Invitation to an Argument

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 Graff’s 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 things—ethical maxims, literary parallels, historical lessons—that 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)

Nearly alone among recent educational theorists, Graff is trying to steer a middle course between neoconservatives’ angry cries for the restoration of humanistic content and the smashing of humanistic totems on the Left. While he believes that the content of human culture only takes on "full meaning" in the context of arguments pro and con, he also knows that meaningful arguments arise only when there is a question of substance to argue about. It is Graff’s unique perception that education, like human experience itself, might assume the form as well as content of an argument.

This, I am convinced, is the real force behind Graff’s 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. One’s 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 reasons—better examples, new perceptions, more exact discriminations—than to recognize correct beliefs. At the same time, though, I am not convinced that Graff’s "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 goal—his "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 Graff’s "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 Graff’s proposals. How can we teach the conflict if we do not know what a "conflict" is?

From the beginning, Graff’s 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 longer—they must now be argued for. And this is a good thing. Education is in danger of breaking down when critical argument is abandoned:

A student today can walk from a course in which the universality of the Western literary canon is taken for granted (and therefore not stated or argued) into another course in which it is taken for granted (and therefore not stated or argued) that the universality of the canon has been discredited. While this disparity can be exciting, many students become baffled or cynical. . . .

But on the other hand, Graff subscribes to the representational model of the university, which holds that as a social and political institution the university represents social and political interests. Thus he defines "diversity," not in terms of arguments that diverge when confronted by a similar intellectual obstacle, but rather in terms of an "academic culture [that] has become more democratic and plural in content," "more pluralistic, multicultural, and culturally representative"; that has found room for a "range of cultural differences," including "unrepresented groups, methodologies, and viewpoints"; an "ideological diversity," in short. Possibly these phrases are mere shibboleths invoked to head off politically radical objections. But the same strain of thought shows up in Graff’s words of caution that for many students it is academic culture itself which is alienating, "no matter which view is in charge"; that any literary canon seems foreign to students, "regardless which side gets to draw up the list."

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 these—if 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 other’s 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 Graff’s 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 Graff’s 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.

He regretted taking sides. To slink through India unlabelled was his aim. Henceforward he would be called "anti-British," "seditious"—terms that bored him, and diminished his utility. He foresaw that besides being a tragedy, there would be a muddle; already he saw several tiresome little knots, and each time his eye returned to them, they were larger. Born in freedom, he was not afraid of the muddle, but recognized its existence.

Fielding takes this step only after being warned by his colonial superior that he must "toe the line," that a man "can’t run with the hare and hunt with the hounds." Although he wishes to do neither, Fielding is motivated to throw in his lot with the Indians out of a preference for fact over the emotion of the herd—the Indians have the facts on their side, while the British have the emotion. But he regrets taking sides at all, because what comes of taking sides is the making of a muddle, in which the facts slowly drop from sight.

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 Graff’s theory is the hunt for further points of conflict.

Another possibility does suggest itself. It may just be that Graff’s 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 Graff’s 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.[1] 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:

For the parties to such a debate—both those who cling to the older theory, and those who put forward a newer one—would still share some common ground: not any common body of theoretical notions, perhaps, but rather certain shared disciplinary conceptions, reflecting their collective intellectual ambitions and rational methods, selection-procedures and criteria of adequacy. (79)

Graff remains conscious of this distinction, characterizing literary theory at one point as "the kind of reflective, second-order discourse about practices that is generated when a consensus that was once taken for granted in a community breaks down." But though it is pretty clear that the theoretical consensus has broken down within literary study and the humanities more generally, it is far from self-evident that the disciplinary accord has been scuttled. For if it had been, the theoretical breakdown described by Graff would not even have been intelligible to those who had witnessed it. As Graff was aware a decade and less ago, theoretical debates can occur only between those who have already mastered a common discipline’s methods, procedures, and criteria. In his more recent musings on education, though, he seems never to have asked himself whether it is possible to master first-order disciplinary conceptions through second-order theoretical debate.

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 literature’s 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 Bloom’s Closing of the American Mind, Graff agrees there are points in common; but he emphasizes—and says it cannot be emphasized too strongly—that 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.[2] 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 Graff’s 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:

Many students who have no difficulty comprehending literary works on the level of action and story are unable to perform the operations required to make conceptual sense of action and story. . . . All but the most receptive students of literature have difficulty performing the thematizing operations that come so easily to the practiced teacher and critic. (158)

The problem that Graff defines with such firmness here is unlikely to be solved by thematizing semesters and planning and organizing conferences. For it is not a question of how to get students to participate in scholarly debates, as if this were the ultimate experience of the life of the mind. And the answer is not for students to present papers and responses, making believe they are professors. The deeper problem is how to instill within students intellectual ambitions and rational habits; to school them in the use of selection-procedures and criteria of adequacy. Until they can think through an argument for themselves, it is unrealistic to expect them either to follow or participate in a debate.

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. Graff’s 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 Graff’s 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 Graff’s proposals.

(1) Graff’s theory of education is a reminder that rational argument stands at the center of the academic enterprise, although Graff’s 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) Graff’s 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 Graff’s 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. Leavis’s pedagogical style, the teacher’s "characteristic question ‘This is so, isn’t it?’ is no mere rhetorical flourish, but an invitation to debate—where the response ‘Yes, but . . .’ must be accompanied by reasons, examples, new perceptions, and discriminations" (359). As a pupil of Graff—one of his last Ph.D. students at Northwestern—I 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.

[1] But see his response to Lorraine Clark’s "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.

[2] 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.

Works Cited


Buckley, William K., and James Seaton, eds. Beyond Cheering and Bashing: New Perspectives on "The Closing of the American Mind." Bowling Green: Bowling Green State University Popular Press, 1992.

Forster, E. M. A Passage to India. Harvest Book 35. New York: Harcourt Brace & World, 1924.

Graff, Gerald. Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1979.

_______. "The Politics of Composition: A Reply to John Rouse." College English 42 (1980): 851-56.

_______. "Literature as Assertions." In American Criticism in the Poststructuralist Age. Ed. Ira Konigsberg. Ann Arbor: Michigan Studies in the Humanities, 1981. Pp. 135-61.

_______. "Interpretation on Tlön: A Response to Stanley Fish." New Literary History 17 (1985-86): 109-17.

Mill, John Stuart. On Liberty. Ed. Gertrude Himmelfarb. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1974.

Rescher, Nicholas. Dialectics: A Controversy-Oriented Approach to the Theory of Knowledge. Albany: State University of New York Press, 1977.

Toulmin, Stephen. Human Understanding: The Collective Use and Evolution of Concepts. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1972.

Warner, Martin. Philosophical Finesse: Studies in the Art of Rational Persuasion. Oxford: Clarendon, 1989.