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Jewish World Review May 25, 2000/20 Iyar, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Waiting for the movie -- THIS IS HIGH SEASON for commencements, graduation from one kind of learning to another kind, from high school to higher education in college, from college to life, the transition of young adults to the larger world.

It's exciting and scary, paradoxically both expanding and narrowing perspective. Some young people feel liberated, others feel trapped. Often both. Thus was it ever, if that's any consolation to the frightened young.

But there's something else, something ominous, at work as young men and women move into the new millennium. The written word, the love of literature, the foundation for what used to be called "the learned world'' is no longer available to many of our brightest children. This idea has been depressingly acknowledged by a variety of critical observers (including me).

Multiculturalism has become more important than Western civilization's highest achievements; political correctness politicizes language and literature, depriving it of its profound imagination and aesthetic coherence; television and computers make learning quick and often pleasurable, but reduce a young person's attention span and the yearning to read the more difficult masterpieces that are the light bulbs over the head.

We're short-circuiting the pathways to knowledge. "Information is endlessly available to us,'' writes Harold Bloom. But, he asks, "where shall wisdom be found?'' Mr. Bloom, the Sterling professor of the humanities at Yale, offers a remedy for those with neglected reading ability. In a small but wonderful book entitled "How to Read and Why,'' he laments the loss of the canon and echoes the sentiments of Emerson, that society cannot do without cultivated men and women.

His exhortation may be too late.

The National Association of Scholars (NAS), an organization of professors, graduate students and college administrators dedicated to maintaining an informed understanding of Western intellectual heritage, issued a report this week that is grim news indeed. After surveying the English major programs at 25 of our most selective universities, NAS discovered that "gender and race'' have become the major influences in determining what gets read.

As a result Toni Morrison now ranks sixth among assigned authors who have ever written in English, ahead of all the American writers cited in 1964 (think Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, William Faulkner, Emily Dickinson and Henry James) and ahead of almost all the British ones except for Shakespeare, Chaucer and Milton. Ms. Morrison, a black contemporary novelist, edged out Milton by four citations. Zora Neale Hurston, a writer of the Harlem Literary Renaissance, was cited more often than Twain, Fielding, Poe, Dryden, Pope and Swift. Aphra Behn, a 17th century female playwright, is ranked ahead of Shaw, Marvell, Pound, Scott, Auden, Beckett, Nabokov, and Kipling.

Morrison, a master?
The "survey course'' -- from Chaucer to T.S. Eliot -- is rarely required. I once taught this college course and found it to be a splendid introduction to great authors within an historical context that students could later study in depth, with sharper critical abilities. Today an English major, if you can believe it, can earn a degree without ever having taken a course in Shakespeare or Milton. A student at Wesleyan University can enroll in a class called "Reading Television'' with the following catalog description: "Despite the fact the course focuses on what has been called 'mind-candy,' prospective students should know that this will be a rigorous course, requiring a serious commitment of time to reading about, watching and analyzing television texts.''

The only way Thomas Mann, author of "Death in Venice,'' (difficult but one of the authentic greats) makes it into a literature course is through gay and lesbian studies where students consider his "homoeroticism.'' (But not even Mann makes it to Amherst College's "Black Gay Fiction.'')

We read for many reasons, usually more selfish than social, tapping into the insights of others to expand self-knowledge, and preparing us for the changing experiences that augment humanity. It takes discipline, patience and skill to learn -- and to teach -- careful reading with a guide toward mastery.

Reading is like overhearing another's thoughts, a private experience to be savored in solitude. We live in an electronic age where Oprah is regarded as an intellectual, where we are spoon-fed the most humiliating details of the raw confessional, untouched by genius. The dominant mentality is found in the German word Schadenfreude, of taking pleasure in another's misfortunes. Reading great literature inspires a completely different emotion, as the reader secretively stores the insights of human vulnerability as part of a personal journey toward the unknown.

Harold Bloom is puzzled why students of literature have become "amateur political scientists, uninformed sociologists, incompetent anthropologists, mediocre philosophers and over-determined cultural historians.'' As the NAS reports suggests, they never learn how to be anything better.


05/22/00: Pistol packin' mamas
05/18/00: Journalists and the 'new time' religion
05/15/00: There's nothing like a (military) dame
05/11/00: 'The Human Stain' on campus
05/09/00: We've come a long way, Betty Friedan
05/04/00: From George Washington to Mansa Masu
05/01/00: Gore's ruthless doublespeak
04/28/00: Doing it Castro's way
04/24/00: Women's studies beget narrow minds
04/17/00: The slippery slope of anti-Semitism
04/13/00: A villain larger than life
04/10/00: When mourning becomes an economic tragedy
04/03/00: The last permissible bigotry
03/30/00: Seeking the political Oscar
03/23/00: The gaying of America
03/20/00: Pointy-eared quadrupeds on campus
03/16/00: The shocking art of the establishment
03/13/00: Sawdust on the campaign trail
03/10/00: Campaign rhetoric of manhood
03/06/00: The Amphetamine of the People
03/02/00: Elegy for Amadou
02/29/00: With only a million, what's a poor girl to do?
02/24/00: The changing politics of change
02/16/00: Tip from Hillary: 'Let 'em eat eggs'
02/10/00: No seances with Eleanor
02/07/00: Campaigning like our founding fathers
02/03/00: When neo-Nazis have short memories
01/31/00: George W. -- 'Ladies man' and 'man's man'
01/27/00: Dead white males and live white politicians
01/25/00: Smarting over presidential smarts
01/21/00: A post-modern song for `The Sopranos'
01/19/00: When personality is a long-distance plus
01/13/00: French lessons in amour --- and marriage
01/10/00: Reaching for the Big Golden Apple
01/07/00: Liddy Dole as the face of feminism
01/04/00: Hillary: From victim to victor
12/30/99: 'Dream catchers' for the millennium
12/27/99: In search of a candidate with strength and eloquence
12/21/99: The president as First Lady
12/16/99: Columbine with blurred hindsight
12/09/99: Homeless deserve discriminating attention
12/07/99: Casual censors and deadly know-nothings
12/02/99: Why mom didn't make general: A reality tale
11/30/99: Potholes on the road to the Promised Land
11/25/99: A feast for the spirit and the stomach
11/23/99: Fathers need to say 'I (can) do'
11/18/99: Adventures of a conservative pundit
11/15/99: Traveling with Jefferson on the information highway
11/11/99: Wanted: 'Foliage of forbiddinness' for the oval office
11/09/99: Eggs, art and rotten commerce
11/05/99: Al Gore, 'Alpha Male'. Bow wow.
11/01/99: Gay love
10/28/99: Lose one Dole, lose two
10/26/99: Rebels with a violent cause
10/21/99: Reforming parents, reforming schools
10/19/99: The male mystique -- he shops
10/13/99:The campaign of the Teletubbies
10/08/99: Money is in the eye of the art dealer
10/01/99: Lincoln's 'Almost Chosen People'
09/29/99: Introducing Bill and Hillary Bickerson
09/27/99: Must we wait for the next massacre?
09/24/99: Miss America meets Miss'd America
09/21/99: Princeton's 'professor death'
09/16/99: The Cisneros lesson
09/13/99: No clemency for personal politics
09/08/99: M-M-M is for manhood
08/30/99: Blocking the schoolhouse door
08/27/99: No kick from cocaine
08/23/99: Movies don't kill people
08/19/99: A rude awakening
08/16/99: Dubyah and that 'language' thing
08/09/99: Chauvinist sows -- oink oink

©1999, Suzanne Fields. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate