Originally published in Teaching the Conflicts: Gerald Graff, Curricular Reform, and the Culture Wars. Wellesley Studies in Critical Theory, Literary History, and Culture 2. Ed. William E. Cain. New York: Garland, 1994. Pp. 179-91.
Gerald Graffs whole theory of education rests upon a perception that was given expression in the middle of the nineteenth century by John Stuart Mill. In the first chapter of his little book On Liberty, Mill observes that cultural knowledge seems to prepare no one for the disappointments and misfortunes of experience. After experience we are able to recall any number of thingsethical maxims, literary parallels, historical lessonsthat ought to have served as warning; never before. The "full meaning" of a cultural production, Mill concludes, simply
cannot be realized until personal experience has brought it home. But much more of the meaning . . . would have been understood, and what was understood would have been far more deeply impressed on the mind, if [we] had been accustomed to hear it argued pro and con by people who did understand it. (105)
This, I am convinced, is the real force behind Graffs recommendation that, instead of seeking to declare a halt to the bitter conflict over the humanistic curriculum, we ought to teach the conflict. And I am very far from finding this an empty or unserious proposal. Ones beliefs are only as strong as the reasons one can give for holding them, and it would seem to make more sense to teach students how to come up with good reasonsbetter examples, new perceptions, more exact discriminationsthan to recognize correct beliefs. At the same time, though, I am not convinced that Graffs "conflict model" of education is the best way to pursue this goal. It may not even attain the results that Graff hopes it will. Although he says that his objective is "to help [students] gain control of [academic] discourses"an entirely praiseworthy goalhis "conflict model" of discourse-mastery may not help them do anything of the sort. I think it is important to find out. In what follows I intend to hold Graffs "conflict model" up to scrutiny. And my purpose in doing so is not to pick holes in it, but simply to determine what intensity of examination it will bear.
Graff starts from the assumption that it will be immediately obvious what he means by "conflict" (or "controversy" or "debate": he uses the words interchangeably). In truth, it is far from obvious. Yet the interpretation of this notion is central to any assessment of Graffs proposals. How can we teach the conflict if we do not know what a "conflict" is?
From the beginning, Graffs model of education seems badly muddled over the notion of rational controversy. Graff appears to be snagged between two different and incompatible conceptions of the academic enterprise. On one hand he seeks to found it upon critical argument. Recent developments in the humanities, he says, have made it impossible to take cherished positions for granted any longerthey must now be argued for. And this is a good thing. Education is in danger of breaking down when critical argument is abandoned:
The argumentative and representational ideals are incompatible, because genuine arguments do not occur between representatives of a "view" or "side." Either its representative embraces a view in toto, in which case it contains principles that must be installed in a place beyond argument as a necessary condition for the integrity of the view; or the person advancing the view explicitly accepts some principles and explicitly rejects others, in which case it is not a settled "view" at all, but only an argument. (It may be depicted as a view, may be hung with the name of an "ism," by an opponent who wishes to confound or vilify it, just as some speeches in politically radical circles of the thirties were denounced for being "Trotskyist." But the argumentative effect of this charge is to associate speakers by implication with certain antipathetic positions. And if they can dissociate themselves from theseif they can explicitly renounce some of the principles implied by their "view"in what regard can they be taken as "representative" of it?) Two persons who embark upon a genuine argument must tacitly agree to listen to reason. They must consider each others arguments, if only for the sake of reply; they must open themselves to being proved wrong; they must risk altering their views. And in doing this they are no longer opponents, but co-determiners of a joint hearing. They do not take sides, but cooperate in the rational evaluation of arguments. On this showing, the "conflict" (in at least one of Graffs senses) is put aside, and what remains is the serious examination of a problem of mutual concern.
There is nothing new in what I am saying. It is a familiar plea in the liberal tradition, which (as I implied by quoting Mill at the start) may be the tradition to which Graffs proposals belong. The liberal inclination is to distrust party labels. In this respect it is neatly exemplified by Cyril Fielding in A Passage to India, who steadfastly believes in the innocence of Aziz, the Indian who is arrested for rape. Another Indian asks him with some amazement whether he is actually on their side against his own people. Fielding avows that he is, but he is not happy to do so.
If what Graff proposes is to exhibit the map of learning as divided into hostile camps, each of which is made up of regulars who must toe the line, the outcome is likely to be a profound intellectual muddle. For on this exhibition a camp spokesman would not be called upon to think for himself, but dutifully to recite the approved phrases. And though each camp would claim to possess the truth, from a distance their "conflict" would sound like a discord of rival claims. Because each party to a dispute is defined by its assertion of opposing versions of the truth, neither side is equipped with any probative mechanism for evaluating the truth or falsehood of its own assertions. The only testing procedure in Graffs theory is the hunt for further points of conflict.
Another possibility does suggest itself. It may just be that Graffs own thinking is split between a liberal confidence in rational persuasion and a more radical insistence upon the primacy of conflict, in which any resolution or avoidance of conflict is stubbornly regarded as the reimposition of ideological domination. Earlier in his career, the liberal streak in Graffs thinking was more pronounced. In a 1980 essay, Graff argued that the radical attack on the conventions of academic inquiry was wide of the mark. It is the uses to which the conventions are put, he said, and not conventions as such, that determine their political effects. Graff reminded radical educational theorists that they themselves use "conventional methods of thought and expression" in addressing problems of politics and society. "[W]e have little choice but to try to teach the conventions we ourselves do not hesitate to use when we argue about such problems," Graff concluded, "for without the command of these conventions students are likely to be ineffectual"either in service to society or in active opposition ("The Politics of Composition," 855-56).
On this showing, education is characterized by distinctive forms of inquiry rather than sites of frequent conflict. Even earlier, in Literature Against Itself (1979), Graff had shown that academic inquiry is self-probing and self-correcting, because it entails a dialectical back-and-forth between explanans and explanatum. In discussing the deconstructionist view that "experience is always already interpreted," he had noted the following: "That we cannot conceive of a fact without some interpretive paradigm does not mean that this fact can have no independent status outside the particular paradigm we happen to be testing at the moment" (202). In other words, a decade ago the purpose of critical inquiry for Graff was not the wholesale adoption of an interpretive paradigm, which is the essential prerequisite for mobilizing it into "conflict" with another paradigm. Rather, the purpose of critical inquiry was the rigorous testing of facts against different possible explanations. I am not aware that Graff has retracted this earlier view. In "Interpretation on Tlön" (1985) he would appear to reassert it in the teeth of counterarguments by Stanley Fish. In turning his thoughts to education recently, though, Graff seems to have dismissed from mind the probative and dialectical relationship between fact and paradigm, and has substituted in its place a shrill and rancorous conflict between paradigms.
In "Interpretation on Tlön," Graff cites work by Robert Scholes and Stephen Toulmin to distinguish between primary and secondary systems of ideas. And in terms of this distinction, academic conflicts are reserved for the upper level. Toulmin calls this the theoretical level of academic debate, and separates it from the more basic disciplinary level upon which any debate btween adherents of opposing theories is founded:
I think it is improbable, and for three reasons.
(1) A "conflict model" will probably not remedy the incoherence or "disjunctiveness" of the literary curriculum that, according to Graff, deprives students of a "connected view of scholarship." In reality, the conflict in literary study may be over just what constitutes a coherent understanding of literature. And thus the conflict between interpretive paradigms may not be a cause of incoherence, but only a condition of the search for coherence. The critical controversies of recent decades may indicate very little more than that literary study has begun to come into its own as a distinct and autonomous discipline of inquiry. Much modern philosophy, after all, has been an effort to specify what manner of inquiry philosophy is. In the same way, much contemporary literary thought is an undertaking to say with greater exactness than in the past what counts as literatures subject matter and special methods. It is a mistake, however, to believe that a coherent understanding of literature can ever be attained (or, as administrators like to say, "implemented") institutionally. To point out the institutional incoherence of the curriculum, as Graff repeatedly does, is to point out the unremarkable. For it can be rendered institutionally coherent only if(as Graff acknowledges) "one faction in the current disciplinary conflict can wholly liquidate its opposition. . . ." Even then, however, the resulting curriculum would be coherent only if the winning faction itself were. And how else could this be determined than by a critical inspection of its doctrines, one by one and in detail? But then it ceases to be a conflict, and becomes merely a pursuit of truth, which must be conducted in accord with common aims, methods, procedures, and criteria. Teaching the conflict would appear to lead away from disciplinary competence.
(2) Teaching the conflict will probably not advance knowledge. Take the so-called canon wars, for instance. When conceived as a debate between antagonistic viewpoints, the very topic preassigns the roles of pro and con. What is more, those who try to advance an independent argument will be viewed suspiciously, Graff warns, "as taking a particular position in the debate, as in fact they are." In fact, it is not at all clear why taking a position is the only possible (or permitted) response to the question. If the question of the canon is merely an occasion for aligning oneself with an established position, it is not genuinely a question but a test of faith. Yet at times this is precisely how Graff appears to conceive of intellectual debate. In reply to an essay by Lorraine Clark comparing Literature Against Itself to Allan Blooms Closing of the American Mind, Graff agrees there are points in common; but he emphasizesand says it cannot be emphasized too stronglythat he "was coming from the political Left not the Right" (Buckley and Seaton 161). It is as if Graff were anxious about his credentials, quite apart from the propositional content of his writing.
If intellectual debate is merely an occasion to side with the angels on the Left or the Right, it is difficult to see how it can possibly advance knowledge. What is to be learned from hearing the same orthodoxies sworn to again and again? As an educational process, debate between sects or parties will tend only to polarize ideas, pitting them against one another rather than clarifying what is at issue. At such a pass, knowledge is more likely to be advanced by independence and heresy. Elsewhere, for example, I have argued that the canon is a bogey, that there is nothing in the world about which it is true (or false) to say this is the canon or that is not. In recent discussions of the canon, for and against, all that may be going on is an effort to relate various works of literature to one another. This relationship is then hypostatized as "the canon," but it is a blunder to speak of a relationship as itself a piece of work. And from this it follows that the entire debate over the canon has been misconceived. In the din of charge and countercharge, any such argument stands little chance of being heard. But if my argument is correct, the current debate is largely beside the point. And it would seem that inquiring into the question would take precedence, then, over teaching the debate. For it is precisely a question about aims, methods, procedures, criteria; it is a question about the disciplinary conditions of theoretical debate.
(3) Theoretical debate will probably not teach students how to see through a disciplinary inquiry for themselves. It may satisfy the craving of professors for a more advanced discussion of issues than is possible in most undergraduate classrooms, but the likelihood is that students will be left feeling (in Graffs own words) baffled or cynical. In making his proposals, Graff says he is "drawing on a familiar format, the academic conference." Jetting off to conferences is becoming an increasingly indispensable part of professors lives, "substitut[ing] for the kind of general discussion that does not take place at home." Graff proposes to restart the discussion at home, by means of a grand conference across the curriculum. "The idea," he says, "is to thematize the semester." And to insure that students are not bored and passive listeners, Graff insists that they must actively participate, "from writing papers about the conference, to presenting some of the papers and responses in it, to planning and organizing the program itself."
It sounds wonderful, but it seems unlikely to come off as planned. What Graff overlooks is the fact that academic conferences are highly specialized forms of argumentative inquiry. It is one thing to settle on a theme for the semester, but quite another to know how to thematize anything at all. Again, this is a distinction to which Graff himself once appealed, and gives evidence now of having forgotten. In "Literature as Assertions" (1981), he wrote:
And this is the tiresome little knot that, in my opinion, Graff fails to unmuddle. He asserts that "[t]he best way to learn a foreign language is to live in the country in which it is spoken." And he treats the university as if it were such a country. But though this is enormously suggestive, in the end it is merely suggestive. Unless Graff is proposing a general course in conversational academese, his idea of a "language" is superficial. By conceiving it in terms of current debates over substantive claims to know real meanings and real truths, Graff simplifies language to its semantical component; and as the philosopher Nicholas Rescher points out, "a language involves not merely rules of meaning and rules of truth (semantical rules) and rules of inferential transition (logical rules) but rules of assertion-entitlement (evidential rules) as well" (93). On this showing, the university is not a country with a single language, but a small continent, like Europe, which is criss-crossed by ancient linguistic enmities. For what counts as evidence in one discipline of university study is laughed off as superstition in another. An utterance from the past is treated as a historical fact in one department, a textual uncertainty or interpretive puzzle in another, a statement of truth or falsehood in a third. Not to attend to what entitles scholars to make different sorts of assertions is to acquire but a stuttering, fumbling use of the language (or languages) of intellectual life. Graffs model of education accounts for the semantics of rational controversy. On his model, students would profit from hearing the language of controversy spoken. But it is not clear whether or in what way his model contains any provision for enabling students to master logic and rules of evidence, especially in more than one area of controversy. It is not clear, on Graffs model, how students would ever learn to speak with any assurance for themselves.
I conclude with a few observations about what might be salvaged from Graffs proposals.
(1) Graffs theory of education is a reminder that rational argument stands at the center of the academic enterprise, although Graffs own ideas suggest that what is immediately needed in theorizing about education is a more adequate conception of argument. If nothing else it would seem better to conceive of arguments as occurring, not between rival factions, but into shared questions. (2) Graffs earlier thinking pointed in this direction, toward a probative and dialectical conception of argument. More recently he appears to have abandoned theorizing about argument to concentrate upon institutional arrangements for a public debate. His earlier writing remains fundamentally sound, providing a basis for future work. But what will be required is more reflection than Graff has yet given to the aims, methods, procedures, and criteria of the various modes or disciplines of argument. (3) In the meantime, Graff is probably right to emphasize the semantics of current scholarly disputes. Perhaps there is a better way, however. Instead of attending thematized conferences, it might be more productive to turn attention to the themes currently under dispute. Although questions may be formulated misleadingly, although answers may be offered that do more to conceal than to illuminate, scholarly debates are an important clue to where the current problems in a discipline lie. (4) And on the evidence of Graffs proposals, the biggest problem facing education today is how to teach students to hold their own in intelligent argument.
A provisional solution might be to conduct classes upon the model of argument. Although Graff insists that "educational problems are systematic ones that involve not just individual teaching but the way that teaching is organized," until the system is reorganized individual teachers might begin to correct the problem by inviting students to contest the claims that they themselves make in class. As the British philosopher Martin Warner says in describing F. R. Leaviss pedagogical style, the teachers "characteristic question This is so, isnt it? is no mere rhetorical flourish, but an invitation to debatewhere the response Yes, but . . . must be accompanied by reasons, examples, new perceptions, and discriminations" (359). As a pupil of Graffone of his last Ph.D. students at NorthwesternI can testify from sometimes bruising experience that this is precisely the manner in which he conceived his role as a teacher. I learned from Graff that to do him honor I must receive his teaching as an invitation to argue staunchly with him. At any rate, that is what I have tried to do in this essay.____________________
Throughout this essay, the italics in any quotation are in the original. I am grateful to Craig Kallendorf, James Seaton, William E. Cain, and (as always) Jerry Graff for criticism and suggestions. But see his response to Lorraine Clarks "Allan Bloom and Gerald Graff: On Mimesis as Freedom" (Buckley and Seaton 151-63). There Graff says that he has "changed [his] position" since writing Literature Against Itself.
 See D. G. Myers, "The Bogey of the Canon," Sewanee Review 97 (1989): 611-21. In a letter of February 9, 1990, Graff told me that he was struck by the "curiously contradictory mix of conservative and non-conservative discourses" in my essay. Since I did not conceive the essay in these terms (and cannot understand what it would mean to do so), I remain puzzled by his response.