In Plato's Cave


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Alvin Kernan

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In this delightful and candid memoir, Alvin Kernan recalls his life as a student, professor, provost, and dean during a distinguished career in some of higher education’s most hallowed halls. With his customary wit and insight, Kernan recounts his experiences at Columbia, Williams, Oxford, Yale, and Princeton in the company of an array of fascinating colleagues. And he describes from an insider’s point of view how colleges and universities in the second half of the twentieth century have been transformed in radical ways.

Against the background of what it was like to work and teach in turbulent decades of change, Kernan details the broader educational battles in which he became embroiled. He discusses the struggle for equality of opportunity for women and minorities; the questioning of administrative and intellectual authority; the appearance of deconstructive types of theory; the technological shift from printed to electronic information; the politicization of the classroom; and much more. His vividly remembered account is not only a unique personal story, it is a thought-provoking history that brims with insight into what has been won and lost in the culture wars.

Alvin Kernan (1923–2018) was senior advisor in the humanities at the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. He is the author of many books, including the highly praised Crossing the Line, his memoir of naval service in World War II.

A selection of Readers’ Subscription

"I can think of no more agreeable way to be introduced to the culture wars of the past half century than through this witty memoir. As student, professor, and administrator, Alvin Kernan witnessed and participated in the major ideological movements and power struggles that have agitated and finally transformed the university. This is not only a record of the aspirations, illusions, and follies of academia; it is a wise and eminently readable intellectual history of our time."—Gertrude Himmelfarb, Professor Emeritus of History, Graduate School of the City University of New York

"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."—Library Journal

"With its striking qualities of clarity and candor, Kernan’s book is a record not only of a highly distinguished career but of the extraordinary developments during that career in some of the most distinguished of American university departments of literature. This is an important book."—Frank Kermode

"This gentle, wise, yet tough-minded memoir will delight and inform anyone who'd like to understand the academic world of the last 50 years."—Kirkus Reviews

"Within the framework of a memoir—a most engaging and thoughtful memoir—Alvin Kernan has written a book about the 'tectonic shifts’ in American higher education since the end of World War II."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

"Both a personal intellectual memoir and a history of the democratization of higher education, this work is admirably candid and informative."—Barbara Fisher, Boston Globe

"[An] immensely engrossing memoir. . . . [This book] is chock-full of incidents and anecdotes that shed light on the people, events and social trends that transformed the very meaning of a higher education."—Merle Rubin, Wall Street Journal

"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. . . . 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, Booklist

"This book will be one of the great American academic memoirs of our time. Filled with marvelous wit, it is a penetrating critique of aspects of the modern university."—Gaddis Smith, professor of history, Yale University

“I urge you to get Mr. Kernan’s book and read it, no matter how old you are. Older readers will shake their heads; younger ones may find inspiration.”—Michael Thomas, New York Observer

“An ebullient, sometimes mordant account of [Kernan’s] distinguished four-decade career in academia. . . . 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, academic specialization and rampant careerism.”—Publishers Weekly

“As an administrator and professor of English at both Yale and Princeton, Alvin Kernan has had as triumphant an academic career as any scholar could hope for. Despite his numerous laurels, Kernan refrains from looking back in triumph in this blend of autobiography and commentary. Its very title signals this modesty by alluding to the image with which Plato illustrated universal human ignorance.”—James D. Bloom, New York Times Book Review

"Alvin Kernan has written an often genial, occasionally witty memoir of academic life, one suffused with a certain gentleman-scholar coziness—although he does not shrink from providing anecdotes with named attached."—Marcus Klein, New Leader

"A dark, unflinching examination of how institutionalized patterns of academic competition, hierarchy, and snobbery, combined with institutions’ strict repression of emotion, can produce not only an adversarial environment in the classroom, but also depression dysfunction, and despair for scholars toward the end of their careers. . . . Enlightening, if sobering, reading."—Elaine Showwalter, Chronicle of Higher Education

"Remarkable. . . . Unlike many academic memoirs, In Plato’s Cave is not a jeremiad, and rarely does it grow shrill: the picture it paints is too nuanced to be rendered in black and white. . . . That the author has been able to weave such an ambitious program into an autobiography is especially impressive. The cave thing may have not worked out, but Kernan made good anyway: Socrates would consider this an examined life well worth living."—Alex Soojung-Kim Pang, American Scholar

"A thoughtful and outspoken recollection of a life in academia by one of the country’s most distinguished (and least trendy) literary scholars."—Jonathan Yardley, Washington Post Book World

"So nuanced and so valuable. . . . I cannot think of another memoir that struggles more insightfully or more honestly with the melange of changes that have altered our universities, possibly forever. . . . There are considerable pleasures to be found as well in the delicious turns of phrase that dot Kernan’s pages."—Sanford Pinsker, Georgia Review

“In his memoir, In Plato’s Cave, Professor Kernan points out that despite universities’ tendency to claim ‘that the torch of scientific humanism has passed without a flicker from the Greeks to the present,’ higher education has in fact gone through several incarnations.”—Liz Marlantes, Christian Science Monitor

“An intoxicating blend of personal anecdote and the history of English studies. . . . I was sorry when the last pages of In Plato’s Cave flickered. I have never read a more entertaining, brighter academic memoir. . . . In Plato’s Cave is a wonderful book. The author makes the reader smile and think. Reading the memoir forces one to dredge his own classroom years. . . . Ours is a world rollicking with story, a story Alvin Kernan has told wisely and well.”—Sam Pickering, Sewanee Review

“If you doubt that intellectual and social mores on college campuses have changed significantly in the past half-century, read Kernan’s memoir, one of the most informative, droll, and beautifully written books of its kind to appear in the last decade. . . . Kernan has filled the pages of his memoir with delicious sketches of incidents--everything from dealing with a professor who stole books from the college bookstore to negotiating with student-radical hustlers.”—George Keller, University Business

“Kernan is a superb yarn spinner, and some of his anecdotes practically make us laugh out loud. . . . Throughout In Plato’s Cave there is no shortage of bizarre incidents and deconstructive weirdos who argue that you can say anything, even if it isn’t true, so long as it’s interesting.”—Peter Thorpe, Bloomsbury Review

“To whom should this book be recommended? Frankly, I think it is good reading even if it is littered with the names of the brilliant and famous who crossed the author’s path. Such is the stuff of memoirs, and it is fun to find an old friend or two in the author’s crosshairs. It is also a humorous insight into the private lives of academics, replete with Volkswagons, Volvos, false protestation of poverty . . . and overdrawn visions of self-importance. But the measure of the book is in its demonstration of a craftsman at the quill. Alvin Kernan is a splendid writer, and his subject will appeal to those who are interested in the university, past and present.”—Jack Sommer, Ideas on Liberty

“Kernan lays out for us some genuinely interesting and probably intractable problems about literature, in addition to providing a vivid sense of what it was like to live one’s life as an academic. For that alone, the book is worth reading. Because of Kernan’s keen eye and honest tongue, however, we can also get an accurate picture of the state of America’s colleges and universities at the close of the twentieth century.”—Jeffrey J. Poelvoorde, Academic Question

“[An] accessible and serious analysis of the condition of higher education today.”—James P. Hammersmith, Southern Humanities Review

“Kernan gives us in fourteen elegant chapters his life and thought from 1946 at the end of World War II to his retirement. . . . It contributes enormously to the fascination of this volume that the human being in question is a teacher and scholar of great English literature that filled important administrative posts and can write engagingly about everything he taught and experienced. . . . Alvin Kernan is a man and scholar whose account of his life bears reading and re-reading.”—Robert W. Uler, Jr., Perspectives in Religious Studies

ISBN: 9780300082678
Publication Date: April 10, 2000
330 pages, 6 x 9
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