David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means

Every once in a while I read a book that both meets and lifts my intellectual yearning. David Bromwich’s Politics by Other Means: Higher Education and Group Thinking is such a book.

Bromwich shows how both the static right of American politics and the self-contained left of American higher education, both the “culture of assent” and the “culture of suspicion,” reinforce group thinking and impede thoughtful intellectual discourse. First published twenty years ago, the book gives more insight into the problems of education today than many a recent work I have read.

It is Bromwich’s careful and discerning argument that distinguishes this book from most. He makes illuminating distinctions between seemingly similar assertions. He disassembles and examines many oft-bandied catch phrases and terms (such as “values” and “mass culture”). It is easy enough to say that the right and left are insular and misguided; it’s another matter to explain how. Bromwich’s explanation unsettled me in the best of ways, as it made me reconsider some of my own assumptions.

He distinguishes between (a) studying tradition in order to adopt a set of pre-established views and (b) studying tradition in order to think about it independently and take part in conversation about it. He shows how George F. Will and other self-proclaimed conservatives not only differ fundamentally from Edmund Burke, whom they regard as a predecessor, but do not merit the claimed inheritance.

He shows the deep problems (not just the immediately obvious ones) with the trend toward teaching mass culture in literature departments–which occurs in a larger context of “professionalization.” The one who “specializes” in mass culture has the triple advantage of supposedly relating to the people, being unassailable by colleagues, and having a claim to a “marginal” field.

I was fascinated by his commentary on Burke and Mill (and Hume and Butler) and by his analyses of literary study and the change it has undergone. I bring these up in the same sentence because some of the dangers of which Burke and Mill warned became the reality of the literary academy. As it replaced the study of literature with the study of theory, the literary academy lost both its “historical imagination” and the experience needed for attentive reading.

One of Bromwich’s most intriguing observations occurs on p. 130, when he writes, “Dependence and group-narcissism are the paralysis of genuine scholarship; but scholars, like citizens, to whom that seems a healthy state of things will always invoke the argument of growing solitude.” (He then quotes Nietzsche to provide the source and original context of the phrase “growing solitude”). Indeed, those who welcome group thinking tend to be the very ones who suggest that there’s too much solitude. Solitude, Bromwich suggests, is in part a discipline of the mind: the ability to work without regard for popularity or immediate approval.

Occasionally I find myself disagreeing with Bromwich or disputing his reasoning–but that’s a sign of a book that has me thinking along with it, replying to it, questioning it. Something would be wrong–and counter to the book’s spirit–if I accepted everything in it without question. For instance, Bromwich objects to the conformism inherent in the phrase “we need,” but I see room for this phrase, provided one uses it judiciously. Bromwich is right, but I’d qualify his point.

One of my favorite passages is in the third chapter, where Bromwich states that “conversation offers a place for coming to know something quite different from what one had known before.” Reading the book was a conversation of this kind, a conversation I have longed for. I had just been remarking how rare the art of conversation has become–how frequently and unabashedly people interrupt each other, switch topics, or reduce an exchange of ideas to “whatever.” Politics by Other Means invites the reader to the best kind of conversation, the kind that transforms at least one of the participants. I hope to continue this conversation by reading the book again.

Note: I posted this commentary on Amazon and Goodreads as well as here. Also, in the fourth paragraph, I changed “neoconservatives” to “self-proclaimed conservatives,” since Bromwich does not use the former term in reference to George F. Will.

For an index to the eight pieces on this blog that comment on Politics by Other Means, go here.

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