Wednesday, March 28, 2007

Review of "Powers of the Mind. . ."

From TC Record:

coverTitle: Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Learning in America
Author(s): Donald N. Levine
Publisher: University of Chicago Press, Chicago
ISBN: 0226475530 , Pages: 256, Year: 2006

reviewed by James Horn � March 05, 2007
Search for book at

Even as the University of Chicago’s rich liberal arts foundations were still being poured in 1918, former faculty member Thorstein Veblen (1918), offered this observation on the ambitious rise of the American university superstructure:

It is always possible, of course, that this pre-eminence of intellectual enterprise in the civilization of the Western peoples is a transient episode; that it may eventually—perhaps even precipitately, with the next impending turn in the fortunes of this civilization—again be relegated to a secondary place in the scheme of things and become only an instrumentality in the service of some dominant aim or impulse, such as a vainglorious patriotism, or dynastic politics, or the breeding of a commercial aristocracy (Chapter 1, para 18).

Like many insights neglected long enough for them to become prophetic, Veblen’s prescience became clear to Donald Levine near the end of a career at Chicago that paralleled and crisscrossed the high times for the Chicago tradition of liberal learning.

Donald Levine began his undergraduate education at the University of Chicago in 1946, and he has been there pretty much ever since. His retirement in March 2007 marked forty-five years of distinguished service, including a stint as Dean of the College (the undergraduate program) during the 1980s. Sociologist, Simmel scholar, historian of liberal arts education, and aikido enthusiast, Levine embodies the spirit of the University of Chicago’s cross-disciplinary tradition, and it is that same decorous, yet bold, civilizing spirit that directs Powers of the Mind: The Reinvention of Liberal Arts Learning, Levine’s homage to the University of Chicago’s first hundred years of ground-breaking undergraduate curriculum making.

If the ongoing educational project at Chicago first resembles something akin to an unstable emulsion of experimentalism added to perennialism, it is because of the creative tension that began and which still emanates from the mixed influences of John Dewey and Robert Maynard Hutchins, the two titans who shaped the University’s “most distinctive contribution to the general education movement” (p. 185). If Dewey and Hutchins provided the philosophical material to work with, crafting the synthesis became the mission of subsequent generations of truly gifted and dedicated communities of scholars and curriculum makers, whose innovations into this century continue to honor the legacy of both Dewey and Hutchins. Levine gives two of these innovators, in particular, their own chapters: Richard McKeon, the brilliant and lastingly-influential scourge of many former University of Chicago undergraduates, including Susan Sontag and Richard Rorty; and Joseph Schwab, political moralist, maverick, methodological pluralist, and the pragmatist’s pragmatist in all matters pedagogical.

As proponents for liberal arts learning, both McKeon and Schwab focused on preserving the best of the past by continuing to reconceptualize it in ways that allow humans to experience the world anew and with good benefit to their intellectual and moral catholicity. Always fresh, interdisciplinary, and forward thinking, neither, in fact, ever became trapped by epistemic antiquarianism or by a sacrosanct shelf of books canonized for the benefit of its own exclusive perpetuation. Thus, in the ongoing undergraduate curriculum experiments at Chicago by McKeon, Schwab, Redfield and others, Hutchins’ propensity for preservation became mollified by Dewey’s instrumentalism, just as Dewey’s potential for idealization became solidified by Hutchins’ textual grounding.

It is this theme, then, of cogent consensus-building between the two alternating currents of Dewey and Hutchins that Levine massages throughout this engaging chronicle, collective biography, and undergraduate curriculum map all rolled together into a classy Chicago blend of pedagogical history. If in the process of epistemic peacemaking, Levine allows Hutchins’ and Dewey’s differences to be airbrushed by a coating of commonalities that fails to entirely cover in places, such a gloss is made forgivable by Levine’s repeated demonstrations of Dewey’s democratic experimentalism and Hutchins’s carefully-packed perennialism blended and layered to make a half-century of truly impressive examples of general education initiatives intent upon exploiting the relevance of the past to preserve a better future.

Not all of Levine’s focus is toward the past. In fact, he offers to the 21st century no less than a new paradigm for the continued reconfiguration of the liberal arts core, one based on neither subject nor discipline, but on the powers of the mind that become defined by each generation as the universal skills needed by modern civilization. Rather than seven elements that form the trivium and quadrivium, the Eight Powers are grouped under two quartets: the Powers of Prehension and the Powers of Expression. Quite ingeniously, it seems to me, Levine grounds these distinctions and their components in the most basic of human activities—breathing. Whereas prehension involves taking in, or inhaling (whether perceiving, moving, comprehending, or understanding), expression entails the outward movement toward forming, integrating, inventing, and communicating. Just as prehension fits the Hutchins focus on intellectual receptivity, expression embodies Dewey’s mandate for creative action. This continued enfolding of the Hutchins-Dewey complementarity is no coincidence. By extending it, Levine proves, once again, that he is thoroughly Chicago, in the best sense of that designation.

Levine tells us that on the way to writing this book, which began as a defense of the intellectual and moral development goals that have guided liberal arts education at Chicago, he ran into a bigger threat to the Chicago tradition than the misdirected ideological sniping that had broken out following the appearance of Allen Bloom’s (1987) The Closing of the American Mind. Who could have known 20 years ago, when Bloom was crafting a defense of his own version of the liberal arts tradition, that the most potent threat to the liberal arts would not come in the form of the anti-humanistic bogeymen of postmodernism, but, rather, in an out-of-control and amorphous form of modernism, itself.

This new metastasizing variety of modernism re-defines progress as unconstrained, runaway economic growth that, in the process of redefining students and faculty as tuition-generating and grant-generating units, respectively, sacrifices the health of the host in order to feed what will eventually cause its death if left untreated. In the process of writing this book, then, Levine realized that the real threat to sustaining the Chicago tradition was a creeping corporatism that assesses every curricular decision on the singular basis of generating more dollars for the university. That this book provides a retrospective on Chicago’s expansive experiments rather than a more current accounting is a sad reminder of “the ethos now sweeping the world and therewith many universities, an ethos that prizes quick fixes, instant gratifications, self-aggrandizement, and expanded gated communities based increasingly on the market model” (p. xiii).

As rich as the Chicago story is, then, and as quietly exuberant as Levine remains for the relevance of the Chicago tradition to the educational mission of advancing humanity, there runs through this book an inescapable sense of loss that is not matched by any appropriate level of indignation. Though there is ample rational justification to look to Chicago’s past accomplishments for sound clues to building a future for humanistic learning, Levine’s gentle persistence, in the end, represents an exiled intellectual’s note in a carefully-prepared bottle, offering precise coordinates and detailed directions to a handsome treasure that may be found with a little luck and some hard digging. Only time will tell whether those steaming past on their busy commercial vessels will ever take note of this bobbing speck of shimmering hope for the future of the liberal arts mission.


Bloom, A. (1987). The closing of the American mind. New York: Simon & Schuster.

Veblen, T. (1918). The higher learning in America: A memorandum on the conduct of universities by business men. Retrieved February 2, 2007, from

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