Commentary Magazine


Posts For: February 13, 2007

Harvard’s Parochialism

Harvard University has a new president, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, and soon she will be forced to consider the matter of curricular reform. It will not be easy. The modern faculty prefers its administrators to stick to fund-raising and honorific functions, and to keep clear of the classroom. In Harvard’s case, however, reform is long overdue. In the early 1970’s, its curriculum was reconfigured to downplay “bodies of knowledge” in favor of “approaches to knowledge”—in other words, to subordinate content to methodology. Traditional course requirements in Western civilization or foreign languages were shelved in favor of courses that promoted “critical thinking.” Now, after a generation of experimenting with a content-free curriculum, the university has begun having second thoughts. Last October, a faculty panel made some modest proposals, in particular that students be required to take courses in American history, ethics, and religion.

As modest as these proposals were, they were not modest enough. The requirement of a course on religion was viewed with alarm, and was the first to fall. In December the panel changed the requirement to courses that addressed “what it means to be a human being.” Of course, any class might be said to do this, such as a survey of evolutionary biology. Last week another of the panel’s modest requirements fell by the wayside. Rather than a compulsory course in American history, students should be exposed to “values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own,” so that they would overcome their “parochialism.”

Come again? A recent study has shown that the American undergraduate, during his four years in college, loses rather than gains knowledge about American history and politics. The high school senior who recognized the Federalist Papers becomes the college senior who does not. This erosion of knowledge about their own country and culture is particularly pronounced at America’s best institutions of higher education (including my own, alas). If there is parochialism at play, it is that which clings valiantly to the curricular innovations of the early 1970’s, in defiance of all experience and data. President Faust will have her hands full. Look for her to step gingerly.

Harvard University has a new president, Dr. Drew Gilpin Faust, and soon she will be forced to consider the matter of curricular reform. It will not be easy. The modern faculty prefers its administrators to stick to fund-raising and honorific functions, and to keep clear of the classroom. In Harvard’s case, however, reform is long overdue. In the early 1970’s, its curriculum was reconfigured to downplay “bodies of knowledge” in favor of “approaches to knowledge”—in other words, to subordinate content to methodology. Traditional course requirements in Western civilization or foreign languages were shelved in favor of courses that promoted “critical thinking.” Now, after a generation of experimenting with a content-free curriculum, the university has begun having second thoughts. Last October, a faculty panel made some modest proposals, in particular that students be required to take courses in American history, ethics, and religion.

As modest as these proposals were, they were not modest enough. The requirement of a course on religion was viewed with alarm, and was the first to fall. In December the panel changed the requirement to courses that addressed “what it means to be a human being.” Of course, any class might be said to do this, such as a survey of evolutionary biology. Last week another of the panel’s modest requirements fell by the wayside. Rather than a compulsory course in American history, students should be exposed to “values, customs, and institutions that differ from their own,” so that they would overcome their “parochialism.”

Come again? A recent study has shown that the American undergraduate, during his four years in college, loses rather than gains knowledge about American history and politics. The high school senior who recognized the Federalist Papers becomes the college senior who does not. This erosion of knowledge about their own country and culture is particularly pronounced at America’s best institutions of higher education (including my own, alas). If there is parochialism at play, it is that which clings valiantly to the curricular innovations of the early 1970’s, in defiance of all experience and data. President Faust will have her hands full. Look for her to step gingerly.

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Bookshelf

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

• Biographies have an irritating way of getting written in pairs. In 2001, Steven Bach published Dazzler, the first biography of Moss Hart, who co-wrote You Can’t Take It With You and The Man Who Came to Dinner with George S. Kaufman and went on to direct My Fair Lady and write the screenplay for A Star Is Born. Bach’s book was gossipy to a fault, and he wrote it without benefit of the cooperation of Kitty Carlisle, Hart’s widow, no doubt because he was interested to the point of prurience in her husband’s sex life. As a result, he was unable to draw on Hart’s correspondence, diaries, and other published papers. Now Jared Brown has brought out Moss Hart: A Prince of the Theatre (Backstage Books, 452 pp., $27.95), a sober-sided authorized biography whose tone is accurately suggested by its subtitle. Brown tiptoes very carefully around the subject of Hart’s bisexuality, presumably so as not to give offense to Mrs. Hart, and his book, though more reliable on factual matters than Bach’s enthusiastic, slapdash clip job, is written without a trace of flair.

If you want to know all about Hart, you’ll have to read both biographies: Bach is livelier by a very wide margin, but Brown’s access to family-controlled primary source material makes his book indispensable. If, on the other hand, you merely wish to make the acquaintance of one of Broadway’s most successful commercial playwrights and directors, go straight to Act One, Hart’s anecdote-rich 1959 memoir, which is out of print but easy to find. Hart was a wonderful storyteller who had a wonderful story to tell, and though he wasn’t above fudging the facts, Act One remains one of the most engaging and instructive theatrical memoirs ever written, not least for Hart’s sweet-and-sour recollections of the horrific summer he spent working as the social director of a poverty-stricken Catskills resort.

• Kenneth Morgan’s Fritz Reiner: Maestro and Martinet (University of Illinois, 310 pp., $34.95) is the second biography of the musician-eating Hungarian conductor who moved his baton in arcs so tiny that a bass player in the Pittsburgh Symphony once set up a telescope at a rehearsal so that he could follow the beat. (This anecdote is so famous that I always assumed it to be apocryphal, but Morgan claims to have found a witness.) Like Jared Brown, Morgan is following in the footsteps of a previous biographer, Philip Hart, whose Fritz Reiner: A Biography (1994) was a good first try written by a man who had the advantage of knowing Reiner throughout his stormy tenure as the Chicago Symphony’s music director. Morgan’s book is more thorough, Hart’s more vivid, and once again you’ll have to read them both if you want to get a clear sense of what Reiner was like and why he continues to be regarded as one of the greatest conductors of the 20th century.

Incidentally, Reiner and the Chicago Symphony recorded exclusively for RCA throughout the 50’s and early 60’s, and most of their albums remain in print to this day. If you want a little background music while reading either or both of these books, I recommend their matchlessly brilliant performances of Bela Bartók’s Concerto for Orchestra and Music for Strings, Percussion and Celesta, Ottorino Respighi’s Pines of Rome, and Richard Strauss’s Don Quixote, all recorded in still-gorgeous early stereo sound.

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Putin the Comedian

Move over, Borat. The hottest new voice in comedy is Vladimir Putin, otherwise known as the man who saved Russia from freedom and democracy. Putin convulsed his audience at the Munich Conference on Security with this sparkling one-liner: “Nobody feels secure any more, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law.”

International law has been likened to many things—gauze, cotton, clouds, tissue paper, vapor—but a “stone wall?” Where did Putin come up with this utterly original metaphor? Perhaps from the idealistic years of his youth, when he proved his devotion to making people secure by going to work for the Committee for State Security (KGB). In his proudest assignment, Putin found safety behind an actual stone wall in Berlin and helped millions of East Germans to enjoy that safety with him, even those flighty individuals who, if left to their own devices, might have preferred to be someplace less secure.

Putin is understandably peeved that the expansion of NATO has already diminished Russia’s security by depriving it of its historic freedom to invade its neighbors. Now, adding insult to injury, Washington is considering placing anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would mean that Russia could not even fire rockets at these countries just to send them a message about, say, the advantages of buying more Russian gas at higher prices.

Putin has been forced to parry further assaults on Russia’s security, waged by American NGO’s that have set up operations inside Russia to promote democracy and human rights. “Russia is constantly being taught democracy,” he protested.

Is this how we repay Putin for all that he has done to enhance our security? He has furnished Iran with nuclear technology in order, so he explained, to make sure that Iran does not “feel cornered.” He has gone to great lengths to protect us from the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Above all, is this the reward that Putin deserves for having worked so hard to keep the world safe from Chechnya?

Move over, Borat. The hottest new voice in comedy is Vladimir Putin, otherwise known as the man who saved Russia from freedom and democracy. Putin convulsed his audience at the Munich Conference on Security with this sparkling one-liner: “Nobody feels secure any more, because nobody can take safety behind the stone wall of international law.”

International law has been likened to many things—gauze, cotton, clouds, tissue paper, vapor—but a “stone wall?” Where did Putin come up with this utterly original metaphor? Perhaps from the idealistic years of his youth, when he proved his devotion to making people secure by going to work for the Committee for State Security (KGB). In his proudest assignment, Putin found safety behind an actual stone wall in Berlin and helped millions of East Germans to enjoy that safety with him, even those flighty individuals who, if left to their own devices, might have preferred to be someplace less secure.

Putin is understandably peeved that the expansion of NATO has already diminished Russia’s security by depriving it of its historic freedom to invade its neighbors. Now, adding insult to injury, Washington is considering placing anti-missile systems in Poland and the Czech Republic. This would mean that Russia could not even fire rockets at these countries just to send them a message about, say, the advantages of buying more Russian gas at higher prices.

Putin has been forced to parry further assaults on Russia’s security, waged by American NGO’s that have set up operations inside Russia to promote democracy and human rights. “Russia is constantly being taught democracy,” he protested.

Is this how we repay Putin for all that he has done to enhance our security? He has furnished Iran with nuclear technology in order, so he explained, to make sure that Iran does not “feel cornered.” He has gone to great lengths to protect us from the likes of Mikhail Khodorkovsky, Anna Politkovskaya, and Alexander Litvinenko. Above all, is this the reward that Putin deserves for having worked so hard to keep the world safe from Chechnya?

Read Less




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