, I also found at the end that you seemed to be saying something different, at the end of your piece in the New York Times. You say, “Is it possible that American children are not all that different from American adults? That we are finding fault with one, when we ought to be looking at all?”, as if a generalized lack of knowledge should really make us feel better, so that we don’t have to point the finger at our 17 year olds.

Graubard: Well, as you know, every Times op-ed piece is somewhat cut and that was somewhat cut at that point. Or I won’t say every piece, as many are. What I’m trying to say is there is a very serious problem. It is a problem that exists for better students, for poorer students. And by better and poorer I’m speaking academically, but in many other ways as well. But I don’t think that you can go about resolving that problem until you begin to realize how enormously important are the adults in all of this. And when I speak of adults, I speak again of all of them, not just those who bear the title teacher or professor. I’m talking about parents, I’m talking about children in single parent families. I’m talking about neighbors. I’m talking about people who, like yourself, who are on the media, who are communication a message to these children. I’m talking about all of us. What are we, in fact, teaching? What are we telling them? What are we telling these young people is really important.

Heffner: Now, I need to ask you, what the implication of what you just said is? Are you suggesting that what we are teaching them…we their parents and their grandparents, are teaching them materials, teaching them ideas, teaching them nothings, that we then attribute to them?

Graubard: I am saying that in the past, as in the present, the teachers of all young people are multiple. They include parents. It matters enormously if parents read to their children or do not read to their children. It matters enormously if children are resigned or consigned, at a very early age, to a playroom separate from their middle class parents, let alone from their working class or unemployed parents. It matters enormously if neighbors take an interest in those children and in some sense, enter into some kind of meaningful dialogue with them. It matters enormously what those children see on their television programs, what they see in films, what music they hear. The music that they hear, as I know because I have two step-children who are teenagers, they don’t hear the music and come away from it with the views that Allan Bloom has, but it matters enormously what they hear. But what I am suggesting is that this was true in the eighteenth century, it was true in the nineteenth century, it’s true in the twentieth century. The idea that an individual’s education is given to him by teachers, that they are the ones who are uniquely responsible for the education of young people is just not an idea that I can accept.

Heffner: Well, one certainly can subscribe to that point of view. Was it McLuhan who said that every schoolchild knows that his or her education is interrupted by going to school?

Graubard: That’s right.

Heffner: Certainly, but again there seems to be the implication, first you say, “I don’t like that comparison of the past with the present…

Graubard: Right.

Heffner: …in terms of our young people”. And then you seem to be saying, “However, the reason why you can make that comparison is because of what we the adults do”.

Graubard: No. what I’m trying to say is, is that we have set an agenda, however, inarticulately, which is unique in world history and unique in this nation’s history. We have set an agenda of educating the whole people. We are sitting in the City of New York, where certainly thirty or forty years ago, children of certain races and children of certain ethnic groups, were thought to be educable only up to a certain age. When vast numbers of them dropped out after that age, we…today, at least in our rhetoric, are saying that we are going to educate all. And may I say we are making some progress…some progress in educating all. In the big cities of America, in the inner cities of America, but also in the smaller country, villages, may I say, the small towns that still exist and the middle size cities we are making that progress, but we are, of course, by certain standards, very aware that those children are not able, either to remember or to know certain things that we imagine they ought to know.

Heffner: Now you say, “that we imagine…

Graubard: That’s right.

Heffner: …that they ought to know”. And, of course, in the article, too, you suggest that the kinds of things, the kinds of elements of what we used to consider a classical education, that Finn and Ravitch and others point to, I mean cultural literacy, indicates all those things one presumably must know, unless one is to be labeled illiterate.

Graubard: Yes.

Heffner: You have some disdain for that notion.

Graubard: None whatever.

Heffner: None?

Graubard: None whatever. What I am saying…I’ve told this story to a number of people…I can remember…first let me say I believe in memory. I would love for people to be able to learn poetry and by definition, to remember it. Also, may I say, to understand it. I would love for people to be able to read music, which requires some understanding, but also some memory, so it isn’t that I’m disdainful of memory, but I do remember that in an early period when I first began teaching…and I have told this story, but not on the air…my students were required to read, this is at Harvard, fifteen or twenty pages a week. And they were responsible for everything that appeared in those pages. The result is that every week there’d be an exam, a quiz and they would have to trace the roots that the Visigoths took, the Vandals took, the Ostrogoths took in attacking the Roman Empire. In retrospect, I don’t know why they were ever asked to remember that. I don’t know what use it ever had. On the contrary, talking about dates, the only time they studied a date in that period, it was the date 410, the fall of Rome. They didn’t’ know that it was also the date of the composition of one of the greatest books of that millennium, namely Augustine’s City of God. And if they knew anything about Augustine, they knew he was something called a Church Father, with a capital “f” and they really didn’t know what that meant. Now at a later stage I suddenly find that their reading the City of God, at the better universities. Not only are they reading the City of God, they’re trying to comprehend it. And may I say, that takes a great effort and as between be able to trace the barbarian invasions of Rome and being able to repeat for me what they were and being able to trace it on a map and get a high grade, and the ability to read Augustine, I’ll take the second any time.

Heffner: Yes, but you know, you went to Harvard…I went to Columbia and there, all the way back then, almost a half century…

Graubard: Right.

Heffner: …we were reading Augustine…

Graubard: Absolutely.

Heffner: …we were reading Aquinas, we were reading and presumably understanding, many of the great works. But I remember, too, that each week there was a quiz and how many blows were struck on the head of this classic figure by that classic figure, we were being disciplined, we were learning to do the work before us.

Graubard: Right.

Heffner: And I think that is what Ravitch and the others are talking about some extent now.

Graubard: But may I remind you of two things…the program that you went to at Columbia, the Contemporary Civilization Program…

Heffner: This was the humanities course.

Graubard: Exactly. The humanities version of it, it had both a social science and a humanities part. You were very much in advance of the crowd. That happened at most other institutions after the Second World War, the kind of course you’re not talking about. It was not common in the twenties and thirties. But I want to go beyond just that…what I’m really saying…you see, I believe that literature is a serious study. I believe very much. I wouldn’t teach history if it weren’t a serious study. But to teach history, to know history, to learn history, is not a matter of memorizing dates, places, names and would like to see if some book could be written on what the problems are of teaching, not just history and literature, but science…those things that are admitted to be difficult and teaching it to a greater number of people, so that one realizes that by teaching it to all, one really is obliged to do something that has never been done before.

Heffner: I don’t think that I would disagree with you, but I’m also…I also feel there was a kind of red herring here drawn over the scene. I don’t think that these people are asking for the kind of rote learning that you address yourself to. I mean that is a red herring. And to set them up that way, I don’t think is quite appropriate. They’re talking about a kind of discipline that comes from a certain kind of study that lends itself to a final understanding of the real materials before the students.

Graubard: Well, just speaking of that particular book, may I remind you that the authors themselves acknowledge that they wish that they did not have to use multiple-choice exams, a very dubious thing. You see obviously, by definition, I’d like every child to be taught “Macbeth” or “Hamlet” or, as we all were at an early age, “Julius Caesar”. But it isn’t only so that the person can then identify characters…

Heffner: Of course not.

Graubard: …it is that that person can read it as he or she might also read scientific formulate and understand them and be able to talk about them. What I’m interested in seeing is not children tested in this way. And I don’t doubt that they did very poorly on this test and may I say, some of the things there is no reason for them to know. I’m not absolutely persuaded that in the late 1980s American children really need to know who John Donne was. I really don’t believe that. I’m saying that there are two things wrong with this kind of study. One, what I’ve already implied…that there is the implication, it was once the possession of many. I’ve actually had a correspondence with a very distinguished woman, who enjoys a very high place, who believes that foreign language instruction was once the common possession of a very good number of educated children. I just have no memory of that and what I’ve written to her is that the only children I knew who commanded foreign languages well were those who learned those foreign languages at their parent’s knee or at the grandparent’s knee.

Heffner: It’s interesting to me, though, that when you talk about John Donne and questioning the usefulness of knowing Donne, this is really the point, isn’t it, that you’re saying in 1987, 1988, at the end of the twentieth century, you would revise what one used to consider a classical education.

Graubard: Dick, I’m going beyond that. That is what I’m really very anxious to say. What I’m saying is, we have set an extraordinary agenda for ourselves, the educating of the democracy. If you’re going to do that, you’ve got to start worrying…if you’re worried about your seventeen year olds, you’d better start worrying before they get to be fifteen, sixteen or seventeen. You’ve got to start at a much earlier age. And you’ve then got to understand what it is you’re teaching, why you’re teaching that, why it is terribly important for you to give self-confidence to children of all races and of all economic situations. Why you mustn’t tell little girls that math is not for them. Why you mustn’t tell little girls that physics or chemistry is something the boys do…you go on and do literature or history. Why you can tell neither boys nor girls, they may not be able to do science, but they can do history, if you’ll only memorize it. So I am going beyond that. It isn’t…I’m not objecting to someone having Willa Cather or Donne or anyone else on a list. I am objecting to the frame of mind which suggests that through an examination process of this kind, you learn something significant. What I want them to be testing is how well young people articulate what they know. How well do they write? How can you have much learning in history or literature if you don’t emphasize reading and writing? What is the role of all of us as adults? Not only those of us who teach young children in telling young people the enormous importance of reading, the enormous importance of writing, the enormous importance of articulation. I think I sent you an article of mine in which I talked about a certain inner city school system that I attended. I found nothing more horrible than what I would call the eerie silences of that schoolroom. Children were set meaningless tasks to memorize…to memorize, to list the islands of the archipelago of Japan. Who wants them to know that? To what end? What does it prove when they know it?

Heffner: You know I think your raising that point at perhaps not such an opportune moment in our history, when there is an increasing emphasis upon the importance of geography. Now you’re taking picayune, you’re taking…again we’ve gotten an awful lot of straw men here, but…we just have two minutes left…this morning I went back and took out my Daedalus issue from the Spring of 1960 on mass culture and mass media, have you been suggesting, as I understand it that the mass media and mass culture have on the one hand made it impossible to maintain some standards of the past, on the other hand creating just as viable and acceptable a standard for the present?

Graubard: I’m suggesting something more. You have an extraordinary opportunity to create a new learning, a learning suited to the future. You, here on television, radio, film, all the arts have an extraordinary opportunity. And what I’m saying is I don’t believe that there was once an age when it was…when all this was going well and now it’s all going badly. And what I’m really saying is we have not begun to think…and Daedalus, hopefully will now be turning again. This is an issue that is over twenty years old, we’ve got to look at mass culture and mass media again and see not only what it is, but what it can be. As I try to imply in that article, I’m not just trying to find fault with what exists, I want to know what are the possibilities, the potentialities for change. And I think they are extraordinarily great

Heffner: Indeed, where are the old media bashers, the intellectuals who wouldn’t watch and bashed anyone who did?

Graubard: That’s right. They exist mostly abroad and they exist abroad when they come to the United States and watch some of the things that they have to see on our television.

Heffner: And you’re not enormously impressed with that point of view.

Graubard: At all. What I’m really saying is unless we acknowledge that all of us, as parents, as neighbors, as friends, as employers, as media people, as political leaders and as professors have a responsibility, we’re not going to do very much for these young people.

Heffner: I think that that’s an optimistic note to end on. Thank you so much for joining me today, Dr. Graubard.

Graubard: Thank you.

Heffner: And thanks, too, to you in the audience. I hope you’ll join us again next time. And if you care to share your thoughts about today’s program, please write to THE OPEN MIND, P.O. Box 7977, FDR Station, New York, NY 10150. For transcripts send $2.00 in check or money order. Meanwhile, as another old friend used to say, “Good night and good luck.”

Continuing production of this series has generously been made possible by grants from: The Rosalind P Walter Foundation; the M. Weiner Foundation of New Jersey; the Mediators and Richard and Gloria Manney; the Richard Lounsbery Foundation; Mr. Lawrence A. Wein; and the New York Times Company Foundation.