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Life Arts    H4'ed 9/6/15

Donald Lazere's New Book Might Interest Progressives and Liberals (REVIEW ESSAY)

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Duluth, Minnesota (OpEdNews) September 6, 2015: The Jewish American academic Donald Lazere (Ph.D. in English, Berkeley, 1974), a professor emeritus of English at Cal Poly, San Luis Obispo, who most recently taught at the University of Tennessee, Knoxville, has just published his sixth book, POLITICAL LITERACY IN COMPOSITION AND RHETORIC: DEFENDING ACADEMIC DISCOURSE AGAINST POSTMODERN PLURALISM (Southern Illinois University Press, 2015).

Lazere reports that his doctoral dissertation was published as the book THE UNIQUE CREATION OF ALBERT CAMUS (Yale University Press, 1973). Camus, Sartre, and other existentialist thinkers were much talked about in my junior and senior years at Saint Louis University (1964-1966), the Jesuit university in St. Louis, Missouri.

When I was a student at SLU, it had long been considered to be the finest Catholic university in the United States. In terms of prestige, the large Department of Philosophy ranked second to the School of Medicine.

At SLU, my life intersected with the life of the American Jesuit cultural historian and theorist Walter J. Ong (1912-2003; Ph.D. in English, Harvard University, 1955), starting in the fall semester of 1964, as I explain below.

Now, Lazere notes that Dwight Macdonald was one of his personal mentor as a teacher at Northwestern University (page 293, note 2).

No doubt Macdonald's influence encouraged Ong and other English teachers to critically examine various manifestations of American popular culture.

Now, even though Lazere addresses his book to academics in composition and rhetoric, it might interest progressives and liberals who are not academics in composition and rhetoric -- provided that they have a certain interest in education and political literacy.

Lazere styles himself as "an unreconstructed New Leftist" (page 11; his capitalization). For those OEN readers who may be too young to remember the so-called New Left, or New Leftists, I should point out that there was indeed a vocal movement in American culture historically that was known at the time as the New Left. Of course today it is no longer new, just as the so-called New Criticism in literary studies is. As Lazere explains, the New Left was associated with the "Port Huron Statement" (pages 107, 147, 162, and 282), the Students for a Democratic Society (pages 29, 107, 162, and 282), and the Free-Speech Movement at Berkeley (pages 28-29, 35, 107, 236, 282, and 295, note 4).

Disclosure: I have never identified with the New Left, but I also have not published anything explicitly criticizing the New Left, or specific New Leftists. Nevertheless, in the present essay I criticize Lazere, despite the fact that I appreciate his dedicated support of my early works. (He does not examine anything I published after 1983. My three articles that he carefully discusses and criticizes at time were published in 1977, 1978, and 1983. But I also published other articles before 1977 and during the period 1977 to 1983, which I mention in passing below -- and later. However, after, say, 1987, I turned to writing about other topics that are beyond the admittedly broad scope of Lazere's references in his new book. Besides that, I am but one of many people he engages with.)

Now, on the back cover, Henry A. Giroux of McMaster University makes the following statement about the book:

"POLITICAL LITERACY IN COMPOSITION AND RHETORIC is a stunning book, filled with insights that rework the relationship between education and politics on the one hand and critical literacy and pedagogy on the other. At a time when critical thinking and civic literacy, if not democratic politics itself, are under attack, Donald Lazere's book is a crucial and brilliant reminder of how important reading, writing, and literacy in general are to developing the formative culture necessary for substantive democracy."

Lazere discusses Giroux's work (pages 20-21, 31, and 164).

Now, at an earlier time in American culture, Robert Maynard Hutchins and Mortimer J. Adler were also concerned about "developing the formative culture necessary for substantive democracy" through reading and discussing what they considered to be the GREAT BOOKS OF THE WESTERN WORLD (1952; 2nd ed., 1990). Briefly, as Adler explained the approach they advocated, it involved reading different texts of arguably the same them and then discussing the pros and cons of the arguments advanced in the different texts. He styled this approach to the texts as being dialectical.

When the set of books was first published in 1952, many academics at the University of Chicago and elsewhere were aghast that the set included two volumes devoted to the writings of St. Thomas Aquinas. No doubt that both Hutchins and Adler were fascinated with Aquinas' thought. However, Adler was probably more an Aristotelian than a Thomist.

In the prestige culture in American culture, Aquinas was anathema because his metaphysics did not happen to conform to Kant's. But Kant had not done his homework -- he had not studied Aquinas' metaphysics.

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Thomas James Farrell is professor emeritus of writing studies at the University of Minnesota Duluth (UMD). He started teaching at UMD in Fall 1987, and he retired from UMD at the end of May 2009. He was born in 1944. He holds three degrees from Saint Louis University (SLU): B.A. in English, 1966; M.A.(T) in English 1968; higher education, 1974. On May 16, 1969, the editors of the SLU student newspaper named him Man of the Year, an honor customarily conferred on an administrator or a faculty member, not on a graduate student -- nor on a woman up to that time. He is the proud author of the book (more...)

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