Multiculturalism. It has been the subject of cover stories in Time and Newsweek, as well as numerous articles in newspapers and magazines around America. It has sparked heated jeremiads by George Will, Dinesh D'Sousa, and Roger Kimball. It moved William F. Buckley to rail against Stanley Fish and Catherine Stimpson on "Firing Line." It is arguably the most hotly debated topic in America todayand justly so. For whether one speaks of tensions between Hasidim and African-Americans in Crown Heights, or violent mass protests against Moscow in ethnic republics such as Armenia, or outright war between Serbs and Bosnians in the former Yugoslavia, it is clear that the clash of cultures is a worldwide problem, deeply felt, passionately expressed, always on the verge of violent explosion. Problems of this magnitude inevitably frame the discussion of "multiculturalism" and "cultural diversity" in the American classroom as well.
In Loose Canons, one of America's leading literary and cultural critics, Henry Louis Gates, Jr., offers a broad, illuminating look at this highly contentious issue. Gates agrees that our world is deeply divided by nationalism, racism, and sexism, and argues that the only way to transcend these divisionsto forge a civic culture that respects both differences and similaritiesis through education that respects both the diversity and commonalities of human culture. His is a plea for cultural and intercultural understanding. (You can't understand the world, he observes, if you exclude 90 percent of the world's cultural heritage.) We feel his ideas most strongly voiced in the concluding essay in the volume, "Trading on the Margin." Avoiding the stridency of both the Right and the Left, Gates concludes that the society we have made simply won't survive without the values of tolerance, and cultural tolerance comes to nothing without cultural understanding.
Henry Louis Gates is one of the most visible and outspoken figures on the academic scene, the subject of a cover story in The New York Times Sunday Magazine and a major profile in The Boston Globe, and a much sought-after commentator. And as one of America's foremost advocates of African-American Studies (he is head of the department at Harvard), he has reflected upon the varied meanings of multiculturalism throughout his professional career, long before it became a national controversy. What we find in these pages, then, is the fruit of years of reflection on culture, racism, and the "American identity," and a deep commitment to broadening the literary and cultural horizons of all Americans.
Fish, the author of numerous books on Milton, literary theory, and the politics of teaching, has become in recent years famous for defending the contemporary academy in a series of debates held at various colleges and universities with the neo-conservative pundit Dinesh D'Souza. In anticipation of these debates, he prepared five remarkable essays, which constitute the core of this learned and wide-ranging collection. Other essays concern the political and historical context of controversies over the notion of ``free speech,'' as well as the enduring legacy of Milton and the masochism of Volvo-driving academics. Despite his public reputation, Fish's views cannot be easily subsumed under such labels as ``deconstructionist,'' ``post-structuralist,'' or even ``leftist.'' The provocative title simply refers to the fact that, as Fish avers, ``the act of speaking would make no sense . . . absent some already-in-place and (for the time being) unquestioned ideological vision.'' Many readers will find pleasure in Fish's simultaneously literate but blunt prose style. Recommended for informed readers.-- Kent Worcester, Social Science Research Council, New York