As everybody knows, the battle pitting Great Books against Bad Books or No Books has been raging for a long time now. As everybody also knows, the results on most campuses are grim. “Comparative literature” often no longer means reading literature, but subjecting oneself to cryptic and endlessly self-referential “interpretations” of “texts.” The metastasizing “Studies” majors—Women, Latino, Fat, Gender, Queer & Co.—are neither major, nor about real study. “Trigger-happy” has acquired a whole new meaning. Of course there were, and still are, safe spaces in the course catalogue for aficionados of the humanities. But the long march of multiculturalism has plenty of victories to show.
Also to the shock of no one, this parlous reality has generated profound and continuing concern. Thus, Allan Bloom in his bestselling book, The Closing of the American Mind (1987), and many other conservatives since have pointed to the dangers radical relativism poses for American students, for the life of the mind, for the country. Liberals like Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., and Mark Lilla have worried over what multiculturalism and its kissing cousin, identity politics, have been doing to liberalism itself. Right or Left, critics have tended to focus less on the creed of multiculturalism per se than on its political and other effects. What has gone largely unexamined is another question: whether “multiculturalism” ever made sense on its own terms—i.e., whether the creation story it came to tell of itself even holds up.