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Jewish World Review Sept. 7, 2000/ 6 Elul, 5760

Suzanne Fields

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Consumer Reports

'Sex and death' on the college campus -- IT'S BACK TO SCHOOL for students, and in a lot of places that's too bad.

If they're in classes at Brown, they can sign up for "Black Lavender: A study of Black Gay and Lesbian Plays and Dramatic Construction in the American Theatre.'' The course is described as "an interdisciplinary approach to the study of plays that address the identities and issues of black gay men and lesbians.''

In "The Bible and Horror'' at Georgetown University, once a redoubt of rigorous academic training by Jesuits, the Bible is studied as "a scary book that often reads more like horror than religious literature.'' College students can sharpen their minds on what religion and horror have in common.

My favorite selection is at Carnegie Mellon, called "Sex and Death.'' It addresses "whether we need to liberate death now that (maybe) we have figured sex out.'' Awkward grammar and syntax aside, Herbert Simon, the Nobel Prize-winning psychologist who designed a core curriculum for Carnegie Mellon almost 20 years ago, probably was not thinking about death when he said: "We want to provide some common topics of conversation besides sports, the weather and sex.'' Shall we toast the new with a cocktail of embalming fluid?

There are lots more courses where these come from. Such examples are culled from the annual survey conducted by the Young America's Foundation in their current "Comedy and Tragedy: College Course Descriptions and What They Tell us about Higher Education Today.''

How did this happen? Perhaps the politicizing of academic courses is in a direct line of educational momentum that began in the progressive theories of public school education as early as the turn of the 20th century. In a wonderful new book, "Left Back: A Century of Failed School Reforms,'' Diane Ravitch, a critical scholar of education who served as assistant secretary of the U.S. Department of Education in the Bush administration, argues that public schools suffered when educators decided that social reform was more important than disciplined academic teaching.

Ravitch focuses on the breakdown of traditionalism in public school classrooms that caused academic standards to deteriorate in lower schools, but it's not hard to see in her research a direct line of anti-intellectualism in the lower grades that led to the fashionable silliness at the university level as well.

Once John Dewey persuaded the educational powers in 1897 that the school was the primary means of social reform, public schools fell into the political arena that Miss Ravitch says "encouraged ideologues of every stripe to try to impose their social, religious, cultural, and political agendas on the schools.'' As a result "educators forgot how to say 'no,' even to the loopier notion of what schools were for.''

Academic standards declined first for poor immigrants and racial minorities who were pushed into stratified and undemanding vocational classes because they were thought incapable of college-prep courses. By the 1960s, anti-intellectual and anti-academic theories that had hurt the less fortunate re-emerged under the rubric of "relevance,'' and maimed the minds of several generations of children of the middle and upper-classes. Learning techniques emphasized the importance of personal experience and social adjustment over intellectual and character development.

Representatives of high-tech companies recently testified before Congress that America's young people are ill-prepared in science and math. They are also ill-prepared for conceptual thinking that evolves from demanding courses in history, literature and philosophy, requiring well-thought out connections between the past and the present, fostering an ability to distinguish between propaganda and information. Writing a coherent sentence is difficult for the graduates of our top schools, too -- as any editor can tell you.

This is all the more important as young men and women are teased away from the rigors of learning in favor of television, the movies and the Internet. They can get lots of "relevance'' without reading a book, but only a good education provides the intellectual capabilities to turn information into knowledge.


09/05/00: Joe Lieberman as a 'Menorah Man'
08/31/00: Rising suns of the conventions
08/17/00: Changing icons: From Loretta Young to Hillary Clinton
08/14/00: The Creator returns to the public square
08/10/00: Bursting with pride, but caution too
08/07/00: Brains, beauty and beastly politics
08/03/00: A candidate with a superego
07/31/00: The sizzling Lynne Cheney
07/27/00: The party of the aging Playboys
07/24/00 Hillary drives the Jewish wagon into a ditch
07/20/00 Conservatives gone fishin'
07/17/00: Snoop Doggy Dogg was a founding father, wasn't he?
07/13/00: When a teenager doesn't need a prime minister
07/10/00: Abortion as cruel and unusual punishment
07/06/00: Surviving 'survivor' TV
07/03/00: Independence Day with Norman Rockwell
06/29/00: Here comes 'something old'
06/26/00: Waiting too long for the baby
06/22/00: Good teachers, curious students and oxymorons
06/19/00: Wanted: Some ants for Gore's pants
06/15/00: Like father, like daughter
06/12/00: Culture wars and conservative warriors
06/08/00: Return of the housewife
06/05/00: Hillary and Al -- playing against type
05/31/00: The sexual revolution confronts the SUV
05/25/00: Waiting for the movie
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