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Jewish World Review Sept. 12, 2000 / 11 Elul, 5760

Philip Terzian

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What passes for knowledge -- THE YOUNG AMERICA'S FOUNDATION, which dedicates itself to "ensuring that increasing numbers of young Americans understand and are inspired by the ideas of inidividual freedom, a strong national defense, free enterprise and traditional values," performs more than one useful service. It publishes an annual survey titled Comedy & Tragedy: College Course Descriptions and What They Tell Us about Higher Education Today.

To make life easier for journalists, however, the YAF also chooses 12 favorite specimens from the groves of academe, inevitably called "the Dirty Dozen." And exactly as advertised, those 12 courses tell us more than we might wish to learn (but ought to know) about the higher learning in America.

Before you write that $30,000 check for your daughter's tuition at, say, Bowdoin, you might wish to know that among the course offerings at Nathaniel Hawthorne's alma mater is Music and Gender, which asks this question: "Is Beethoven's ninth symphony a marvel of abstract architecture, culminating in a gender-free paean to human solidarity, or does it model the process of rape?" Somehow I think I know which way the instructor is likely to lean. But I'm gratified to learn that Ludwig van Beethoven, pounding away in his flat in Vienna, was composing "gender-free."

Of course, no list of unconventional curricula would be complete without Brown, and the school that educated Charles Evans Hughes does not disappoint. This year your son could choose to enroll in Black Lavender: A Study of Black Gay and Lesbian Plays and Dramatic Construction in the American Theatre. You might have thought that the presence of black gays or lesbians in classic American theatre is comparatively limited -- the Empror Jones, perhaps? -- but you would be wrong. Brown's offering is "an interdisciplinary approach to the study of plays that address the identities and issues of black gay men and lesbians." To paraphrase a famous German politician, when I hear the words "issues" and "interdisciplinary" in the same sentence, I reach for my revolver.

Lest you believe that political correctness, academic trendiness, left-wing ideology and race/gender mania are limited to New England, or the Ivy League, you should know that students at the University of Texas may enroll in a course (Race and Sport in African American Life) that explores "how sports have been used to justify and promote antiquated, eugenic and ultimately racist notions of blackness." And that the Jesuits of Georgetown are offering something called The Bible and Horror. In the very lecture halls that once harbored Bill Clinton and Pat Buchanan, your offspring will learn that the Bible "can be a scary book" and that it "often reads more like horror than religious literature." Georgetown's course will examine the question of "what might religion and horror (or the monstrous) have in common?"

A Cornell literature offering, Bodies Politic: Queer Theory and Literature of the Body, might seem self-explanatory, but there's more to it than that. It asks: "How do concepts of perversion and degeneration haunt the idea of the social body ... How are individual bodies stigmatized, encoded, and read within the social sphere?" A description of the introductory course on Marxism at the University of Virginia declares that Karl Marx's work is the "standard against which all subsequent social thought must be judged," and that "it is worth devoting an entire semester to it" -- or an entire academic career.

To be sure, somebody has to teach Marxism somewhere, and at this stage in history, it is apt to be a true believer. I have no quarrel with that.

Still, while it is curious that most of the courses on the YAF list are excessively politica in tone and intent, or preoccupied with sex in some form or another, it is their cart-before-the-horse quality that is truly disheartening. Instead of absorbing the rudiments of a liberal education -- classic literature, philosophy, science, history, etc. -- undergraduates are encouraged to jump from high school illiteracy to postgraduate irrelevance. I wonder whether Bowdoin students who ponder rape and Beethoven have ever heard anything by Palestrina or Schutz. Is it better to learn how bodies are stigmatized and encoded, or to gain a working knowledge of the body itself? When Georgetown undergraduates peruse their scary Bibles, do they scan selected passages or read the whole book?

Of course, things are never exactly as they seem. In the midst of the foolishness described by the YAF, there are courses on Chaucer and the Renaisssance and Biochemistry. And the number of Brown students who actually enroll in Black Lavender is likely to be limited. Yet the less students know, the more universities strive to compound their ignorance. And that leads us, finally, to a question of economics: Is that $30,000 being spent on education, or the dubious distinction of a prestigious name?

JWR contributor Philip Terzian is associate editor of The Providence Journal. Comment by clicking here.


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08/24/00: Social progress on one front, regression on the other
08/21/00: The beat goes awry
08/17/00: The unwelcome democrat

© 2000, Philip Terzian