There has been a lot of talk lately about the “dumbing down” of our major cultural institutions—what we used to be able to call without quotation marks “elite” cultural institutions. That the quotation marks are now necessary already speaks volumes about the degradation of American museums, orchestras, universities, publishing houses, public television, and serious—that is, “serious”— newspapers. We feel a little silly calling attention to the phenomenon at this late date: it is a bit like observing to Noah that it has been an unusually wet season. And yet every now and then something comes along that catches us up short, that makes us appreciate with new force the wisdom in the old adage that things are always worse than you thought.

The latest such reminder came to us from the “Week in Review” section of the Sunday New York Times early in September. There,...

 
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