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Jewish World Review Nov. 3, 2003/8 Mar-Cheshvan, 5764

Suzanne Fields

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'What fools these mortals be?' | Just when we think the political culture can't get any more correct, new evidence surfaces of enhanced goofiness at our most expensive universities. We're supposed to think the price is right(eousness).

My favorite example is a freshman English course at Williams College entitled "Green World," which deals with the environment and explores "ways in which literature has constructed and interpreted the green-written word."

Environmental exploitation is illustrated with the identification of "the archetypal symbol of man's desire to transform chaos into civilization and art - to tame, order, idealize and copy nature's bounty while humanizing plundering and destroying the environment." (Italics mine.)

The young scholars will no doubt expose Wordsworth for the devastation he brought to the landscape by daring to dance with the daffodils. MacBeth might be alive today if his enemies hadn't cut down all those trees in Birnam Wood.

Such nonsense is not isolated. The Independent Women's Forum, a Washington think tank of thinking women, investigated the top 10 liberal arts colleges, as ranked by U.S. News & World Report's annual college guide. They found many freshmen courses brain dead on arrival.

Traditional introductory literature and history courses, which once provided a freshman with a foundation of basic knowledge and an overview to draw on as a point of reference for more profound analyses in advanced courses, are mostly absent altogether. They've been denounced, denigrated and debunked in a free fall of reinterpretation, and put into academicspeak that would be more appropriate for the Tower of Babel than for an ivy tower.

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In place of traditional literature, these universities offer trendy, sexy, politicized examinations of Western "imperialism" and "exploitation," victim studies of gender and identity, and parochial ethnic studies with a stultifying point of view that reduces the breadth and depth of information.

Amherst's history department, for example, offers "Race and Nation in the U.S.-Mexican Borderland," an overview of pre-1600 Japan, the Middle East from 600 to 1800, and "Women's History, America: 1607-1865." But there's not a single freshman overview course to examine the fundamental events of Western civilization.

If "Green World" whets an appetite for literature, a freshmen English course at Swarthmore will have students standing in line to get into a class called "Illicit Desires in Literature," which examines "literary expressions of sexual desires from the 17th century to the present day."

Lest this give an edge to sordid, abnormal heterosexual love, the department offers "Fictions of Identity" for sexual victims of Western culture. The professor asks: "How can we reconcile psychoanalytic and postmodern conceptions of the fragmented subject with the urgency of identity politics for people of color, women, lesbians, and gay men?" As Elizabeth Barrett Browning might have said (before the professor put her to sleep): "Let me count the ways."

Wellesley College, one of the once revered "Seven Sisters," requires English majors to take one Shakespeare course. But the politically correct literature major should not expect to get it as Shakespeare wrote it. Young ladies of Wellesley can satisfy the requirement with a class that focuses on themes of "gender relations and identities to national self-consciousness." Imagine "Romeo and Juliet" as an example in gender relations.

We might study it in relation to high-tech, too. If Friar Lawrence had had a cell phone, Romeo and Juliet would have lived happily ever after. Talk about a "theatre of the absurd." (The friar would probably have got a busy signal, since Juliet would have been on her phone describing her groovy date to one of her teenage friends.)

The Independent Women's forum asks whether the liberal arts are dead. Well, maybe not dead, but on many campuses they're surely on life support. In a global society, the best and the brightest won't understand, let alone convey, the best and the brightest in the literary canon.

Young people are under great stress to absorb tons of information in our high tech society. College should be one of the last preserves for liberal education, for studying the great books to develop the critical mind and the lively imagination. The young shouldn't have to waste time sorting through gobbledygook dreamed up by no-talent poseurs.

This is the season for high school seniors to bite fingernails to the quick, to consume gallons of midnight coffee as they polish the applications and essays that determine which college or university will make a place for them.

Parents have homework assignments, too. They should check out the big print in the catalogues before they mortgage the home place to pay the tuition at a high status university where true learning has been hijacked by cheap politics.

Puck got it right: "What fools these mortals be." But who the devil was Puck?

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© 2001, Suzanne Fields. TMS