Cover image for In Plato's cave
In Plato's cave
Kernan, Alvin B.
Personal Author:
Publication Information:
New Haven : Yale University Press, [1999]

Physical Description:
xix, 309 pages : illustrations ; 25 cm
General Note:
Includes index.
Format :


Call Number
Material Type
Home Location
Item Holds
LA227.4 .K468 1999 Adult Non-Fiction Central Closed Stacks

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In this memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost and dean during his career in higher education. He recounts experiences at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale and Princeton against a background of what it was like to work and teach in times of turbulent change.

Author Notes

Alvin Kernan is senior advisor in the humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation

Reviews 3

Booklist Review

Nowhere will readers find a more insightful--and unsettling--account of how the last four decades have transformed the university than in these memoirs of a distinguished literary scholar who made his career at Yale and Princeton. Kernan's Ivy League tenure gave him an ideal vantage point for seeing up-close the tempestuous student revolt of the 1960s and 1970s. It also allowed him to make a serious assessment of the less-visible yet ultimately more decisive changes within the university's intellectual life: the collapse of philosophical absolutes in the face of an aggressive new relativism, the emergence of literary theories that vacuum all meaning out of the text, the splintering of the academic community into warring special interests. Whether critiquing the effects of deconstruction on Shakespearean scholarship or confessing personal guilt over a son's descent into mental illness, Kernan connects theory and experience with unflinching candor. Such candor will inspire trust in readers trying to understand where higher education in this country is headed. --Bryce Christensen

Publisher's Weekly Review

In the process of giving readers an ebullient, sometimes mordant account of his distinguished four-decade career in academia, Kernan (The Death of Literature) also cracks wise‘in both senses of the word‘on the culture wars and their effects on U.S. higher education. Reflecting on a long career (literary critic, provost, dean and professor of English at Yale and Princeton), Kernan illuminates the contrast between the old style of meritocratic, elitist education and the much more democratized contemporary American college or university‘accessible to everyone, consumer oriented, relativistic in its conception of knowledge and overtly politicized. In Kernan's opinion, curriculum changes made to satisfy minorities, women and other "special-interest pressure groups" on campus have contributed to lax educational requirements, polarized student bodies, more bureaucratic administrations and built-in grade inflation. He doesn't think much of computers, either, lamenting that, because of them, information has become prized over knowledge. His lively and witty close-ups of such figures as Harold Bloom, Lillian Hellman, William Buckley and Paul de Man are sprinkled with tart opinions on deconstruction ("a dogmatic theory, impervious to argument" that nevertheless hits on some truth about "the slipperiness of language"), academic specialization and rampant careerism. And yet Kernan is not wholly reactionary and in fact shows that he has achieved an impressive perspective on the changes in the culture and practice of higher education: "Though my heart is with the old academic order in which I was trained, my argument is not that this radical change is, as many of my contemporaries believe, an educational catastrophe.... But things will not be the same, ever again, as they once were, and this entails loss as well as gain." (Mar.) (c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

Library Journal Review

Eminent literary critic Kernan (humanities, Andrew W. Mellon Foundation) has spent a lifetime in colleges and universities. In this memoir, he relates his experiences and tells what he's learnedÄand what he's learned about learning. He begins with his own education at Williams College in Massachusetts, continuing on through his years at Oxford and Yale. He then turns to his years on the faculties at Yale and Princeton. From the relatively calm 1950s and early 1960s through the turbulent late 1960s and early 1970s and on to today's technology explosion, Kernan describes how the academic world has fared during the social and scientific changes of the past 50 years. Women's rights, affirmative action, the questioning of authority, and the search for empowerment have all brought changes, leading to the creation of what Kernan labels the democratic university. His memoir is well written and entertaining, and although not essential for all libraries, it should be considered for purchase by most.ÄTerry A. Christner, Hutchinson P.L., KS (c) Copyright 2010. Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Table of Contents

Acknowledgmentsp. xi
Introduction: Shifting Educational Platesp. xiii
1 Theater and Reality in Greenwich Village: Columbia, 1946p. 1
2 The Other End of the Log: Williams College, 1946-1949p. 10
3 Chatter About Shelley: Oxford, 1949-1951p. 38
4 See My George Gascoigne: Yale Graduate School, 1951-1954p. 59
5 Keeping Them Quiet: Yale, 1954-1960p. 85
6 The Two Cultures, Science and Literaturep. 106
7 Publish or Perish: Tenure at Yale, 1960-1964p. 119
8 Goodbye, Boola Boola: Yale Administration, 1964-1970p. 137
9 When Do We Want It? Now! The Bobby Seale Trial, New Haven, 1970p. 158
10 Question All Authority: The Breakdown of Meaning and Language, Yale, 1970-1973p. 179
11 A Long Walk After Lunch: Princeton and the Later 1970sp. 202
12 The New Technology Calls All in Doubt: Television, Books, Libraries, Computersp. 230
13 No Obligation to Be Right, Only to Be Interesting: Teaching as Power and Politics, Princeton, the 1980sp. 246
14 The Break Between Generations, Retirementp. 276
Epilogue: The Dogs Bark, the Caravan Passes Onp. 295
Indexp. 301