"In your book you say something to the effect that learning isn't just a good career move. It's the last best hope for a decent life. How so?"
"It goes back to the early Renaissance humanists who realized that the world was not governed so much by god-given authority and popes and lords as it was governed by power relationships. They discovered that power relationships can be established in ways other than primogeniture and papal dispensation. One of the real sources of power that anyone can wield is in language. So they became orators. They studied poetics and rhetoric -- and they learned two enormous means to power and freedom. The first was eloquent expression, which obviously has to be based on honest knowledge. And the second was the ability to distinguish the truth from a lie when other people were talking to them.
"In the current century, we are all the beneficiaries of this humanistic tradition, which, earlier in the 20th Century, was grounded on the core curricula of history, literature, and, in particular, English composition.
"Currently, we are looking at the ruin -- literally the ruin -- of the very system that made us free. The mess we're in is caused by a combination of the rise of the fundamentalist right and the academic left's abdication of solid learning. These two forces gave each other strength. The fundamentalists are alienating the intellectuals more and more, and the academics' failure to really educate students are driving more and more people along fundamentalist paths."
"Looking across the country, are there glimmers of hope? Are there campuses on which good things are happening?"
"I like Reed very much. It did wonders for one of my sons, who is now finishing his PhD in a very sophisticated program. Then there's St. Johns. I don't know of a single large-scale school, though, that is trying to reform its programs.
"If I ever were to get access to money, I would sponsor an annual conference on the ins and outs of core curricula and their relationship to the humanities and to citizenship."
"In your chapter about the novel, you conclude that consciousness comes at a price, in that it separates us from 'the communal hearth.' To what extent do you feel yourself a 'stranger in a strange land' these days?"
"You know, I've always felt that way. I never really grooved in academia, although there were things about teaching literature that were incredibly joyful and seductive and that kept me going. I felt a degree of community during the '90s when the first four books of mine on liberty appeared in relatively short order. My kind of life, from a popular point of view, has always had its ups and downs, but I enjoy what I do."
I ask Mr. Grudin what keeps him going. "In many respects your book paints a pretty devastating and depressing picture, and yet in the end you say there's hope. In the face of so much evidence to the contrary, what sustains your optimism?"
"There are heroes that I mention throughout the book. These sustain me. People like Victor Klemperer, who decided, at the risk of his own life, to keep a record of the degradation of the Nazis during World War II. Or this guy in Washington named Banzhaf, who has devoted his life to fighting tobacco and fast-food corporations. Then there's the prosecutor, a woman, who resigned resoundingly when the Bush administration dropped tens of billions of dollars in damages that had been awarded in judgment against the tobacco companies."
With her emphasis on health and conservation and a menu rich in fresh vegetables, Berkeley restaurateur Alice Waters numbers among Grudin's heroes. For him the Chez Panisse phenomenon is a ray of hope. He writes that "Alice Waters did not set out to found a health-food restaurant, but it turned out that healthy foods tasted better than the alternatives, and she ran with the idea. As time passed, this idea became a message reverberating with innovative chefs everywhere and even inspired a new mode of education. The Chez Panisse story suggests that American markets can, indeed, wise up and that the most energetic and sustainable reform of industry can come from within industry itself."
Mr. Grudin ends our conversation by underscoring our need, as a nation, to become more deeply conscious of the forces that manipulate us. "I am thoroughly concerned, though. And I am not overly optimistic. That's why I wrote the book. That's why I use the word vulgar. We're not just being deceived; we're being turned into slaves."
Shoemaker & Hoard, 2006, $15, 240 pages