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The Radicalism of Tradition

Teaching the Liberal Arts in a Managerial Age

Jackson Lears

The culture war conceals a much more serious conflict, a much more fundamental threat to the life of the mind in the university.

This essay indulges in a familiar critical gambit—ripping aside the veils of misunderstanding and penetrating the mists of misrepresentations to expose what the author thinks is the truth. Or at least a clearer and more capacious version of it than what passes for common knowledge. This is the closest a cultural critic gets to the prophetic mode: “It is written...but I say unto you.”

What has been written–at least until very recently–is that for some time now we have been caught up in a cultural war between politically correct leftists inside the university and neo-conservative curmudgeons outside it. The curmudgeons argue that the pursuit of free intellectual inquiry—the traditional mission of the university—is under unprecedented attack from prissy speech codes and politicized professors unconcerned with older standards of objectivity. The leftists respond that curricula are more diverse and open and vital than ever before.11xFor a representative example from each side, see Roger Kimball, Tenured Radicals: How Politics Has Corrupted Our Higher Education, rev. ed. (Chicago, IL: Elephant Paperbacks, 1998) and Lawrence W. Levine, The Opening of the American Mind (Boston, MA: Beacon, 1996).

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