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A Conversation with Lawrence Levine

The University is not the U.S. Army

HUMANITIES, January/February 1997 | Volume 18, Number 1

Endowment Chairman Sheldon Hackney talked recently with history professor Lawrence W. Levine, who takes issue with critics of American universities in his most recent book, The Opening of the American Mind. Levine is Margaret Byrne Professor of History Emeritus at the University of California, Berkeley, and professor of history and cultural studies at George Mason University in Virginia. He is a former MacArthur fellow and the author of a number of books, among them Black Culture and Black Consciousness and Highbrow/Lowbrow.

Sheldon Hackney: Clearly the title of your new book, The Opening of the American Mind, is a conscious reversal of Allan Bloom's 1987 best-seller, and is meant to be a corrective.

Lawrence W. Levine: Yes.

Hackney: In the early going in your book, you talk about the threat of openness. It is not only Bloom, I should say, it is a whole list of critics of higher education that you list in one of your footnotes that have been attacking higher education.

Levine: That's right.

Hackney: I think your position is that even though all of the counts of the indictment are a little different, that it is the threat of openness in the university that is motivating a lot of this. Why should openness be threatening?

Levine: I do use Allan Bloom's title, The Closing of the American Mind, as a take-off here, but it's not just reversing his title, it's reversing his fear. What he really fears is not the closing of the American mind but the opening. This is not some reading of mine. He says it openly in the book, that the university today is open to all kinds of ideas, all kinds of people, all kinds of theories, and by being open to so much, it is closed to that small core of the great books, the great ideas, the great men, who he thinks are essential to disseminate and to nurture. By being open, the university has, in effect -- this is Bloom's mind working -- the university has effectively closed itself to the small core of greatness that a university should have.

What I've done is to agree with Mr. Bloom that the university is open as it has never been before, but I see that as a good thing. I try to trace that openness; going from Bloom's smaller notion, his more insular university, I try to show how the university has opened up the process.

Hackney: Bloom's book is, I think, a rather grumpy and idiosyncratic jeremiad. Why do you think it was so popular?

Levine: Well, this is the question. If I could answer that, I would have certainly talked about it in my book. It's a conundrum. I mean, why have professors been so successful? Why have educators in universities been so successful in opening the university, in introducing an eclectic blend of ideas, et cetera, in welcoming, with varying degrees of success, the most varied blend of students we've ever had? The university in that sense has been revolutionized and that's been a very hard transition, and we're still in it.

But we've failed utterly outside the university; that is, in explaining what we're doing. One explanation is -- but it's not a very good one -- is that we've left the field uncontested. We've allowed others to explain the university. We've not done a good job, and I'm not sure we even tried to do it.

There's such a dissonance in my own mind between what I know to be true and feel to be true and what the public knows to be true through best-selling books and newspapers like the Wall Street Journal. In writing this book, I read a good deal about something I should have, I guess, known more about, since I've been in the university since 1950 as a student and teacher.

Western Civ is a relatively new phenomenon, and Great Books has been a creation of just the past fifty years. I was frankly surprised at how new Western Civ is. I'm a little ashamed to say that, but I was. I gave a presidential address to the Organization of American History in 1993, and I've met young scholars at small institutions across the country who've said, "I copied it and put it in the mailbox of every one of my colleagues." What stunned them and what stunned me was how new Western Civ is and how short a reign it really has had as a privileged curriculum. It's still around, and it should be around, but it had a place of privilege for fifty years at most.

Hackney: Not more than fifty. And the Great Books, it's even more recent.

Levine: Great Books is even more recent. Yet the William Bennetts and others have told us that this is the core, this is the bedrock.

I didn't speak out, and most of us didn't speak out. So partly, we have not answered the critics. But that doesn't explain the phenomenon of Bloom's book selling eight hundred thousand copies.

Hackney: Yes. That's rather striking.

Levine: People are upset out there. The society is changing palpably in many, many ways. There's been a constant upset through the twentieth century. In the 1920s it was Darwin's theory of evolution. The universities were the fall guy then, too. Suddenly, the school system became the symbol of promulgating a set of ideas that seemed to be antithetical -- well, that didn't seem to be, but that were antithetical to what a lot of people thought was the core of American ideology.

Hackney: What would you say, though, to my account of the success of Bloom's essay that really starts in the 1960s? The culture is shifting rather more rapidly in the sixties and after. Gender roles change, the civil rights movement brings African Americans into the mainstream as never before. Other rights movements are going. That's happening, the reality of society is changing, but people haven't yet adjusted to that.

Levine: That's not a new phenomenon. But some ages mask those changes and some ages highlight them, and the sixties, for a whole host of reasons, highlighted the change. The Vietnam war, civil rights highlighted the differences in generations, the differences in the actual youth and older generations, and the changes that were taking place in the United States. You couldn't miss them. You had to have your head buried somewhere. And it did upset a lot of people. Since these were young people, and since so many of our young people now spend time in university, the university became the focus. The war was not going on in the university, but the young people were there and they did their demonstrations both against the war or abortion rights or a whole host of things. That upset many of their elders. The university became, in that sense, the battleground.

Hackney: You say somewhere that universities are charged with being fragmented, and that they are. But the source of the fragmentation is in society.

Levine: I was active in a Berkeley synagogue for many years. I delivered a lecture about the university there in a room ffull of people of one faith who spent a lot of time together and who were troubled by the thought that students were segregating themselves willingly. And I said, "Look at us. Here we are, a roomful of Jewish people, talking about other people segregating themselves." The fact is, America does this. This is not a negative thing. These people also meet other people. But the fact is that this has been part of the history of this nation. Somehow we have lost this truth because we learned large generalizations, like melting-pot theories, which just blank out for us this reality. I don't use fragmentation here -- maybe that's not a good word -- as a negative thing. This is a nation of parts as well as wholes. And those parts cling together. So why in the world shouldn't the students do this? They come from neighborhoods like this. They were raised among groups like this. The fact is, the university is probably, next to the United States Army, the most heterogeneous mix.

Hackney: That's a significant thing because in the rest of society people who are different don't see people -- the "other" -- very much. But they do on the campus.

Levine: They do. And this, of course, gets us into another problem.

Because the many others are mixed together in universities in ways that they are not in the general society, and because the university is not the U.S. Army -- there's a lot more freedom in the university -- the university has gotten in trouble, as you know well. It's gotten in trouble because it sometimes acted foolishly. The university has made some missteps in terms of conduct, speech, and the like. I don't think that's been the general rule, but it's happened. And those missteps have been highlighted in a way that obfuscates the real progress.

Hackney: If I can translate what you're saying, it's that the indictment made by the critics of higher education isn't totally false. There are lots of anecdotes of foolish behavior. But those anecdotes are aberrations, and the technique of attack is to make them seem to be the norm.

Levine: I think the important thing is not merely that these things are aberrations, but that they came from an attempt that the university made to deal with fragmentation. They came from the attempt of the university to make students of different areas, of different ethnicities, feel comfortable. Even if the attempt is awkwardly carried out, it's the attempt that's important. On the whole I think the university has dealt with fragmentation in many interesting ways. Those ways are inducements for students to take courses that deal with groups other than the group they grew up in. This is the main way the university has dealt with the process of fragmentation -- not to force students to live together or eat together, but to understand each other's culture.

Hackney: Now, Alan Bloom's book -- and some of the others to which you're responding -- is a polemic. Yet you chose to write what is really a very reasonable book. Why did you do it that way?

Levine: I think we've had our fill of polemics. I wanted these ideas to be looked at. In one sense it was a futile thing, because I have been attacked in some of the reviews as a polemic, but I think this is not a polemic. I really did think we needed voices of reason and we needed to stop arguing and we needed to stop using purely anecdotal information, stop masking the more complex issues. The function of the university is to understand the complexities of people and societies, and I wanted to try to make that a priority.

Hackney: That's a conscious strategy. It is interesting that it has been misunderstood. It is a response to the critics, but it's not a polemic.

Levine: A long time ago I tried to learn to use the technique in my own classes. I am a person of very strong beliefs. I suppose I am decidedly left of center. I am interested in civil rights and other things. I have very strong feelings and I have acted on them, probably not as often as I ought to have. I've been arrested sitting in the office of the president of the University of California. I knew it was time to stop doing that when the policeman who arrested me said, "Sir, would you be very careful when you get up." I had a long, gray beard in those days. I said, "Maybe I ought to switch to other tactics."

What I'm trying to say is I have had strong beliefs and I've acted on many of them. But I decided a long time ago that that wasn't my function in the classroom, that my function in the classroom was not to promulgate beliefs. You learn as a scholar and teacher that if you argue with the dead and you don't win the argument, you're a fool, so I decided that arguing with the dead wasn't what I wanted to do. And the same thing is true of arguing with the living when the living have less power than you. You can force your ideas on them -- that wasn't my goal. So, always admitting what my own ideas were, I tried to teach them with balance and to leave room for other ideas. I tried to do that in this book as well. It wasn't very hard to do because I've been doing that for thirty years in the classroom.

Hackney: Yes. I think this is probably the conventional liberal position on classroom behavior: that the teacher has an obligation, when covering controversial subjects, to make sure that opposing points of view are presented and the student has a chance to make up his or her own mind. While not disguising one's own belief, the teacher is doing it in such a way that other outcomes are possible for the students.

Levine: Doing it in such a way that you introduce the students, as I tried to introduce the reader, to very complex issues, so that if they do take another point of view, they have to do so in a different context. They can't just easily reiterate what they came to the classroom believing. They have to assimilate other things, and that's the goal of education, to mix things up enough so people can see the context and then reform their ideas or restate their ideas in a different light.

Hackney: They either get better at defending their belief or they alter their belief.

In your synoptic history of the curriculum in the United States, which is at the core of one of your two big arguments in the book, you make it seem as if progress has been from a more limited fixed curriculum to an increasingly open one, moving faster at some times than others. Why has there been this?

Levine: It's a good thing because, just on a pragmatic basis, knowledge has proliferated. Charles William Eliot said this a long time ago.

Hackney: He's one of the big culprits in this.

Levine: Yes, he is. He had forty years of Harvard, God help him, and in those forty years he's literally changed the curriculum of Harvard.

Hackney: And the whole country, maybe.

Levine: And the whole country. He had help from other institutions, like Cornell and Brown. Yes indeed, there were other people before him and after him. But he articulated it better than anyone else. He had two primary arguments. One is that knowledge is proliferating, and because it's proliferating we cannot teach it all, if we ever could. And because we can't teach it all, we have to select. That was one of them. So let's not pretend that there's a canon, an inclusive canon of all knowledge. We have to make choices.

Another basic argument he made was that we don't yet have the wisdom to know what eighteen-, twenty-year-olds need to learn in order to live their lives, and so we ought to allow them some say in it. We're not wise enough to choose exclusively for them. In fact, he went much further than the university has followed. He went quite the other way and said there should be no requirements at all except for a freshman English course. His preferred system was abandoned for the system that we're very familiar with now, with majors and minors and depth and breadth curriculum requirements. He was willing to let students make the choice completely, any combination of courses that they wanted.

Well beforehand, in the 1840s, Francis Wayland, the president of Brown, also said there wasn't a single curriculum and even thought that people ought to be allowed to choose it according to the region they lived in, the area they lived in, the economy of the society they lived in, because there were different needs for different folks.This, then, gets us down to a very dicey subject that a lot of the opponents of a university, a contemporary university, don't really get down to. How do you select the curriculum, and on what basis? On what basis has it been selected in the past? This is a very interesting question. President Wayland said, "God did not put us on Earth to worship the ancients simply because of age. They had to also be wise." That was a test: how wise, how useful, how practical.

So there was a great deal of ferment in the nineteenth century, and that has remained. The process of selecting the curricula and the canon has been a process of ferment, of argumentation, of dispute. One of the things that I've tried to say in this book is that that process continues. It has been the process by which the university has worked out its destiny. Therefore, there's no aberration today. The opponents of the university have made it seem as if all this argument and all this dispute shows that the university is in some state of disrepair.

Hackney: Well, one of the charms of your argument is that you are quite honest about saying that this is also a struggle about cultural legitimacy.

Levine: Yes.

Hackney: Things that are taught in the college curriculum are therefore more legitimate than other things. Why should that bother people?

Levine: It bothers people because a lot of the ideas taught in the university are cutting-edge ideas -- for instance, that America is something more complex than simply a modified English culture.

Hackney: "Cutting-edge" is a dirty word, too.

Levine: Because it makes us think, and the students in a university seem to do that very well. When we get out of the university and we go out to live our lives, we have more difficulty. Then suddenly we turn around and we see our children coming home and saying things that are different from the things we say. But children in the twenties came home and talked about evolution, talked about a creation that was so different from the creation notions that parents had that they elongated the length of the history of the world -- they were learning all that.

Part of the problem is that in modernity, parents have lost control of the education of their children. There was a time in the nineteenth century when that control was closer. I suppose the further back we go, the closer it was. Well, we've lost control of that, and that is made manifest to every generation because the kids come home with different ideas and different notions.

Hackney: Because things change faster, and so tomorrow is increasingly unlike today.

Levine: Sometimes it is the fault of the university. We have colleagues who are not always as respectful as they should be of the ideas the students are coming in with. One has to be respectful.

There is another area in which people get upset, and this is directly from my own experience. I was a first-generation college student, and I came home from City College of New York with history homework, which included lists of the Pharaohs and the English kings and knowledge about the Constitution. Now, my parents, my mother especially, sometimes sat with me and held the piece of paper, and I memorized and shot it off back to her by rote, "Here are the kings." She was so proud, because she recognized this as knowledge, nothing she knew about. If I had come home and said, "Hey, we're learning about the Lower East Side, the Jewish immigrant neighborhood," or, "We're learning about the shtetl in Eastern Europe," the villages from which many Eastern European Jews came, she might have wondered, "What in the world are they teaching my kid?"

Parents today wonder that, because we are teaching our kids about their own specific backgrounds as well as larger backgrounds. We haven't done a very good job of communicating that. Another area in which we have failed is -- and this can be explained -- is our concentrating on the specific cultures that constitute the United States and why we teach kids courses in black culture or Chicano culture or the culture of women or whatever. Its easy to explain that. It's not like explaining marine biology. It's easy to explain why we're doing this. But we have failed. Somehow we think it's not part of our educational function.

Hackney: You make the very good point in the book also that history has been traditionally taught as a list of kings and Pharaohs, which is deadly dull, and doesn't do what history should be doing, which is to answer "why" questions and teach students how to go about answering "why" questions.

Levine: This is true. Students come in with expectations. I think this has changed now, but twenty years ago students used to say to me, "I thought this was a course in history." I'd say, "Well, isn't it?" And they'd say, "No, it's sociology," because we got into the culture of the peoples we were dealing with. We looked at popular folk culture, and this was something quite alien to many students.

It was also difficult to show a film or discuss popular cultures without prepping the students, because some of them, if you showed a film, they'd say, "Oh, this is a Mickey Mouse course. Wow. This is going to be easy." You had to explain to them, "This is serious stuff." You have to do none of that explanation now. Some of our colleagues like Gertrude Himmelfarb think this is the nadir, but I think it's a wonderful accomplishment that students can now look at a film quite critically the way they can look at a novel; that is, they understand this is going to be serious stuff and it's open to analysis and theory.

Hackney: Visual literacy is higher.

Levine: Exactly. Much higher, much higher.

Hackney: Isn't it also true, though, that human beings like to be in familiar settings, with familiar people, and to walk around in a very familiar culture? If you simply say that cultural change is wonderful -- and this has to do with immigration as well -- and that America is an emerging nationality, always emerging, that's a little threatening to people because they really want the culture of the succeeding generations to be just what they know today.

Levine: This is what we want, but it's not what we get. We learn this with our own children if we're wise, and we have to learn it with our own culture. It's not to say that it's easy, and that's not to say that you and I transcend this problem, because we surely don't. In our own lives, there are things we don't like, musics we think are cacophonous . . .

Hackney: Don't even understand.

Levine: Don't even understand.

My own children, who are mature -- they're three boys who are now three men -- but they used to laugh when people said, "Hey, your father's a great expert in popular culture." They would just laugh, because I wasn't an expert in their popular culture. I was an ignoramus. I know the popular culture from the 1930s, the 1920s, the 1940s, but not of the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s. Not only do I not know it, I don't appreciate it. But I understand that that's a limitation.

I have the feeling that the closest Allan Bloom came to rock music was when his car might have been stopped at a red light with the window down. Yet, it doesn't stop him from talking about it in an entire chapter or section of a chapter. That's what I mean about respect.

Rock music is a very complex thing. I don't happen to like much of it, but I don't happen to know or understand much of it. I do know enough to know that there are real complexities there and there are messages there and there are satisfactions to be gained from it, which I assume are as profound and important as the satisfactions to be gained from the musics that I like. I know enough of it to know that that's true. I talk to the young, who talk to me about this, my own children and now the youngsters I teach.

I think it's very important not to denigrate off the top of our heads what their culture is constituted of. There's a lot of talk about bridges right now, and some of it is pompous, but we need bridges, and you can't build these bridges if you tell the people you're talking to that their culture is a wasteland. This was the whole problem with the immigrant, that people said, "We've got to convert them from X to Y," rather than understand them and help them walk this line.

Hackney: Let me press you a bit there on the immigration issue. You have a very powerful section of the book in which you demonstrate that all of the arguments being made against the rate of immigration and the origins of immigration today were made in previous generations about immigration that was going on then. What is not completely clear to me is whether you're saying that change doesn't happen because of immigration, or whether you're saying that change does happen and it's good.

Levine: I am saying the latter. Change does happen. I have a similar argument in both halves of the book, and that is that the process has not changed -- the process by which immigrants acculturate, the process by which we look at immigrants and fear them, the process by which you can enter into the curriculum at one point. Some people who agree with me have criticized me in reviews for saying, "Well, no big deal." But that's not what I'm saying at all. The context can be revolutionary. It's the process that has remained the same. To go from a classical curriculum to an elective curriculum, from a Western Civ curriculum to a world curriculum, has very important consequences. I would never deny that. To acculturate Germans and Japanese and Chinese has very important consequences.

It's important to know that Benjamin Franklin feared the German immigrants, whom we see today as one of the foundation stones of American culture. In the 1750s, he feared the Germans in Pennsylvania as much as the governor of California seems to fear the Mexican Americans. And he condemned them in many of the same terms.

What has changed is the open prejudice. Franklin said, "We get the most stupid of the Germans." No one would say that today. Not the most blatant opponent of immigration would say things like that. What they think is another story. But the other arguments -- that they don't learn the language, they don't acculturate, we can't absorb them -- when this country was empty, we heard those arguments. The Pilgrims had problems with the Scots-Irish. And, by the way, they were right to have problems. The Pilgrims wanted hegemony over Massachusetts. They wanted their religion to be the dominant religion. When Germans and others came in with different religions, it was threatening to the Puritans.

Hackney: Your argument is that the process is the same, but the outcome is very important. It's worth arguing about. It's worth divisions of opinion.

Levine: My argument is also open to the charge that, because it didn't happen in the past doesn't mean it can't happen in the future. This is true.

On the other hand, if everything you're afraid of mirrors all the fears that other generations had and those fears never came true -- all these immigrant groups did become American, they became American in very complex ways, they did add to this country, they did become part of it, they did make us a richer society -- if that has happened again and again, then we at least have to think that we're fearing the same falling stars and that the process is going to be the same this time as well. I am convinced it will be.

Hackney: What is at the heart of your argument, though, is the notion that the American identity has changed and is constantly changing, and it's going to change some more. There may be some people who don't like that.

Levine: They may not like that, but these are people who haven't understood the American identity: From the beginning there was a great paradox. After all, we both know, in the first half of the nineteenth century, one out of every five Americans was black. That is, one out of every five Americans was quite close to an African background. Some of them were, in fact, born in Africa; in those years, many of them. One-fifth of the United States had an African heritage, and yet the United States sold itself as a modified English culture. So from the very beginning, this notion of what we were and who we were was flawed. It was promulgated on the basis of a myth -- the myth is that acculturation happens only from the top to the bottom, from the "superior" to the "inferior" culture.

Now, it came as a result of a mistaken notion of verticality, but we know that that's not the way culture is influenced. You could put blacks and whites in a segregated camp meeting, a religious meeting, in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, and you could segregate them, as many camp meetings were segregated, with walls. But what you couldn't segregate was the music. The music transcended the walls. And the influence was palpable. Our religious practices, the way we think about religion, the way we practice religion, has been profoundly influenced by Africa.You can say all you want about us being a modified English nation. Ask the English if we're a modified English nation. Ask the English if they think we're English. The whole charm of America, the whole reason America has been able to culturally conquer the world in certain ways, has been the fact that we are what we are, a very complex mixture of very diverse elements.

If we have this misbelief about ourselves, it's time to lose it. If it causes some pain, well, it always causes pain.

Hackney: In the large section of the book on multiculturalism, you do get to what I think is an emerging understanding of the American identity that leans very heavily on notions of hybridity and creolization and syncratization. That's good, you think, not only good but accurate.

Levine: Well, I think it's accurate, and I happen to think it's good. It's not for me to judge what's good and bad, except as an individual. But it is, as a scholar, for me to judge what I think has happened. While I wouldn't take my own life as typical of anything -- I grew up in New York City, which isn't typical; I grew up in a specific kind of ethnic neighborhood. Nevertheless, I think it's not atypical I did not have -- and I think Americans have not had -- a one-to-one relationship between the supposed center, that is, the Anglo center, and the immigrant or ethnic periphery.

I grew up in a neighborhood of minorities -- Chinese American; Greek, a lot of Greek Americans; Jewish, Eastern European Jewish Americans and German Jewish Americans, and those two groups know they're not the same. They didn't particularly get along. And we, these peripheries, didn't just have a one-dimensional relationship with the center. We had relationships with each other.

I don't tell the story in the book, but let me tell the story here. I was coming home one day when I was about six years old, with my schoolbooks clutched to my breast. As I was walking home, a kid who was about ten or eleven, Gus -- we called him Gus the Greek -- who was three or four years older than me, he said, "Psst, psst," and called me over. And he said, "Hey," he says, "you're carrying your books like a girl." He said, "Men carry their books like this," that is, down by their side in their arm rather than pressed against their breast. I have never since that day been able to carry my books that way. Maybe now I can. But for my long-extended, insecure maleness, I had a lot of troubles doing this.

What I'm trying to say is that it's not that this was a Greek notion. It's that it was an American notion passed on to me by a Greek. We were acculturating each other, you see. And God knows what alterations were taking place in the acculturation. We were teaching each other dialects, folk stories, all kinds of ways. That's what I mean by creolization.

Hackney: Would you then worry about ideologies or practices that would tend to insulate cultural communities from each other? I'm thinking, frankly, of black nationalism or any sort of insular notion.

Levine: Yes. There are a lot of positive reasons for blacks to have distinctive cultures. But insofar as there are nationalistic reasons, they come from prejudice. They come from segregation. They come from barriers. Black people have been segregated and barricaded and denigrated more than any other single group in the history of the United States.

Let's switch this to the other side. The group I come from -- East European Jews and now German Jews -- Jews have become a single group the way Africans did and the way so many groups have. We can see the process now with Asians and others. They become a single group, not by class or region, but certainly they no longer make those distinctions between Ashkenazic and Sephardic and the like in their everyday practices. Jews are worried to death about survival. And why are they worried? Because this is such a tolerant society. Because it's so easy for Jews to move up and out. It's so easy to intermarry. Fifty percent of Jews do intermarry. So now the fear of losing the Jewishness, which I think is exaggerated, comes not from intolerance, but from tolerance; not from barricades, but from openness.

I think that where you begin to get a kind of nationalism building up with certain groups is where society has not treated these groups fairly, is not open to these groups, has not allowed mobility. This society's mobility is the most important acculturative force it has. When it dams that mobility up, as it has for black people -- and economically it has really dammed it up so that larger and larger numbers of blacks are cut off from the economy -- it's just begging for trouble. I, in fact, on that one count am very pessimistic. I tend to be optimistic about the future of this nation, but not on the count of the economy, because we simply don't understand the economic problems we're creating. And those problems are going to create cultural problems.

For instance, in the United States, Zionism, an allegiance to the notion of Israel or wanting a Jewish homeland, was a very, very low priority. American Jews tended not to be Zionists in the twentieth century, did not join Zionist organizations. They were afraid this would prejudice other groups against them. It was the Holocaust that made Zionism a reality among American Jews. And it's going to be persecution and prejudice and economic discrimination that will do that among any group.

So, if that exists, it's not because we teach black history. It's not because we understand the black past. It's because the economy and the society are closed to black people.

Hackney: What do you say to Americans who throw up their hands at all the multicultural discussion in public today and say, "Why can't we all simply be Americans? -- unhyphenated Americans?"

Levine: Well, we all can be Americans. But if we want to understand America, we have to understand that we are also other things. This is a complicated place.

One of my favorite examples is the historical one. If you want to understand the politics of the late nineteenth, early twentieth centuries, if you want to understand, for instance, a very interesting question, why didn't the Socialist Party bloom in America to a greater extent? Why is America the only Western industrial nation that didn't have a viable Socialist Party and movement? To understand that, you have to understand why the workers voted the way they voted. To understand the workers -- the vast majority of industrial workers at the turn of the last century were black and Eastern and Southern European immigrants -- to understand them, you ought to start paying some attention to their cultures.

You can't answer that simple political question. It's not some fancy sociological question, it's not political correctness. It's a simple political question about why the workers did certain things and didn't do certain things; why there was so much labor violence and so little labor radicalism in the United States -- a very important question if you want to understand the history of the country. You can't answer that question without understanding Polish American, Czech American, et cetera, Italian American, black American culture.

How can we understand our history and, indeed, our culture today if we say that the sexual identity of 50 percent of Americans bars them from study? Women's studies has been called feminism gone amok -- political correctness. What it is, of course, is political sanity. We can't understand this country if we don't understand this country. I would simply say that multiculturalism isn't a barrier to Americanness, it's the only way.

Multiculturalism is a new word, but it's a very old phenomenon. We've been debating multiculturalism since the eighteenth century, even though it wasn't called that then.

Hackney: Is there a form of multiculturalism that you think is a pathological form?

Levine: Well, pathological is a strong word. I think that it is human for people who feel oppressed to want to turn the tables exactly and to say, "No, we're not the devils, you are the devils. We are not the problem, you are the problem. We are pure, you are dirty," et cetera. That does happen. It's happened with women in the feminist movement, it's certainly happened in the black movement, it happens among Jews, it happens among every group. So the Germans turned the Jews into the devil, and there were Jews who've turned the Germans into the devil. If not pathological, it's very unfortunate, and it can become pathological.

Hackney: Would you think there's any cause in America to worry about the Bosnia phenomenon?

Levine: I see no cause. We've never had that phenomenon. Though if we don't keep this society open, we can create that. Openness allows people to move. This society has been characterized by, unlike Yugoslavia, mobility. We have not had lumpenproletariats grow in our cities because workers were able to move and availed themselves of that privilege.The two signs of freedom for black people, after slavery, were literacy -- and the literacy rates just grew phenomenally, if you think about what an oppressed people these were, 97 or 98 percent illiterate by law. And the illiteracy rates declined rapidly.

The other great sign of freedom was mobility. Blacks moved around the nation. We are, in the inner cities, beginning to attack that mobility. We're beginning to restrict it. If we continue to do that to blacks and to any other group, we are begging for problems, and we have to address that. I would personally say that's the biggest problem in the United States: race.

Hackney: So the title of your book, including the word "opening," has many meanings.

Levine: Many meanings.

Hackney: Culturally open, economically open. That's a good point at which to stop. This has been fascinating, and the book is a fascinating book.

Levine: Thank you.