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In Plato's Cave

In Plato's Cave

Alvin Kernan
Copyright Date: 1999
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 330
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  • Book Info
    In Plato's Cave
    Book Description:

    In this delightful and candid memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost, and dean during a distinguished career in some of higher education's most hallowed halls. With his customary wit and insight, Kernan recounts his experiences at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton in the company of an array of fascinating colleagues. And he describes from an insider's point of view how colleges and universities in the second half of the twentieth century have been transformed in radical ways.Against the background of what it was like to work and teach in turbulent decades of change, Kernan details the broader educational battles in which he became embroiled. He discusses the struggle for equality of opportunity for women and minorities; the questioning of administrative and intellectual authority; the appearance of deconstructive types of theory; the technological shift from printed to electronic information; the politicization of the classroom; and much more. His vividly remembered account is not only a unique personal story, it is a thought-provoking history that brims with insight into what has been won and lost in the culture wars.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14550-2
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-viii)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. ix-x)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. xi-xii)
  4. Introduction shifting educational plates
    (pp. xiii-xx)

    Every fall brings a “hungry generation” of new students, eternally young, to the colleges, and on a bright winter night Yale’s Old Campus looks and feels just the same as it did when I first saw it fifty years ago. The lights in the Victorian brownstone dormitories, Nathan Hale still giving his one life for his country, “Hanc Statuam,” Harkness Tower facing Phelps Gate; over in the shadows by Yale Station a new carved marble bench dedicated to Bart Giamatti, barely visible. But I know almost no one there any longer; and it is much the same at Princeton, where...

  5. 1 Theater and Reality in Greenwich Village: columbia, 1946
    (pp. 1-9)

    Exultant not only to have survived the war but to be on my way at last to a college education, I returned after five long years in the navy to the December snows of Saratoga, Wyoming, population 650. Other young men were straggling back from across the world, and we met in Charley Gould’s Rustic Bar, in front of the huge stuffed mountain lions with outstretched tails that covered the wall behind the bar. Here we traded tales of the war, as long as the lions’ tails, and sooner or later came around to talk of the future.

    “What are...

  6. 2 The Other End of the Log: williams college, 1946–1949
    (pp. 10-37)

    In the bright fall sunshine, with the bells ringing for class, dressed in my fur-collared navy flight jacket, blue work shirt, and bell-bottomed dungarees, I stopped to look at the statue of the Civil War soldier with his cape, kepi, percussion rifle, and long bayonet. Other veterans came by, wearing army boots and fatigue jackets still bright with the flashes of the First Cavalry, Eighth Air Force, Big Red One, Eighty-second Airborne, Third Marines. These were men who had recently at an icy twenty thousand feet looked out of B-17s at the bomber stream a hundred miles long over Germany,...

  7. 3 Chatter About Shelley: oxford, 1949–1951
    (pp. 38-58)

    “Sterling Devalued” read the headline of the newspaper on the boat train to London, and I realized that my Moody fellowship of $2,000 a year, paid in dollars, could now buy pounds sterling at $2.80 rather than $4.00, the old rate. And since prices were still controlled and the cost of everything was depressed in the shabby postwar years, I was if not rich at least a lot more comfortable than I had been a day earlier.

    But in Oxford there seemed nothing to buy, and life was very drab for someone who didn’t know his way around. Food was...

  8. 4 See My George Gascoigne: yale graduate school, 1951–1954
    (pp. 59-84)

    “Wha, hello theah, Red,” said the soft voice from the top of the stairs at one end of Yale Station, the university post office. From the other end came the response in a somewhat harder southern voice, “Wha, hello theaah, Cleanth.” This was Cleanth Brooks and Robert Penn Warren, the Castor and Pollux of the New Criticism, deep calling unto deep at the beginning of the fall term. I had encountered the New Criticism at Williams, where I had come to admire the kind of power that its close analysis of literature almost magically conferred, and to be getting my...

  9. 5 Keeping Them Quiet: yale, 1954–1960
    (pp. 85-105)

    The Yale English department hired the unheard-of number of ten new instructors in the fall of 1954. We were all glad to get the jobs but worried that we would end up like the children in Thomas Hardy’sJude the Obscurewho hanged themselves, as the placard on the breast of one of them explained, “Done because we were too menny.” The phantasmagoric quality about our lives, so mundane in many ways, so eerie in others, was caught perfectly by Kingsley Amis in Lucky Jim (1954), which was the runaway favorite novel of young faculty members at the time. Jim...

  10. 6 The Two Cultures, Science and Literature
    (pp. 106-118)

    The college fellowships at the Yale residential colleges were small groups made up of faculty from the different departments of the university. Not every Yale faculty member was a fellow of one of the colleges, and there were always hurt feelings and charges of elitism until democracy won out in the seventies and all faculty members, and many staff, were made members of fellowships that immediately became so large that they also became impersonal. Fellows were given free lunches in the college on the theory that we would eat with the undergraduates and nourish faculty-student relationships. The master of Branford...

  11. 7 Publish or Perish: tenure at yale, 1960–1964
    (pp. 119-136)

    “Up or out” was the law of the Medes and the Persians for the faculty of a great research university, and “publish or perish” governed the lives of the junior faculty at Yale as elsewhere. We lived always with the knowledge that it was not enough simply to teach reasonably well, but that within ten years—four years as an instructor on yearly appointments, followed by two three-year terms as an assistant professor—we had to have produced at least one notable book and a number of articles published in refereed journals if we were to be considered for an...

  12. [Illustrations]
    (pp. None)
  13. 8 Goodbye, Boola Boola: yale administration, 1964–1970
    (pp. 137-157)

    The bells began ringing in Harkness Tower in the late afternoon as I stood in the seminar room with my back to the tall window that looked down into the chapel in the base of the tower. We were working away on Lattimore’s translation ofThe Iliad, discussing the incredible bleakness of the warrior’s code that was concentrated in Achilles’ fate, a short life with honor, or a long life without it. Someone opened the door of the seminar room and said, “Kennedy’s been killed.” We all looked at one another across the long table and, as the bell kept...

  14. 9 When Do We Want It? Now! the bobby seale trial, new haven, 1970
    (pp. 158-178)

    The sixties were different from the fifties, more permissive, unstructured, increasingly subjective. A time with higher expectations of life, for which J. K. Galbraith might have coined the term “the age of affluence,” had arrived to replace a generation raised in economic depression, disciplined by war, trained to submit to the given. Eager to right old wrongs and be done with old ways, students now were children of prosperity who were increasingly bored, narcissistic, and looking for scenarios in which to try out new identities and find new careers.

    There were many on hand to feed these interests. “The times...

  15. 10 Question All Authority: the breakdown of meaning and language, yale, 1970–1973
    (pp. 179-201)

    “Question all authority,” read a popular bumper sticker of the seventies, and all systems of order were questioned at every level in that decade.

    The questioning took its most painful and personal form at the level of individual minds. There was in the seventies an outbreak of various mental problems that reached, at least so it seemed to me and many others, epidemic levels. My evidence was anecdotal, of course, for the “helping professions,” despite the fact that their offices were crowded with patients, particularly the young, stoutly denied that there was a mental illness epidemic. If there was, they...

  16. 11 A Long Walk After Lunch: princeton and the later 1970s
    (pp. 202-229)

    In the fall of 1973 I took up a new position as the dean of the graduate school at Princeton and learned some things I didn’t know about academic tribes. A friend who taught at Stanford saw the move from one Ivy to another as no real move at all, no more than the 150 miles between New Haven and Princeton; but that is a long 150 miles.

    Students from theYalie Dailyswarmed into my office:

    “Why do you want to leave Yale?”

    “Do you think that the Yale budget is out of control?”

    “Why would you ever want...

  17. 12 The New Technology Calls All in Doubt: television, books, libraries, computers
    (pp. 230-245)

    There is a close connection between the various movements, political, social, and intellectual, that changed higher education in the latter twentieth century, and these forces were symbiotic with a technological revolution as well.

    Scholars have long argued that the most fundamental discovery in information storage and communication was the invention of the written phonetic alphabet in the sixth or seventh century b.c., and that the stylus, the printing press, and now the electronic byte were only different methods of recording alphabetic writing. This argument commands respect, but the appearance of each new recording method has brought with it such extensive...

  18. 13 No Obligation to Be Right, Only to Be Interesting: teaching as power and politics, princeton, the 1980s
    (pp. 246-275)

    Everyone breathed a sigh of relief when 1984 ended without the totalitarianism that George Orwell had foreseen inNineteen Eighty-Fourcoming to pass. Deconstruction may have brought something resembling “memory holes” and “newspeak,” but in America “the death of the author” did not take place in the gulag. Instead of Orwell’s world of poverty and perpetual shortages, Reagan’s America was a world of booming markets, surplus goods, and new freedoms, where power was exercised not by electroshock and truncheon but by public relations, television, protests, and image control. And when the Russian empire imploded in the late eighties, the competition...

  19. 14 The Break Between Generations, Retirement
    (pp. 276-294)

    With powerful centrifugal forces at work, departmental meetings became endlessly divisive and inconclusive. But it was in the classroom that the changes being wrought by new educational philosophies and practices came home most painfully. My undergraduate lecture course on Shakespeare—not helped by the fact that most of the students did not read the plays—was barely sputtering along. As I tried to talk about the way Shakespeare set the tavern off against the palace, or what it meant for an old man like King Lear to have all his traditional beliefs and values disintegrate, a terrible hopelessness would come...

  20. Epilogue the dogs bark, the caravan passes on
    (pp. 295-300)

    The dogs have barked themselves hoarse in the previous pages, and it is good to be able to report, ten years after the end of my story, that the educational caravan, with some faster camels and some more exotic burdens, still moves along its way. The colleges and universities, at least most of them, get bigger and richer every year, and only occasionally do the coals flare up brightly enough to remind us that a radical democratic spirit is not yet entirely burned out in the academy: another sit-in occupies an administrator’s office; the teaching graduate students strike and refuse...

  21. Index
    (pp. 301-309)